Inside Story: The Groucho Club - 20 years of schmoozing and boozing
From riding bicycles down the stairs to setting fire to their chest hair, Groucho members describe the club they love so much that some of them even married the staff
Monday 02 May 2005
Twenty years ago, there were the gentlemen's clubs in Pall Mall trying to cash in on past glories by selling memberships to boring provincial businessmen; there was the other kind of "gentlemen's club" in Soho, whose membership frequently overlapped with the Pall Mall clubs; there was the Chelsea Arts Club, full of badly dressed people telling each other how great it was in the Sixties (they're still there); or you could go down the pub. That was more or less it. Then came the Groucho. Opened and financed by publishers and other media types, it struggled at first. But, within a year, it had become either famous or notorious, depending on your point of view - or, more to the point, on whether your membership application had been accepted or rejected. Hardly a week has passed since 1985 without some reference to the Groucho in the media. At one time, Richard Ingrams and Ian Hislop would spend long afternoons lounging around in the Groucho before ambling off to Private Eye to write yet another piece on how
Twenty years ago, there were the gentlemen's clubs in Pall Mall trying to cash in on past glories by selling memberships to boring provincial businessmen; there was the other kind of "gentlemen's club" in Soho, whose membership frequently overlapped with the Pall Mall clubs; there was the Chelsea Arts Club, full of badly dressed people telling each other how great it was in the Sixties (they're still there); or you could go down the pub. That was more or less it. Then came the Groucho. Opened and financed by publishers and other media types, it struggled at first. But, within a year, it had become either famous or notorious, depending on your point of view - or, more to the point, on whether your membership application had been accepted or rejected. Hardly a week has passed since 1985 without some reference to the Groucho in the media. At one time, Richard Ingrams and Ian Hislop would spend long afternoons lounging around in the Groucho before ambling off to Private Eye to write yet another piece on how ghastly it was. They were not alone: a lot of the publicity the Groucho provokes is in some sense negative, either in the form of resentful sneering or, less frequently, a tabloid splash about celebrity misbehaviour. Somehow, it only seems to add to its appeal. Now, there are maybe a dozen Groucho wannabes in London alone. Some are very successful; some have flourished briefly then disappeared. There is even one set up specifically to provide consolation to those poor unfortunates who have failed in their bid to secure Groucho membership. But the Groucho remains the gold standard. It's hard to say precisely why. But then, if you could you probably wouldn't want to be a member.
BARRY DELANEY, ADVERTISING AGENCY CHIEF AND ORIGINAL COMMITTEE MEMBER
KEITH ALLEN, ACTOR
I've been a member for 19 years, and it's the only place I go in London. I've had keynote birthday parties, like my 50th, in there. They're always great fun. My most abiding memory of the Groucho is Rod Melville on the piano. Some nights you get the most amazing people singing. I think the club's got better in the last six months since the opening of the new bar.
Once I managed to orchestrate it so that Moby played the piano and Mick Jones sang a Clash song, while Coldplay and New Order did the backing vocals. Damon Hill was sat there watching, allegedly, and Wayne Sleep was there, and I got him up and he danced. Damien Hirst pissed in a sink in an ice-tray once and forgot about it, so people's vodka and tonics must have tasted somewhat different the next day.
ROWLAND RIVRON, BROADCASTER
A popular pastime after last orders was to ride the waiters' mountain bikes through the club. This took the form of a time trial - how quickly could you cycle from the back of the brasserie to the reception and out of the building. One night after an evening on Pisco Sour, a Peruvian drink that kills people, I suggested the "competition" would be more challenging if the start point was upstairs in the posh restaurant. So I gave it a go.
The main staircase was where it all went so horribly wrong. Halfway down, physics took over. I flew clean over the handlebars at some considerable speed. The waiters said afterwards that it would have been less painful for me if the bar stools had been removed. From my point of view it wasn't the stools that hurt so much but the carpet - I incurred the most incredible carpet burns all down one side of my face. The bone I broke in my hand meant I was in plaster for four weeks and unable to play the drums - my profession at the time. Monica, my future wife, witnessed the whole thing. She was a receptionist at the club, and laughs about it to this day. I, however, am still searching for the funny side.
RICHARD KILGARRIFF, HEAD OF CARTOON NETWORK
Joined 1995, nominated by John Hegarty and Rowland Rivron - an unlikely pairing, never to my knowledge to come together again. Joined with Fi Glover. We were 25, while everyone else seemed to be twice that age. Strangely, I still feel the same way. The Groucho has a Proustian effect on the present, making your memory trip to the first time you were abused by Polly at the door or propositioned by Berni on the toilet stairs. No other club in London (or the world) has quite this effect. Then again, no other club has got Polly and Berni. I chatted up my wife, Liz, and met her parents (though not at the same time), and secured my current job in the Groucho. That's the thing about the place that has never changed - it's great for being sinner, saint or suit in equal measure. Just don't mix all three with alcohol.
