You don’t become one of the world’s most exclusive private clubs without indulging in a little, well, exclusion. The Garrick Club, that colonnaded den of gouty roués down in London’s West End near Covent Garden, may well include members that span the highest reaches of the judiciary, the corridors of power, and the squarest jaws of screen and stage. But it often seems prouder still of those it has turned away. After all, as its foremost mantra decrees, “it would be better that ten unobjectionable men should be excluded, than one terrible bore should be admitted.” Hear! hear! Grumble, grumble. Pass the port.
For the most part, this better-safe-than-sorry policy has happily served its purpose. Jeremy Paxman, for example—the bloodhound-foghorn mix of British political journalism—was notoriously blackballed throughout the 90s, purportedly for being a bit hard on philandering Cabinet ministers. He was, however, ultimately made a member in 2004.
When the Garrick was first set up, in 1831, the whole point of it was to act as a theatrical and literary antidote to the boorish military and business venues of the St. James’s district—a club whose avowed purpose was to “tend to the regeneration of the Drama.” (When the Shakespearean actor Sir Donald Sinden died in 2014, he was buried in a coffin painted with the club tie’s cucumber and salmon stripes, while Benedict Cumberbatch once described the library there as his favorite room in the world: “It enables one to touch, as it were, the past of the magic world of theatre.”)
But this is not 1831. It’s not, despite some of the waistcoats in the cocktail lounge, even 1931. And as 2021 draws to a close, the Garrick finds itself reeling from a year in which it has become not simply a bastion of drama—but a magnet for it.
The trouble started in earnest some 15 months ago, when lingerie entrepreneur Emily Bendell learned that her application to the club had been rejected. This can’t, truth be told, have come as a huge surprise—it’s well established that the Garrick is one of the few institutions left in the capital not to accept women as members. (Actor Derek Nimmo was once memorably quoted as saying that “the only excuse for joining the Garrick is to get away from women.”) Females can accompany male members into the clubhouse—but only in certain rooms and definitely not in denim.
There was a proposal in 2015 to admit the fairer sex as equals, which garnered 50.5 percent of the vote (eerily close, as it happens, to the exact percentage of women on the planet: 49.5). But this fell well short of the all-important two-thirds majority required to enact the change. The trembling jowls were once again put at ease.
Outraged by the slight, Bendell, in September 2020, instructed her lawyers to seek an injunction that would stop the Garrick from “continuing to operate its discriminatory policy.” The action claims the club is in breach of Harriet Harman’s Equalities Act 2010, and that it treats women “as second-class citizens,” who are permitted access only “on the whim of a man.”
Then, this past summer, on the eve of the club’s 190th birthday, it emerged that more than 300 lawyers, including 115 members of the Queen’s Counsel—the most decorated division of lawyers in the land—77 barristers, 65 solicitors, and 37 partners and directors of law firms had signed a petition that aimed to strong-arm the club into a more equitable membership policy. Their case is as much professional as personal.
“It would be better that ten unobjectionable men should be excluded, than one terrible bore should be admitted.”
About a quarter of the country’s senior judiciary hold Garrick memberships, according to the Evening Standard (which lends weight to the theory that most barristers are indeed failed actors)—and the general thrust of the petition is that the club’s pale, male, and stale status quo only perpetuates a pale, male, and stale professional class at large.
The row reached a fever pitch a few days later, when Cherie Blair—a Q.C. and wife of former prime minister Tony—made like her husband and stuck her oar in. Blair evoked a moment from 1976—a time when she and a young Tony were both training in the chambers of Derry Irvine—in which she tried to step inside the club. “Forty-five years ago, I was left standing outside the Garrick while my supervisor took my fellow pupil Tony Blair inside,” she wrote on the petition, with just a hint of bottled-up marital discord. “It’s outrageous that so little progress has been made since then.”
The clubby apartheid, she claims, excludes young female lawyers from the schmoozier elements of the trade. “Everybody knows in professions, from journalism to the law, one of the ways you learn is by meeting and talking to more experienced practitioners,” she told The Times of London. “It’s about networking, mentoring. I have my own foundation for women entrepreneurs and we promote this as a way for a woman to gain skills and experience to progress in her business. The law is no different from that.” (Which does rather give rise to the question: Are men allowed access to Blair’s women’s-networking foundation?)
Then, as the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow drew to an end in November, the club made headlines yet again. Boris Johnson, it turned out, had hopped directly—via private jet—from a sermon on the perils of carbon emissions to an evening with a cabal of Tory grandees at the Garrick. This was a reunion dinner held for journalists of The Telegraph—where the prime minister once commanded a roughly $331,000-per-year column—which included Johnson confidant Charles Moore, a noted Brexiteer and climate-change skeptic.
To the carbon hypocrisy of the evening, Johnson soon added some extra intrigue—by allegedly joking that he had “buyer’s remorse” over marrying Carrie Symonds, according to a strongly disputed story in The New European. Johnson was later seen leaving the club deep in conversation with Moore—a vocal supporter of a disgraced M.P. named Owen Paterson, who at that moment was embroiled in a lobbying scandal. The next morning, in a highly controversial move, the prime minister figuratively ordered all of his M.P.’s to rip up the parliamentary-standards rule book in a bungled attempt to save Paterson—leaving many to believe that Moore had twisted Johnson’s arm on the issue the evening before. All in all: precisely the kind of secondhand sleaze that the Garrick will have been eager to avoid.
It’s the lingering legal challenge over gender equality, however, that will most trouble the club. The Garrick will not be short of counsel among the ranks should it wish to raise the petition into an all-out brawl. But this is not White’s Club (where women aren’t even permitted to set foot), often said to be the S.I.S. operational center of World War II; or the chest-beating Beefsteak Club (proudly men-only as well), which thrives on red meat and “liberty.”
It treats women “as second-class citizens.”
This is the Garrick—an effete, softly spoken little world of self-published authors, bow-tied wits, and red-nosed thesps with Larry Olivier anecdotes. (National treasures Stephen Fry, Hugh Bonneville, and Damian Lewis are most often cited as current members.) Its war chest is still populated, rather wonderfully, by some of the royalties from the Winnie-the-Pooh empire, pledged to the club by former member A. A. Milne. A friend simply giggles fondly when I bring up the subject of reform here—as if I’d asked whether her grandfather was particularly active on TikTok.
The club’s unique atmosphere may yet be its saving grace. I have heard it argued that as soon as the petitioners are reminded of what it is they’re missing out on, they’ll drop the campaign like a stone. One well-worn anecdote tells of a hefty old chap expiring in an upstairs bar. As his corpse is carried out through the club, a former acquaintance greets him with a roar. “My goodness, it’s Carruthers, isn’t it? I haven’t seen you since we were at nursery school together! How are you keeping?”
Kingsley Amis once sang the club’s praises as “somewhere to get pissed in jovial not very literary bright all-male company,” while Craig Brown joked in a recent Daily Mail column that its main aim has always been to allow “Members to talk about Themselves and their Achievements at Inordinate length, Without Fear of Interruption.” The Garrick is, to put it mildly, an acquired taste. Forget any outrage at women being kept out. Bendell and Blair may soon be campaigning to lock the old boys in.
Joseph Bullmore is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL