The Windmill Theatre was the first British theatre to feature nudity by exploiting a legal loophole
His objection: that not only were naked ladies on stage but that some of them had moved.
“This is carrying stage nudity too far,” the letter said.
“His Lordship is not prepared to allow three full-figured girls out of four posed for the benefit of the audience in this manner. Unless more reasonableness is shown in the inclusion of nudity in your programme he will have no alternative to prohibiting it altogether.”
Eight years earlier the Windmill had become the first British theatre to feature nudity by exploiting a legal loophole.
Laura Henderson celebrating the 130th Revudeville with the Windmill girls
The Windmill wasn’t a sleazy place. We were rooted in a much nicer time. We were naughty but nice. It was an oasis of innocence at Soho’s heart
They argued as naked statues were not considered morally objectionable so a motionless “living statue” should also be acceptable.
Lord Cromer had agreed but ruled: “If you move, it’s rude.”
But by the end of the decade the theatre was pushing the boundaries.
By having their nude girls hold on to a moving object they would manage to create the impression of movement.
The Windmill dodged that bullet and went on to forge a reputation as the country’s most famous naked review bar.
Until yesterday it had operated as a lap-dancing club but a ruling by Westminster City Council now means the club may be forced to close for good.
After objections to a renewal of the Windmill’s licence by a women’s rights group, the committee ruled that there had been “serious breaches of licence conditions”. They now have 21 days in which to appeal.
And if the Lord Chamberlain was upset by the idea of a naked young lady daring to so much as move a muscle in 1940, one shudders to think what he might have made of the present allegations facing the club.
Three showgirls sitting in the Windmill Theatre canteen in 1964
“The Windmill club needs to be shut down as a matter of urgency to stop the gropes, pinching and slaps,” stated the group.
They also claimed infringements, allegedly hiring ex-police officers to go undercover to investigate the suspected goings-on.
Their statements make for eye-opening reading. One describes how he met a “dark-haired female who was wearing a see-through dressing gown and red bra” named Summer, which culminated in her “offering me a dance in the VIP area upstairs for £150 and an additional £10 for the security to look the other way”.
The detective then details how Summer performed a fully nude private dance for him that included a lewd act, as well as encouraging him to touch her.
Another states how a girl called Michelle encouraged the detective to pay for a dance in a booth that was “not scrutinised”, as well as asking for £20 to give to a security guard “not to look”.
The description of that dance contains details too explicit to publish but which are claimed breach the rule that “there shall be no indecent conduct between the performers and customers”.
A third describes how another dancer Susanna performed a sex act on the information gathering ex-copper, as well as giving him her mobile phone number and arranging to meet him again.
Westminster strip club licensing rules forbid any physical contact, sex acts or exchanging of phone numbers, as well as stipulating that all dances should be monitored by security or CCTV.
A Windmill show girl dressed in her costume waiting in her dressing room before a performance, 1941
For their part the Windmill had promised that they were cleaning up their act.
Daniel Owide, who is the owner of the club, said that while there had been “a number of operational failings” he had instigated wide-ranging changes.
He also wrote: “We have dismissed six dancers, suspended 10 dancers, sent dancers home during the night on approximately 10 occasions and issued a number of formal warnings to dancers since receiving the objections to our renewal application. Any breach of the ‘no touching rule’ results in immediate dismissal.”
Mr Owide also cited “the long historical use of the premises as an iconic adult entertainment venue in the heart of Soho”.
Sheila van Damm holds up the curtain for the last time before the theatre’s closure, 1964
And it is perhaps this history that will make the closure of the Windmill so significant.
The Windmill began life as cinema The Palais de Luxe but it was only after being bought in 1930 by Laura Henderson that its fortunes changed.
She hired Vivian Van Damm as manager and together they created Revudeville, a continuous show incorporating music, singers, dancers and variety acts.
Revudeville was a hit but most popular by far were the showgirls.
And then in 1932 Henderson and Van Damm came up with the idea of using nudes as part of the show.
These living statues or “tableaux vivants” were a sensation partly because of the censors’ disapproval.
And the Windmill became so popular that it even stayed open through the Blitz, leading to its famous slogan: “We Never Closed.”
Their story was dramatised in the 2005 film Mrs Henderson Presents starring Judi Dench as Henderson and Bob Hoskins as Van Damm.
A banjo player entertains customers queuing outside the Windmill Theatre, 1953
Mrs Henderson died in 1944 leaving the theatre to Van Damm and he diversified the club’s variety roster bringing in a host of young comedians who would later enjoy enormous fame.
Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, Sir Bruce Forsyth, Tommy Cooper and Barry Cryer were all early success stories.
After Van Damm’s death in 1960 the theatre struggled in the face of a new permissiveness that had seen Soho become host to dozens of rival clubs.
In 1964 it closed with the building passing through several owners over the next few decades and being used as a cinema, cabaret club and even television studio until it was leased by Oscar Owide in 1994, who, along with son Daniel, set about returning the Windmill to its spiritual roots.
But if the activities detailed in the Windmill’s licence renewal application make for shocking reading by today’s standards for those who remember the spirit of Mrs Henderson’s cheeky “tableaux vivantes”, they are doubly so – and the loss of a London landmark all the sadder.
Dancers receiving pedicures from a chiropodist during National Foot Health Week, 1950
Former Windmill girl Jill Shapiro, who wrote the book Remembering Revudeville, recalls the club’s heyday with affection.
“It was very titillating,” she said.
“Some outfits were already very revealing, often see-through and I think some of the men used to live in hope of a wardrobe malfunction.
“They just sat in awe, chins on the ground and a glazed look in their eye. We used to do six shows a day and some men would sit there all day and all night.
“It wasn’t a sleazy place. We were rooted in a much nicer time. We were naughty but nice. The Windmill was an oasis of innocence at Soho’s heart.”