The life and soul of the party

Believe it or not, this man is founder and custodian of London's groovers' paradise, The Groucho Club, where he surveys the behaviour of resting comedians, yelping ad-men and louche literati with a quizzical eye. But how did such an earnest and judicious chap end up in the social rumpus room?
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They'll probably make a film about The Groucho Club sometime in the 2030s, a period piece to rival The Cotton Club. It will lovingly recreate the long bar with all the mirrors thoughtfully placed so you can see everyone coming through the door; the impossibly soft, "help I'm drowning" sofas; the horrible metal chandelier in the brasserie; the billiards room where Alex James, the bass guitarist from Blur, would routinely shout: "I'll take you all on, you posh fuckers." Memorable encounters and characters from the club's glory days would be fondly reified: Melvyn Bragg meeting U2, Paula Yates arriving with Michael Hutchence, Jeffrey Bernard minus legs snoozing through the afternoon, Julie Burchill holding court like a portly Guinevere at the big round table, Matt LeBlanc from Friends standing at the bar one Saturday evening, daring anyone to say "Joey?"

But who would play Anthony Mackintosh? And how would they explain his presence, in this rumpus room of trendy media London?

Many Groucho members don't know who he is. When they spot him walking gloomily through the bar as if on his way to announce the end of the world, they tend to say: "God, who's that?" For the club's distinguished founder and executive chairman looks fantastically out of place in his own playground. A tall, lycanthropically handsome chap of 61, with a high quiff that springs alarmingly from his brow, Mackintosh radiates moral rigour and high seriousness, as he bends gravely to listen to a waiter bringing bad news. Like some stern corrective to the resting comedians, yelping ad-men and snorting screenplay-ticklers who seem to pullulate at the club, he seems always to be wrestling with a Higher Truth.

You feel you would no more introduce a note of levity into a conversation with Mackintosh than you would introduce your daughter to Peter Stringfellow. Sometimes, as when he is co-opted by the front-desk staff to help with members' coats, arriving guests stand in the lobby marvelling at what seems to be a harassed-looking Oxford professor of Greek masquerading as a butler.

How could this man possibly be the soul of the groovers' paradise known as The G Spot? Was he responsible for its unique flavour?

"Yes, I suppose the head of any small organisation has, over time, a significant role in what happens," says Mackintosh in his judicious way. "It would be false modesty to say I haven't had an influence," he admits. "But it's not up to me if Liam Gallagher has a row with Patsy Kensit and throws a wobbler which then runs on for three days in the tabloids. It's all about management, how you run the place, set the standards, try to improve things. We're very conscious that clubs often have a limited life cycle. They open, there's lots of enthusiasm, they take off, peak after three years, are no longer flavour of the month, people lose interest, management loses interest, and after five years they're sold to someone else. I like to think, after 14 years, we've got through some of those barriers."

Mackintosh started the Groucho in 1985. He was already a seasoned club- owner, responsible for the Zanzibar in Queensway and 192 in Notting Hill, when he was approached by a cabal of publishers and agents (Carmen Callil, Liz Calder, Michael Sissons) who wanted to invent a new kind of club, a private-membership, media-friendly safe house where articulate coves in the literary, filmic and TV world could network, drink and sing in comfort. Fourteen years later, the Groucho is motoring along happily, with 3,700 members shelling out their annual pounds 315 and a two-year waiting- list.

It has weathered a few dozen shifts of reputation - from trendy to passe, from raffish to square, from cutting-edge to old-world - but Mackintosh's brainchild is still streets ahead of any would-be opposition.

About six years ago, there was talk of a new club, a kind of Groucho- on-Sea. Nothing came of it, but rumours persisted and grew wilder. There would be a Harpo Club, a Groucho-in-the-Shires, a Dublin O'Groucho Club, a New York Groucho. The essence of members-only Soho chic would spread across the known world. There would be sister clubs in Barcelona, Prague, Berlin, Shanghai, Mars.... But still nothing happened. Now, after years of rumours, plans, extensive development reports and feasibility studies, a second G-spot is up and running. It opens next week, it's in the centre of Glasgow and it's called Groucho St Jude's.

Mackintosh explains: "We did try a place in Wiltshire, a clapboard sports pavilion, but we concluded there'd be too much friction between the locals and the Londoners who'd want to go. We tried Edinburgh and found that it's really only a small town. And we discovered that, if you want to get anywhere in Scotland, you've got to have some very obvious Scottish partners."

