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After the dark austerity of the war years, Britain began to lift up her skirts and enjoy herself again. Old-world morality began to slide; the 1950s saw the birth of rock and roll and its attendant teenyboppers; the 1960s ushered in an era of sexual freedom and all this culminated in the phenomenon that was Soho, London’s red light district. Up until the 1970s, Soho was the only place in England where sexual services were visibly on sale, where prostitution had been forced off the streets by gang turf wars and into the surrounding buildings, which became Soho’s notorious network of strip clubs and peep shows. Indeed, when comedian Peter Cook opened his ‘Establishment Club’ in the 1960s, it is said there were still remnants of its former use littered around the place – discarded G-strings and used condoms.
In the 1970s and 80s Soho was typified by bright neon lights, in great contrast to many other, more drab areas of the country. The bright lights of London drew many waifs and strays into the capital; some sought excitement, fame and fortune; others ended up in Soho, attracted by the elusive pot of gold that the shining neon lights seemed to promise. In the 1970s Soho’s narrow streets were decorated with neon ‘non-stop striptease’ signs dotted among the neighbouring shoe shop and jewellers’ signs, all hung like Christmas garlands. The bright lights of the outside would contrast sharply with the dark and dingy interiors of many of the strip clubs, which were usually guarded by sinister looking doormen! And many of the women who performed in these seedy establishments would move from club to club, several in the same night, in order to earn a living wage and avoid having to toil in the even darker underbelly of the Soho ‘alternative employment’ market!
When we think of Soho our minds straightaway picture the sex shops and blue cinemas for which the area is famous, even to this day. But Soho was about more than the seedy establishments that we expect to see when we visit. The 1960s onwards saw the advent of fast food takeaways, beginning mainly with the Chinese, and which accelerated into the 70s and 80s. To compete with, and blend in with, all the other neon-lit buildings which surrounded them, they too took advantage of the chance to light up their presence with neon business signs.
Soho’s more majestic buildings included the grand old Prince of Wales Theatre and the Windmill Theatre, known for its slightly risqué burlesque shows and for its chorus line of beautiful Windmill girls. Both of these lovely old buildings, around long before the advent of electric lighting, were instantly recognisable by the addition of colourful neon lights that adorned their towers.
Of course, Soho today is more respectable than in those dark days of yesteryear but its sordid tales are still there for the asking. And although you may not see a sunset through the tall buildings of Soho you are still guaranteed a spectacular neon lights show!