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Soho heading back to the sleazy Sixties: James Cusick visits the peep shows of London's growing sex industry

THE NARROW stairway in Great Windmill Street has all the style of an abandoned, condemned building. Threadbare carpets and ripped white walls, produce a sharp stench. The sign says 'peep show' and the large man at the top, baseball hat turned round, says ' pounds 2, mate'.

The room looks as though a bomb has exploded. The comment that his 'office' could do with a clean is answered by 'Sorry, we keep getting raided. Last night was the last one.'

The raids, by Westminster council inspectors patrolling the sex industry of Soho, is 'like painting the Forth Bridge' according to senior officer, Paul Mills.

Without new legal powers 'the village', he says, is heading back to the old days of the Sixties and Seventies. Eighties gentrification - fashion shops, cafes, brasseries, and the revitalisation of residential property - stopped during the recession. In 1984, new licensing powers were introduced in Soho, which then had 300 premises 'retailing' sex. At the beginning of 1992 there were 26. Now it is growing again, approaching 40, mostly unlicensed.

Moor Street, near Cambridge Circus, Old Compton Steet, Brewer Steet and the side lanes of Great Windmill Street and Tisbury Court is the main production line of London's sex industry. A pounds 1 coin is the minimum fee to open a letter box-sized viewing panel in a dark booth at the Girls Girls Girls peep show in Brewer Steet, one of only six premises in Soho with a licence. For that pounds 1, in dim light, a girl in a mask, white underwear and stiletto heels, will writhe before you for 15 seconds.

The peep show at Great Windmill Street has nothing as hi-tech as a letter box. This week's raid - 200 warrants have been issued this year - meant the joiners worked hard to get the place open the following morning.

Four black painted booths are as sophisticated as it gets - pounds 2 is paid, the name of a girl is shouted, and behind a Perspex panel she 'dances' for 20 seconds. Then, barely audible, she asks 'Do you want a private show for pounds 15?.'

The show is in a side room. The room includes a one-bar electric fire, a small chair, a red curtain. There are negotiable extras, but the charges are uniform in most of the peep shows. So, too, is the smell of semen in the small booths.

Club 61 in Old Compton Street and the Mona Lisa in Brewer Steet offer combinations of live- erotic-review-bed-sex-shows. The law offers no precise definition of 'live' and clubs take advantage.

The doorman at the Mona Lisa shouted that for pounds 5 you should: 'Come on in, and have beer' and 'whatever you want is no problem.' However, if you wanted a beer it was a problem. What used to be called clip joints are now called by inspectors 'near-beer joints'.

Paul Mills said: 'They're not licensed to sell alcohol so the drink that is nearly beer and invent drink names like Schollzenfizz or Plonkenburg'. In one club a soft drink was pounds 5. If you agreed to buy a drink for the 'show' sitting next to you, and did not have a torch to check the drinks tariff, a bottle of champagne-style fizz could have cost another pounds 200. Mr Mills warned: 'My advice to most people who venture into a live show in Soho is to have pounds 300 in cash on them.'

According to one source, the aim is often to get a huge bill run up. If the customer cannot or will not pay, a legal document acknowledging the debt is produced. Tactics can also run to 'accompanying' a client to a cash-point machine.

A new report by Westminster council maintains that existing level of fines for unlicensed premises are not a deterent.

Pamela Batty, of the licensing committee, said: 'We are worried about Soho going back to the old days. So we will be pushing for a Private Member's Bill to allow us to close, lock and secure premises that are unlicensed.'

Today, Richard Barker, a lawyer, will be in one of London's divisional courts defending his client, the Soho Cabaret Club in Great Windmill Street. It will be the latest in a chain of Soho court cases for Mr Barker, who represents numerous sex outlets.

(Photograph omitted)