The early 1970s were ambiguous times for gay men and for gay rights. On the one hand there was the Gay Liberation Front, with all the political and creative energy that brought; on the other hand there were homosexuals breaking through into the mainstream, but very much on the mainstream’s terms - safe homosexuals, Uncle Tomasinas.
Think of Danny la Rue, whose queenliness was coupled with an insistence that he was really butch. However unconvincing that was, the straight world swallowed it because it didn’t want to believe in fairies.
Think too Kenneth Williams, whose campness subverted the national Sunday Roast on Round The Horne.
In retrospect a significant step towards the shining queer future, though Williams himself was corrosive about campaigning. To radicals, these figures were poison.
There were certain monstres sacrés in the days of the Gay Liberation Front, and foremost amongst them was Quentin Crisp.
Dazzling in his self‐confidence and sense of style, he epitomised many of the worst aspects of what we were beginning to think of as self‐oppression. His insistence that homosexuals could never be fulfilled because we were destined only to fall in love with ‘real’, i.e. straight, men ‐ there is no tall dark man; his to us pathetic assertions that there was nothing to be proud of in being homosexual, and his complete indifference bordering on antipathy towards Gay Rights.
This was considered hypocrisy, in that he derived quite a lot of his income from appearing in gay venues and acting as Grand Marshall on various Gay Pride Marches. He made things worse for himself in the 1990s when he described AIDS as a fad and homosexuality itself as a disease.
And yet his very existence was a manifestation of gay pride, and the assertion of his unique essence in the face of the most violent queer‐bashing displayed the most wonderful courage most of us could only aspire to.
The henna, the nail varnish, the make‐up, the scarves were all the politest of two fingers to conventional values. He would be anything you wanted him to be, say what you expected him to say, to the point that he had little personality as such. For all his openness to people, you could never get to know him. It was all passive‐aggressive; his composure and self‐containment were terrifying.
He was a product of the 1920s. Another offspring of a bygone age was the now almost forgotten figure of Douglas Byng. Byng was the foremost cabaret star of the 1920s to 1950s.
In one picture his name is up in huge lights over the Café de Paris ‐ with Marlene Dietrich in tiny letters at the bottom. Byng was born in 1893, the same year as Ivor Novello, but lived on well into his 90s.
Byng’s act was female impersonation, his brightest creations pantomime dames. However, his cabaret drag was often suggested by the merest hint of costume or prop. I was a friend of his agent, a lovely, gentle man called Patrick Newley. Patrick persuaded Douggie to appear at a gay pub called The Cricketers in Battersea. It was meant to be only a ‘personal appearance’, but he couldn’t resist doing three or four numbers.
A tea towel on the head and he was Queen Victoria; a bit of tartan for Flora MacDonald. He was in a velvet suit, but the audience could watch him transform himself in less than a minute. The fascinating thing was that offstage he had the most violent facial tic. Onstage the spasm disappeared completely.
During the war, Byng billed himself as ‘bawdy but British’, but bawdy was too broad a term for what he did. He could use the dirtiest gay slang, but never cause the slightest offence. He got away with it for three reasons:
It was in the mouths of female characters
It was completely po‐faced
He had a priceless gift for placing words for maximum comic impact
Some lines make me smile even as I think of them:
Flora MacDonald, Flora MacDonald
Heavy wi’ haggis and dripping with dew
I’m Doris, the Goddess of Wind…
I blow through the bedrooms and blow out the light
I blow to the left and I blow to the right
My life’s just one blow through from morning to night
It’s the wind, it’s the wind
[Doris the Goddess of Wind]
You can find several examples of his work on YouTube. Perhaps the most outrageous is with Lance Lister as The Cabaret Boys.
However, as in many revolutions without hierarchy, the fireworks went off in all directions, and factions soon emerged. The radical feminists, or Radical Queens as they became known, insisted that only by relinquishing all the trappings of masculinity could true liberation be found. Others saw the way forward as being in alliance with the militant left and with black power.
Some people were concerned with making the lives of gay men better in the short term ‐ helplines, advice, a defence fund for men arrested for sex offences, reducing the age of consent to sixteen. To others this was only a sticking plaster, and it was better to allow injustices to proliferate, and to fan the flames of discontent until they erupted in full‐scale anger and riots. All agreed however that the nuclear family was the root cause of gay oppression, and it was far better to live and share communally. For a good account of the period, read Stuart Feather’s Blowing the Lid.
By 1973 the various GLF fragments were not speaking much to each other. But communes were alive and well, especially Bethnal Rouge in East London. Douglas Byng was eighty, and almost totally forgotten. Put the two facts together, move the composite Crisp/Byng figure into a council flat in Poplar, and here were the makings of a kind of culture clash.
Factor in also a concern which is contemporary in 2019 but then would not have been high on anyone’s list of priorities ‐ the situation of older LGBT people, largely on their own, battling isolation and increasing infirmity, facing the prospect of heterosexist and hetero‐normative old people’s homes and having to go back into the closet because of their dependency on carers who might be as prejudiced as the rest of society.
What kind of responsibility do LGBT young people have to their elders, individually or collectively? Is it enough to collect their tales of earlier times to garland history, or does caring and respect involve something more than that? Something more than putting money into the collection box? Put it this way: Would you want an old queer living with you, teetering on the edge of incontinence and dementia? Especially if they held the views of someone like Crisp.
The characters are all fictional but take elements from life. Valentine de Vere is a composite of Crisp and Byng. Penny Dreadful draws on Lavinia Co-op, involved in GLF and a founder member of the Bloolips Theatre Troupe which flourished with a unique blend of panto and politics from the late 1970s for twenty years. He describes his involvement here.
I saw him in 2018, still strong, in a play about old gay men at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. Vinnie is solid.
Walter Craig, here of the Marxist wing of GLF, was based on Warren Haig, one of the most dynamic and articulate of the ‘straight‐gay’ faction. Warren was an absolute gift as a media spokesperson, a great theoretician, but somewhat aloof from the day‐to‐day business of running an office, building a movement, organising a dance or a demo, etc. He was a Canadian, worked in Compendium Books in Camden, and had one of the most comprehensive address books in London.
His disappearance from London in the later 1970s was sudden and unexplained. Many people would love to know whether he was still alive, and how he is.
Mrs Goodhart? I think we all know a Mrs Goodhart. Bless her.
When I sent the libretto to Robert, he emailed me back to ask where he could find the Valentine de Vere (Douglas Byng) songs, because they were not on YouTube. I had to tell him, that these are pastiches, homages, rather, and I hope I’ve done the naughty old boy justice.
Read the Script (Music to follow)
All work is copyright of Peter Scott-Presland and Robert Ely.
Anyone interested in performing all or part of it should email firstname.lastname@example.org