TONY HUSBAND, CARTOONIST
The Groucho is just a great club - they've got rooms and I stay there when I'm down from Manchester. I joined about 10 years ago - Rory McGrath signed me in. My outstanding memory of the place is more about me than the other members. I was sat with two cartoonists, Charles Peattie and Russell Taylor, who do the Alex strip in The Daily Telegraph, and they were eating these nuts out of a bowl. I started eating them too and they were really crunchy and horrible. Then I saw Charles take one out of his mouth and put it back in the bowl. I said to him: "What kind of nuts are these?" He said: "They're not nuts. We're eating olives and these are the stones."
NICK FERRARI, RADIO PRESENTER
When we were setting up Live TV, we had regular meetings in the Groucho Club because Janet Street-Porter, who set up the channel, was a member there. One day, we were all sitting in the club after a Bank Holiday and we were all out of ideas. Janet came in and said: "You can have an idea from my weekend, because I didn't get a shag. Let's do a dating programme and call it Desperate and Dateless." That programme was born in the Groucho Club.
DYLAN JONES, EDITOR OF GQ MAGAZINE
As you've asked for printable anecdotes, I cannot mention the occasion when a certain travel PR serviced an entire table of newspaper executives.
ROBERT ELMS, RADIO PRESENTER AND AUTHOR
My football team QPR and Fulham announced a possible merger between the clubs, so I and my mate Spike, who supports Fulham, went to the Groucho at about 11am, just as the bar opened, and began plotting ways to block the merger. By 3am, we were still there. Our bar bill totalled up to 78 bottles of Becks, one bottle of Champagne and a sandwich. It was the biggest bill for two people on a single binge-drinking session that they had ever had at the Groucho, and they had it framed up on the wall for ages. But something we thought of during the session must have worked, because the merger didn't happen.
MELVYN BRAGG, BROADCASTER
The best thing about it is the Cumbrian pianist Rod. The second-best thing is the helpfulness of the staff, and the third-best thing is that it is a great place to throw great parties. Last of all, long ago when I was younger and lisher (Cumbrian dialect for "young, supple, game" - Ed), it was the only place in town open very late for a drink.
JULIE BURCHILL, COLUMNIST, THE TIMES
It seemed symptomatic of the times when my then best friend Toby Young had sex in the toilets with a Lady Diana impersonator. She was really famous at the time, and that sort of sums it up really. I haven't been there for five years and I was never actually a member, I was sort of a mascot.
TOBY YOUNG, AUTHOR AND COLUMNIST
I did not have sexual relations with that woman... I can't claim to have been the first person to have had sex in the Groucho Club's toilets - the truth is we didn't go all the way - but I'm sure it's happened on numerous occasions. The irritating thing was that as I emerged, I was spotted.
Christopher Silvester wrote it up in the members' book and it was read by every journalist on Fleet Street and appeared in many diary columns. In my book, I recounted an incident involving taking cocaine with Damien Hirst and Keith Allen, and as a result I was suspended. The suspension has never been lifted, and that was in 2001. I did go back there to have dinner with Mark Borkowski about a year ago and one of the managers asked me to leave, so I am apparently banned from the club.
JAMES HERRING, PR EXECUTIVE
At Christmas a few years ago, Bill Clinton walked in with his minders. He'd only been out of office a few weeks. The jaws of the normally hard-to-impress Groucho clientele were on the floor. About five minutes later, Bono and The Edge from U2 walked in. Soon, Bono was playing the piano and singing "Happy Birthday Mr President", serenading Clinton. What they have got so right, unlike many other private members' clubs, is that their membership policy is so stringent. Two current members have to write to the committee to propose you. If you've been lucky enough to get the nod, you'll then get a letter saying you'll be able to join in three years' time. The other great thing is, they've got rooms. My uncle and aunt come down for the Boat Show, and I can put them up at the Groucho for £80.
