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Soho Travel Guide


Soho is an area in the centre of the West End of London, England, in the City of Westminster. It is an entertainment district which for much of the later part of the 20th century had a reputation for its sex shops as well as its night life and film industry. Since the early 1980s the area has undergone considerable transformation and is now a fashionable district of upmarket restaurants and media offices with only a small remnant of "sex industry" venues in the west of the area.

Soho has an area of approximately one square mile and may be thought of as bounded by Oxford Street to the north, Regent Street to the west, Shaftesbury Avenue to the south and Charing Cross Road to the east. However apart from Oxford Street, all of these roads are nineteenth century metropolitan improvements, so they are not Soho's original boundaries, and it has never been an administrative unit, with formally defined boundaries. The area to the west is known as Mayfair, to the north Fitzrovia, to the east Holborn, St. Giles and Covent Garden, and to the south St James's. Chinatown and the area around Leicester Square can be considered as either just inside or just outside the southern edge of Soho.

The music scene in Soho can be traced back to 1948 and Club Eleven which is generally revered as the fountainhead of modern jazz in the UK. It was located at 41 Great Windmill Street. The Harmony Inn was an unsavoury cafe and hang-out for musicians on Archer Street operating during the 1940s and ‘50s. It stayed open very late attracting jazz fans from the nearby Cy Laurie Jazz Club. Soho was the setting for Brecht's famous song Mack The Knife: - And the ghastly fire in Soho, Seven children at a go— In the crowd stands Mack the knife, but He's not asked and doesn't know. (from the original German translation by Manheim & Willett) The Ken Colyer Band's 51 Club (Great Newport Street) opened in the eary fifties. Blues guitarist and harmonica player Cyril Davies and guitarist Bob Watson launched the London Skiffle Centre, London’s first skiffle club, on the first floor of the Roundhouse pub on Wardour Street in 1952. In the early 1950s, Soho became the center of the Beatnik culture in London. Coffee Bars like Le Macabre (Wardour Street) which had coffin shaped tables, fostered beat poetry, jive dance and political debate. The Goings On located in Archer Street was and Sunday afternoon club, organised by Liverpool beat poets Pete Brown, Johnny Byrne and Spike Hawkins, that opened in January 1966. For the rest of the week it operated as an illegal gambling den.

Other 'beat' coffee bars in Soho included the French, Le Grande, Stockpot, Melbray, Universal, La Roca, Freight Train (Skiffle star Chas McDevitt’s place), El Toro, Picasso, Las Vegas, and the Moka Bar. The 2 i’s Coffee Bar (live acts performed in the tiny basement) was probably the first rock club in Europe, opened in 1956 (59 Old Compton Street) and soon Soho was the centre of the fledgling rock scene (although the term had not yet been coined) in London. Clubs included the Flamingo Club (which started in 1952 as Jazz at the Mapleton), La Discotheque, Whiskey a Go Go, Ronan O'Rahilly's (of pirate radio station, Radio Caroline fame) The Scene in 1962 (first mod club - near the Windmill Theatre in Ham Yard - formally The Piccadilly Club) and jazz clubs like Ronnie Scott's (opened in 1959 at 39 Gerrard Street and moved to 47 Frith Street in 1965 ) and the 100 Club.

Soho's Wardour Street was the home of the legendary Marquee Club (90 Wardour Street) which opened in 1958 and where the Rolling Stones first performed in July 1962. Eric Clapton and Brian Jones both lived for a time in Soho sharing a flat with future rock publicist, Tony Brainsby.

Soho is a small, multicultural area of central London; a home to industry, commerce, culture and entertainment, as well as a residential area for both rich and poor. It has clubs, pubs, bars, restaurants, a few sex shops scattered amongst them, and late-night coffee shops that give the streets an "open all night" feel at the weekends. Many Soho weekends are busy enough to warrant closing off of some of the streets to vehicles; Westminster Council pedestrianised parts of Soho in the mid-1990s, but later removed much of it, apparently after complaints of loss of trade from local businesses.

