In the wake of the recent news of the “unexpected but peaceful” passing of Paul O’Grady, we’re paying tribute to one of the iconic London venues that launched O’Grady to fame. It was through his performances at The Royal Vauxhall Tavern as drag icon Lily Savage that O’Grady started his journey to becoming a household name, and a beloved queer icon.
The Royal Vauxhall Tavern, is internationally renowned for their long-lasting importance and presence in London’s LGBTQIA+ nightlife scene. The famed names to have made appearances as patrons or performers include the likes of Freddie Mercury, Dame Edna, Princess Diana (who was famously snuck in with a disguise), Dame Hellen Mirren, and, of course, Paul O’Grady.
Paul O’Grady as Lily Savage
It was at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern that O’Grady displayed his craft as a drag icon, under the guise of Lily Savage. Over eight years, O’Grady performed four nights a week in the character, during the height of the British police’s constant homophobia-fuelled raids of gay venues. O’Grady was often onstage during these raids, and one particular raid has gone down in infamy for O’Grady’s quippy response:
O’Grady went on to star in many beloved TV shows, ranging from The Paul O’Grady Show to Paul O’Grady: For the Love of Dogs. He went on to a hugely illustrious radio career, too, and only last year finished up a 14-year stint on BBC Radio 2. He also continued to perform on-stage, just last week taking to the floorboards as Miss Hannigan in performances of Annie at the Edinburgh Playhouse.
Royal Vauxhall Tavern’s history
Few venues inspire as much devotion, as much reverence, as the inimitable Royal Vauxhall Tavern. The haunt of celebrities, drag queens, and the great and good of the LGBT+ community, the rich and storied history of the RVT is a colourful tale, woven into the fabric of the city’s nightlife. In fact, in 2015 it became the first building in the UK to gain Grade II-listed status on the basis of its importance to the LGBT+ community.
The Royal Vauxhall Tavern has a long, proud history as a party destination, having been built on the site of the old Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. They even used the leftover bricks to build the venue! Though the building has been a licensed public house since the 1860s, the Royal Vauxhall Tavern’s beginnings as a nightlife hub began after WW2, when the first drag shows took to the stage.
By the 1970s, drag acts and gay men mixed with local workers, making the tavern a progressive, inclusive space which continues to this day. Now an all-week venue, the RVT continues to go from strength to strength as south London’s oldest surviving LGBT+ venue. A vision in worn red velvet and disco balls, the Royal Vauxhall Tavern is a remarkably down to earth place, with an atmosphere that makes everyone feel instantly at home.
What’s on at The Royal Vauxhall Tavern
Keeping alive the wild hedonism of the past, The Royal Vauxhall Tavern still ranks amongst the must-visit spots for the city’s nightowls. Regular events include the Sunday Cabaret, which sees a mix of performances ranging from drag to burlesque, singing, stand up, and more. They also host an innovative night of wildly-inclusive LGBT and Queer performance at Bar Wotever on Tuesdays, and all kinds of themed quizzes and hyper-inclusive club nights and events.
But whatever the occasion, you can always expect it to be a PACKED pub. The place doesn’t exactly know the meaning of the words “quiet night”. In a city which finds nightlife spaces – in particular LGBT+ nightlife spaces – increasingly under threat, one can only hope the RVT keeps the party going for many years to come.
Also published on Medium.