A FEW REMINISCENCES OF TIMES GONE BY
I guess that if anyone is still alive after 50 yrs and remembers those early days,1960/70s of the London and Brighton gay pubs, my name will I hope be still remembered as the host at many of these venues. More about them and the long list of many drag artists and variety acts that I worked with, some of whom are sadly no longer with us.
To begin, my late mother Vera had been a chorus girl in many 40s shows, some with the Crazy Gang and she had also been a reporter for the Daily Mail. My late father Eric, became President of the International Music Association, in a house once owned by Cicely Courtneidge and Jack Hulbert in London’s South Audley Street. He was in the top team when ATV started in London, the UK director of the company releasing the Mr Magoo cartoons and he knew so many people in showbiz, from Eartha Kitt to the Beatles. He was awarded the MBE in 1953 for services to the Festival of Britain. I remember going to Buckingham Palace and I am very sad that the photos have sadly gone.
Vera loved the flickers and would take me to the cinema sometimes three times a week. This started my own love affair with not only the films, but with the buildings from the grandest cinema in my home area of Kent, the 1,600 seated Tunbridge Wells, Ritz , designed by Robert Cromie or the tiny 300 seated Rex in Borough Green. This was the nearest cinema, a mile away and on Saturday mornings, I would go to the kids club run by owner “Uncle Frank Davies”. Little did I know then that in 1969, I would become “Uncle Mike” for the Rank owned Academy Cinema in Brighton, where I still live today. Rank in 1969 had three cinemas all in West Street, the Regent, the Odeon and the Academy. As one of the four managers I would run each cinema for a week under the General Manager who was based at the Regent.
My first taste of working in the “business” was with a friend of my fathers, the director Peter Coates and his wife Joan Miller in a very bad play. I remember going on the try out tour to the vast 2200 seated Golders Green Hippodrome, where on the mid week matinee, 25 souls were bunched together in the front of the stalls to make it appear busy. Needless to say that was as far to the West End the company or I got.
I then applied to Butlin’s to be a Redcoat at Clacton, followed the following summer as a Bluecoat for Pontin’s at their Little Canada Camp on the Isle of Wight. Entertainments manager at the Westwood Ho Holiday Centre and Holiday Centres in Kent and Norfolk followed.
In the next few years I would work with many of the stars of that era, my favorites, Matt Monroe, who like many stars lost his way with alcohol, Reg Varney, a brilliant pianist, forget “On the Buses” and Helen Shapiro. This was also my one and only time in drag as the supporting act to the Barron Knights and my girlfriend who was the manageress of the Butlin’s ladies hairdressers lent me frocks and wigs and the jokes were all Mrs Shufflewicks .
One of the first of so many drag acts that I worked with was the totally wonderful and unpredictable Rex Jamerson, aka Mrs Shufflewick. At the London Palladium backstage party after one of the two appearances he made with the totally histrionic Dorothy Squires, I was chatting up this very nice gorgeous young man, when a voice in my ear, the pianist Winfrid Atwell said to me,“I would not do that dear if I were you, his boyfriend Johnnie Ray is over there, he gets very jealous and he is looking at you right now!!!!!!
Shuff would nearly always go home after a show via the off license. How he got home, no one to this day knows!!!! At one of the two Palladium shows he did, he got dressed into his own clothes after his turn and on the way past the front entrance of the theatre, decided to pop in and see how Dorothy was doing. He always dressed looking nothing like the star he was and with his usual carrier bag with costume and Guinness bottles in one hand put the other hand on the gleaming brass door handle front of house at the theatre. A man in full doorman’s uniform shot out of nowhere, stopped him there and then, inquiring where he thought he was going. Shuff looking at him only the way he could replied,
“Don’t you know who I am? I have just come off the bloody stage”.
The doorman looking him up and down told him in no uncertain terms to “F**K off home”. Shuff never did get in.
The Sunday lunch time must in those days was to go to the Black Cap in Camden where he and the fantastic Mark Fleming would try and outdo each other. No visual record that I know of exists for these shows. It’s just so sad. They were wickedly funny.
At the Royal Oak in Hammersmith one night, the straight landlord of the time pulled me over after the first half of one of Shuff’s shows.
“If he says F**K again he’s not doing the second half”.
My pianist, George Logan, he of Hinge and Brackett gave me one of his wonderful smiles and just waved his head as if to say, no way.
Needless to say Shuff didn’t do the second show telling me in the dressing room in no uncertain terms what the landlord could do with his bloody pub.. His was the best funeral bar Dockyard Doris’s I have ever been too and there have been a few of them in 60 plus years. I could write a book on all my memories of him, thank goodness my much missed mate Patrick Newley has done just that. Buy it.