MARK BORKOWSKI, PUBLICIST
I've been a member since it opened. I rubbed together the few pennies I had at the time and got myself a youth membership. It was the single most important thing for my business. Soon after that, I went freelance. There wasn't a day went past when I didn't land a job because of someone I met at the Groucho Club. The pubs closed at 10.30pm in those days, so it was impossible to get a drink after that unless you went to Tramps. It was a very selective policy as far as members go. Bad behaviour at the Groucho Club never found its way into the media, and many of the celebrity clients felt safe there. There were about five years when it was just a drunken blur after 9pm. Damien Hirst once set fire to my chest hair and I ended up in casualty. If everyone had been there who said they were when Bill Clinton went in, the Groucho would have exceeded the capacity of Wembley Stadium. When Michael Jackson was in town, a pal of mine at the Mirror had hired a chimp through an old circus contact of mine. He wanted to use it in a crazy attempt to lure Jacko out of his suite for a photo opportunity. Jacko did not take the bait and before the beast went back to his pad in the West Midlands, we got it into the Groucho as a dare for a swift beer. It was not long before we were all turfed out. Oh happy days.
ANTHONY BOURDAIN, CHEF/AUTHOR
No matter how badly I behave on any given night - short of rampant destruction of property or cellphone use - all is forgotten the next day. In fact, one of the things I really appreciate is that at the Groucho there's always someone behaving even worse than me. It's always good to bump into my chef cronies there - the fabulous Fergus Henderson, and that magnificent bastard Richard Corrigan, being welcome and near-inevitable encounters. And I can smoke. A last bastion of civilisation.
SIMON FANSHAWE, BROADCASTER AND COMEDIAN
Gary Lineker and David Gower walked in together, when they were England's captains of football and cricket. There's a bit of a thing at the Groucho that you never turn round and gawp. But that moment was like something from school - it was as if the Greek sporting gods had arrived.
JANET STREET-PORTER, WRITER AND BROADCASTER
One night, Chris Evans was very merry and sat down with me and Julian Clary, saying he wanted to play a game he'd just invented. It involved asking the person on your right the one question you'd always wanted to, and Chris kicked it off by turning to Julian and asking him: "Why has your career gone down the dumper over the last two years?" I thought Julian was going to cry - he got up and bolted from the building and has never been there since. He tells the story in his excellent autobiography, A Young Man's Passage. Another night, Courtney Love declared that she wanted to have sex with me, she had watched my walking programmes on TV when on tour and was a big fan etc etc. We'd had dinner at Sheekeys with Jay Jopling and Sam Taylor-Wood and Courtney was getting to the drunk and embarrassing stage of things, so I introduced her to Alex James... (you'll have to ask him what happened next).
ADDISON CRESSWELL, SHOWBIZ AGENT
For seven years I used to blag my way in - they all thought I was a member. I was doing so well that I had my own account in there. I managed to crash out in there one night in one of the rooms upstairs. I was really pissed, and I must have fallen asleep with a cigar and the whole room caught alight. I managed to evacuate the whole building and I was still sleeping through all this when they came barging in and tried to put it out. People were in their dressing gowns outside and the staff had to dress me and get me out.
GILL HUDSON, EDITOR, RADIO TIMES
The only time I've ever been in there and all these very cool people stopped talking was when Mick Jagger walked in. I remember Eric Clapton smiling at me as I was about to have a mouthful of soup and the soup was just gone, all down my front. You don't go there for the food. It's the only place I've ever regularly checked my bill, because it was always wrong, although it's got better now. I'm not one of the 3am people: if I go there it's between 7.30pm and 11pm. It feels like a cosy sofa. The loos are considerably better than when I first went to the Groucho.
MARY-LOU STURRIDGE, EX-MANAGING DIRECTOR, GROUCHO CLUB
The Hollywood actor Geoffrey Rush was in the club about two months ago and got up to sing two Frank Sinatra songs. It became the main topic of conversation when he appeared on Jonathan Ross's chat-show the following night.
PETER SAVILLE, GRAPHIC DESIGNER
The Groucho Club has looked after me for 20 years. On average, three or four nights a week I've turned up at the club for dinner. The food varies, but the key thing at that time of night is that it's quiet and I'll be on my own. The remarkable thing is that in the early Nineties there weren't many places in London where you could eat after midnight
LYNNE FRANKS, PR GURU
I was one of the original members. London was buzzing in a way that it has hardly done since. You would go there and see your friends and there would always be some amusing tale. I keep seeing Julie Burchill sitting in that corner with her little voice and those red lips. To me, that completely represents that time. You would sit down in the club, two or three of you, and then someone else would come along, and someone else, and you would end up with as many people as you could fit around a table, having an awful lot of fun and gossiping. There was a huge change going on in the UK at the time, and the Groucho Club was at the heart of that. Whatever was going on in politics, in the media, in fashion, you got to hear about it there.
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