Thursday, 27 February 2014

Dragging It Out With Music

On Tuesday night I joined my colleagues on the Nottinghamshire Rainbow Heritage project at the council house in Nottingham for our annual celebration of LGBT History Month. Part of the celebration featured a performance by two members of a local energy company who entertained the capacity audience with their drag double act. It’s highly appropriate that drag cabaret formed part of the celebration because, as I’ve mentioned before, Nottingham was the home city of one of the UK’s most famous drag performers and cabaret artists of the 20th century – Douglas Byng (1893-1987).

Douglas Byng features a lot in my lgbt tours of Nottingham. There are plenty of stories about him that I can use, not all of them on the same tour. For today I want to pull some of these together into one article.

We’ll start with his birth – where else? Douglas wasn’t born in the city centre but in a suburb called Carrington about a mile away, too far away to actually take the tour on foot. His father Joseph Byng was the manager of the Nottingham Joint and Stock Bank which was in the city centre just behind the council house. The bank is now a branch of the French Connection fashion store. I explain on my tours a little about Douglas’s family background in front of this store, of how appropriate it is that Douglas became interested in fashion, and how Joseph and his first wife and 10 children lived in an apartment on the top floor. After the death of his wife the family moved out to a new house in Carrington, where Joseph lived with children and his 2nd wife, and where Douglas was born.

The road out of the city centre to Carrington is called Mansfield Road. At the end of the Victorian period and into the start of the 20th century this road was the place to be seen on a Sunday afternoon. After church and Sunday lunch people would dress up in their finest and walk up and down Mansfield Road (its quite a long road) during what was called the Sunday Parade.

While he was still a youngster Douglas decided he’d take part in this Sunday Parade. Wearing a wig made from hemp matting, a purple overcoat and a tall cane he strolled up Mansfield Road and back down again. He waved to passers-by and greeted imaginary friends, and then encountered a very real neighbour who recognised him. Douglas was deeply embarrassed at being discovered and never took part in the Sunday Parade again. Considering this is now the route of the annual Nottingham Pride march from the city centre to the Pride site it seems that Douglas wasn’t the last gay man to dress up and be noticed on Mansfield Road.

This interest in dressing up didn’t impress Douglas’s parents, however. They sent him off to live with his eldest brother in Germany in an effort to curb his enthusiasm for theatrics. There Douglas studied music which would become a vital part of his later career in cabaret. Also putting the kibosh on his parents’ intentions Douglas grew more interested in costume as his brother owned a lace factory (Nottingham was a leading lace-making centre at the time and it’s lace-makers were in demand around the world).

Douglas returned to England before the First World War and began his career as a theatrical costume designer. In 1914 he took to the stage himself in a seaside concert party. He first appeared in pantomime in 1921, and in 1924 played his first Dame role in “Dick Whittington”. For those unfamiliar or confused by British panto the Dame is a comedy role played by a man in drag, usually quite grotesque or eccentric in character. It was in the Dame role that Douglas was to make his name in the 1930s and it enabled him to use his design skills to create ever increasingly outlandish costumes, something that has now become essential in British panto.

Dames had previously been played “straight” as men dressed as little old ladies (think of Old Mother Riley, or a comedy version of Norman Bates from “Psycho”). Douglas brought more fun, imagination, and indeed glamour, to his costumes, often parodying the fashion of the time. In the 1930s there was a fashion for short fox-fur capes complete with rows of fox tails. My grandmother had one, it was creepy!

Douglas parodied these capes by designing one made out of bathroom loofahs instead of fox tails. It presented problems a couple of years later when World War II broke out because loofahs were imported, and they became difficult to obtain. Douglas realised that his loofah cape was in danger of being stolen. There were plenty of Black Marketeers who’d think nothing of stealing it and selling the loofahs at a profit. So Douglas decided to lock the cape away in a safe when it wasn’t needed for performances. Needless to say, this made the cape more valuable than the real fox-fur capes, and a valuable asset.

Douglas performed in Nottingham several times in pantomime at the Theatre Royal, another stop on my tours. After retiring to Brighton on the south coast he still visited Nottingham to see his siblings, several of whom lived well into their 90s, and a brother who died in 1983 at the age of 103. Douglas himself died at the age of 94.

To end this article I’ll show you this video of Douglas Byng in action doing one of his cabaret acts. It’s not very crisp in either sound or vision I’m afraid. Rather than appear in full drag as he did in his usual cabaret act, Douglas gives the suggestion of drag with a few simple items of clothing in this old film from 1932.

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