The algorithm that powers the BBC iPlayer reckons it has my tastes sorted. Its “recommended for you” list leads with Brexitcast, The Andrew Neil Show and RuPaul’s Drag Race. Politics and female impersonators — both key staples of television programming since the medium’s fledgling days. Danny La Rue was delighting audiences in the 1960s; later Hinge and Bracket were key to the Sunday night schedule before Lily Savage took over the principal dressing room in the 1990s. But the greatest drag act I’ve ever seen was one who eschewed TV, choosing instead the stage of a grimy north London pub — Her Imperial Highness Regina Fong.
The Kingdom of this self-styled Imperial Russian exile was the Black Cap in Camden Town, where each week fans would be regally entertained with bawdy impersonations of Coronation Street characters, brilliant lip-syncing to Sandie Shaw songs, and eagerly awaited set pieces. My favourite was Leroy Anderson’s tune Typewriter blasting out from the speakers as we air-typed away in time with the music.
Regina Fong died with her creator Reginald Bundy in 2003. On a grey November afternoon in Camden High Street, some of the rich colour they brought would be welcome. Boots and the butcher do a steady trade, but next door the Black Cap’s windows are firmly boarded up.
The venue closed four years ago, joining a long list of London’s lost gay pubs — Hampstead’s William IV, the Gloucester in Greenwich, Chelsea’s Queens Head. I played pool at the Edward VI in Islington and danced at Bromptons in Earls Court, now a convenience store. Long before the term LGBT had taken root, these “borough bars” welcomed a wide community of customers, and often became hubs of social activism as well as being places to party and meet people.
These ‘borough bars’ often became hubs of activism as well as being places to party and meet people
The Black Cap in Camden has not been forgotten. Every Saturday morning a group of supporters holds a vigil outside the building. While they haven’t yet managed to get the place reopened, they have prevented it from being turned into luxury flats, the ambition of its freeholder.
“The Black Cap was a beautiful thing, bringing together an extraordinarily diverse range of people who wouldn’t necessarily mix,” says campaigner Zack Polanski. A former glass collector at the pub, he is now the Green Party’s parliamentary candidate for the Cities of London and Westminster, Polanski rejects the argument that dating apps have destroyed traditional gay venues, pointing out that the Black Cap was busy and profitable right up until its unexpected closure. By chance I had visited for a pint on a Sunday a few weeks before it shut. The clientele was characteristically eclectic — old and young, sexually, ethnically and socially varied, a microcosm of London that’s found increasingly rarely in the capital’s public houses. The dedicated activists who still fight for the Black Cap deserve to have their energy and commitment rewarded. The doors of a vital LGBT venue need to open again, and the blue plaque once put up in honour of Regina Fong should be returned to the building’s historic facade.
There’s wisdom in working together
Nights in the Fifties at London’s then-leading Lesbian venue, Chelsea’s Gateways Club, are described in Barbara Hosking’s memoir. The distinguished public servant celebrates her 93rd birthday today. Her political career started at Labour Party HQ and later she became a spokesman for Harold Wilson.
When he lost the 1970 election to Edward Heath she expected to be shown the door of Number 10. But Heath decided he would give her a chance. Despite having little in common politically, they became firm friends as well as colleagues.
It is hard to reconcile the idea that such political pluralism was possible; today’s equivalent would be Dominic Cummings joining Jeremy Corbyn’s team. I interviewed Hosking at the North Cornwall Book Festival, where younger audience members looked wide-eyed at her recollections of a time when politics seemed to be about the greater good, rather than entrenched positions provoking extreme emotions.
“Let’s respect clever politicians when they do good things, and not worry about their political colours,” she told her readers.
And while we are at it, let’s respect nonagenarians, and the rich wisdom they have to share.
* I’ll be part of the team presenting coverage of the Lord Mayor’s Show on BBC on Saturday, with its vast parade of floats representing City trades and businesses. It will be the 692nd time a new Lord Mayor has stepped out of the gilded state coach, drawn by six horses, to begin a year-long reign over the City. Will actor Damian Lewis be cheering the procession? He and Lord Mayor Elect William Russell are half-brothers. A British institution and Hollywood meet once again.