Stringfellow's: The last dance saloon?

Peter Stringfellow's club is beset by problems and financial worries
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The Independent Online

From the dated velvet drapes covering the low ceilings to the dust-covered "candle effect" chandeliers and rows of empty leopard-print seats, you could be forgiven for thinking you had stepped into the 1970s. Welcome to Stringfellows, London, 2006.

Once hailed as one of London's hottest nightspots and a place for celebrities to be seen, Stringfellows in London's West End has lost its sparkle, according to critics.

On what should have been one of the busiest nights of the week, late last Friday, the club that bears the name of the 66-year-old, thong-wearing, mullet-haired Peter Stringfellow, stood practically empty.

Following a disastrous attempt to open a branch of the club in Dublin earlier this year, and repeated rejections of applications to extend its drinking hours, the club faces a heavy financial blow.

This stems from an incident in October 2004, when a lap-dancer caught the eye of a 34-year-old marketing director, George MacDonald, from Southam, Warwickshire, who was out with friends on a stag night and was alleged to have pulled her towards him. He was thrown out of the club and had his jaw broken by Marcus Marriott, a former amateur boxer and one of the club's bouncers. Mr MacDonald fell to the ground, fracturing his skull, and died minutes later. Marriott was convicted in January of manslaughter and jailed for three years.

Accounts just filed to Companies House show that Stringfellows has made provision for £1m in potential compensation and legal costs to the customer's widow and two children. Stringfellow Restaurants Limited, which operates the club, made a £1.2m pre-tax loss in 2005 compared with £127,000 profit the previous year.

Once the club of choice for celebrities such as George Best, there were no paparazzi in evidence. The most notable customer was the pornographic publisher David Sullivan.

The handful of guests who were there, outnumbered by dozens of bouncers, were repeatedly approached by the club's dancers in an attempt to get them to part with anything up to £260 for the pleasure of a girl's company for an hour.

The lap-dancing club, with its well-known "no touching" policy, has been overtaken by more raucous competitors in recent years, such as the Spearmint Rhino chain, offering punters more flesh for their pounds.

Jonathan Downey, owner of two members' clubs in Soho, Milk and Honey and The Player, said: "Stringfellows has had its day. It is terribly uncool, it is gaudy, it is tacky, but so is Dale Winton and he is on prime-time television.

"Like with Spearmint Rhino it is all about cash and alcohol-induced expenditure. It taps into that male insecurity that you can mask by flashing the cash and making yourself feel good about the 'quality' of the girls who are pretending to be attracted to you."

However, Cliff Silver, the company's financial director, denied any problem with the viability of the business. "We've been around for the last 20-odd years, we'll be around for the next 20 years."

Peter Stringfellow also weighed in yesterday, saying, "Stringfellows takes in more money than any other club in England. It has a boudoir look and has old-style lighting for that reason. It doesn't need refurbishing by one pound note.

"It's like looking at a Rolls-Royce and saying that it wouldn't win a Formula One race. We attract a quality financial set who have the money to spend."

There was little sign of the "quality financial set" late last Friday when two ageing bouncers could be seen shuffling around on a worn patch of faded carpet outside the entrance to the club. Unlike a nearby bar, there was no queue of people waiting to pay the £20 admission fee.

Background: Brothers who built an empire

The club's frontman, Peter Stringfellow, started out from humble beginnings. Born in 1940 in Pitsmoor on the outskirts of Sheffield, Stringfellow, who once spent six weeks in prison for stealing carpets from a company that he worked for, has been promoting clubs since the 1960s.

With his brother, Geoffrey, he began promoting clubs in the Sheffield area, then Leeds and Manchester before opening Stringfellows in London 26 years ago. Geoffrey is reputed to be the driving force behind the business side of the operation, but very little is known about him.

A newspaper search yields only one headline - when he was stalked by a former lap dancer from the club. Rachel Bahai, a 21-year-old who had been sacked from Stringfellows, was found guilty in 2003 of having stalked him and was subsequently committed to a mental hospital.