This Swarovski-esque-coated Mercedes-Benz seemed to sum up central London today: new money, extreme wealth, global clout — and not much of what would once have been considered elegant English upper-class taste.
What a great film the producer Ridley Scott might have made of the documentary to celebrate 50 years of Annabel’s. The fantastical nightclub with its private members once even hosted the Queen of England (even if its star of the moment is Kate Moss).
Imagine the movie: a Blade Runner scenario with lights exploding in a visual-fest of darkness and decay over 44 Berkeley Square. That would symbolise the collapse of the United Kingdom’s snobby high society, where class and titles, stately homes and blue blood were the entry ticket to the most exclusive nightclub in the world.
What a missed opportunity! I have seen the film twice, and I don’t think I once heard the words “class system”. That was the foundation of British social history for centuries. And it was still in place until the last half century when Mark Birley opened the oh-so-English private club, holding up a mirror to his own affluent world. In the last decade it morphed into today’s undergrown cavern of top-price champagne, with Naomi Campbell — not usually known as a shrinking violet — announcing on-screen how she likes Annabel’s because the interior is “not bright”.
The Birley family story is fascinating: an upper-class man with exquisite taste and a wife with the impossibly long name of Lady Annabel Vane-Tempest-Stewart. She went on to marry billionaire tycoon James Goldsmith. The dynasty included (among other A-list names) Annabel’s daughter Jemima Khan, Birley’s sister Maxime de la Falaise and Maxime’s daughter, Loulou, whose name is above the door on another nightclub down the road from Annabel’s.
On Hertford Street, Robin Birley founded a new club after his estranged father, finishing up an explosive family feud, sold the famous Annabel’s.
Of course, none of this family friction is in the film — and maybe it shouldn’t be. The director Greg Fay is rightly looking forward, as well as back.
The current owner of Annabel’s is Richard Caring, fashion tycoon and restaurateur, the ideal person to grasp the power and the glory of new international money pouring into London via the well-stuffed banks. Russian oligarchs, Middle Eastern potentates and Asian billionaires now fill the low tables in the basement of cosy, underground Annabel’s.
When Birley found the dilapidated premises in 1963, it was a series of empty wine cellars under a mesh of electric wires — hence the title of the Ridley Scott film, A String of Naked Lightbulbs.
The film has a Downton Abbey feel, with members speaking graciously in strangulated Eton-and-Oxford English, while the working-class former staff, with their cockney accents, remember the night that Frank Sinatra got as drunk as a lord, Diana Ross played disco diva, and the never-smiling, stud-racing magnate Sheikh Hamdan al-Makhoum made Annabel’s barman happy by tipping £100 a visit. (Although you would probably need £1,000 today to satisfy the staff.)
Ridley Scott portrays Annabel’s as a nest of royalty, with newspaper articles about Princess Diana, Fergie and, of course, the Queen as visitors. There is no comment in the film about how technology has undermined privacy and makes it impossible today to keep control of paparazzi. But Anna Wintour reinforces the idea that an important component of Annabel’s success was that the members “felt safe”.
There were intimations of change, especially the historic demands from Lloyds insurance business that ate away the club members’ fortunes in the early Nineties.
The movie ends with high-society decorator Nicky Haslam claiming that Annabel’s is always full to bursting, Richard Caring saying that people like “a bit of decadence” and Lady Gaga performing con brio!
I don’t have any attachment to Annabel’s, which I always thought of as a den of snobbery, featuring blondes with slim legs and haw-haw men with fat wallets.
But I do believe that the club deserves a better cinematic biography that would see it as symbolic of London’s move from local to global and class to brass.
A String Of Naked Lightbulbs will be screened throughout November at the Curzon Mayfair, London
To enquire about these screenings, contact www.annabels.co.uk or call +44 (0)20 7629 1096.