Ian McKellen on Stage

Sir Ian Mckellen, star of stage, screen and gay bar, turns 80 this year. To celebrate this remarkable milestone, he’s trolling round the country on a nationwide tour of theatres big and small, illustrious and humble. The boards don’t come more illustrious than the Old Vic in London or more humble than the 300-seater Maddermarket Theatre here in old Norwich Town. It was to the Maddermarket we trolled to catch his one-man show.

And what a show he put on – from Gandalf to Shakespeare via Gerard Manley Hopkins and TS Eliot, all sprinkled with intimate memoir and gossipy anecdotes – like spending the evening with your favourite uncle, the one with a racy past and funny tales to tell. Wise, witty and utterly charming, Sir Ian (or Serena as he’s affectionately known to the brethren) doesn’t hide his light or sexuality under a bushel. He’s very matter of fact about both – modest about his immense talent and a ‘so what?’ attitude about his love life. How he can drop into character, instantly recalling long, complex soliloquies from the Bard is beyond me. His campy, high-pitched Juliet was pure joy.

There are many wonderful stories about Serena but perhaps my favourite is the time he arrived in Singapore to roll out his King Lear. Man-on-man hanky-panky was (and still is) illegal in the city state where the punishment is the cane and up to two years in Sing Sing. He was being interviewed on breakfast TV and asked the host where he might find a gay bar. I suspect one or two viewers choked on their muesli.

Salud from Gran Canaria

Salud from Gran Canaria

Contrary to rumour, the age demographic around the pool of the gentlemen-only bungalow resort was more mixed than anticipated. Everything else, though, was as billed – comfortable abode with a few luxury touches, an obliging Portugeezer host, glorious weather and a warm and inviting salt-water pool (despite the black tiles giving the water the appearance of the Thames at London Bridge). The complimentary bottle of Cava went down a treat too.

Mostly we lazed, read and exchanged small talk with our fellow inmates, all looked over by a serene statue of the Buddha. What he made of the wibbly-wobbly willies slowly sizzling like bangers on a BBQ, God only knows. When I first holidayed to Gran Canaria back in the early eighties, nudity was strictly verboten. As the years rolled by and buttons loosened, full frontal was allowed but only after the cleaners had left for the day. Now, it’s okay to let it all hang down wherever and whenever you fancy, even while sipping a sex on the beach at the bar. Public licentiousness, though, was off the menu, particularly in the jacuzzi. It clogs up the filters, apparently.

We kept our family jewels firmly under wraps except in the privacy of our bung. Our eyes, though, were everywhere and especially drawn to a tattooed man from Doncaster with well-nibbled nipples and pendulous equipment. Well, it would’ve been rude not to look.

As we lolled around the pool, the travelling sun poked through under the parasol. Liam said…

I must put something on my face.

A pillow?

I suggested. How we laughed.

Being of a certain age and disposition, we only ventured out a few nights to the bars which are mostly located in a shopping centre which…

…is a naff treat for all the senses, a crumbling multi-layered open air shopping and sex emporium. It started to fall apart as soon as it was built. By day, it’s an over-sized pound shop patronised by ancient slow-lane Germans in busy shirts and socked sandals. But, at the stroke of midnight, the racks of tat are wheeled away, the garish bars throw open their doors and the entire place is transformed into a gaudy cacophonous neon-lit cess-pit of drunken debauchery.

As described in my post, Gran Canaria, Sex Emporium, of many years past.

The place hadn’t changed much except, perhaps, for the drag acts, which have raised their game since last we were there – a little more vaudeville and a little less Blackpool.

One steamy afternoon, we jumped in a cab to the lighthouse at Maspalomas for a light lunch and a few bevvies. First up was a low-brow diner with a slapped-up Gemma Collins lookalike sitting on the next table with her Essex companions. Next up was a gay oom-pah-pah bierkeller serving strong ale and bar snacks to the jolly leather-faced Germans. We were gutted to learn that ‘brot mit knoblauchsauce’ was German for garlic bread. Who knew? The afternoon ended at a posh café sinking a delicious bottle of Rioja while watching the sun go down.

All in all, not a bad gig.

Salud!

