A steady stream of new screenings is being announced for a poignant and edgy short documentary about being black and queer in Seventies Britain. Andy Polaris is part of the project and recalls it origins. . .
A 2013 exhibition at the V&A museum in London titled Club to Catwalk was instrumental in bringing the collective creative talent of Eighties fashion stalwarts and club luminaries together for a preview party that summer. It was a splendid event, one of the last memorable social events with such a vibrant successful crowd. Among the assembled were Judy Blame, Princess Julia, Andrew Logan, Zandra Rhodes, Body Map, Antony Price, Chris Sullivan and it was the last time I saw Steve Strange (who along with Rusty Egan) had brought us all together at The Blitz Club in 1979.
The visual artist Claire Lawrie was at the V&A and pondered on the omission from the exhibition of gay black talent whose influence had permeated Eighties club culture. Although Jeffrey Hinton’s brilliant cave of projected nightlife photography did feature some of us, Lawrie echoed some of her friends’ frustration that their experience was not reflected in the exhibition. She set about organising an open-call photograph to celebrate a contingent of black talent and arranged for the gathering to be filmed by her friends, Emile Kelly and Kim Mnguni. This was the genesis of something deeper and her award winning documentary, Beyond “There is always a black issue Dear”, emerged from that event with her as director.
Over the next year Claire arranged interviews with ten of the candidates who were filmed on a shoestring. Contributions of archive footage were given by a long list of talented artists, people who, over the years had collaborated with and who wanted to show their respect and love for the cast. These included Pam Hogg, Dick Jewell, Dave Swindells and Nicola Tyson as well as John Maybury, Derek Ridgers, BodyMap, Devon Buchanon and Rankin. The film adjusts the colour settings of the standard view of black creative lives when telling the story about club culture and its impact in the UK. Featuring ten black queer voices from the diaspora, born in the late Fifties and Sixties in the UK, Guyana and New York, the documentary delves into personal stories of discovery and eventual self-acceptance, looking back at struggles with identity and family and the wider world.
In the mid-Seventies and Eighties the UK’s attitudes to both race and gay issues were particularly brutal, endorsed by the anti-gay policies of Thatcher’s government and tabloid sensationalism regarding anything queer, especially later with the arrival of the AIDs epidemic. The Seventies were marred by stereotypes of both marginalised groups, joining the sexist and misogynistic tropes in light entertainment and films which set the tone for how the world viewed us and how we viewed ourselves. This lack of representation and role models forced us to create our own image during our teens, which in some cases was defiantly camp. Instead of allowing bullies to mock us, we accentuated certain behaviour, not just as a direct challenge to the heteronormative majority but against the conservative oppression in society.
Music and fashion were an escape from small-mindedness and even as early teens we were exploring alternatives and the fashionable disco and punk clubs were our laboratories of choice.
In the mid-1970s Bowie was the style icon along with Bryan Ferry. The black guys, including my brother, wore a mixture of jumble sale and charity vintage finds, styled with upmarket clothes saved up for from Browns, Les Deux Zebres and Margaret Howell or the more affordable Stanley Adams, Woodhouse and Fiorucci. Lacy Lady and the Gold Mine in Essex were two of the suburban hotspots, the former where you would see some of the first proto-punks in their plastic sandals, spiky dyed hair and attitude.
Crackers, an ostensibly gay-friendly disco on Wardour Street was very influential. Its excellent American black disco and jazz-funk soundtrack meant it became a refuge for the stylishly dressed young. Working-class soul boys and girls met the demi-monde and all-comers were embraced regardless of sexuality as long as they were passionate about music and were not afraid to see men kissing or dancing together. The venue ran daytime sessions (a mere 50 pence entrance fee) and their door policy was a lot more flexible, which was important for a young, mainly black crowd under 18, many of whom were unable to get into most venues. It was one of the first places I saw other young gay people enjoying themselves and forming cliques, a place where straight allies, both black and white, understood us and an environment where we could let off some steam and show off our style especially on the dancefloor.
When punk made its explosive impact, a whole new arena of possibilities swooped in for me and my friends. X-Ray Spex’s Poly Styrene, a dual-heritage Somali girl, sang on the single, Identity, with such confidence and social conscience that her lyrics were a personal revelation to me.
When you look in the mirror
Do you see yourself?
Do you see yourself
On the TV screen?
Do you see yourself in the magazine?
