Today (October 31) in London History – “we never closed”

The Windmill Theatre – the venue that “never closed” closed on October 31st, 1964. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

“We never closed.” That was the Windmill Theatre’s proud boast.

A bit of World War II London lore as famous as the slogan, “London can take it.”

We never closed referred to the Windmill’s thumbing its nose at the Luftwaffe, refusing to be cowed by the Blitz, doggedly, defiantly soldiering on through it all.

Though from the vantage point of the far shore of time, the slogan should have read, “we never closed until we closed.” And indeed, if you’re a purist about it, the Windmill did in fact close between September 4th and September 16th, 1939. That was a compulsory closure. Everything was closed on government orders at the start of the war.

But this day – this date – October 31st should be – in our town’s history – a London version of the day the music stopped. Because it was October 31st, 1964 that the Windmill – the show that never closed – the show famous for its almost nude girls – did finally close. Closed for good. 

And you have to love it that it was Halloween. Because on Halloween Germanic and Celtic-speaking peoples commemorated the dead. Commemorated them at the beginning of winter. It was the most fitting time to do so because it was a time of dying in nature.  Three hundred years ago Catholic families would gather on hills on the night of All Hallows’ Eve. One of them would hold a pitch of burning straw. Everybody else would kneel down round the straw burner and pray for the souls of relatives and friends until the flames went out. And there was the danse macabre. On Halloween night the dead of the churchyards would rise for one wild, hideous carnival. Well, you can see the connection, see why October 31st was so perfect, so appropriate for the Windmill’s curtain call. The flame was going out. The Windmill was dying. That last, final act was surely a danse macabre.

But the extent of most people’s knowledge about the Windmill was that it never closed. There’s so much more to it than that. The story’s so rich. We’ve got our excuse – today’s the day the place that never closed, closed – so let’s go there. Let’s do the Windmill justice. 

First, the name. Well, no prizes for guessing that hundreds of years ago a windmill stood on that spot in Soho. Its modern incarnation appeared in 1910. As a cinema. It was called the Palais de Luxe. Notice the French. It’s going to come back. Anyway, the cinema wasn’t successful and in 1931 it was converted to a theatre. Which wasn’t successful either. It had another short run at it as a cinema. And sure enough it failed again. At which point the owner gave the general manager carte blanche. Do what you want with it. The general manager rejoiced in the magnificent name Vivian Van Damm. Vivian – he was a feller – fired it up as a revuedeville. And, yes, if that name sounds vaguely French, so it should do. It was a French innovation. Van Damm brought it to London and damn the prudes and the prurient and the puritans.

Mind you, it wasn’t just nude girls – it was a non-stop variety act. Ran every day from 2.30 in the afternoon to 11 o’clock at night. 

And while it’s famous for its T & A – and its thumbing its nose at Herrman the German – that would be Goring, the supreme commander of the Luftwaffe – it also should be celebrated as a nursery of great comedians. Tony Hancock, Harry Secomb, Peter Sellers, Bruce Forsyth and Jimmy Edwards, amongst others got their start at the Windmill.

But its chief renown came compliments of all that undraped female flesh. And that in itself is a great story. Naked girls – or nearly naked girls – on stage in the West End. Good heavens. Mustn’t have that. So the prude, prurient and puritan brigades rolled up their sleeves and went to work, intent on putting a stop to that. The Windmill outfoxed them, though. The girls were unclad. But they were also stock-still. Tableaux vivant was the wonderful term to describe them. Their being stock-still was the trump card. The Windmill evaded censorship on the grounds that the motionless female forms were in fact statues and could not logically be objected to any more than could the Venus de Milo.

The Lord Chamberlain’s ruling reads like high farce. 

And in fact he was much derided for his decree that at the Windmill Theatre performances actresses might be unclothed if they remained perfectly motionless. As the theatre people trenchantly put it, “If it moves it is rude.”

Here’s the decree. Well, part of the decree. “You say”, said Lord Cromer, “if a naked Venus in the Louvre or a public park does not offend, why should a naked Venus not be permitted on the stage? Well, if your naked Venus behaves like the statue in the park there shall be no objection. But if the statue in the park pranced about and made enticing movements she would not be allowed there – and I shall not allow such spurious statues on the stage.”

Well, the statues were certainly spurious the night a bunch of young men brought mice into the Windmill and threw them onto the stage. The statues all shrieked and ran for their lives. That story made the rounds and the show was a sell-out for weeks afterwards.

It wasn’t a sell-out – far from it – in its latter days. What happened to the Windmill? What brought it down? Vivian Van Damm died in 1960. His daughter Sheila took it over. Interviewed shortly before it closed, Sheila Van Damm said, “since 1956, with the advent of ‘strip’ clubs, the growth of commercial television, and the popularity of X films, it has been increasingly difficult to attract audiences. Even as early as 1959 my father considered selling the property – he foresaw the problem.”

And so the 322-seat Windmill closed on Saturday, October 31st, 1964 – and reopened as a cinema two days later.

Two final points. The “We never closed” theatre had many near misses from bombs. From one of them, a member of the company, Miss Joan Jay, was a casualty for three months. She’d stepped over the way to get a sandwich for a fellow dancer. She was caught in a nearby bomb blast.

But hats off to all of them. They were so brave and so determined. Vivian Van Damm said, “we’re not going to let Hitler beat us. The artists have been provided with mattresses in the dressing rooms and the cast works, eats and sleeps on the premises.”

And the other fascinating thing about the Windmill is Sheila’s – Sheila remember was Vivianne’s daughter, she took over the business when her father died – the other fascinating thing is Sheila’s other life. She was a leading woman driver in motor rallies during the 1950s. Despite coming fresh to the sport, she won a string of international rallies. Including the Ladies’ European Touring Championship in 1954 and the Coupe des Dames – the highest award for women drivers – in the Monte Carlo and Alpine Rallies.

Londoners. They’re a talented bunch. They never fail to amaze me.

And a Today in London recommendation. I think I’m going to recommend a London Walk. Yes, the Soho Walk. Because it’ll take in the Windmill story. Or if Peter or Richard don’t mention it, just prompt them. The Soho Walk goes every Friday morning at 10.15 am. Meet the lads – both of them are actors – outside exit 1 of Leicester Square Tube Stop, by Wyndham’s Theatre.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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