October 31, 1964 — Not even wartime bombs could force London’s Windmill Theatre to shut its doors and it gloried in the slogan, “We never closed.” Unfortunately, on this day, it did. Changing times and fortunes had taken their toll on an establishment famous for its naked women.
Originally a small theatre that could accommodate about 300 patrons, the Windmill began in 1932 to put on what it called a Revudeville. Singers, dancers, showgirls and other acts would perform continuously from 2.30pm until 11pm.
Daringly, the management decided to go further and, taking the lead of the Folies Bergères and Moulin Rouge in Paris, introduced glamorous nude females – the Windmill Girls – on stage.
In those days, theatre performances were subject to censorship by the government, the man responsible for keeping a censorious eye on it all being the Lord Chamberlain. He had the power to stop a show or even close a theatre.
But the Windmill, convinced it was on to a good thing, took up the challenge. It presented its nudes in motionless poses as living statues or “tableaux vivants” and persuaded the Lord Chamberlain there was nothing obscene about it because nobody could be offended by a nude statue.
The argument was accepted – provided the naked female did not move. The audiences loved it and the venture became highly profitable.
The theatre was also the starting ground for a string of celebrated comedy-actors who would perform their jokes on stage surrounded, bizarrely, by the bevy of naked, unmoving women. The Windmill was certainly unique.
They included the unpredictable Spike Milligan; the legendary, droll Tony Hancock who, tragically, would go on to take his own life in Australia; singer and comic Harry Secombe; and perhaps most famously, Peter Sellers, destined to become a Hollywood movie star.
Great Windmill Street where the theatre was located, took its name from a windmill that stood there from the reign of King Charles II until the late 18th century.
But by the 1960s this once-fashionable Soho area filled with shops and family restaurants had turned into a seedy, if not notorious district, awash with strip clubs and massage parlours.
The Windmill became the victim of its own success. Other theatres in the area copied the formula, pulling patrons away. And unable to compete against its new neighbours, the Windmill accepted its inevitable fate. Bowing to the jesters who changed its slogan to “We never clothed,” it finally shut its doors.
Published: October 6, 2019