“Working at Murray’s left you in an unreal world: at night-time you entered this fantasy place, where the rich and famous queued for your attention; the days were an endless series of dinner and party invitations, and the social life was truly amazing. It was only after I left Murray’s and returned to the real world that I realised the strange underground fantasy life I had been leading” — Christine Keeler.
…and so it was that night after night, Murray’s Cabaret Club set imaginations ablaze, forged fantasies for deadened aristocrats, served a dish of dreams to Arab businessmen, and provided refuge for the hounded celebrity. In that intimate basement beneath the pavements of Soho’s Beak Street, sexy was never sordid, and nude never naked. That is, until the Profumo Affair — a sex-and-spying scandal that involved a love triangle between showgirl, Christine Keeler, Britain’s Minister of War, John Profumo, and Soviet spy, Yevgeny Ivanov – erupted. It was orchestrated by Stephen Ward, a Society osteopath, who first met Keeler in Murray's.
The furore resulted in the advent of the permissive society and the birth of the swinging sixties. It also brought about the downfall of the British government, and arguably, of Murray's. London was never the same again.
"Many showgirls became household names. Not all for the right reasons..."
Murray's began life in 1913, making it one of London’s very first modern nightclubs. In the roaring twenties, it spearheaded the craze for the Folies Bergère and tango fever. Soho was then a hotspot for gambling dens and clip joints — anywhere to fuel the demand for out-of-hours drinking. But Percival Murray’s nightclub was never part of this seedy underworld.
During the second world war, the nightlife aficionado entertained off-duty officers with ingeniously costumed and choreographed cabaret floorshows. Two shows a night comprised three themed numbers danced in elaborate costumes. Murray soon employed 130 staff, including classically-trained choreographers, inventive lyricists, celebrated bandleaders, and skilled seamstresses.
The racy and respectable numbered amongst the club's illustrious roster of members: royalty (Princess Margaret, King Hussein of Jordan), film stars (Jean Harlow), politicians (Winston Churchill), and all sorts of louche business tycoons and shady sales executives. Racketeers like Peter Rachman, who dated showgirl Mandy Rice-Davies, rubbed shoulders with diplomats such as Henry Kissinger.
Many showgirls, including Kay Kendall and Gertrude Lawrence, became household names. Not all for the right reasons; Ruth Ellis danced here before shooting her lover, and becoming the last woman to be hanged in the UK.
The tragic glamour model Vicki Martin, the peroxide blonde bombshell Carole Lesley, and even the founder of a satanic cult, Mary Ann MacLean, were all once in Murray's employ.
The long-time companion of the actor John Hurt was a showgirl at Murray's. Her death at a young age was the reason for Hurt’s deciding to portray Stephen Ward in the 1989 film Scandal. Similarly, the mother of singer Sarah Brightman was a dancer at the club; this brought it to the attention of her husband Andrew Lloyd Webber who, years later, staged the musical Stephen Ward.
Though the enduring fascination of Murray’s Cabaret Club is borne out by the attention it has received in the press, in exhibitions, and on stage and screen, all physical remnants of the club apparently disappeared without trace — the whiff of exotica extinguished. "There's nothing much left... except the legend and memories," wrote Keeler, years after the Profumo Affair. She was wrong.
An incredible discovery
In 2014, two albums containing hundreds of costume designs were unearthed at an obscure auction in Surrey. After research, it became clear that this treasure trove, hidden away for decades, was of great value, capable of illuminating the untold history of post-war cabaret in London. Soon, hours of film footage documenting the floorshow routines in glittering technicolour — as well as hundreds of photographs showing life amongst the showgirls off-premises — were discovered sitting in the archives of major public collections, such as London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, their subjects previously unidentified, their dates never ascertained.
Even online auction sites brought to light 'museum' pieces covered in sparkling diamante and luscious mink, soft to the touch. Film footage was found that captured Percival Murray and his wardrobe mistress Elsie Burchmore sifting through those very same portfolios of designs that were revealed 60 years later. Scores of surviving dancers were tracked down and interviewed and their stories have been preserved — from late-night adventures with businessman Paul Getty, to spy meetings held in the club itself by film producer Harry Alan Towers.
Visions inspired by space exploration and sci-fi movies
First and foremost, however, there was the ingenuity and inventive wit of the costume designers who chose Murray’s Cabaret Club as their stage. Ronald Cobb’s costumes celebrate the Latin craze that was rife through London’s dance clubs of the 50s, and played out through the sambas of Carmen Miranda and mambos of Perez Prado. Visions inspired by the aesthetics of space exploration and sci-fi movies of the period mingle with costumes that predate the style of Cecil Beaton’s idiosyncratic attire for My Fair Lady and that reflect the glamour of Horst P Horst’s Vogue models. Naughty nurses, stern-stockinged policewomen, racy Bo Peeps, and women wearing nothing but chandeliers, don G-strings that incorporate all sorts of sexual puns from fans to violins.
Many of these designs are still covered in glitter and gold foil. Michael Bronze’s lithe vamps complement Cobb’s deco pin-ups. They reflect the costumier’s dual profession of theatre designer and chic dress designer for London’s high society. Hilda Wetton’s ‘fan dancers’ extended a form of entertainment seen at the popular Windmill Theatre to the nightclub scene; historically, the dancers dodged censorship laws that forbade nudes to move on stage by skilfully manipulating a set of ostrich feathers so as to titillate though never reveal all.
A team of six seamstresses worked year-round on the costumes
The overheads were enormous; at half a million pounds in today’s money for each show, the club’s performers were some of the most expensively-clothed showgirls ever to grace the West End stage. Each costume took around 300 hours to construct, and were made by a team of six seamstresses who worked all year round in permanent employment from a workshop on Percival Murray’s country estate. The extremely elaborate jewelling and ornamentation was intricately stitched by hand. The headdresses often comprised thousands of tiny beads or sparkling sequins, and the expense of the fabrics matched the level of craftsmanship; for example, only real furs were used. It all made Percival Murray a very rich man indeed.
Yet the fleet of Rolls Royces, sumptuous flats in Whitehall and Mayfair, and country house in Surrey, weren’t to last. While the Profumo affair caused lasting damage to the club's reputation, the Playboy Club’s arrival in London in 1966 was sexier and edgier. To Mr Murray it was unacceptably artless. The writing was on the wall; the club closed, and the dream ended.
Today, 16-18 Beak Street is a burger bar. Step downstairs to find waitresses, flitting between the tables, serving the tourists of Carnaby Street and Kingly Court. The tiny room has been made even smaller by the expansion of the chef’s kitchen. The wood panelling has been whitewashed; it resembles the muddy grey of ‘Bombsite Britain’ in the 50s. Post-war, the West End may have been blighted by austerity, but here underground, the oak walls once shimmered as they reflected the sparkle of costumed showgirls dancing.
Murray’s Cabaret Club: Discovering Soho’s Secret, published by The History Press and with a foreword by Dita Von Teese, is available to buy now.
An exhibition accompanying the book is currently running at Green & Stone Gallery, 251-253 Fulham Road, SW3 6HY. 60 of the original costume designs are on display and available to buy.