After 40 years in sequins and stilettos, Dave Lynn talks to Craig Hanlon-Smith about the life and loves of a legendary Drag Queen.
NOVEMBER 2014 marks the 40th anniversary of the legendary Dave Lynn’s first venture into the world of drag. In early 2015 Dave plans a unique theatre performance to celebrate his life as a cabaret artiste, a performance he is scripting himself, complete with well-known music and film clips. We spent an unseasonably warm October morning reliving the highs and lows of 40 years in a frock.
I began by asking Dave how it felt to be approaching such a landmark celebration. “I think my family are more surprised than I am. Aside from this, I’ve never been able to hold down what you might call ‘a proper job’. When I started [drag] I was still at school. I’d always had the urge to be an actor and my primary school suggested to my parents that they send me to a stage school. Coming from a Jewish background there was a Zionist grant available but although my parents were wonderful people and always supportive, I think in those days they were incredibly protective and considered me too sensitive for a career in show business.” (He roars with laughter at this.) “Even I didn’t know it was possible to make a career out of it.”
How did the foray into drag come about? “I was a naughty lad at [secondary] school. I was eventually expelled for being caught in the toilets with a girl, they thought we were having sex,” (laughs), “we were smoking, but the girl I was caught with, her dad was a regular at the Black Cap in Camden (say no more) and so we went there too. Eventually she encouraged me to enter a talent competition and that was November 12, 1974. I had a family party piece at the time to entertain the relatives and my mum lent me the costume for the competition. I was obsessed with Liza Minnelli, who had recently been in the film Cabaret, and so that was my look – all borrowed from my mum!”
Were your parents relaxed about that? Lending you women’s clothes to perform in? “At that time I certainly didn’t make any connection with the performing and being gay. Perhaps these days we’d know sooner, but not then. And yes, they even came to the first contest. I can remember peering through a curtain dressed in my Liza wig and winking at my dad. My mum thought that he was being picked up by a prostitute. My parents came to see me work throughout their lives and everyone on the scene knew them. It was so unusual that I think some punters had difficulty believing that they were really my mum and dad. But you know I actually think they helped a lot of people. When I told my parents that I was gay my dad said ‘we know!’ and that was the end of it. They used to talk to everyone and I know some guys then went home and spoke to their own parents.”
Did success come immediately for you or did it take time? “No one was more surprised at my success than I was. At first I was part of a double act with my then lover. As with most drag just starting out, we were a mime act, Double D, and we ate fire (laughs). That worked for about ten years, but then you have to change to keep pace with what people want. I was lucky to get so much work hosting – you really learn how to connect with an audience when you have to talk to them and that’s where the comedy came from. I got a gig at Heaven which was supposed to last six weeks. I was there for five years. I used to go out into the audience and literally talk to them; some established acts thought I was mad to do that. I can remember people telling me that moving out inside the audience like that was dangerous, but it worked. I used to run brash takes on TV game shows like The Generation Game and then, with other acts, bastardised versions of stage musicals and film. Lily Savage and I performed our own version of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and that was a great success.”
What’s changed in the drag and gay scene? “It’s almost like The Wizard of Oz to me – back then was the black and white section and then it suddenly became colour, you know? It was all much more underground then and of course now it isn’t. There is also such a wealth of talent now, and a lot of it good; you really have to up your game. On a Sunday I’d scour the papers for gossip to include in my shows, now what’s in the papers isn’t so funny anymore and not really drag material. Also we know so much more about the world now and so much more quickly. I don’t wish I was born later, but I’m thrilled to have seen the changes and I like the freedom that we have now to go anywhere we want.”
Twelve years ago you appeared on Channel 4’s Faking It, where you were chosen to be the drag expert to turn a serving member of the Royal Navy into a convincing drag act. Was this was the beginning of what seemed to be a run of television appearances? “That certainly opened up a lot of doors and to some extent was a strange time too. Spence (Brittany Ferry in Faking It) and I were asked to do all sorts, once appearing at the Royal Ballet Christmas Party, line dancing with Darcey Bussell, can you imagine? (laughs). But years before that, I had appeared on Bob Says Opportunity Knocks [with Bob Monkhouse]. Initially they wouldn’t let me perform in drag and I had to sing If I Were A Rich Man from Fiddler [On The Roof] as a man. During the cutaway section for the audience ‘clapometer’ I then reappeared in full drag singing Old Man River. I was 28. From that I got my first panto jobs and again as a man, not the Dame or Ugly Sister, I was usually the bad guy – Abanaazar and the like. I remember being in a show called Narnia with Christopher Biggins and someone suggested I should go back to stage school and train – I actually wound up teaching there too; cabaret.”