A Hard Act to Follow

A Hard Act to Follow

When Liam planned our ‘jolly’ down memory lane, he wasn’t to know it would be the hottest May Day holiday on record. The Sun puts a smile on everyone’s face, doesn’t it? And we smiled our way round Bankside, my favourite district of London. Back when the first Elizabeth was on the throne, old Southwark was a riot of licentiousness – playhouses, brothels and taverns – beyond the jurisdiction of the City of London’s buttoned-up elders who wagged their fingers from the other side of the Thames. This is where Will Shakespeare plied his trade among the players, the prostitutes and the drunks. That’s my kind of town.

Not that there are many ne’er-do-wells milling around these days. The area has cleaned up its act and is now home to over-priced flats, over-priced eateries, over-priced bars, world-class modern art and a working replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. It certainly pulls in the crowds.

I went all thespian and began to recite the only lines I could remember from my part in a school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream circa 1976…

You, ladies, you, whose gentle hearts do fear

The smallest monstrous mouse that creeps on floor,

May now perchance both quake and tremble here,

When lion rough in wildest rage doth roar.

And roar I did, when Snug the Joiner became the lion in a rabbit costume smelling of mothballs and accessorised with an improvised mane. Times were hard in the seventies.

Liam decided my hammy Shakespeare was putting off the tourists and bundled me onto a riverboat and took me to a different kind of theatrical show – a little fairy dusting of trad drag.

street-entertainment.jpg

It was an eventful afternoon made all the more eventful by the delightful boys from the Abbey Rugby Club in Reading. They were on a ‘Monopoly board tour’ and had landed on Trafalgar Square for a queer beer. Well fancy that. And I did.

The Naughty Square Mile

The Naughty Square Mile

It was high time for a little naughty fun in the smoke – a chance to spend a boozy afternoon with the London landlady of our Turkey years and an old mucker of mine from way back when. First stop was the French House, an iconic Soho watering hole popular with arty types. It’s a…

…fabulous and entertaining spot to raise a glass in London, the French House truly deserves its reputation as the best known pub in the world’s naughtiest square mile. It’s no music, no machines, no television and no mobile phones rule makes it a haven for conversationalists and a firm favourite among some of the best known names in show business.

Even if they do say so themselves.

And converse we did through four bottles of their finest house plonk. Sadly, the clientele was a bit light on thespians and there was nobody famous to gawp at.

Cheers!

Next up was a Thai vegan restaurant. Imagine me doing vegan? Not when I’m sober. It was tasty enough but a bit of pricey for a plate of rice and veg sprinkled with a few cashew nuts and not at all fit for soaking up the Devil’s brew.

Finally, we fell into The Admiral Duncan, a gay bar made famous by a nail bomb which, in 1999, killed three and maimed many others. It was good to see the old place still thriving after all these years despite the advent of ‘dating’ apps which have killed off many a clip joint. It’s the Amazon effect. Why bother with the faff and expense of propping up the bar hoping for a chance liaison when you can order in with free delivery?

Admiral Duncan

Our former landlady popped to the loo to spend a penny and got more than she bargained for. Liam asked if she was alright.

Not really, no. There’s a transsexual masturbating in the ladies.

I had no words.

God’s Own Country

God’s Own Country

On a complete whim, we decided on a mini tour of Yorkshire. As England’s largest traditional county by far, it was a very teeny weeny tour encompassing just Leeds, Knaresborough and Harrogate. We travelled across the flatlands to Grantham, the birthplace of Maggie Thatcher. I’ll leave you to decide whether that should be celebrated. From there, the Virgin Express sped us north to Leeds, the throbbing heart of West Yorkshire. Where once there were dark satanic mills, now there are trendy loft conversions, glass towers and a branch of Harvey Nicks.

Leeds Panorama

The handsome city has seen something of a renaissance of late and now boasts one of the most diversified economies in Britain. I’d like to tell you we were there to see the sights and take in the culture but I can’t. As soon as we’d dropped off our bags, we were off down the rough end beneath the rainbow bridge. Leeds has a small but beautifully-formed gay scene, each venue staggering distance from the next. Happy hour dribbled on all afternoon and we did indeed get to see some sights but nothing you’ll find in the tourist blurb. We eventually made it back to the hotel though I have no memory of how we got there.

Next day, button-bright, we jumped on the slow train to Knaresborough. The Guardian Newspaper describes the town as tatty and batty and the cap really fits. Perched high on the cliffs above the River Nidd and wrapped in a blanket of iridescent green, Knaresborough is famous for the railway viaduct that crosses the water. The views from the tumbledown castle are simply stunning.

