This film is part of Free

What's a Girl Like You ...

Scintillating look at the 1960s drag renaissance, with a visit to London's Royal Vauxhall Tavern.

Documentary 1969 52 mins


Welcome to the 'Palladium of Drag' - south London's Royal Vauxhall Tavern. The first half of this scintillating London Weekend Television documentary celebrates the late-60s drag renaissance at one of Britain's oldest surviving gay venues - then home to a happily diverse throng of working-class regulars. Dynamic camerawork swoops along the bar-cum-stage as pints are nonchalantly pulled under the thrashing heels of anarchic queens Bow, The Polka Dots and Mr Cleo Rose. Despite the clunking insistence that "the one thing you don't have to be for drag is homosexual" this is a refreshingly non-judgemental and joyous insight into queer nightlife half a century ago.

The spotlight shifting to the drag circuit in northern England offers a fascinating contrast in tone. The audiences are still largely working class, but a harder-edged, freak-show vibe creeps in. The girls range from highly polished female impersonators (Bunny Lewis) and glorious grotesques (Al Nicholls) to innovative drag striptease (Terry Durham). Transgender singer Ava strikes a more melancholic note with her number "Strictly a he-male female", a sharp reminder that the outlook for trans women was far from rosy in 1969. Featuring candid interviews with all the performers, this is a valuable rediscovery, and a timely one: in 2015 the RVT became the first venue in Britain to be awarded Grade II-listed status for its importance to the LGBT community.