Record shops cluster in the area around Berwick Street, where shops such as Blackmarket Records and Vinyl Junkies offer the latest releases.

Soho is also the home of London's main gay village, around Old Compton Street, where there are dozens of businesses thriving on the pink pound. On April 30 1999, the Admiral Duncan pub on Old Compton Street, which serves the gay community, was damaged by a nail bomb planted by neo-Nazi David Copeland. It left three dead (two of whom were heterosexual) and 30 injured.

Soho is home to religious and spiritual groups, notably St Ann's Church on Dean Street (damaged by a V1 flying bomb during WW2, and re-opened in 1990), St Patrick's Church in Soho Square (founded by Irish immigrants in the 19th century), City Gates Church with their centre in Greens Court, the Hare Krishna Temple off Soho Square and a small mosque on Berwick Street.

Gerrard Street is the centre of London's Chinatown, a mix of import companies and restaurants (including Lee Ho Fook's, mentioned in Warren Zevon's song Werewolves of London). Street festivals are held throughout the year, most notably on the Chinese New Year. On Valentine's Day 2006, a campaign was launched to bring business back into the heart of Soho. The campaign, called I Love Soho, features a community-focused web-site. The campaign was launched at the site of Raymond Revue Bar in Walkers Court, with celebrities such as Charlotte Church, Amy Winehouse and Paris Hilton. I Love Soho was backed by the former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone, the Soho Society, Westminster Council and Visit London.

Soho is near the heart of London's theatre area, and is a centre of the independent film and video industry as well as the television and film post-production industry. It is home to Soho Theatre, built in 2000 to present new plays and stand-up comedy.

The British Board of Film Classification, formerly known as the British Board of Film Censors, can be found in Soho Square. Soho is criss-crossed by a rooftop telecommunication network, and below ground level with fiber optics making up Sohonet, which connects the Soho media and post-production community to British film studio locations such as Pinewood Studios and Shepperton Studios, and to other major production centres such as Rome, New York City, Los Angeles, Sydney, and Wellington, New Zealand. There are also plans by Westminster Council to deploy high-bandwidth Wi-Fi networks in Soho as part of a program to further encourage the development of the area as a centre for media and technology industries.

The Soho area has been at the heart of London's sex industry for at least 200 years. Prior to the introduction of the Street Offences Act in 1959, prostitutes packed the streets and allies of Soho and by the early sixties the area was home to nearly a hundred strip clubs and almost every doorway in Soho had little postcards advertising "Large Chest for Sale" or "French Lessons Given". These were known as "walk ups". With prostitution driven off the streets, many clubs such as The Blue Lagoon became prostitution fronts.

The Metropolitan Police Vice squad at that time suffered from corrupt police officers involved with enforcing organised crime control of the area, but simultaneously accepting "back-handers" or bribes. Clip Joints also surfaced in the sixties, these establishments sold colored water as champagne with the promise of sex to follow, thus fleecing tourists looking for a "good time".

Also in 1960, London's first sex cinema theatre, the Compton Cinema Club (a membership only club to get around the law) opened at 56 Old Compton Street. It was owned by Michael Klinger who produced many of the early Roman Polański Films such as Cul-de-Sac (1966). Michael Klinger also owned the Heaven and Hell hostess club (which had earlier been just a Beatnik club) across the road and a few doors down from the 2I's on the corner of Old Compton Street and Dean Street. Harrison Marks, a "glamour photographer" and girlie magazine publisher had a photographic gallery located in Gerrard Street and published several magazines including Spic and Span, which sold from the late fifties on. The content, however, by today's standard was very innocent. By the mid seventies the sex shops had grown from the handful opened by Carl Slack in the early sixties to a total of fifty nine sex shops which then dominated the square mile. Some had secret backrooms selling hardcore photographs, Beeline Books (Published in America by David Zentner) and Olympia press editions.

