London's Garrick Club: An exclusive invitation to a not-so-secret London club

London's West End is bustling like a beehive this Saturday evening as our coach deposits us outside Leicester Square tube station. 

Some of these nocturnal venturers are hurrying to catch the book shop before it closes, or taste an overpriced, luke-warm, pre-theatre gin and tonic at the crowded bar before they watch Antony Sher as King Lear or Michael Watson as Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys

Or maybe, they're just educated gentlefolk out on the town.

Little do they know that our little party – blending not entirely successfully into the youthful weekend buzz – has an invite to London Theatreland's inner sanctum.

That's right. 

The Garrick Club. Founded in 1831. A private members's club, established under the patronage of "the King's brother, the egalitarian Duke of Sussex". A palatial hideaway where "actors" and "gentlemen of refinement and education might meet on equal terms".

Now I know what you're thinking. The Garrick Club hasn't exactly joined the 21st century, having voted just last year to continue excluding women.

That decision caused headlines around the world. Not least because some of the current members include such thespians as Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephen Fry, Damian Lewis and Hugh Bonneville, plus politicians such as Britain's current Tory justice secretary, Michael Gove and his predecessor, Kenneth Clarke, as well as broadcasters such as Sir Trevor McDonald, Melvyn Bragg and Jeremy Paxman.

Paxman – once "blackballed" from joining the Garrick – at least had a typically caustic line ready to deliver as he joined the long voting line: "Bunch of old men? I'm in the right place then."

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And yet the Garrick is one of the more liberal-spirited clubs in London. 

Only yesterday I heard some of the horrific stories about White's (Britain's Prime Minister, David Cameron, resigned when Britain's oldest gentleman's club also continued its ban on women).

Fortunately Boodle's, a few metres down St James Street from White's, is altogether more enlightened. 

According to our guide, Boodle's members were asked if they would vote not only for wives to be let in to dine, but to sleep in the historic upstairs rooms. The vote was positive, according to legend, until a lone hand went up. 

If wives were allowed to sleep in the club, what about mistresses?

The story is almost certainly apocryphal but our guide swears the Boodle's committee went into emergency session before coming up with the perfect solution. 

Yes, all mistresses would be allowed to sleep with their illicit partner at the club – as long as they were married to a current member.

This is the world we are about to venture into. And did I mention? Most of our party turning up at the Member's Entrance are women. 

We're still allowed in, and not even begrudgingly, because the Garrick is closed to members and open for functions on Saturday nights. 

We ascend the imposing staircase towards the bar, admiring the art collection the Garrick is so famous for.

It's a sumptuous, spectacular interior – one third theatrical museum, one third conservative dining and drinking waterhole, and one third anachronistic elitist establishment.

But just look at the list of some previous (male) members, in order of their absence (through death): 

Thackeray, Dickens, Trollope, JM Barrie, Sullivan and Gilbert, Sir Henry Irving, King Edward VII, AA Milne, Somerset Maugham, Noel Coward, WH Auden, PG Wodehouse. And moving on: Douglas Bader, Kenneth More, David Niven, John Betjeman, Richard Burton, Rex Harrison, John Gielgud, Alex Guinness, John Mills, Peter Ustinov and Richard Attenborough.

David Garrick, after whom the club is named, was never a member here of course. He died long before it opened. But his performance as Shakespeare's Richard III at the Goodman Field's Theatre in East London in 1741 is credited with both reviving The Bard's reputation as a playwright and establishing Garrick as the greatest British actor of his (or possibly any other) generation.

After a champagne reception and 30 minutes to inspect the amazing library and collection of busts, paintings and etchings of famous thespians (including women, forsook), we are summonsed down to the immaculate red-soaked dining room. 

Here, we're greeted by three Versailles-length tables, surrounded wall-to-wall with portraits of actors and memorable productions. If we were members, we're told, we'd sit next to the last person on the table – whether we knew him or not.

But given we're Australians (with just a healthy dash of Kiwi), we somehow settle for our own table plan. More or less, boy-girl-boy-girl. 

It's not original, nor dramatic. But it makes for more stimulating conversation, don't you think?

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

garrickclub.co.uk

GETTING THERE

The Garrick Club, 15 Garrick Street, is midway between Leicester Square and Covent Garden underground stations.

TRAVELLING THERE

Captain's Choice 17-day Bespoke British Isles tour leaves Portsmouth aboard the MS Hebridean Sky, as well as visiting London, Kirkwall, Edinburgh and the Outer Hebrides. From $22,270 per person, twin share, it departs Australia on June 4, 2017. Phone 1300 176 681 or see captainschoice.com.au

Steve Meacham travelled as guest of Captain's Choice.

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