Colin Devereaux aka Dockyard Doris came from a vintage East End music hall background, being related to the one and only Marie Lloyd. He had packed out shows anywhere he was on, for twelve years a regular at the Seabright Arms in Hackney. He played Dame for many years at the Gordon Craig Theatre in Stevenage and each year on my birthday December 30th, I would get a free ticket for the show and go and see him afterwards. I saw him in hospital a couple of weeks before he passed away. I remember afterwards having to find the nearest pub for a very large brandy. More than 400 people followed the horse drawn hearse to his service at St Peters Church in Bethnal Green on November 10th 2001. One of the best.
It’s sad that so many of the artists mentioned are not to be found on any film. There is a CD of Shuff at the Black Cap Pub in Camden, but better luck with Colin, who can be found on DVD at Hackney Empire, Millwall Football ground where he features as Sophie Tucker, Music Hall at the Seabright Arms, and an all star panto at Brighton’s Pavilion theatre Sleeping Beauty with George Logan from 1993.
There is an excellent documentary made by BBC Television on drag, features Colin, Dave Lynn, Phil Starr, the panto famous strip by John Inman, plus many others including Danny La Rue and rare scenes of the Soldiers in Skirts shows from the 40s. The BBC also has a documentary on gay slang featuring Phil Starr, David Raven and Colin Devereaux. Also available with some searching is a show called Dragon’s Night. This features Phil, Colin, David, plus Nicky Young, Kevin Peters, Dave Lynn, Pip Morgan as Shuff, Pinky and Scott St Martin.
Phil Starr was one of nature’s gentlemen. I knew him and his partner for over 30 years. He told stories with wicked punch lines. Much missed here in Brighton, he had just opened his new pub when he suddenly passed away.
Along with all this I did a stint as dresser to Sir Donald Wolfit, very nice gentleman, not as he is wrongly portrayed, at least with me, then the same at the Old Vic with the likes of Alistair Simm, very quiet and the great Shakespearian actor Robert Eddison.
Box offices at London theatres, including the Duke of York’s, the Shaftsbury, The Old Vic and a stint at the Albert Hall gave me day work, whilst most evenings were being used up to somewhere in London to be the compere.
A short walk from Stockwell underground station lay the Dorset Arms. Run by the sister of Amy Turtle, a character from the then hit soap, Crossroads, the pub was one of the very few that became a haven for lesbians in London. Most of the gay entertainment pubs were dominated by guys. It was here that I witnessed the largest fight I have ever seen. The stage was very high with a good set of tabs, behind which I stood to get the act on. There was a huge crash and peering through the tabs I witnessed a brawl akin to a wild west movie, tables, chairs etc, certainly not handbags at dawn. Candy du Barrie’s mother Beryl, ran a straight pub, The Skinner’s Arms in Camberwell New Road, near the Union Tavern. At lunchtimes I hosted female strippers, mostly housewives, even one with a huge snake. The girls were not paid. A pint glass was passed round the punters for their loose change. All the girls were fun to work with. Another straight pub was in the Lea Bridge Road, a haven for East End gangsters. I never got any bother from them, in fact I was looked after very well. The favourite act there was Peters and Lee. Remember them?
Early memories of the Royal Vauxhall Tavern where I did my hosting along the bar top, including a tiny stage at one end with a swing above it for the drag stars to mime on. Not many live acts to begin with, but that was soon to change with Lee Paris, Lily Savage, Hinge and Brackett, aka George Logan and Patrick Ffyfe . Another act I loved working with was the very big and lovely guy plus his Trombone, Jean Fredericks, famous also for putting the fab Porchester Hall drag balls on. This is a true story involving Jean and my friend, Patrick Newley when he was writing the obits for the Stage newspaper. Someone told him that Jean had died, so the following week a full obituary appeared in the Stage. Many days later a call came for Patrick from Canada. Picking up the phone and saying “Hello”. A deep voice at the other end said “This is Jean Fredericks and I am not dead”. !!!!!!! He was apparently very flattered by the obit.
So many pubs and clubs. My first client with the small agency I ran, was my good friend, Mike Topping, he of Topping and Butch, who made one of his first appearances at The Escort, a lovely gay club near Sloane Square for the fab fee in those days of three guineas. Richard Wattis, that wonderful character actor was a regular patron as was pop singer David Garrick famous for the pop hit, “Dear Mrs Applebee” in 1966.
So many of the early gay pubs would have two separate bars, the front for the straights/locals and the back for the gays. Remember the Greyhound in Brighton, upstairs gay and downstairs straight with a separate entrance for the stairs up. The Spotted Dog in Middle Street had the straights in the front bar and the gays at the back till 1981 when the new owner announced that gays were no longer
My favourite pub that I worked in has to be the spit and sawdust Elephant and Castle, three minutes from the Vauxhall Tavern. Now alas no more. I never knew if the act or my band would turn up, or for that matter if any of us would ever get paid. The great northern act The Sisters Slim got it right by playing to the lowest common denominator, half naked guys on their knees in front of the large “ladies” covered in spray dairy cream with a strategic banana in place.
This is me singing and hosting in the George 1V in Ida Street in London’s East End. The landlord was Collin Day who now runs 112 Church ST in Brighton along with the best pub grub in this city cooked by the lovely Richard. Collin gets to dress up as Pooh La May. Very Funny.
Other pubs I loved include my late friend Candy Du Barry’s Entertainer pub in the Balls Pond Road with its huge picture collection of Candy’s favourite singer, Dusty Springfield, plus of course his draconian mother, the amazing Beryl. Candy worked right through to the end of his short life, falling prey to HIV.
Some other pubs I liked include the Cricketers in Battersea Park Road and the Union Tavern with cracking good compere Guy Saville and the best accompaniment I ever had, Mr Mike Hill. Sunday nights were a must there where all the top acts of the day played. On some Sundays the droll comic George Williams would be on. He was a mate of Shuff’s, his humour very similar but without the frock. Memories also of the Black Cap in Camden Town, where one night, whilst I was singing, an enraged Derrick Reece “the Jewish songbird”!!!! knocked the stage entrance door off its hinges to carry on some argument we had had in the dressing room. Well you can’t get on with everyone.
Much happier were doing silly things, like being one of the judges along with Sue Pollard and Wendy Richard on the tour of the Gay Disco Dance Championships, having the superb Petula Clark doing the very best of favors for me and my then French boyfriend Loic, about to emigrate to Australia and the first of many meetings with my all time top singer Barbara Cook.
A signed photo she gave me is one of my priceless possessions.
So now to as many artists as I can remember and not mentioned previously and in no particular order. Sonny Dawkes & Gary Webb aka The Disappointer Sisters, Carla, Cher Travesty, Tony Page, Mark Fleming, Olga, Tony Saint Clare, The Dumbbells, Lee Sutton, Adrella, Alvis and O’Dell, Andre Adore, Terry Gardner, Billy Wells, Al Baker, Regina Fong, Alan Haynes, Sugar Kane, Titti La Camp, Tommy “Dolly” Osborne, David Dale, Gary Webb, The Trollettes , Cerri Dupree, Chris Shaw, Lee Stevens, Tommy Rose, The Dolly Sisters, Tony Sinclare, and John Byrne aka Rose Marie, a sweet Irish guy, who every week at The Elephant would mime to Susan Maughn’s “Bobby’s Girl” One night he met someone in Lewisham where he lived and was found murdered in his bed. I clearly remember his devastated family at the funeral.
When I moved to Brighton in the early 60s, there were twelve cinemas in Brighton plus three in Hove. There were also four full sized theatres. Prior to the Second World War, Brighton had eighteen cinemas plus several other theatres including The Grand which was destroyed by a dreadful fire in 1961. I would walk nearly every week along the Palace Pier to the theatre at its end. The Forbes Russell Rep Company would perform a different play each week and there were many summer shows. Thanks to the 42 Club on Kings Road, I made many new famous friends including one of the best dames of all time, Jack Tripp, the droll Billy Milton and Danny La Rue. My best mate was the playwright and author John Montgomery. His knowledge of the history of Brighton was second to none. His books on this now city of Brighton and Hove are well worth seeking out.
The shows were full of big stars of the day. Max Bygraves, Frankie Vaughn, Tommy Cooper, Charlie Chester, Russ Conway, Adam Faith and a young up and coming comic called Larry Grayson. In 1964, Roy Orbison topped the bill at the now sadly shut Hippodrome, with some act called The Beatles in support. Every Tuesday I would go to the Dome to hear Douglas Reeve play the fab organ in the “Tuesday Night at the Dome” shows. Worthing organist supreme the lovely John Mann occasionally gets to play it but it’s a disgrace that it is not played on a regular basis. At the Galleon Bar below the Regent Cinema, where later I would become one of the managers in 1969, drag was going strong with the wonderful funny act Bunny Lane easy to find on You Tube, whilst the beautifully gowned Gordon mimed to countless Shirley Bassey numbers.
The sixties were a wonderful time in Brighton for entertainment until the close of that century, when Rank and others committed wholesale demolition of our wonderful cinemas, theatres and the ice rink Replacements bar the rink, disgraceful, were concrete hell holes like the awful Brighton Centre and Odeon Cinema, Boots the Chemist at the Clock Tower replacing the Regent and the group of sports shops behind, where the Imperial/Essoldo Theatre/Cinema once stood.
Just look at any picture of the Court Theatre aka Paris Continental Cinema in New Road and tell me how anyone gave permission to knock down one of Brighton’s most historic and stylish theatres and replace it with hideous office block that stands in its place? It was still fun to be a cinema manager in Brighton. I was still able to do the cabaret, appearing with Harry Roy and his Band at Sherry’s and playing the grand piano regularly at the posh Argyle Hotel in Middle Street. Memories of escorting Dame Flora Robson to the Brighton Film Theatre, North Street and the many stars who would pop into the pub next to the Theatre Royal after their show. Dinner with the cast of a play including Kathleen Harrison and my late friend Bill Fraser, the too numerous stars who came down to Brighton to promote their films, including the lovely Susan Hampshire .I had a wonderful relationship with Jack Tinker, then film critic of the Argus who supported my Academy Cinema kids club so well. He became a very famous theatre critic in London for the Daily Mail. If he said a show was shit, they had a week to run, that’s how powerful he became. Many first nights in London where I would ask him what he thought of the show or play knowing that he would move very quickly away without comment. It was in the 90s that the West End would have flop musical after flop musical, most of them British. The worst I think I sat through after it had opened, comps (free tickets) was Bernadette at the Dominion, Tottenham Court Road in 1990. I never got to end of this show. It is the only show or play that I have been told to leave in my 60 years of theatre going. Written by a piano tuner and his wife, this three week flop told the story allegedly of the peasant girl Bernadette of Lourdes. The theatre seats 2000+ and on this matinee maybe two dozen+ were all in the stalls. At the point in the first half where our heroine has a vision of the Virgin Mary, which is her looking up at a light bulb lowered from on high, I laughed so loud, well that’s as far as I got. Even the best stars make mistakes. Lovely Barbara Cook wishes to this day that she had never got involved with Carrie, the musical version of Stephen King’s horror film. I am glad I never saw it. One review opened with,” If you wish to curl up and die within the first ten minutes of this complete drivel”. I won’t go on but you get the drift. I seemed to meet the nicest stars then either sitting in front of me or directly behind. These include Diana, Princess of Wales two weeks before her wedding at the Shaftsbury Theatre for There Playing Our Song, at the same theatre Dolly Parton on the first night of another major flop show Troubadour.
Some of the drag acts I worked with are still with us and here in Brighton alive and still working, raising thousands of pounds for charity is one of the best, David Raven aka Maisie Trollette. Stars like Dave Lynn, Miss Jason, Lady James and The Drag With No Name are frequent visitors to Brighton’s many gay venues. The scene has changed a lot since the 60s, but it’s nice to have the memories and be able to remember them still and preserve them in this way.Nowadays I write freelance for magazines, everything from film reviews for those in jail, reviews for an American horror film web and anything to do with cinema as it was in the 60s. On the web at www.mikelangcinevariety.wordpress.com, is the first part of a mammoth task, a book on Cine-Variety, 1930-1940. The book on Brighton cinemas, “Back Row Brighton” has some memories in it from me and BBC News South kindly filmed me in a short interview for this. I recently had a short play put on at the Gate Theatre in London, plus I continue to make the elderly dance to my afternoon keyboard tea dances. I am very pleased to be asked each year to help out at the Sussex Beacon Half Marathon, for it was that wonderful organization that looked after my late partner, Gummy so well in 2002/3. Alas this year 2011 due to illness I was unable to help.
I have written of those memories that have been the happy ones and yes, there have been many not. I have suffered for many years with both very bad depression and a sexual attack in Plaistow London where I was found on the way to death with pills fuelled by drink. At nearing 70 years of age, it’s nice to remember the best of times. The other side would make a good movie. I have a great straight boyfriend half my age and I have had to wait a long time for that. I am happy. Please enjoy the memories of people that I wish like me were still with us all. Thanks for reading and please put any memories on the web and I will contact you if it’s ok. Any mistakes, it’s my old memory failing again !!!!! Mike Lang 6/4/11. Mikelang29@gmail.com.