War has broken out in London’s clubland with swastika graffiti, claims of death threats and “mercenaries” fighting for control of a legendary nightspot.
Since it reopened in 2012, The Scotch of St. James has become a haunt for A-listers and aristocrats including Rihanna, Harry Styles and Prince William, hosting private parties for fashion brands and album launches.
Back in its heyday in the 60s, it was famed for attracting rock-and-roll royalty – including Keith Moon and Jimi Hendrix – as well as drug-fuelled punch-ups. But today, it's the owners not the celebrity patrons who are fighting.
The recent hostilities have spilled out of the courtroom and into the streets, leading one of the club’s partners, Tim Lalic, to flee abroad in apparent fear for his life and the other to hire bodyguards.
Before Lalic, 37, abandoned his Hampstead home, he sent the Metropolitan Police a lengthy dossier claiming that his millionaire business partner, Vahram Papazyan, was using thugs to intimidate and blackmail him into handing over the club.
CCTV footage attached to Lalic’s police complaint shows semi-hooded men delivering legal letters on one day and on another, spraying a swastika on his parents’ front door.
Lalic, who is originally from Croatia and now has a British passport, also claims a swastika and the word “PEADO” [sic] were daubed in the same yellow paint on either side of his black Range Rover.
Papazyan, 34, told VICE World News that Lalic’s accusations were “completely false”, and that he was not behind any of these threats. He said that his family’s company in the United Arab Emirates is owed £3.6 million from bankrolling his push to be a behind-the-scenes club owner, with Lalic as the day-to-day manager. But Lalic, who he described as his best friend, had “fraudulently” taken control of The Scotch.
During the period just before Christmas, when the COVID lockdown in England was briefly lifted, Papazyan arrived with heavies at the entrance to the club in Mason’s Yard, a cobbled cul-de-sac behind Fortnum and Mason in Piccadilly, central London.
Doormen at The Scotch refused him entry, which led to a tense stand-off in front of regular guests. Pulling heavily on his cigarette, a “fuming” Papazyan leaned towards a doorman and outlined what sounded like a plan to storm the door and take over the club if Lalic, who was inside, didn’t cede control.
The exchange, recorded on the bouncer’s body-worn camera, captures Papazyan saying he'd hired “mercenaries [on] 10K per day.”
Door storming is a tactic rival security companies use to take the contract from a sitting company by showing up their weakness. Alternatively, a rival club owner can send in thugs to provoke violence in the hope that the club’s licence will be revoked. Door storming to take outright control of a club is rare.
“I had security with me because I was worried about what was going to happen when I got inside. They were paid. I was trying to as much as possible create a storm outside,” Papazyan told VICE World News.
He was eventually allowed in on his own to talk to Lalic. The sit-down was heated. “I told him I was very upset and would see it through to the end,” Papazyan said.
The Scotch of St. James opened its doors on the 14th of July 1965 with a launch attended by both the Beatles and Rolling Stones, and many other celebrity guests. Unlike many of its rock patrons, The Scotch survived the 70s but was in terminal decline as tastes changed in the 80s, when it became an upmarket strip club.
It could have remained another dance floor death in clubland had two best friends, who met at Oxford Brookes University, not decided to make a move on London in 2011.
At the time, Lalic was running Papazyan’s martial arts-gym business in Oxford. Keen to move into the world of posh London clubs and bars, the pair were introduced to Freddie Achom, who ran the successful Mayfair nightclub Jalouse – formerly the Hanover Grand. Alongside his A-list contacts, Achom had a fraud conviction for a wine scam that cost him a year in prison.
Papazyan and Lalic formed an uneasy alliance with Achom and in October 2011, they took over The Scotch lease for £275,000. The trio knew nothing about the venue’s seminal place in 60s London. But when Achom learned of the history, he suggested resurrecting The Scotch brand to “bring back some old names too."
After a £300,000 refurbishment, the club re-opened on the 19th of January 2012. Achom effectively ran it with his team from Jalouse. A new rock royalty flocked to The Scotch, along with Prince William and Kate Middleton. Stella McCartney had a private party there, and soon Lalic and Papazyan found that their own guests were being turned away from the nightspot they owned, according to a source.
In September 2012, the pair took back control and barred Achom from The Scotch. But he sued and won a payout two years later.
Having lost their celebrity pied piper, Papazyan and Lalic went into partnership with Carl Hirschmann, a 32-year-old Swiss millionaire. Hirschmann was heir to the Jet Aviation fortune and already had quite a reputation on the international party circuit. He was linked to a former Miss Switzerland, hotel heiress Paris Hilton and model Noemie Lenoir.
Hirschmann also owned Le Baron, an exclusive Zurich nightclub for the Swiss elite, but wanted to move away from that scene when Papazyan and Lalic approached him through a mutual friend.
“They needed cash, basically. I said I don’t want anything to do with nightclubs but if I can come in and out of that little spot and have a place where I’m known and I don’t have to worry about the door – that’s how I came to be involved indirectly,” Hirschmann, speaking in 2016, said. According to court documents, he put £650,000 into The Scotch through his Malta-based company Heaven Holdings Limited.
The Swiss playboy saw The Scotch as a “little speakeasy” where he could entertain close friends and relax in “a civilised environment where you don’t have little kids spraying Champagne around and jumping to bad music.”
However, in May 2016, Hirschmann was arrested for assaulting a Scotch punter who was hospitalised with a cut to the head from a flying glass. He emailed his victim begging him not to “destroy” his life by pressing charges. But a trial went ahead and Hirschmann pleaded guilty to the assault.
At the time of the assault, Hirschmann had only recently left prison for having a 15-year-old girl perform oral sex on him in the toilet of his Swiss nightclub. He claimed lies were told about her age and he was targeted because of his fame and fortune, but pleaded guilty and served one year in open prison conditions where he was allowed out during the day.
Papazyan and Lalic bought out Hirschmann in 2017. Documents show he was paid £520,000. But Papazyan claims his family personally paid another £400,000 to seal the deal.
At around the same time, HM Revenue and Customs began a criminal investigation into The Scotch and other venues owned by Papazyan and Lalic, including the Match Bar and B Soho. The taxman eventually agreed on a £1.2 million payment to settle the case.
The Scotch continued to attract stars from Rihanna and Mark Ronson to Noel Gallagher and Harry Styles. But behind the scenes, a row was simmering between the owners, which exploded last September.
Legal letters flew after Lalic removed Papazyan as co-director of the company that held the club’s licence to operate. By December, Lalic had gone to the police claiming thugs were threatening his life.
The complaint described an encounter at a restaurant in Chelsea. Lalic was expecting Papazyan but instead found two men trying to make him sign a letter handing over all his shares in The Scotch and agree to pay £70,000.
Papazyan told VICE World News it was his idea to hire the debt collectors to approach Lalic at the restaurant. He declined to identify the debt collection agency or the security firm he uses, but denies hiring thugs to harass Lalic.
Last month, the Papazyan family failed in an attempt to persuade Westminster City Council to grant their Dubai company a separate “shadow” licence for The Scotch.
Their barrister told the licensing committee Papazyan needed it because Lalic had “fraudulently” stolen shares in the club. That case is now heading to court.
The Met Police said: “Police received an allegation of threats to kill relating to an incident at a restaurant in Chelsea. The victim subsequently reported an incident of harassment to police. Investigations into the allegations continue. There have been no arrests.”
Papazyan said he welcomes the police investigation and has “nothing to hide”. But he promised that when lockdown is lifted on the 21st of June and The Scotch re-opens, he will “do everything legally to put a stop to it”.
Until then, tumbleweed continues to roll through the wild West End.