What I learned: Ridley Scotts Documentry Annabels-A String of Naked Lightbulbs

The Poshest Basement on this Planet. 

The only Nightclub visited by the Queen 

Ridley Scott recently produced an incredible film documenting the success of the London Nightspot Annabel’s. The film focuses on how the founder Mark Birley turned an unused dilapated basement and transformed it into and etstablised british society nightclub, completely changing social concepts and normalities. Breaking through barriers and opression and the changing state of Britain at the time, Birley establised a social presence within the hospitality industry. 

The Duke & Duchess at Annabel’s 1961

Blending a culutre of great british food, elegant vintage decor, dance and fashion together. Annabels has a global presence and reputation that has been built over many decades and is today one of the most elegant clubs in the world that has stood the test of time. The mastermind and the story is uncovered through this amazing documentary.

The two step dancefloor and Discotheque

Narrated through the key figures such as Anna Wintour, staff from Annabels and close friend Peter blond who lived through the Second World War with Birley as a child (they lived through fear and physical deprivation of food). Mark grew up with a father who was a royal portrait painter and a very glamorous mother, giving him a great understanding of how things should look. 

The luxury hospitality industry is now at its peak, but Annabels was the first of its kind for its elite and exclusive clientele. The documentary offered insight and captured memories of life back then and the incomparable brand and empire that Birley built, Annabel’s. The film highlighted many Aspects mainly the power of Branding and the democracy of elitism. The brand that is Annabels is the mirror of Birley and his world. 

Rebirth in London

Mark Birley establised Annabels in 1961, it gave a sense of renewal and rebirth after World War 2. London tea houses and social places were quite dowdy and the well to do places superseding and becoming dated – everyone thought nothing would be nice again after the war. The current climate did not represent the culture, niche market or society that was now emerging. An old palate of sandwiches was just not going to cut it anymore. Old Etonian and Oxford graduate Mark Birley was eager to create a similar concept of Princess Margarets favourite club – The 400 Club in Leicester Square, which for two decades had catered to the upper classes at night time. Annabels was a representation of this transition, it was standing for the old world but also representing the new. 

Mark Birley was a an Autocratic Leader

Make Birley had a very unique leadership quality in that he had a lack of patience, he made his own decisions and wasn’t good on committees. He was his own boss;

Mark Birley
He states “One of my failings is a lack of patience. I’m used to taking my own decisions… That rather autocratic way of running things has advantages and disadvantages but one of the main advantages is that makes for speed and makes your employees happier I think”

Annabels defines Personal Branding

If Annabel’s is an expression of Mark Birley, Mark Birley is an expression of Annabels. He was indeed ahead of his time- he self branded in an age where personal and self branding did not have the substantial prominence that it has now. There was no social media, there was no internet and the 1960’s was a period of melancholy due to the oppression of World war 2.

Annabel’s has a strict dress code

A recent Forbes article discussed how Developing your personal brand is essential for the advancement of your career and development as a leader and because of social media, personal branding has become a “commoditized” term that has lost its intention as people have irresponsibly used social media as a platform to build their personal brand and increase their relevancy. How people now believe that social media can immediately increase their market value for their personal brand rather than recognizing that the process of developing their personal brand is a much bigger responsibility; a never-ending journey that extends well beyond social media  (Forbes, 2013).

Birley demosntrated this through his innate skill to treat the world as his own personal Bric n Brac store. Wherever he was – Italy, LA or the South of France, he used his trips abroad to build his brand and as a by product of this was the defining of the brand Annabels. So if he traveled t0 Italy he would pick up an italian hand made table cloth. He had an extensive knowledge of food, he was continually improving and developing Annabel’s, it was constantly evolving and a work in progress. He had an ornate knowledge of everything, he mixed and matched everything from pairing fine food to the best wine in his wine cellar to his favourite drink – The Vodka martini, he was the quintessential James Bond.

Birley was the original Bond

His cars, all with an MBA number plate, could be seen parked outside his office or his house. His Vodka Martini. His transatlantic social life meant he kept abreast of new trends in the Seventies and Eighties, sporting a Sony Walkman or working out with weights before either had become universal phenomena. Throughout these years, young men on the make in banking or property aped his manners in the hope of finding social prominence.

Before Annabel’s there was Hermes 

Mark Birly began his career in advertising with J Walter Thomson, using his underpinning knowledge of marketing he then preceded to set up his own advertisement company with a body of work that included Horlicks and Keloggs. In 1959 Birly went on to create the First Hermes boutique outside of France in Jermyn Street. where shin friend Peter Blond stated “People would come in to neck ties” Birleys Hermes shop took prominence in ana arcade a stone throw from Berkely  Square. It was on a lunchbreak that he said to Blond ” have you got a minute I want to show you something” whereby they walked into the house on 44 Berkeley Square where they were met by vaults and this cave of wine cellars. He had an innate skill for art and presentation to always be better than his competitors.

