This is a self-indulgent nostalgia trip brought about by watching an episode of Endeavour (the Inspector Morse prequel). In this episode, the young Morse was browsing through a 1960s copy of The Oxford Mail, and there, on the screen, in the paper’s advertisements, was one for “Saturday Night Dancing at the Orchid Rooms”.
Well, I whooped and cheered and oohed and aahed and paused the telly so that I could just stare at it until my husband, the Toyboy Trucker, got a bit ratty about ‘losing the thread of the story…’
And try as I might, I somehow failed to get across to him just how vital this piece of nostalgia was. As he continued watching Endeavour I drifted off, moist-eyed with re-awakened memories, and I told him just what those 60s Saturday nights had meant to me.
Sadly, I don’t think he heard one single word of it…
Oxford’s Saturday nights out in the 60s meant only one venue: The Orchid Rooms. We converged, the youth of Oxford and every village for miles around, in slavish droves to see and be seen.
That mysterious, dimly-lit corridor, opening from the Carfax-Cornmarket corner, was completely unnoticed by the uninitiated, but Mecca to the believers. Having paid our dues to the large tuxedoed gentlemen at the foot of the stairs, we’d climb to paradise.
Dusty floorboards, blacked-out windows, and only the merest hint of light from the ceiling, simply served to heighten the excitement. Coats and bags having been stuffed behind metal-framed chairs, hair teased into geometric agony in flyblown mirrors, make-up reapplied, and hemlines inspected from all angles by jealously-critical friends, we were ready for the off.
We hovered in groups, eyeing up the opposition, giggling at fashion faux pas. Styles didn’t survive a season at the Orchid Rooms, oh no. Two weeks out of date and you were square beyond cubism. Fashions flitted from knicker-high shift dresses, through floral bell-bottoms with skinny rib halter tops; from baby-doll smocks to mini kilts with shrunken sweaters, in as many breathless weeks. You did not, absolutely did not, wear the same outfit on consecutive Saturdays. We had elephantine memories. The only item that endured for an entire winter was the boxy leather coat in navy or maroon – and even this had to end at exactly the right height – mid-thigh.
My friends and I would scour the material stalls in the covered market and produce skimpy dresses from one yard of psychedelia – or a yard and a half if sleeves were to be included. Our parents were easily shocked so our more bizarre creations were smuggled from the house in pop-art tote bags, pulled on in the Ladies on Oxford railway station (we lived a convenient 15 minute train journey outside Oxford) where there was a roaring open coal fire to keep us warm during the change-over, and carried home again the same way at the end of the night with our parents being none the wiser.
For really special occasions we would buy mini outfits from Bonnie in the Broad in rich plum satin or turquoise velvet and then add our own adornments of sequins, braid, beads… nothing too ostentatious….
Footwear too was uniform. After the demise of the Courreges white boots, you just had to have single-strap button shoes by Bally, coloured to match each outfit. As these were prohibitively expensive, and we were still at school, our one pair suffered coat upon coat of Lady Esquire, laboriously applied every Saturday morning. At Christmas we’d spray them with silver paint and swanned around looking like escapees from Sellafield.
Just as carefully painted were our faces: pale pan-stick masks, lips blotted out with Miners Barely Beige, eyes Dusty Springfield-thick with black eyeliner and pantomime cow false eyelashes. We would have been perfect as extras from Night of the Living Dead – and we probably smelled like it, too! The pungent mix of Body Mist, Sunsilk hair lacquer, and Soir de Paris could possibly stun at 30 paces.
We preened and posed, convinced we looked every inch as devastating as any of the models who graced the pages of Rave or Honey.
The stage in the Orchid rooms was set in the far left hand corner and pandered to no whims of superstar grandeur. There were no curtains, and the towers of speakers, and drum kit, guitars and microphones, all surrounded by miles of snaking wires, had already been set up by a band of beefy roadies who, tasks done, had probably deserted to White’s Bar in droves.
We always knew which groups were appearing as orange posters on the staircase listed the performers for weeks in advance. The music was all live; there were no records, no tapes, no cds, no disco, in those days – just an array of non-stop, raw gutsy talent. Two groups appeared every Saturday, all home-grown – Jumpbax, Heatwave, Steam Machine, Opal Butterfly… oh, those names still serve to conjure up the magic of the moment.
We’d dance to amazing renditions of Ride Your Pony, Knock on Wood, Soul Man – and absolutely anything else by Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Lee Dorsey… pure soul classics, with a sprinkling of local interpretations of Top Ten hits by the Kinks, the Small Faces, the Hollies, or the Who…
Even the dances were doomed to be outmoded within a week. Last Saturday’s arm twirling with minimal foot movements would be usurped by an arms clamped to the sides while each foot turned over agonisingly at the ankle in time to the back-beat, only to be overtaken – just as we’d mastered the complexities – by arms flailing across the body while swivelling on the balls of the feet. We never knew who decided which one was in vogue, but as soon as the first group of girls started to dance, everyone copied. You could be anything except different.
Although everyone danced, boys and girls didn’t dance together until the last hour, by which time there’d been enough eye-contact and body language exchanged between us and them – with their natty Mod haircuts, short-jacketed suits, button-down collars and knitted ties – to know who was going to slow-dance with whom, and who was going to be walked home (or in our case, to the railway station) or at least into Carfax, depending on the amount of passion promised.
Hearts were broken and dreams ripped asunder in the pulsating gloom, but still we flocked, week after week, to parade – always with the never-diminished hope that the boy with the brown eyes from Barton Estate who’d crooned “Save the Last Dance For Me” with such intensity in your ear last week, would be there again…
Wonderful days and amazing memories – and an era that will never come again.
I’m not sure how much of this, if any, filtered through to the Toyboy Trucker, but it stays with me still, and I know that we really had the best of times, and I feel sorry for future generations who will never, ever experience that wonderful elemental excitement generated by the Orchid Rooms and Sixties Saturday night fever...