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24 April 2006
Art of the Matter: The club where gay turned wry

Tim Teerman: The Times

Duckie was born 10 years ago as a joke to send up gay culture

I?m always a bit suspicious when people start boasting about being in on key artistic moments. ?I was there in the Golden Heart when Tracey first came in, swearing that this unmade bed she?d created was gonna be hotter than Damien?s shark.? ?I saw Scissor Sisters in the East Village, like, aeons ago. Ana Matronic had a bubble perm.? But hey, finally I can gain some cred. I really was at Duckie when it all started back in 1995.

Duckie still remains proudly unprepossessing. The weekly club night takes place at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in Vauxhall, South London, a genuine spit-and-sawdust pub (though the loos have been redecorated), where Paul O?Grady?s Lily Savage started out. At the time Duckie was unique and it remains so: a club where dancing is les important than performance, and pretty twisted performance at that.

Suddenly its alumni are everywhere. On its first night Chris Green took to the stage and performed as Tina C, a deranged, unstable country music diva. Now Green is performing ? out of drag ? as part of the RSC?s Complete Works Season a one-man show that takes audience members into the dressing room of a Shakespearean actor. Amy Lamé, one of the club?s creators, has been a regular roving presenter on Richard and Judy, appeared on Celebrity Fit Club and presents a an afternoon radio show. This summer, she takes a one-woman show to Edinburgh. The Barbican has invited Duckie for a second residency this Christmas for a supper show that sees the audience broken down into upper and lower classes. Its last Barbican show won an Olivier award.

How did such a small, alternative place come to be so hot? It was founded as a gay club when everyone was going nuts about ?post-gay? ? so it rejects everything that is formulaic about gay clubbing; the tight T-shirts, the dance music, the pneumatic posing. That wider understanding has slowly seeped into the mainstream, which has started looking beyond acceptably gay stars ? Clary, Norton and co ? to edgier folk. Scott Capurro?s filthy act is a fixture in straight comedy clubs and he regularly crops up as a panellist on panel shows. Duckie has always supported acts traditionally shunted to the fringes. I remember one man blood-letting on stage, another young performer throwing missiles into the audience and the charms of the self-explanatorily named Miss High Leg Kick (enough to turn any homo straight). Duckie?s foundations are rooted in that moment in the mid-1990s when notions of what comprised ?gay culture? splintered. Now the mainstream is getting wise to the same subtleties.

Lamé, her business partner Simon Casson and others began the club inspired by the success of gay indie club Popstarz, which also opened in 1995. Back then, only a couple of gay venues offered anything remotely different from pecs and pumping house. The Bell pub in King?s Cross was so rough and full of freaks it seemed as if William Burroughs had made it up. There was also a veggie café, First Out, near Tottenham Court Road station, which was lefty and worthy. It?s still there, and I often fantasise that the feta and olive pasta has been on a low simmer since 1987. Naturally, First Out is a collective. Lamé worked in First Out when she arrived in London from the States and there fell in with a group of arty fags who, like her, disdained the conventional gay scene. When they started Duckie, the in-house DJs, the Readers? Wifes, played Siouxsie and the Banshees and punk. Their favourite song was Kate Bush?s Wuthering Heights.

Ten years on Duckie still has that spiky insistence on difference it had at its birth. It is also in thrall to variety and performance: some of the artists are controversial, even gross, but there is a real element of music hall at play, which has become more apparent with Duckie?s one-off events. These take place in ornate but faded, grand ballrooms. At its tenth birthday party a gasp came from the usually unshockable crowd when a performance artist appeared on a white horse, à la Bianca Jagger/Studio 54.The strange thing is no one, despite Duckie?s enduring coolness, has attempted to imitate it. Only Too 2 Much, on the site of the former Raymond?s Revue Bar in Soho, pays homage to its heritage by staging cabaret. In the East End the George and Dragon attracts some alternative acts. But really Duckie stands alone. That surprises Casson. ?Duckie started out as a satire on the commercialism of the gay scene, but we can?t be enfants terribles any more,? he protests. ?I?m nearly 40!?

It may have started as satire, but Duckie has grown into a profitable brand, and one which can only become ever more profitable as people realise ?gay? doesn?t end with Colin and Justin. A spot of cross-dressing genital piercing on Richard and Judy can only be a beat away.

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