Douglas Villiers on how he brought the disco and casino to London
- Credit: Archant
From fairy tales to Hollywood blockbusters, everyone loves a rags to riches story. How often though do you meet someone who could claim to have lived one quite as literally as Douglas Villiers?
Born to a typical Jewish household in November in 1936, Villiers assisted his father at a young age in the ‘rag’ business, processing dirty fabrics and selling them on to industry as cleaning cloths. Now 76, his new memoir, It’s Only Rock and Roll, documents the rise of a man who became one of London’s biggest property tycoons, bringing institutions like the disco and casino to the capital along the way.
“I just did things that hadn’t been done before,” says Villiers, as though it was the simplest concept in the world, “but I must admit, it was a lot easier to be original in the 60s and 70s than it is now.”
Following his father’s tragic suicide in 1953, Villiers found a taste for entrepreneurship as a travelling salesman trading tailor-made suits to American soldiers in Germany. Trying his luck at an army barracks in Freiberg, he got his first glimpse of fame after being turned down by a charismatic young Private called Elvis Presley.
Soon however, it was Villiers selling convertibles and suddenly the young man was earning more money than he’d ever dreamed of. He decided he would return to London to invest this money in a new concept - the disco.
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“During one visit to Paris, I visited a bar called Discothèque, the “record library”. You’d go there, have a gin and tonic and they’d play artists like Benny Goodman.
“So I came back and opened up a club called La Discothèque in the West End. Almost unbelievably now, we didn’t serve alcohol, but all these kids really wanted was a place that played the best rock and roll and that’s what we gave them.”
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With La Discothèque going strong, 24-year-old Villiers found another profitable opportunity in 1960, this time thanks to the government. Legislation has just been passed which allowed members of a bona fide club to gamble with each other, as long as the club didn’t participate.
“At the time you could only go gambling on the race track,” Villiers explains to me. The law was basically supposed to mean that if you were playing a game of cards at your tennis club and want to put a quid on it, you can do that without hassle.
“There was a disused floor above our club, so together with the Crockfords and the Clermont in Mayfair, we set up one of London’s first gambling clubs. The house would never get involved, but on something like the roulette wheel for every spin there’d be a one pound playing fee.”
An artist as much as an adventurer, Villier’s many adventures saw him travel the world as a photojournalist, capitalising on property booms in Cyprus and the Bahamas along the way. However it was in Hampstead that he made his most famous sale.
In 1973, the tycoon scraped together £110,000 for Kenstead Hall, a huge four-acre estate on Bishops Avenue.
“I was there for a couple of years, though I’ve never really liked living too extravagantly in truth. Ringo Starr lived nearby at that time and was always asking if I was going to sell Kenstead, but I had no plans to.
“Then one day I was visited by a man of Arab royalty. I insisted the house wasn’t for sale, so he just said name your price. Being totally ridiculous, I said well, if you somehow want to give me half a million pounds for it, it’s yours. He shook my hand there and then.”
The house was sold for £500,000, entering the Guinness Book of World Records. Today Kenstead Hall is owned by King Fahd of Saudi Arabia and worth approximately £100 million pounds. Not bad business for the son of a rag trader.
It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll: My Unconventional Life by Douglas Villiers is out now, published by Book Guild Publishing, priced £17.99