The End of An Era: The British Tabloids Discuss the Windmill’s Closure

Resources:

Passingham, K. (1964) ‘Clothed For Alterations’, The Daily Sketch. 2 October, p.12

Wale, M and Reed, C. (1964) ‘Shattered.. Three Myths of the Windmill’, The Sun. 2 October, p. 3

‘Gad Sir! First the Empire now this! Blast it! Is Nothing Sacred?'[cartoon] The Daily Mail. 2 October

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WP_20160302_15_04_59_Prowindmillcartoon023The closure of the Windmill was a big news story, particularly in the British tabloid press.  The news broke on October 2nd, 1964, Sheila Van Damm having made an official announcement the day before. Responses were varied but generally there was a respect for the theatre’s longevity & cultural visibility & each news story recounts elements of the Windmill narrative such as the steeplechase, the ‘no binoculars’ rule & the claim that the theatre never closed.

In the Daily Sketch Kenneth Passingham’s tone is sad and deferential, ‘ringing down a famous curtain.’ One of the key images used is a candid shot of a Windmill showgirl seemingly in a moment of sad contemplation, her head in her hand. There is a strong sense of the end of an era  ‘A slice of show-business taken over by time and taste’:

‘Great Windmill Street, that tawdry, tinselled thoroughfare which links like an artery, the heart of Piccadilly with the neon-slashed bowels of Soho, will never be quite  the same again.’

There is a strong sense of tradition and a legacy, with the cultural significance of the theatre acknowledged, (‘there can hardly be a man – or a mouse –  in Britain who has not some personal memory of the Windmill’) as well as its place within British entertainment history (‘Where would television be today without the comics who trod the hard Windmill boards for their first break?’). To illustrate this Passingham makes reference to:

‘old boys like Kenneth More, Jimmy Edwards, Harry Secombe, Bruce Forsyth, Tony Hancock, Alfred Marks, Morecambe and Wise, Arthur Haynes, Arthur English, Peter Sellers…’

Passingham sadly concludes ‘but now its all over.’

Similarly a cartoon in the Daily Mail depicts the Windmill and Revudeville as a Great British institution (and possibly a relic of the past), as was the Empire.

Alternatively The Sun’s October 2nd, double-page feature ‘Shattered.. Three Myths of the Windmill’ takes a rather judgemental tone towards the theatre, the myth around the theatre & the theatre entertainment offered.

The title of the article, ‘Shattered.. Three Myths of the Windmill’ & the article’s sub-heading: ‘1: That these stars made their names there, 2: That it was sexy, 3: That it never closed – but now it will’ seem to suggest three counts of dishonesty. As the article states:

‘True in the golden years after the war, from 1945 to 1948, many famous names tried out their comedy routine on an audience of men who were thinking mainly of women. There were Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe, Michael Bentine, Richard Murdoch, Tony Hancock, Eric Barker, Jimmy Edwards, Bruce Forsyth, & Alfred Marks. Then they were unknown & after their six-week stints at the Windmill on £10 or £20 a week they started their ride to national fame’ but that ‘it was often years after their Windmill stint that the names became famous.’

Despite claiming Revudeville was not ‘sexy’, the article nevertheless referred to it as a ‘girlie show’ & its customers, ‘servicemen, visiting football fans and traditional “tired” businessmen’ were accused of having ‘sneaked through the [theatre’s] doors.’ This is a surprising & somewhat contradictory stance, towards the Windmill’s entertainment & audience, considering this newspaper’s own tendency towards glamour subjects & that only six years later, The Sun would begin to publish what became known as its ‘Page Three Girls’ (images of topless glamour models situated on page three of the newspaper).

Whilst making implications of impropriety though, the article wants it both ways. It simultaneously scorns the innocence of the shows, claiming ‘they were genteel, innocent, respectable, almost sexless,’ that ‘Windmill shows were as sexy as charades at a family Christmas’ & quoting Sheila Van Damm, ‘the popularity of the strip clubs has been our downfall.’ As such the theatre is presented here as hopelessly outdated. A relic of the past.

Regarding the final observation ‘That it never closed – but now it will,’  the writers are sure to point out that ‘at the outbreak of war, the government closed every theatre in London for three weeks. Although the Windmill carried on later, when 42 others shut down’  This is a pretty poor ‘scoop.’ The Windmill was not secretive about this brief closure & had little say in its implementation. As the article acknowledges, whilst other theatres remained closed, the Windmill soon opened its doors again.

Overall the article begrudgingly acknowledges the Windmill as an institution with a mythology, a history, an appeal & an audience, & whilst it simultaneously criticises these, its anchoring image relies entirely upon the Windmill’s distinctly titillating appeal: three glamorous, scantily-clad Windmill performers, glumly gathered round a kitchen table (complete with salt & pepper pot and gingham tablecloth) in full showgirl attire, but undertaking another of those very British institutions, keeping calm and carrying on, & drinking a reviving cup of tea.

 
To return to the main #TheyNeverClothed exhibition catalogue page click here.
 

 

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