Peter Stringfellow was run out of Dublin but he remained the ultimate showman
It was said he brought us sleaze - but the strip king had an old-fashioned view of sex, writes Donal Lynch
It felt like the dancers should have worn black lingerie - as a respectful sign of mourning - but at Peter Stringfellow's eponymous club just off Leicester Square it was business as usual last week.
The mullet-haired mogul may have been called to that great strip club in the sky but in life, as in death, he preferred flashy entrances to grand exits. There was no fanfare, no fuss as his passing was quietly announced last Wednesday.
Toward the end of his life he spoke of his regret at keeping his cancer a secret for more than a decade, during which time he expanded his empire to Dublin before beating a hasty retreat, his grand plans scuppered by the twin evils of moralism and recession.
I interviewed Stringfellow in 2005, just as he prepared to begin his move across the Irish sea. The setting was his gorgeously high-ceilinged Georgian headquarters in London, followed by dinner at the club where we sat on a velvet thrones and were served surf and turf amid a tangle of naked legs and breasts.
The other guests at the table were Stringfellow's 23-year-old third wife (and now widow), Bella, his Irish business partner Tom Butler and a sloe-eyed Calum Best who had first been brought to Stringfellows club as a "treat" when he was a boy and who looked deeply at home amid the scantily clad models and buckets of Champagne.
The currency in the club was called "heavenly money", for which you could exchange your own bog-standard sterling at the door. At the time I described Stringfellow as "a cross between Hugh Hefner and Toad of Toad Hall - all wicked cackle and brash playboy charms", but there was a weariness to him too.
Bella, who he said "loved" going out with a pensioner, had to relay a few questions in one ear because he was hard of hearing. For this reason I hesitated in asking him if it was true that he had bedded 3,000 women, but he didn't miss a beat. He he told me that was a scurrilous lie: it was more like 2,000.
The affront to Catholic sensibilities hardly seemed worth mentioning, but when I wondered aloud if Dublin really had a large (and rich) enough pool of lap dancing fans to justify an outpost, he recounted a conversation in which someone had explained to him that swollen property prices had made the average Dubliner wealthy beyond his wildest dreams. "You have these whole suburbs where everyone in them is now a millionaire", he told me. "There will be plenty of punters."
Fateful words with the benefit of hindsight but Stringfellow felt he could take the temperature of Ireland in other ways too. He had come up, he explained, through the British version of the dancehall scene.
The son of a steel worker, he organised his first dance in 1962 when he rented out a church in Sheffield every Friday night, rebranding it as The Black Cat. In 1963, The Beatles agreed to play there, but the demand for tickets was so great he had to rent out a bigger venue (he giddily told me he'd only paid them £65 to share between the four of them). Other acts who performed at his nightclubs included the Rolling Stones and Fleetwood Mac. On one memorably balmy night, Tina Turner fainted in his arms.
His success as a budding nightclub kingpin made him a minor celebrity in England. He described himself to me as the onetime "Jude Law of Sheffield". He used the proceeds from the Black Cat to open a club in Leeds and eventually the famous Stringfellows club in London. He even, at one point, tried to become a music manager by setting up a girl band called Horney Culture. When the record company insisted that the name be toned down to 'honey culture', Stringfellow's disappointment was palpable.
Yet despite his lascivious streak, Stringfellow in fact represented an old-fashioned view of human sexuality. He hated porn and contrasted the "classiness" of lap dancing with the grubbiness of prostitution. Even Page Three - a now dead British institution - was objectionable to him. "All those boobs flying all over the place when you open the paper!" he told me, aghast. "Kids could see that!" I asked him how he would feel if his daughter did lap dancing and quick as a flash he told me "she has, and I made sure she was very safe".
There were other contradictions, too. He may have bedded thousands of women, but his ultimate crush was Margaret Thatcher. "She came to my club," he told me with boyish wonder. "What an amazing lady! She changed Britain for the better - she is my heroine. She had a little glass of whiskey and water and asked me, 'Where are your girls?'" As she prepared to leave Thatcher, in his recounting, turned and blew him a kiss. Perhaps following her example he firmly believed in privatisation - or at least his version of it; when I visited all of the dancers in his club were sort of sole traders who paid him a monthly rent. Asked to explain the precise appeal of lap dancing, he told me: "The guy is getting an instant relationship that he can't have on the outside. He can go home to his wife with a clear conscience and doesn't feel like a prat."
Stringfellow also claimed, elsewhere, that Princess Diana had dined with him. As a newly-wed, Diana had turned up in disguise with Fergie on her arm. Stringfellow had the whole club redecorated when he found out she was coming again. "She was sexy and flirtatious but not in a sexual way," he told me.
He also 'partied' with a young Prince Harry. "In fact Harry took quite a shine to my wife and asked if he could have a dance with her. His then girlfriend Chelsy wasn't impressed." He said despite these encounters, his favourite royal was Prince Philip. "I like him a great deal." He also suggested that Camilla should become Queen if Charles ascended the throne.
The royals were a good deal easier to charm than Dublin residents, however. Stringfellow hoped to open his club on Parnell Street in the months after we met, but protests by local residents prevented him from getting a licence in time. It was the following January before he had the go-ahead from the courts.
District Court Judge Ann Watkins said she sympathised with local residents, but she could only refuse a licence according to the law. She gave the go-ahead on the basis that there would be no actual lap dancing, defined as "the application of friction" between dancers and clients. Everything would be on a 'look-don't-touch' basis.
Outside the court, Stringfellow claimed victory and said he was delighted with the outcome. Dublin, he opined, was now "an international city and part of Europe" (EU accession paled in comparison, presumably).
The two-storey club finally went operational, with 'exotic' dances priced at €30 for three minutes, and a plushly upholstered restaurant and bar giving it something of the Bacchanalian feel of the London HQ. At the beginning it stayed open until 3am six nights a week. Stringfellow's Irish woes were not over, however.
In Dublin city centre even a hundred yards in the wrong direction can make a difference and the club's northside location placed it away from the footfall of marauding stag parties and wealthy businessmen. Even after the opening, locals campaigning under hand-written banners saying 'no sleaze in our area' and 'protect our women and kids', did not give up their fight to have the club closed. They continued to picket almost every night and drove away the remainder of Stringfellow's corporate business. Five months later, it was closed for good.
Looking back now, the whole sequence seems like the final gasp of boomtime madness. Even if Stringfellow had beaten the moral majority, the recession would likely have swept his newest outpost away; come late 2007 there wasn't much market for Champagne in buckets. Twelve years and a painful recovery later, the catchment area of the erstwhile club has its share of sex shops and early houses - which operate peacefully.
We didn't need to import sleaze, might be the argument, we had it here already. Perhaps too, the outrage at the time was driven as much by Stringfellow's flamboyance and nationality as it was by the workings of his business. One thing seems certain; we won't see his like, or his haircut, again any time soon.