Club Class? Past and future of Annabel's

London's most famous society haunt was an after-hours home to minor royals and well-groomed celebrities for decades. So why did David Blunkett become a regular? Guy Adams toasts the glittering past and scandalous present of Annabel's nightclub
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For a Labour minister, the Mayfair boite makes an absurdly incongruous pick-up joint. It is posh London's premiere watering hole, a home from home for fun-loving aristocrats, Eurotrash and minor royals. Yet there it was, in this blue-blooded melting-pot, that the working-class boy from Sheffield met a comely estate agent called Sally Anderson.

The couple's unlikely romance fizzled and crackled over a string of dinner dates in the famous Berkeley Square basement. They shared bottles of fine wine at its decadently upholstered dining tables, and - if one tabloid is to be believed - discussed marriage and children over coffee and petits fours.

Then, last week, the whole pack of cards came tumbling down in a shower of lurid headlines and chequebook interviews. Anderson, whose relationship with Blunkett was leaked to the press by a jilted former boyfriend, picked up the phone to Max Clifford, and details of their putative relationship were plastered across the front pages.

So there you had it; a case of business as usual in the lickerish world of contemporary journalism. Yet as the fuss dies down, the tale of "Blunkett and his blonde" has thrown a spotlight back on to one of London's most enduring social phenomena: the clubland institution that is Annabel's nightclub.

Uniquely, amid the shifting sands of the after-dark "scene", Annabel's has survived more or less unchanged these past 40 years. It remains London's most famous society haunt, a magnet for celebrity that has occupied a more or less uninterrupted place in the premiere league of the world's party venues.

Like all such institutions, the place divides the opinion of visitors. To detractors, it's a joint where Middle East meets Middle Age, a stuffy, fading establishment that resembles a branch of Berni Inn with the lights turned down. To fans, it is - and always has been - the sine qua non of society hedonism. Right now, no matter which camp you fall into, one thing's for sure: Annabel's is mustard-hot. Just as it provided a backdrop to swinging London of the 1960s, so it has now captured the zeitgeist of the Naughty Noughties. Currently, the club's on the crest of a wave, packing 'em in like never before.

Tonight, were you to descend the blue and gold canopied staircase marking its entrance, the place would be heaving. You'd almost smell the wealth dripping off starry punters, anyone from Roman Abramovich to Philip Green, Bryan Ferry to Hugh Grant, whose fling with Jemima Khan was first exposed when they were "papped" leaving the club together last year.

And if a club really does stand or fall on its cast of characters, then Annabel's has to take the ginger biscuit. It remains the only such venue that Her Majesty the Queen has ever set foot in, and the likes of President Richard Nixon, Frank Sinatra, and (very recently) Camilla Parker Bowles have propped up its bar. Entertainers to have played there include Tina Turner, Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald and Diana Ross.

Of late, it's also attracted a young, posh crowd that includes a high-living set of minor royals. Princess Michael of Kent's occasionally wayward son, Lord Frederick Windsor, held a recent birthday party there. The Duchess of Cornwall's headline-prone son, Tom Parker Bowles, is another regular.

"Going to Annabel's right now is just bloody good fun," says one regular. "The crowd is posh, but not like at some sort of St James' club, where you've got people snooting around who are actually down to their last pair of shoes. It's actually full of very glamorous, rich, new London society, like it used to be during the 1960s and 1970s. All the different generations can go there to party. In fact, it's a bit like a society wedding in that respect, with all the exclusivity that entails."

Ah yes, the exclusivity. Nine thousand members of Annabel's pay anything up to £750 a year for the privilege of making it past the top-hatted doorman. Once there they've got to shell out about a tenner for each drink. Want dinner, and you're looking at upwards of £80 a head. Since guests are banned from paying for drinks there, a night on the sauce requires a pretty healthy member's wallet.

A smart dress code is also rigidly enforced. It always has been, bar a hiccup in 2002, when the proprietor, Mark Birley, relaxed the requirement that men should wear a dark suit and tie. He was forced to perform a U-turn several months later, when his club began to resemble an airport waiting lounge.

"I had overlooked the simple truth that the British have no tradition of casual clothes," he wrote. "We seem to have a uniform for anything." Jackets are now de rigueur and jeans are banned.