The new club was the result of a chance conversation between Mackintosh and Dejan Sudjic, the design journalist and director of Glasgow 1999 City of Architecture and Design. He introduced the Groucho boss to Bobby Paterson, a Glasgow restaurateur, and Paul Wingate, his partner. They had bought a small hotel, and were looking for an arty clientele to cram into the bar and restaurant. Enter Mackintosh, his long-term designer Tchaik Chassay and his fabled address book, and the concept took off like a tossed caber.

Anthony Mackintosh comes from a business family, the same Mackintoshes who made Toff-o-Lux and related sweeties. Amazingly, toffee was invented by Anthony's granny in the 1880s, by mistake (she got the ingredients wrong while making butterscotch). His father was a Halifax baker, but all the family went into the toffee business, bought factories, and diversified into chocolate in the Twenties. Anthony was born in Norwich, grew up in the fens, went to Stowe public school, was conscripted into the Army for two years, studied at Columbia University and worked in the United States before joining the family firm. After its takeover by Rountree, he experienced corporate culture at its most stilted and boring, and got out as soon as he could, thoroughly groomed in business matters.

The Groucho's head honcho is far more approachable than you'd anticipate. He's wearing a blue linen shirt and a tie with a jolly duck motif. He talks at dictation speed and in careful periphrases, as though negotiating a verbal minefield, but laughs a lot, especially at his own fastidiousness. Lots of things irritate him. Like the popular myth that The Groucho is a seething midden of cocaine snorters. "We've always taken the view that what people do in private is their responsibility and what they do in public is ours," he says. "I would fire, and have fired, any member of staff from senior management down who partakes or has anything to do with drugs or turns a blind eye to any member using them." He banned the use of mobile phones right from the start. He cannot stand being button-holed by members - "well down the lush path" - explaining why the club isn't operating properly. "And, occasionally, I wince at the decorum displayed by some people." Such as? "Well, you know, you come in and look at them and think, `Gosh, is it really necessary, at this hour of the day, to be quite so entangled?'" He laughs. "I'm not a prude about such things, but..."

Okay, so he's not Mr Stringfellow, all lapdancers and mullet hairdo. Nor is he Humphrey Bogart's Rick from Casablanca. You cannot imagine Mr Mackintosh telling Roddy, The Groucho's resident piano genius, what to play next, or see him fixing the roulette wheel to give some helpless cutie a break. He is far more the accountant, the financial whizz, than the greeter or bon vivant.

What is his idea of a good night out? "I like eating and drinking, so I'm happy to go to new restaurants and have good wine with friends. My wife Mary and I go to the theatre a lot. I'm very interested in contemporary classical music; actually, I'm chair- man of the London Sinfonietta, the small ensemble which bashes out new pieces. I like live concerts. Last night, for instance, I went to the Charles Ives prom concert. A most extraordinary composer..."

If he's a puzzling fellow to be the Godfather of London Medialand, it's equally mystifying to find that Mackintosh began his entrepreneurial career by starting Dingwall's Dancehall in 1973, the first rock venue in the capital where you could eat, drink and stay up till 2am. "My friends said, `What are you thinking of? We wind up our windows going down Camden High Street'," he recalls.

So did this mean that, before his Charles Ives period, he was a rock fan? He looked startled. "Do you know, I hated rock 'n' roll," he whispers. "But I hired a really bouncy music manager called Boss Goodman and I let him hire the bands. One evening I walked in and there was this really dreadful din going on, and he sat there smiling. I said: `This is appalling. What have you got to smile about?' He said, `They're signed up for three more dates, they're breaking tomorrow and they're going to be the biggest thing around'. I said, `You'd better have that smile on your face tomorrow. And who are they anyway?' He said, `They're called The Stranglers'."

What was it that led this austere, fastidious, balance-sheet scrutineer to spend his time inventing clubs for other people's delight?

"I just like creating things," he says. "There was nothing like Dingwalls when it opened. We [his partner John Armit and he] invented the Zanzibar because we were tired of being forced to eat three-course meals late, after the theatre. And 192 was totally selfish. Tchaik and John and I lived in W11 and didn't like any of the wine-bar-restaurants so we thought we'd start our own. All the things that have succeeded have been innovations. You have the idea, find the building, convert it, nurture it - and there it is, still."

And the stern master of the revels permits himself a brief gleam of pride.