This is an article I wrote for The Spectator on how the founding members of Annabel’s felt about the club’s multi-million pound make-over.
The published article can be found here: The Spectator
If you weren’t wealthy, you wouldn’t have heard of it. In 1963, when Martin Luther King was having a dream and the Beatles wanted to hold your hand and the British were busy inventing sex, the aristocracy was having its own revolution and the revolution was called Annabel’s.
Annabel’s was the brainchild of Mark Birley, a paragon of unapologetic snobbery. Once, when sitting in first class, an airhostess asked him to put out his cigar as the smell was upsetting the passengers in economy, to which he famously replied that the smell from economy was upsetting him too but you didn’t hear him complaining.
It was with this ‘sorry I’m not sorry’ snootiness that Birley created Annabel’s in Mayfair’s Berkeley Square, a private members club that started life as a playground for the upper crust below a casino and ended up accidentally becoming the most famous basement in the world. Over the years, Annabel’s played host to the cream of blue-blooded fine pedigree and red-blooded rock royalty. From Mick Jagger to Liz Taylor, Lady Thatcher to Lady Gaga, anybody who was anybody went and if you weren’t there, then you missed it darling and that golden age is never coming back for you.
Even the royal family wasn’t immune to its charms. It was said that after being snubbed an invite, Princess Di and Fergie famously snuck into the club dressed as policewomen to gatecrash Prince Andrew’s stag do and it remains the only club that the Queen as ever reportedly been to. She had a gin Martini, if you’re wondering.
“It was very much on the zeitgeist,” said author Tyne O’Connell, an Annabel’s regular, “Annabel’s was London getting its groove on.”
“Mark’s genius,” explained David d’Ambrumenil, an Oxford university friend of Mark Birley and a founding member of Annabel’s, “was in picking talent and retaining staff loyalty.” So over the decades, night after night, you would see Nando on the door, “Little” Johnny on the bar, George serving the drinks, maître d’ Louis welcoming guests and cockney Mabel James in the ladies loos, comforting young debutantes when they were feeling blue. “If Mark said to his staff, take off all your clothes and run to the North Pole, they’d be on their way.”
“It was like a family,” added his wife Sarah, a former girlfriend of Birley, “it was always so comfy and cosy – the food, the atmosphere. If I could go back to those days, I would – every night was a cocktail party.”
Over the years, like a beautiful girl falling in with the wrong crowd, Annabel’s bright stardust waned. Although the club survived Mark Birley’s divorce from his wife Lady Annabel, who ran off to marry billionaire Jimmy Goldsmith, largely unscathed, by the 90s, the sheen on the old club started to fade. The regulars were complaining that the wrong sorts were being allowed in and younger members joked they didn’t want to go in case they bumped into their dads entertaining their mistresses. In 2003, Birley brought in his children India Jane and Robin to run the club, although this ended in farce when Mark sacked his son over the guest policy and possibly as punishment for hiring a rogue private investigator to spy on his sister’s lover.
Today, however, Annabel’s looks brightly towards the future. The new club has been done up to the nines, face-lifted, botoxed and moved two doors away to a larger stately home at 46 Berkeley Square. Gone is the old, country house styled basement, to be replaced by a whirlwind of ritzy bars, restaurants and private dining rooms, all encircling the second largest cantilevered staircase in London – the first is in Buckingham Palace. The enchanting restaurant terrace has a retractable roof with its own weatherman and the ladies powder room is like a set from Gone with the Wind. “The result is a space which reflects the Garden of Eden; a place where anything goes and revelry and temptation are succumbed to,” said Sexy Fish designer Martin Brudnizki, who was tasked with the £55m renovation.
Will the new owner Richard Caring be able to recapture the magic of the club’s former shimmering days in the sun or will the new haunt be Annabel’s in name only? Time will tell. But come what may, Annabel’s has earned its place as an icon of sixties and seventies glamour and for those who were there, Annabel’s isn’t just the latest place to be, it’s a part of history.