When you see yourself
Does it make you scream?
These moments illustrated to us that blackness was not a monolithic culture, that you could listen to punk and rock, or, as Les Child discusses in Claire’s film Beyond, you could study movement, ballet and art. Also in the film, the gender fluid performer, Lana P, tells of going from a teenage drag queen appearing in Northern working men’s clubs, impersonating Eartha Kitt and Shirley Bassey, to starring in the anarchic Comic Strip movie Eat The Rich and her SAW-produced hit, Pistol In My Pocket. When ‘Rock Against Racism’ was held in Victoria Park, the threat of violence from skinheads and teddy boys was very real in London. The cast share some of these frightening experiences, but fearing for our teenage lives was not something we ever discussed with each other at the time – for us it was part and parcel of life in the UK.
In 1978 I featured in photograph on a Daily Mail centre spread article on fashionable London nightlife with a girlfriend, me in a vintage second-hand suit and trilby with my friend in a Japanese embroidered outfit. We were almost embracing on the dance-floor. “Al Capone meets his Shanghai Lil” was the caption. I was 17, being in a national paper amongst my peers was unheard of and for fashion it was a badge of honour. I strolled into work the next day a lot more confident in my skin.
A slew of other clubs followed, starting with The Blitz, where the makeup artist Kenny Campbell became a successful makeup artist working on magazines such as The Face, Blitz and Vogue with Gaultier and Mondino, eventually spending almost two decades living in Paris. We both appeared together on the pages of i-D magazine, my photo appearing in a discussion with founder Terry Jones and the photographer Rankin in the latter’s 2016 BBC documentary No Body’s Perfect With Rankin and Alison Lapper (available on iPlayer).
In my twenties I joined the pop group Animal Nightlife, toured and recorded in Europe, finally breaking the top 40 with our fourth single Mr Solitaire in 1984, followed by the debut album Shangri La. The following decades were a zenith for London nightlife, clubs like Heaven (Europe’s biggest new gay club), The Jungle, Cha-Cha, The Lift, The Mud Club, Pink Panther, Queer Nation amongst others and later on fashion and decadence combined for the hedonistic pleasuredome that was Michael and Gerlinde Costiff’s Kinky Gerlinky.
Out of these clubs emerged Roy Brown, performer, model and muse to the fashion world. Roy was a cover star on Dazed & Confused magazine. He is currently the poster boy for the Barbican exhibition, Masculinities: Liberation Through Photography. Roy became one of the ubiquitous faces on the scene joining Les Child who had formed the UK’s first vogueing dance group, The House of Child. It was at Kinky Gerlinky that Winn Austin, the first black transgender model to feature in a UK billboard campaign, became the compere and hostess, travelling the world with the Kinky Gerlinky “roadshow”.
Claire Lawrie’s documentary interweaves these stories with tales of growing up, coming out and family. Contextualising the time period with archive footage and with a score by Robb Scott, who features in the film and reggae producer Dennis Bovell.
Although diversity in the arts is making progress, it will be refreshing when our lives are not designated as flavour of the month for Pride or Black History, but seen as integral to cultural life in a progressive United Kingdom. Black and brown queer visibility still has a long way to go. Black gay club nights such as Bootylicious, Happy Days and the Asian/Indian Club Kali have been running successful nights for years, focusing on new generations.
Last summer UK Black Pride, co-founded by Lady Phyll, inspired more than 10,000 people to descend on Hackney’s Haggerston Park, with long queues snaking out of the park into the early evening. Such is the demand for this free annual event that it has recorded a vast increase in numbers. For me, Black Pride is a mixture of Notting Hill Carnival and London’s Pride and a reminder that, even though gentrification and high rents may have squeezed out a lot of gay spaces, platforms like Black Pride and BlackOutUK, social media and people power can galvanise us to create our own success stories and to create events, spaces and places where we can feel free to be ourselves.
Beyond “There is always a black issue Dear” was first entered into competition at the Bristol 2018 Queer Vision film festival where it won “Best of British” and went on to win the Iris Prize 2018 “Best British” Award as well. The film had its London premiere at Rankin Studios last July to its hometown audience, along with Pride events in Manchester and London, since when it has also been screened in Seattle, Berlin, and Auckland. There are more screenings in 2020 (see below) and the film is becoming part of the bigger conversations on queer identities and representation addressing the gaps in important social history.