Unlike a lot of supposed "clubs", entrance really is restricted to members and their guests. In fact, a bylaw in its constitution stipulates that the ex-wives of members are not allowed to cross the threshold. According to member Anthony Haden-Guest: "This may seem strict, but it's not the arbitrary cruelty of a Studio 54 door policy. It's the rules. Like nanny."

Anyway, make it past the front door, and a staircase takes you into a long, ornate basement. A bar and series of drawing rooms - decorated in the manner of a slightly over-indulged country house - lead to the main dining area, which looks like a cross between a lapdancing club and the palace of an Arab sheikh.

The lavish interior decoration of Annabel's stands like a two-fingered salute to the slick minimalist interiors of other modern venues. It's very much the baby of Birley, and, while not to everyone's taste, has barely changed since the club was founded.

"I would describe the interior as a high point in what it does," says the social commentator and occasional visitor Peter York. "By that I mean it's a collaboration between Mark Birley and the designer Nina Campbell. We haven't seen that kind of look for a while, but there's something seductive about it. It's to do with the basement-ness and the deep red armless sofas," he said.

"You've got to add to that the sort of people who sit there. I mean these boys with names like Thierry and Jean-Claude, with their big curly hair and a pair of English girls on their arm. It all looks rather modern, although you've got to set that feel against the particular quality of the loos, and the butler-like staff."

Another key moment in Annabel's renaissance was the appointment of Birley's son, Robin, and daughter, India-Jane, brought in a couple of years ago to bring the sparkle back. In the words of one member, it had become the sort of place that the young avoided, in case they caught their dad there with his mistress. That soon changed.

"It's been a series of tinkerings," Robin says, when asked to describe recent innovations. "We didn't want to make it too fashionable, because if you do that, it's a bit like a lightbulb: it becomes too bright but then fizzles out. So we made the food much better, and redid the dance floor to open it up and make it less of a dead space at the end of the club.

"Getting the music right was also important ...we've tried to find something that everyone likes. The club is now so much more international than it used to be, and you get lots of attractive 30-year-old European girls coming in, but we've tried to retain old-fashioned glamour rather than becoming aggressively modern."

Annabel's has a starry history. Birley Snr founded the place in 1963, after his friend John Aspinall decided that they needed somewhere to party after an evening's gambling. As a result, Birley turned the basement of Aspinall's casino, Crockford's, into a nightclub, and named it after his then wife, Annabel, who went on to marry the late Sir James Goldsmith.

In her memoirs, Annabel Goldsmith - mother to Jemima Khan and Zac and Ben Goldsmith - recalls shovelling 6,000 tons of London clay out of a garden in order to construct the venue. It was shortly established as the capital's premiere venue.

"As well as many members of the British Royal Family, including Prince Charles, Princess Anne and Princess Alexandra, one was just as likely to bump into Frank Sinatra, Aristotle Onassis or King Constantine of Greece. Another regular, who was a great favourite with the waiters, was the comedian Tommy Cooper."

Then as now, it was a heady cocktail. And it didn't take long for the club to become a staple of the gossip columns. Nigel Dempster, the legendary society diarist, made Annabel's a fixture on his social calendar.

"There can be no doubt that Nigel played a big part in the club's success," says David Wynne Morgan, a member of the managing committee. "But he was never a member. In fact, for obvious reasons, we have never allowed journalists to be members. Nigel was only allowed to come in if he rang me and made arrangements.

"Nowadays, it's much harder to maintain our members' privacy. Every night we'll have four or five snappers standing outside. But we like to think that once you've got past the door, then things are as discreet as ever."

Soon after its launch, Lord Lucan disappeared after a night in the casino upstairs. Even more memorably, in the 1980s Sarah Ferguson turned up to celebrate her hen night. With typical restraint, she and Princess Diana were dressed as policewomen.

As for l'affaire Blunkett, it's unlikely to be repeated. On Monday, "friends" of the Work and Pensions Secretary attempted to draw a line under the incident by announcing that he'd pledged to alter his lifestyle to avoid further embarrassment. "It was never a regular haunt and it won't be repeated," they said. "He's been reminded that it was unwise."

Unwise or not, you get the feeling that he won't be the last person who ends up doing something he later regrets in the fashionable basement of 44 Berkeley Square.