This column first appeared in The Big Issue magazine.
I was once asked what was the best night out I ever had in London. My husband, thought I’d say it was that romantic night we went to the National Theatre and saw a huge harvest moon so red and intense float over the Thames that we nearly didn’t go back in after the interval. But no. It was the night my camerawoman friend took me to Drag King night at Madame Jo-Jos in Soho circa 1995. Because I don’t think there’s much that makes me cheerier than British people cross-dressing. And I think it’s about time to unpick why.
For a start it’s often been an unexpected celebration of the middle aged lady.
It’s ironic that the female actors in Monty Python were often accorded sexist bombshell parts (for my views on 70s TV culture see numerous previous columns), because the men were so keen on dressing up as ladies. But I felt there was real affection in the portrayal of chain smoking charladies, matriarchs and biker Grannies. Tim Brooke-Taylor in The Goodies showed a similarly touching ability. None of it resolves the fact that we’re still struggling to get more women over 40 into leading roles on TV and screen, but somehow I feel there was a triumphant recognition of the power of the otherwise undervalued middle aged woman, keeping the home.
Often it’s the clear physical mismatch. Matthew McFadyen’s well built Jeeves in the current production of “Jeeves and Wooster” plays a scheming, aristocratic flapper in silks and pearls with the most glorious sincerity. The late Roger Lloyd Pack had never done panto when he played Sarah the Cook in Mark Ravenhill’s Dick Whittington at the Barbican in 2006. But it was all the sweeter for his awkwardness. A tall bloke in a dress.
Even where the intent may have been pure lampooning, drag can create something more authentic. Actor Steve Nallon, began playing Margaret Thatcher at the age of just 22 on the Spitting Image TV series. Fresh from a Drama and English degree at Birmingham University he did more than attempt to mimic her. Implicit in the cross dressing (she was memorably portrayed in a man’s suit with a cigar) might be the sexist view point of male politicians and many journalists. But crucially Nallon explored why so many people voted for her, how they liked her forthright opinions: “Most of the people did her in that very patronising way. Very slow. That was always slightly false. I went for a different type of a Thatcher voice. The honesty. I’m not going to hide behind anything. I’m going to tell you what I think. She’d do that in interviews and get excited. I Identified what people liked about her.. My grandmother voted for her. So I knew that.”
By the time Nallon eventually came to portray her physically on screen, with a feminine flirtiness, dressed in those blue suits and handbags, I sensed a symbiotic relationship. Though many others including great female actors had played Thatcher, Nallon’s seemed somehow the more real.
I’ve never liked panto dames who played it butch. Instead, my favourites are the two wicked sisters in Adam and the Ants’ Georgian-themed Prince Charming Video – complete with beards; preening with fans. In Adam Ant himself there was a liberating celebration of the blurring between masculine and feminine.And it is the sense of liberation that still explains the joy of drag.
I watched the marvellous Amy Cudden strutting around in a sharp suit, in One Man Two Guvnors having the time of her life pretending to be a low life geezer. And now I think about it, a seminal moment may have been my first big crush on the sixth former who played John Proctor in my all-girls’ school production of The Crucible.
Perhaps inevitably, then I was drawn to working in Berlin in the late 90s where a tall blond drag queen presided over the late night chat show that was my bedtime viewing. I seem to recall Peter Ustinov a regular on the sofa. One Saturday night, oh my stars, I came back from a late shift to my hotel to find it full of a convention of drag queens all in full sparkling, feather-boa-ed,big wigged array. There was a tombola with prizes of giant blowdriers and styling accessories; but the next morning, like the Tale of the 12 Dancing Princesses, no sign of the night’s delights. Only a lobby with besuited businessmen reading Germany’s financial paper, Der Handelsblatt. But I knew their dancing slippers were worn through.
The joy of drag is the joy of the dressing up box, but also the chance to escape, redefine and subvert the boundaries that tie us into roles.
A few favourite drag moments
Jane Russell as Marilyn Monroe (Gentleman Prefer Blondes) Russell plays a bemused drag version of herself throughout.
Robert Preston as The Shady Dame from Seville (Victor/Victoria)
Doris Day femming up in a frock (Calamity Jane)
John Sessions: Mrs Huggett (Stella Street)
Steve Nallon as Margaret Thatcher (Spitting Image)
Tim Brooke Taylor as the mum, the charlady and numerous other Voices of Authority (episode one of ITV’s Grasshopper Island)
James Fox as a flapper in Thoroughly Modern Millie
Hinge and Bracket – Am pretty sure that as a small child I used to think they were real Edwardian ladies.