Dive into the colourful world of The Beautiful Octopus Club, the party that changed nightlife for learning disabled people forever

By Heart n Soul

Interview with Mark Williams, Heart n Soul's Artistic Director

Album Launch 1999 (1999)Heart n Soul

In the beginning..

The original performers who started Heart n Soul came from a day centre. They were so hidden there; driven to and from home on a special bus, spending their whole day there. Not really interacting with the rest of the world. Heart n Soul was an invitation to be more mainstream.

HnS showHeart n Soul

Whilst on tour...

There was an incident in Belgium when the Heart n Soul touring company had been doing a gig and were staying at a hotel that had a party happening. We had finished the gig and we thought ‘oh great, let's go to this party!’

Luxembourg TourHeart n Soul

But we weren’t allowed in because we were told we weren’t dressed smart enough. So people got dressed up and we weren’t let in again. Pino (performer and founder member) said, "Well if they won’t let us in then we’ll start our own club and we’ll let everyone in."

The Beautiful Octopus Club 1996 (1996)Heart n Soul

So in 1995, we started The Beautiful Octopus Club

The only night we could get at The Albany in Deptford was Wednesday. They thought no one would come. I remember it was such a revolution to be inviting people with learning disabilities to a club with a bar that didn’t finish at 7pm and didn’t just sell crisps and soft drinks.

The Beautiful Octopus Club 1996 Performer (1996)Heart n Soul

The Beautiful Octopus Club 1996 DJ (1996)Heart n Soul

Culturally it was changing things

It wasn't just that people were allowed to come to a club, but when they came they saw lots of other people like them DJing or performing on stage. There was an open mic, so the audience could go on stage and perform.

Heart n Soul Experience in 2007

Was filmed and recorded using The Albany's multitrack live performance recording studio which, back then, was something you wouldn't find in most venues. We always embraced new technologies and multimedia, pushing the potential of what the venues could offer.

Squidz Club 1998 (1998)Heart n Soul

In 1999, we started a club for 10-25 year old’s called the SQUIDZ Club. It was based on creating a version of the Beautiful Octopus Club that was designed by and for a younger audience.

Squidz Club 2019 performer (2018)Heart n Soul

We believe in everyone’s potential

We try to create a space that feels free. A space where people can come together and better understand each other and not feel separate. 

The Beautiful Octopus Club 2018 Dancers (2018)Heart n Soul

That sense of freedom and shedding of inhibitions is infectious; so non-disabled people also feel liberated and released from having to conform.

Squidz Club 2022 Dancefloor (2022)Heart n Soul

After the pandemic

I noticed at this Squidz club (2022), because we haven’t had a club for such a long time, watching the audience come in, there were young people who had never been to an event like this before. It reminded me of the very first club.

Squidz Club 2022 Dancefloor (2022)Heart n Soul

There’s something about when a parent or carer/PA arrives feeling they need to control the behaviour of the person they’re bringing. They gradually realise that actually no one is judging anyone else, people are looking after each other and the space is about feeling free.

The Beautiful Octopus Club 2016 catwalk (2016)Heart n Soul

The concern about people's different ways

of expressing themselves disappears and everyone begins to feel like one set of humans. The parents and carers then start to sit up in the balconies or join in! It’s where that PA/carer and ‘client’ relationship transforms because everyone is just having a good time!

The Beautiful Octopus Club 2018 Dance floor (2018)Heart n Soul

When it moved to the Southbank Centre,

suddenly it was right in the heart of London on a Friday night! A lot of people who knew nothing about the club would chance upon it. It was an amazing social experiment. We brought together thousands of people from all walks of life who would never normally be together.

Squidz Club 2022 Dancefloor (2022)Heart n Soul

The clubs were always of great quality. From performance and design, to the navigation of the space and the variety and diversity of what’s on offer. It’s never a voyeuristic thing, you can always get involved and that is very powerful.

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