The joy of sex at sixty

Profile: Peter Stringfellow The BBC has uncovered new talent in this veteran of the bedroom.
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The Independent Online
Lock up your daughters, Peter Stringfellow is single again. The millionaire owner of Britain's most famous topless club has just split up from his girlfriend (well, she was getting on a bit at 23) but is determined that age shall not weary him.

You may not want to contemplate the image of this sexual veteran at "play" as he calls it with females less than half his age, but the BBC does. On Monday all 39 local radio stations across England will launch Love for Life, a week-long campaign to prove that you don't have to be young to have a fulfilling sex life - and the 58-year-old Stringfellow is one of its chosen role models.

"As we move into the next millennium most of us can expect to live longer and enjoy an active sex life well into our sixties, seventies and even older," says the Beeb, which promises that frequent orgasmic sex can cut the risk of dying from a heart attack by a half.

Seven million people are expected to tune in for interviews, phone-ins and studio discussions on topics including "getting fit for a sexual relationship whatever your age, how to cope when your children don't approve, and changing your sexuality later in life". The campaign will be fronted by celebrities, including 1960s pop stars Peter Noone and Brian Poole, plus Edwina Currie, Germaine Greer and Stringfellow, a man to whom the phrase "ageing Lothario" has been applied so many times he should sue for the copyright.

"One thing you must never do if you have a relationship with a young person is to try and steal their youth, or any part of their life," he will tell listeners. "I know my girlfriend has a wonderful life in front of her. I've thoroughly enjoyed mine, therefore I'm quite happy if we stay together a little while then she moves on, or I move on."

The interview was prophetic in the case of Deborah Thewlis. But what do beautiful young women like her see in this wiry man with his remarkably deep tan, long thinning hair and idiosyncratic dress sense? After all, he has begun to look his age lately. The answer Stringfellow gives the BBC has less to do with his wealth than with good manners and confidence. "If I take them out for dinner we don't go to hamburger joints, we're off to somewhere super nice. I think I'm charming and a gentleman. If anything should happen, super. If not, well it's been a super night too."

Those who find him super may find themselves on the top floor of a Georgian townhouse near the club in Covent Garden. Females who have entered his lair in the past have returned with tales of exotic antique furniture, rich, dramatic colours, a marbled bathroom and a Venus painted on the sitting-room ceiling. A gilt mirror is suspended above his brass bed, and beside it is a surprisingly large pile of books including the latest works by Will Self and Richard Dawkins. Friends say Stringfellow is a cultured fellow who goes to the ballet when he can and has a deep interest in ancient civilisations.

The bedside cabinet does not contain a big box of Viagra, he protests, despite newspaper reports to the contrary. He does admit to having used the impotence drug but not to depending on it. "It's good fun. You can go for hours if you wish." Which will doubtless be a reassurance to the older listeners of Radio Norfolk.

James Stringfellow was a cavalry soldier and steelworker who always covered his private parts if his son happened to catch him naked. His oldest son Peter was born on 17 October 1940 among the terraces and bomb sites of Pitsmoor in Sheffield. It took the boy years to realise that his family was poor, but then it hurt.

"It was the lack of a proper bathroom, above all else, that left a lasting impression on me," he has said. "Wherever I've lived, I've made my bathrooms superbly comfortable, with everything you could possibly want, including a Jacuzzi, a television and champagne on ice."

Peter was dyslexic but good at maths. He did well enough to get into one of the new technical schools but was ridiculed for not having a real leather satchel. His revenge would come much later, when he operated fierce door policies at his clubs.

At 16 Stringfellow tried to emulate his hero Tommy Steele by joining the Merchant Navy, but he lasted two months and came home to a job in a Sheffield bakery. One of the shop girls, Norma, became his first real sexual partner and on Boxing Day in 1960 his first wife. He found some success as a door-to-door salesman but was too plausible for his own good, smuggling out extra stock to sell on the side. Stringfellow was caught and sent to prison for eight weeks.

On the day he was released he had sex with his pregnant wife in the back of a car, while his dad drove in the front, eyes fixed on the road. Shortly after the wedding he had started sleeping with Norma's 16-year-old cousin Cathy. "Just as some people get addicted to drink, I became addicted to sex," Stringfellow would say.

His future was in rock'n'roll. By booking a local band to play in a church hall renamed the Black Cat Club, Stringfellow attracted a big audience - and he felt the euphoria of walking on stage in front of an audience. "I made pounds 65 that night, and I managed to pull a girl," he remembered. "I gave her a lift home and made love to her in the van."

By the time his daughter Karen was born in October the Black Cat was thriving, and he was changing. Running the show and going on stage made him feel powerful, which gave him confidence.

He didn't see it as infidelity because he didn't care about his conquests - except one, Coral, who would be part of his life for three decades. When Norma found out they split up, and Coral gave birth to a son, Scott, in January 1966. The couple were married the following August. After the ceremony he went to DJ at a club in Nottingham, had sex with a young woman there, then returned to Sheffield and consummated the marriage.

Much of this information comes from his own autobiography, King of Clubs, an unrepentant account of his habitual infidelity and huge sexual appetite. The marriage to Coral lasted until 1990, thanks to her willingness to turn a blind eye and participate in the occasional threesome, as he built his empire. He had clubs in Leeds and Manchester before borrowing pounds 1m to realise a dream and come to London.

It seems strange to say now that he has become a figure of fun, but for a while after it opened in 1980 Stringfellow's nightclub was cool. London had very few proper clubs in the early 1980s, before the New Romantics and the dance music explosion. The red silk rope across the door and the red carpet on the pavement looked new and classy. Gossip columnists loved the place because it was packed with celebrities including Marvin Gaye, Rod Stewart, Eddie Murphy and, most famously of all, Diana, Princess of Wales.

His face became famous, as did his love for the high life and his support for Margaret Thatcher. He became a symbol of that boom time when extravagance was in - but, like so many others, he over-extended himself. The Hippodrome at Leicester Square cost pounds 3.5m to renovate and open, with a laser light show way ahead of its time, but he eventually had to sell. Coral lost patience and settled for a pounds 1m divorce. Three Stringfellow clubs in America opened and were closed by the recession.

Stringfellow retreated to London with a vision of the future: beautiful girls dancing in the laps of wealthy businessmen for pounds 10 a time. Cabaret of Angels runs from Monday to Thurs- day at the club in Covent Garden, and while unlikely to attract family entertainers or princesses with an image to keep up, it does make money. His personal wealth is estimated at pounds 21m, and the Stringfellow empire employs two of his brothers and his daughter. His son is a racing driver.

The musician Larry Adler, who first met him in 1980, has described String- fellow as "a completely unspoiled, natural guy, and 15 years later he hasn't changed at all. Peter has incredible kindness and a real interest in people." His great weakness is his choice of girlfriends. "They're nice, I like them all, but they don't match up to Coral. Peter goes with the bimbos."

At Easter the club was visited by the Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Rev James Jones, as part of a television series. After watching the dancers, the bishop suggested Stringfellow had created a fantasy world in which sex was divorced from love and women were sex objects. The club owner's answer was quick: "We both live in a fantasy world, Bishop."

Earlier this year he contributed to a book about heaven by Father Michael Seed, the ecumenical adviser to the Archbishop of Westminster, saying that heaven for him was "having no enemies and having great sex".

Father Seed first met Peter Stringfellow a decade ago and describes him as "a terribly switched- on businessman. He provides entertainment. You're not going to break your vows in Stringfellow's - you can look but you're not allowed to touch. They protect the dancers. It is true that they haven't got many clothes on - but it is awfully hot in there."