Inside the English Nightclub Where Queen Elizabeth Has Partied

Annabel's - H 2014
Courtesy of Annabel's

Annabel's - H 2014

Ridley Scott's next documentary trains a strobe light on Annabel's, which also has hosted everyone from Frank Sinatra to Lupita Nyong'o

This story first appeared in the Oct. 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Rumor has it that at the height of their fame, The Beatles were turned away from London'suber-exclusive nightclub Annabel's for not wearing ties. A new documentary produced by Ridley Scott's RSA Films to mark the outpost's 50th anniversary sets the record straight. "That is complete rubbish," said the venue's late founder, Mark Birley, as recounted in A String of Naked Lightbulbs, to be screened at London's Curzon Mayfair cinema Oct. 28. "It's because they weren't wearing shoes."

Even suitably booted, the Fab Four, regulars at the 66 Berkeley Square club during the '60s, weren't its most famous patrons. "I served movie stars, royalty from all different countries," says Mohamed Ghannam, former head barman at Annabel's. "But to serve Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth was the greatest honor I've ever had." The queen's tipple? Gin martini, no lemon.

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Younger London establishments such as Soho House or the Groucho Club are bigger, brasher and more likely to see a TV star or media personality fall out the door, but Annabel's 50-year reign as London's most exclusive venue -- and its benchmark for unbridled, exclusive elegance -- has yet to be approached. And unlike White's, the notorious members' club around the corner that has been keeping British nobility watered since the 18th century, it is open to the fairer sex, assuming they (and males, too) have been invited by a member or have gone through the selection process (proposed and seconded by two existing members, then approved by the committee) to be allowed to pay the annual $1,600 fee.

Ever since Birley, a globe-trotting, blue-blooded entrepreneur, revamped the basement of his friend's casino in 1963, naming it after his then wife (before she ran off with his friend, a lord), Annabel's has enjoyed a clientele that mixes aristocracy with A-listers. A short skip from Buckingham Palace, it has become the most desirable drinking and dancing destination in London for the likes of Diana Ross, Joan Collins, Jackie Kennedy, Aristotle Onassis, Prince Charles and Princess Diana. The latter, according to the club's former DJ Cass the Gas, would "take her shoes off and pirouette and spin around."

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Recalls Goldie Hawn in the documentary: "The first time I walked into Annabel's, it was 1970. I'd never been to London, and I remember feeling absolutely transported. It was an extraordinarily designed and conceived place where you never wanted to leave." Documentary director and Londoner Gregg Fay says he grew up believing Annabel's was a "Xanadu-like place." Adds RSA Films president Jules Daly: "Annabel's is synonymous with one of the most fun and iconic periods in London's history. When we were offered the chance to be part of a film that chronicled such a storied time, we were only too happy to jump in."

Elizabeth Taylor and then-fiance Dennis Stein leaving the club in 1985.

Johnny Cash paid a visit, and Frank Sinatra partied by the sunken dance floor on numerous occasions. According to the former head of reception, John Wayne got so drunk in Annabel's that he broke three cigars as he tried to light them in the bar and later stumbled into the cloakroom, telling people they could say they "hung out with John Wayne."

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But while the ghosts of yesteryear's greats still haunt the plush, art deco-inspired interior, lined with fine paintings and artifacts, Hollywood's contemporary royalty continues to throng the joint, especially for noted agent Charles Finch's famed pre-BAFTA party, now into its second decade. This annual who's who of movie stars and makers last year had Amy Adams, Ron Howard, Harvey Weinstein, Alfonso Cuaron, Bradley Cooper and Lupita Nyong'o enjoying the evening's traditional lamb main course, backed by the equally traditional mariachi band at the door.

The terrace, set up for private dining. “It’s not bright, and that’s what I like about it,” says Naomi Campbell in the documentary.

One of Naked Lightbulbs' highlights is its closing sequence of an intimate, unplugged performance of "Poker Face" by Lady Gaga, a recent musical guest of the club (joining a list including Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald and Ike and Tina Turner). "There's no trickery when it's just a bitch and a piano," Gaga says in the film, before removing a stiletto and using the heel to play.

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Barring a respectful interior update in the 2000s by Birley's daughter India Jane, Annabel's hasn't changed a great deal since 1963. "You can't improve on perfection," says Fay. But at least it seems to have relaxed its barefoot policy.

Adams, Tom Cruise and Andrea Riseborough at the Charles Finch and Chanel Pre-BAFTA Cocktail Party in 2013.