Monday, 16 January 2012

Nottingham's a Real Drag!

Think about drag in the UK and you don’t usually think about Nottingham - Manchester and London, yes, but Nottingham? Actually there’s quite a lot of drag history in the city.

First of all there’s Douglas Byng who was born in the Nottingham suburbs. I mentioned him over the Christmas period as my 3rd Gay of Christmas. But a more famous theatrical cross-dresser was the legendary Music Hall performer Vesta Tilley (1864-1952).

Vesta Tilley began her stage career at the age of 4 in her father’s theatre in Nottingham (now demolished; a large pedestrian crossing currently occupies the site). Cross-dressing, even on stage, was still frowned upon in her early days, and Vesta’s first male impersonation act in 1872 had to be “toned down” because the theatre manager considered it too realistic.

Vesta took a new approach to male impersonation. Instead of appearing as a woman pretending to be a man, she wanted to be seen as a man not a woman. To this end she didn’t wear specially-made men’s suits but actual men’s suits from the shops. This style was new for a woman and it proved popular, especially in the emerging lesbian literary community, even though Vesta herself was undoubtedly straight. It wasn’t long before lesbians were wearing real men’s clothes in public more often.

The year before Vesta Tilley performed her first drag act another one ended up in court. Ernest Boulton was the boyfriend of Lord Arthur Pelham-Clinton, MP for Newark, and member of the family who owned Nottingham Castle. Boulton performed in drag in stage plays but also often appeared in public in drag. He often introduced himself as Lady Stella Clinton and wore a wedding ring Lord Arthur had given him. In 1870 Boulton was arrested and put on trial for “masquerading” and, after love letters from Lord Arthur were found, “sodomy”. The trial caused a sensation. However, Lord Arthur was called to testify against his partner. To avoid embarrassment to Boulton and out of fear of his private life being disclosed Lord Arthur committed suicide the day after he received his summons to appear. Boulton was found not guilty, the general feeling at the time being given that cross-dressing in public was gradually acceptable.

One of the earliest definitive publications on drag was “Drag: A History of Female Impersonation on the Stage” (1968) by Roger Baker. He was born in Nottinghamshire, studied at Nottingham University, and worked for several local newspapers before moving to London at the start of the gay movement in the 1960s to be a journalist.

Also during the 60s the Gay Liberation Front advocated “Radical Drag”, the use of drag in public in relation to protest. Another Nottingham University student, Kris Kirk, was an active supporter of Radical Drag. He also appeared as Maid Marian in a gay street theatre performance of Robin Hood. He too later moved to London and became a journalist. With his partner Ed Heath Kris produced another definitive book of drag in 1984 called “Men in Frocks”.

My own connection with drag comes in several ways. First, I’ve always taken part in amateur theatre since I was a child – it’s in my blood. So I’ve dragged up a few times for pantos and review. My “Uncle” Will Hayes (photo) was a semi-professional entertainer and for many years appeared in many pantos. This photo is of him in one of his favourite costumes. More recently, one of my partners was a drag performer.

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