The Night Princess Diana Dressed As A Man
It looks like a Victorian coliseum. The Royal Vauxhall Tavern is a very odd pub, and has proudly been so for a very long time – most of my lifetime at least. Bear in mind that you’re within spitting distance of the Houses of Parliament, and the thought of drag queens on ceiling swings singing Gilbert & Sullivan arias takes on a strange new resonance.
London’s cabaret bars can trace their origins back to the old music halls. When I was young I went here and to another venue, the Union Tavern, with my dad to see Hinge & Bracket singing ‘The Gondoliers’. The acts used to dance along a vast horseshoe-shaped bar, so the staff had to be fast and snatch the beers away before they got kicked over.
At that time there was still a Public Bar on one side, where little old men sat smoking roll-ups, while on the other in the Saloon, roaring audiences cheered crazy acts (and a filthy Christmas panto). One night a performer dressed as Elizabeth I – on roller skates – overshot the bar and went through the window. The pub survived the predations of developers, who destroyed all the Victorian buildings around it and constructed a vast, fume-drenched traffic system that stranded the venue on an island.In spite of this, performers David Hoyle, Duckie and Readers’ Wifes made the venue an artistic success for a new generation.
Well, now the Royal Vauxhall Tavern has been sold. The first floor will be converted into a wine and champagne bar. The fate of the ground floor and its cabaret events is unknown.
The pub is London’s oldest surviving venue with a predominantly gay clientele – although like most gay pubs in London, it gets a big mix of customers. If you grew up in central London there was a good change you ended up in one with your mates or even your parents at some point, seeing a show. In his biography, Ray Winstone points out that he used to go to Benjy’s in Mile End.
The tavern was built in 1863 and has seen many stars on its stage, not least Lily Savage, who played there up to four times a week for eight years. There were famous faces in the audience, too – Freddy Mercury, Kenny Everett and Princess Diana, slipping out of the palace disguised as a man, all made appearances.
The sale is the latest twist in the tale of the tavern. In the 1990s, Lambeth council announced plans to build a shopping centre on the site. Protesters marched and the development was subsequently dropped. In 2012, the tavern won the Best Venue prize in the London Cabaret Awards, while flagship show Duckie has been winning over fans from around the world.
The work by the new owners will be extensive: The RVT will undergo ‘a full refurbishment’ – but we’ve been down this route before, as developers promise something they may fail to deliver. Councils are searching through police logs for complaints, so that they have an excuse to redevelop and make money. Walker’s Court, the strange little alleyway I recently featured in articles on Soho, is about to be destroyed along with about a fifth of East Soho, so the homogenisation of London marches on.
Sir John Betjeman wrote;
Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough!
It isn’t fit for humans now,
There isn’t grass to graze a cow.
Swarm over, Death!
So let’s have more luxury loft skyscrapers and overpriced retail outlets. Who needs anything odd and original now?
PS As this article was written, TfL announced a first-ever ‘sponsor’ for the London tube map, which means that someone now gets to plaster they logo all over it.