TV elite turns from Groucho to Garrick

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The Independent Online

Old-fashioned gentlemen's clubs are no longer just old. Against all expectations, they have once more become fashionable.

The Garrick and Savile clubs, whose members have included such literary giants as H G Wells and W B Yeats, are replacing their latter-day rival, the Groucho, as the favoured hangouts of media luvvies and B-list celebrities.

Comedian Angus Deayton has become the latest in a long line of TV personalities to be inducted into the cloistered world of the Garrick, the £1,000-a-year men-only London club, which proudly boasts of a seven-year waiting list. Mr Deayton, who joins such stalwart entertainers as Lord Attenborough, Sir Donald Sinden and Richard Wilson, follows hot on the heels of fellow Have I Got News for You? star Paul Merton, whose laconic one-liners now echo around the high-ceilinged ballroom of the nearby Savile.

Merton is said to have become a regular fixture at the £700-a-year Mayfair club, snootily dismissed by the older Garrick as a louche copycat, since finally securing his membership after a lengthy wait. He is in good company. Alongside such grandees as ex-Tory Minister Lord Young and veteran actors David Suchet and Edward Fox, the club, founded in 1868, counts among its members Stephen Fry and hotshot producer Peter Benet-Jones, whose credits include the film Bean and sitcoms The Vicar of Dibley.

Deayton, whose name appeared on the Garrick's "new members" list last week, was uncharacteristically coy when asked about his new haunt. Pointing out that he had visited the club only twice so far, he said: "I've only been a member there for about 10 days, most of which has been taken up with reading the rulebook."

It is likely to sound a disturbing note for PR guru Matthew Freud, who with chocolate heir Joel Cadbury led the consortium that bought out the Groucho last year. Only two months ago, the Soho venue, whose regulars include Damien Hirst and comics Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer, announced it had made a £427,000 loss in 2000/2001, as opposed to a £620,000 pre-tax profit the previous financial year. The Groucho's business has been further undermined by the recent opening of the Century Club, the hip West End hangout whose board members include entrepreneur Martha Lane-Fox and singer Robbie Williams. No one from the Groucho Club was available for comment last night.

Both the Garrick and the Savile have colourful histories. The former, which famously blackballed Jeremy Paxman for fear he might create unease among some of its older politicos, has scarcely been out of the diary pages since it opened in 1831. Several years ago, the appearance of nightclub owner Peter Stringfellow as a guest of one of its members drew disapproving glances, as he sidled into the dining room wearing shoes without socks. His generous offer to all present to join him free of charge at his nearby establishment is not thought to have been taken up by many.

The Garrick also benefits from being a beneficiary of the will of Winnie the Pooh creator A A Milne. After selling the rights to the Disney corporation some wanted to divide the potential £50m windfall between the members. After lengthy debate, they decided to spend it on renovations and charitable donations instead.

For its part, though hardly a hive of egalitarian discourse, the Savile attracted a capacity audience three years ago for an address by a most unlikely guest speaker: Ken Livingstone.

News that the leather armchair ambience of the Victorian gentlemen's club is winning favour with types who once preferred the champagne culture of the Groucho can only add to their cachet.