The little town is also famous for its independent spirit and independent shops – the butcher, the baker, the cappuccino-maker. This is the place where madcap mattress-wheeling teams sprint around the town for no apparent reason in the annual bed race. It’s completely batty. And we do batty.

Liam and I always have an eye on the future and we wandered around the quirky streets making mental notes of the good points (many) and the bad points (few). We retired to a coffee house to debrief. The verdict? Right now, it’s top of the leader board.

The final destination on our whistle-stop tour was elegant Harrogate, which the Guardian calls hoity-toity. And so it is with its cream teas and posh nosh. I was last there for a wedding in 2004. The bride was a lovely gal from work with a well-deserved reputation for being an all round good egg. As I looked around the church at the time, I could tell who was in and who was out.

The next day it was back to good ol’ Norwich but not before I was interviewed on camera in the pouring rain by someone from the local telly asking me about local ishoos. I did explain that as I didn’t actually live in Yorkshire, my opinion counted for nowt (see, I’m already starting to speak Yorkist). He didn’t seem to mind. Hallelujah to God’s own country.

P.S. I had totally forgotten that the Harrogate bride now actually lives in Knaresborough. We could have met up for a long-overdue natter, how thick am I?

Heaven is a Place on Earth

Recently, the wonderful Stephen Fry presented an equally wonderful programme on Channel Four celebrating five iconic buildings inextricably linked with the pink community and the struggle for LGBT rights. As a London boy with my London ways, two of the building resonated with me in particular. The first was the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in south London, the scene of many a young man’s undoing – mine included, I’m pleased to say. In 2015, the venue received listed (i.e. protected) status by Historic England because…

…the building has historic and cultural significance as one of the best known and longstanding LGB&T venues…

It’s the only building to be listed on this basis.

The second venue on the list was Heaven. Not the fairy tale beyond the Pearly Gates, no, the paradise on Earth that is the nightclub in the arches under Charing Cross Station in what used to be the wine cellar for the station’s grand hotel. The club opened in 1979 and is still throbbing to the beat today.

I stepped through the now famous doors soon after it opened and the stage was set for my regular Saturday night Bacchanalia. One fateful evening in 1982, someone with arctic-blue eyes and Tom Sellick tash emerged from the mob of vests and chests. I stalked him for what seemed like hours. Little good it did me. I didn’t get so much as a side glance for my trouble. Clearly, my magic wand had run out of juice that night. In the end I thought ‘sod you’, cut my losses and headed for the exit.

As I retrieved my jacket from the coat check, there was a tap on my shoulder.

You owe me a cigarette.

I gave the man with the arctic-blue eyes and Tom Selleck tash my last fag and he smoked it. We were together for 11 years. Funny thing was, he wasn’t a smoker.

Michael and Me

The Witching Hour

The Witching Hour

Of late, boozy gigs with ancient comrades from old London Town have been as rare as ginger imams. Somehow life just gets in the way. So, one evening I fired off a text.

“Boys. It’s high time we had a coven.”

After a flurry of replies, it was game on.

I always get down to the big city a tad early – to imbibe the vibe and cast my spell over the Soho boys. I know, hopelessly deluded. Gay scene wise, Soho isn’t quite what it was. Online ‘dating’ has seen to that. Nevertheless, a few old haunts stumble on, attracting the after-school crowd. I wandered into the Duke of Wellington (or the Welly as it’s affectionately known, my spiritual home back in the day). As I headed for the bar, I spied a former squeeze in the corner of my eye. By the time I’d been served, the hairy old crow had taken flight, leaving half his pint behind. Clearly, my magic wand has lost its vigour. I wouldn’t mind but it’s over twenty years since we stepped out.

After a sherry or two with my London witches, we pitched up at a local brasserie for a bite and a long natter. We wittered on for hours about everything and nothing and by the time we were hoarse, the staff were sweeping up and stacking chairs around us. It was time to mount our broomsticks, and as befits three old sorcerers whose powers to bewitch have all but withered, we were tucked up in our beds by the stroke of midnight.

This is what we looked like twenty years ago before our allure had faded. Obviously, that’s not yer actual Taj Mahal. We were in Blackpool for a dirty weekend. And where better?

And this is what we look like now. No wonder our wands have dropped off.