“Coming out of that period in the mid-1990s The Trollettes and Lily were massive and there was a lot of call for drag. Again, I performed with Michael Topping (of Topping & Butch) in a double act, Dave Lynn and Malitza, and I first came to Brighton in panto with Barbara Windsor. I rented a flat on Madeira Drive and never left!”
I’ve seen you perform many times both in and out of drag, on television, stage and beer crates in the back of East End boozers. What do you consider as career highlights? “I was working in a pub in Greenwich which was considered to be the graveyard for drag queens, and I was followed around for a while by the friend of a guy I knew who was a teacher who wanted to be a writer. That was Jonathan Harvey, who wrote Beautiful Thing. When they called me and asked me to be in the film I thought they were joking. I’d not seen the play and had no idea how important it already was and would yet be still.
“I can remember the day we filmed asking my parents to come along as I thought we’d be an hour – we were there all day. In between takes I was ad-libbing and doing my act really to keep everyone entertained, the punters were just the regular pub crowd that they used in the film. Most of my improvised routine they kept in the film and when it came out I was proud to have been part of such a landmark cultural event. From that I was offered lots of TV, including Coronation Street. I have to say on The Street I was terrible.”
How so? “Can you imagine? I’d spent my life watching that show with my mum and family, it was completely overwhelming; the sets that you recognise and everyone there is famous. I was so wooden (laughs). Faking It came later but it certainly helped. I turned up for an EastEnders casting and another act turned and said to me ‘If you’ve turned up there’s no point in the rest of us being here’. I think I pissed off the gay scene during that time as I was getting parts on TV and, from those, more theatre work. By the time I signed up for Dragula in London I had to turn down a lot of regular bookings and residences and the attitude of the scene was a little ‘you need to decide what you want, Dave’.”
So does that bring us on to the low spots? “I haven’t finished telling you about the highlights yet!”
He laughs but he’s deadly serious, as serious as he can be whilst heartily laughing along to his remembrance of everything from The Weakest Link to Silent Witness. Dave is fiercely engaging company, but warm with it, and I get the distinct feeling that once you were on board he’d have your back.
When you were approached to help cast The Boys/Girls In The Band, and the producer Kevin Wood asked you to help find seven actors who would double up as drag queens, you had a different idea! “I said no!” (laughs), “but I’ll find you seven drag queens who can act. That wasn’t an easy sell. Not to the producers but to the other acts! They took some persuading, I can tell you, but I was proud of that show and of everyone in it as with Diamond. I’ve performed that part three times now. That wasn’t me on that stage, that was me trying to be her and understand who she was. She was a real character and I loved her.”
You’re a positive force – has it all been fabulous? Have there been tough times? “The whole Barrymore episode was tough, but that was just unfortunate – a time and a place thing; I just happened to be there. Cheryl Barrymore wrote in her book that I outed him because he wouldn’t have me on his TV show, but it just wasn’t like that. I was there, he was there and essentially he got on to my stage. I was just holding my own as he was a formidable opponent and it was my gig. It’s just not the sort of publicity that you want.”
“Losing my parents was very hard. They were such a part of everything that I did, they were my friends. I miss calling them, showing them my dresses.”
When you’re in a situation like that how do you put on a frock, make-up, wig and turn up in a pub to sing showtunes? “Well, I don’t. I’m such a part of my act that in those circumstances it’s better to say I’m taking a couple of weeks off. Although the scene was great. The governor at The Gloucester said after my Dad died ‘if you just want to sing a couple of songs and go that’s fine’ but in a way that kindness also makes you more emotional. And AIDS,” (seems lost for words for a moment), “my mum said to me: ‘you’ve never lived through a war, Dave, but I would rather have lived through any war than through AIDS’. I can remember being on stage and looking out over a gay audience that was just bewildered and, of course, dying. We lost so many people.”
Forty years on stage – describe to us the Dave Lynn Experience! “Old School. I used to think that was an insult but my niece assures me it isn’t.” (Laughs).
“Glamour, a fun evening out, more glamour and perfect, perfect make-up. If it’s not perfect I’ll take it off and start over. You know most of all? I love those charity gigs we all do as a group. All the acts together; Maisie, I love Maisie, Lola and Miss Jason are my dearest friends, we have more fun offstage than on! I have some great friends who’ve kept my feet on the ground. My wonderful Tamzin, we met 15 years ago and she’s just been fantastic. And I love the audience, working with them, through them, getting to know them. I’m like a drag queen welcome mat. Dave Lynn the welcome mat.”