By the 1980s, purges of the police force along with a tightening of licensing controls by the City of Westminster led to a crackdown on these illegal premises. By 2000, a substantial relaxation of general censorship, and the licensing or closing of unlicensed sex shops had reduced the red-light area to just a small area around Brewer Street and Berwick Street. Several strip clubs in the area were reported in London's Evening Standard newspaper in February 2003 to still be rip-offs (known as Clip joints), aiming to intimidate customers into paying for absurdly over-priced drinks and very mild 'erotic entertainment'.

Prostitution is still widespread in parts of Soho, with several buildings used as brothels, and there is a persistent problem with drug dealing on some street corners. Soho has, however, never lost its residential community; and it includes Soho Primary School on Great Windmill Street for local children. Its varied and cosmopolitan nature means that Soho does not have the character of a red light district.

The Windmill Theatre was notorious for its risqué nude tableaux vivants, in which the models had to remain motionless to avoid censorship. It opened in June 1931 and was the only theatre in London which never closed, except for the twelve compulsory days between 4 and 16 September 1939, throughout the blitz. It stood on the site of a windmill that dated back to the reign of Charles II until late in the eighteenth century. The theatre was sold to the Compton Cinema Group and it closed on 31 October 1964 and was reconstructed as a cinema and casino.

The Raymond Revuebar was a small theatre specialising in striptease and nude dancing. It was owned by Paul Raymond and opened on 21 April, 1958. The most striking feature of the Revuebar was the huge brightly lit sign declaring it to be the "World Centre of Erotic Entertainment". The name and control of the theatre (but crucially, not the property itself) was bought by Gerald Simi in 1997. Gradually the theatre's fortunes waned, with Simi citing rising rent demands from Raymond as the cause. The Revuebar closed on June 10, 2004 and became a gay bar and cabaret venue called Too2Much. In November of 2006, it changed its name to Soho Revue Bar. The launch party included performances by Boy George, Anthony Costa, and Marcella Detroit.

Streets of Soho

Berwick Street: has record shops, and a small street market open from Monday to Saturday. There is a newly built mosque at the end of the road (on the opposite end of Oxford Street).

Carnaby Street: was for a short time the fashion centre of 1960s "Swinging London" although it quickly became known for poor quality 'kitch' products and was more tourist trap than fashion center. Kings Road, Chelsea attracted the real 'dedicated follower of fashion' of the period. Carnaby Street is now a thriving shopping area.

Dean Street: is home to the Soho Theatre, and a pub called The French House which was during WWII popular with the French Government-in-exile. Karl Marx lived at numbers 54 and 28 Dean Street between 1851 and 1856.

Denmark Street: was the music publishing centre of the western world, being home to all the major publishers of the day. It is still famous for having the 'highest concentration of guitars in London' as the street is almost entirely populated with guitar, PA, bass and keyboard shops as well as the 12 bar club which has hosted many big names within its tiny walls.

Frith Street: where John Logie Baird first demonstrated television. A plaque above the stage door of the Prince Edward Theatre identifies the site where Mozart lived for a few years as a child.

Gerrard Street: was home to Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club and the Dive Bar, under the Kings Head. It is also the centre of London's Chinatown.

Golden Square:  is an attractive small urban square.

Great Windmill Street: (below Lexington Street on map - not indicated) was home to the Windmill Theatre "which never closed" during it's long and baudy life. Greek Street Ham Yard (off Great Windmill Street) was the home of London's first 'mod' club, The Scene.

Old Compton Street: was the birthplace of Europe's rock club circuit (2 I's club) and boasted the first adult cinema in England (The Compton Cinema Club). Dougie Millings, who was the famous Beatles tailor, had his first shop at 63 Old Compton Street which opened in 1962. Old Compton Street is now the core of Soho's gay village. In Soho Square are Paul McCartney's office MPL Communications, and the Football Association headquarters.

Wardour Street: was home of the legendary Marquee Club and a few doors up there was a private pub (for a few years after which it was open to the public), The Ship (116 Wardour Street) frequented by the likes of John Lennon and Keith Moon. Another seventies rock hangout was The Intrepid Fox Pub (97/99 Wardour Street) (once patronised by the likes of Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart, the Sex Pistols, Zodiac Mindwarp and hellraising actor Richard Harris). It is now a centre of the film industry.

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