The Royal Vauxhall Tavern is a British institution. The beloved south London pub been a home away from home for the LGBTQ community of the city since as early as the 1940s, leading the charge in drag and cabaret culture at a time when the mainstream was hostile to it. It’s played host to Duckie, the club night run by London’s night czar Amy Lamé, for 21 years. Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley shot scenes there for 2016’s Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie. Even Princess Diana is rumored to have visited, in 1988, disguised in male drag and accompanied by Freddie Mercury. And during the terrorist attacks in London Bridge earlier this month, it became even more of a refuge and safe space, as people waited out the danger within its walls.
The pub’s history hasn’t been without its battles. In 2014, as gentrification swept through the area, the venue was bought by property developers named Immovate. In response, a group of activists affiliated with the venue formed the campaign RVT Future, and began lobbying to get the building granted listed status, so that it could not be transformed into luxury apartments. In 2015, Historic England awarded the building Grade II listing, in recognition of its historical significance.
In celebration of Pride month, The FADER caught up with Catia Ciarico, Head of Light Entertainment, who has worked at the RVT for 10 years. She explained why the longevity of an LGBTQ space involves both honoring history, and looking to the future.
Diversify your lineups
“When I first came on board 10 years ago, they were still developing weekday nights — it’s open seven nights a week now, with a huge and eclectic array of queer events. That’s the main difference. Also, it used to be quite narrow, but now it’s diverse. There wasn’t enough women. It was very male, and an older audience base. So it was a case of bringing women and younger people in. I wanted to open it up, because there’s so much more out there — there were more audiences attending queer events that weren’t just about watching a drag queen onstage.”
Be prepared to fight for your space
“The area around the RVT has gentrified rapidly. I’ve always lived in south London, but when I first came to Vauxhall, it was kind of a downbeat area; a lot of it was industrial. And suddenly, all these flats went up. We thought, Great, this is going to massively enlarge our audience base! It didn’t, because those people that bought those flats are all just investors, and if you walk along, two thirds of those flats are empty — there’s no lights on. [But] the RVT has always had its very strong identity; it’s always been a place that operates outside of the norm.
“I don’t think the battle’s over yet. [The building is] still owned by a developer, and if they decide to sell it, then what happens? From what I understand, I think RVT Future are intending to raise funds to buy it.”
Know your history, and honor it
“The RVT means something. When it first became known as a gay haunt, I think around World War II officially, it was a place where people could go and they weren’t going to be attacked for what they were. So it’s really become part of LGBTQ history. It has a similar significance as Stonewall. There is a story of it being raided during the ‘80s, when the AIDS epidemic hit; all the police ran in wearing rubber gloves, because they were afraid of what they might catch. We used to have funerals there. It was very tragic.
“When I first started, 10 years ago, I used to turn up on a Monday morning and the front would be covered in eggs. Because people had been walking past pelting eggs and shouting things over the weekend. It’s only recently it’s calmed down. That’s why the RVT holds such a special place — because it was a place of freedom of expression when things weren’t allowed to be freely expressed. And that is a very important part of its history.”
But always support young, emerging talent
“The young people who come through now, their work is so exciting.There’s a performer called Travis Alabanza who’s fantastic, they work with [performer] The Phoenix, doing a show titled We Need To Talk About Michelle. It’s Beyoncé-style cabaret, very fresh, very raw. There’s a guy called Felix Le Freak, and Tracy Barlow, that have just come out of Drag Idol [drag contest at the RVT], they’re very exciting performers. And Ness Gracious...she’s actually a burlesque act, but she also does drag.”
Trust your audience
“They know better than you what they want. You just see what’s happening, what people like, and what the changes are; venues should always reflect that, so it becomes like a conversation with people.”
Most of all: just do it
“Go for it. There’s not much else to say. Get your business ideas firmly in place, and go for it. [East London pub] The Glory just recently started, a couple of years ago now, and [north London venue] Her Upstairs only started up in the last year. There’s definitely a need for it. If you put the right stuff on, you’re going to do well. If you don’t risk, you don’t gain.”