Annabel’s Celebrated RnB Music & Live Acts

Annabel’s featured Extraordinary RnB acts such as Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles and Ike and Tina Turner. This was a controversial time for black artists to perform in any public space.  With Josephine Baker fighting until her death in 1975, continually for civil rights using her status to enforce the integration of the clubs where she performed. 

Grace Jones performing
The proximity of the performer was also very close to the audience, almost one on one.  Annabel’s was also the first place to have a twin deck and there were 45s delivered daily from Sam Goodys to Annabel’s. There was also the Genius concept of 2 steps onto the dance floor. Back then dance floors were considered to be quite raunchy, most people didn’t want to be seen dancing but the dance floor at Annabel’s felt more contained and private.

Ella Fitzgerald singing at Annabels

Shirley Bassey was banned for years 

Shirley Bassey was banned for years from the club for kicking the Maitre D in the bottom concerning burnt Asparagus.

People felt safe and they knew that they would be taken care of

Princess Diana loved dancing barefoot at the club and would immediately tell the DJ to play her music and would take her shoes off and spin around with Prince Charles, she felt she could be herself. No publicity and No Paparazi were allowed. 

Princess Diana leaving Annabels

Similarly Diana Ross would enter and head straight to the dance floor. Shirley Bassey once punched the maître d’in a row over asparagus. If people behaved badly it wouldn’t be in The Daily Mail. Sinatara once changed in the cloakroom after coming from a concert at The Royal Albert Hall and took his shirt off in the mens cloakroom and gave $100 dollar tip to attendant. One night there was also 3 kings in one night in the club.

Annabel’s Membership started at £5

Birley’s talent lay in his unerring eye for the finer things in life; his skill was to persuade others that they wanted to share his traditional concept of what these were; his genius resided in making them pay royally for the privilege of doing so. The annual membership back then was £5 it is now £1,200.

The Menu is British Food

Annabels menu is based on traditional British cuisine. No fancy French food. The traditional chocolate ice cream is made of Bovril. Mark always worried about the food so he hired Elizabeth David – the acme of food she was the best. He Introduced a new way of dining. He was good at finding the new things. He wanted the menu be non fussy food, seamless food you get at home washed down with copious amounts of champagne.

Lemon Wedge in Muslin

If you ever wondered who introduced the lemon wedge wrapped in muslin to London. Annabels was the first establishment to invent the lemon in a Muslin cloth.

Lemon wedge in Muslin defines Birleys Precision to Detail

Mabel knew everything

Mabel the cloakroom attendent saw and heard everything. She would know everything from the who was divorcing,  Beravements, whether the lining in fur coat had come undone to even the smuggling of a baby into the cloakroom at Annabels. 

2nd January 1964- your doorman is GUT!

The Beatles were turned away because they were not wearing ties. They were very regular attendees as they weren’t mobbed as the snuggled out of the back door. Nicky Haslam states Birley thought the Beatles were a scruffy group of boys. When he was approached about why they weren’t allowed in for no neckties he said “no they weren’t allowed in because they were not wearing shoes!”

John Aspinal

John Aspinal was Birleys friend who purchased the freehold at 44 Berkeley Square to create his casino. He was one step ahead of the gambling legislation. At the time he would rent a country house to get away of it. By 1961 laws had moved on and he decided to build The Claremont. The social context came from Mark, the nightclub would bring in the crowd. The small passageway in the house connected to The Claremont was to be dug out into the garden. 

Mark always hired people at the TOP

To make his establishment the best, Birley selfishly would go to other restaurants and hire the best waiters and staff. He went to Wilton’s and Marabels recruiting the best. He would take advice from people, as long as they were top of their game. Once interior designer Nina Campbell men ruined the alcoves weren’t interesting, Birley stated “well do it yourself” and she did. Nina Campbell turned Annabels into an Interior reminiscent of Aladdins Cave.

Annabels started themed nights

Birley had an immense worldly knowledge and thirst for culture and art. His parents were patrons of the Russian ballet. So he brought the Russians to London and had many russian paintings in Annabels. He created themed nights and weeks such as Russian week. All the waiters had Russian shirts, people would order the date at the top of the menu because the menu was printed in Russian. 

Annabels has never been more Gala

The glamour was hugely spoiling and a step up from anywhere else. You wore pretty clothes if you were in attendance. It was at a time when all different worlds began to collide, hairdressers were becoming as popular as duchesses. 

Watch the documentary here :


La fin X


Forbes. (2016). Personal Branding Is A Leadership Requirement, Not a Self-Promotion Campaign. [online] Available at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/glennllopis/2013/04/08/personal-branding-is-a-leadership-requirement-not-a-self-promotion-campaign/amp/?client=safari [Accessed 2 Nov. 2016].


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