Tag Archives: drag

Comedy Cafe owner Noel Faulkner reviews my first stage performance

Publicity shot for my first ever show

Last Wednesday night I took to the stage for the first time.

I appeared doing a 10-minute spot in a Valentine’s Night special at Martyn Sadler’s new comedy club in East London.

It was, perhaps, a rather rowdier audience than I would have preferred.

But, sitting in the audience, was comedy promoter Noel Faulkner, who founded the Comedy Cafe – now at its new venue in Shoreditch.

He was kind enough to share this review of my act via social media the next day.


Noel Faulkner is a man of exquisite taste

Well I have to say John Fleming – who has seen more comedy than anyone in the business – is definitely a dark horse of the stage. He was amazing in his performance last night. First of all, nobody told me he has such a great falsetto voice. I thought he was miming!

His performance from the moment he stepped on stage just blew everyone away (John is good at blowing). And, at his age, to come on to what must be one of the most difficult tap dancing routines since Fred Astaire and still have the energy to do two songs – one with an audience member on his shoulders – was both a treat and a feat.


Martin Soan (pictured) introduced German act The Short Man in Long Socks in 2016 wearing short socks to avoid confusion

I have hopes that Noel may book me at his Comedy Cafe Theatre in the summer but, in the meantime, Martyn Sadler has re-booked me to perform at his new East London club at the end of March.

Also on the bill will be that extraordinary German variety club act The Short Man in Long Socks – Der kleine Mann mit langen Socken – who has not been seen in London since his appearance at Pull the Other One in Nunhead in 2016.

I blogged about it at the time.

Tickets for the March show at Martyn Sadler’s club are available online now at £10 full price; £15 for students.

This admirable pricing system is based on a model the late Malcolm Hardee once used for his show at the Edinburgh Festival.

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A wee chat about what it is like to live as a married man in women’s clothing

Sandra Smith: a woman of many costumes

Sandra Smith: a woman of many costumes

Last Saturday night I went to fetish club Torture Garden’s Love Hurts Valentine’s Ball, at Elephant and Castle, with this blog’s South Coast correspondent Sandra Smith.

I posted a blog about it.

Here Sandra Smith, too, shares a memory.


While John went to change into his outfit, I got into conversation with a man who was dressed in female attire.

She said her name was Katie.

We chatted at the foot of the stairs for a while, then moved into one of the rooms to continue our conversation.

Katie told me that she was 44, with a degree in Analytical Chemistry.

She had started to wear women’s clothing on hitting puberty, a time when she had wanted to get a girlfriend but couldn’t.

I suggested maybe cross-dressing was an unusual reaction to that.

She laughed and said: “Yes, I suppose it was.”

Katie said that she loved her wife, wanted to have sex with her, but felt neglected and shut-out after the children were born. Her wife always had some excuse not to have sex.

I suggested that she probably IS tired with two young children.

Katie brushed this aside.

I asked Katie what cross-dressing made her feel like and what it gave her.

She said that, when dressed as a woman, she loved the attention that she got from men. It made her feel desired, an affirmation of self.

This had led to many sexual encounters with men.

I asked her what sort of man was she attracted to.

“Anyone that will have me, really…”

We laughed at that.

“…although I do like black men,” she continued, “I wonder if women are attracted to men that cross-dress – in a sexual way I mean?”

“I’m sure there are those that are,” I replied.

Katie also mentioned that she loved looking feminine, would love to have breasts and some work done on her face to feminise it even more.

A year ago, she told her wife about her need to cross-dress and her sexual encounters with other people. This naturally had not gone down very well. But she feels that they are moving on a bit now, after much discussion.

Her wife has gone from saying about her feminine underwear: “I’m not touching those!” to “Are these yours or mine?”

Most weekends, she tolerates Katie going out as her female self, but Katie changes at a friend’s house. Her wife doesn’t feel that she can tell anyone about the situation, so only has her husband to talk to. She wants to keep the marriage going but the way forward isn’t clear, even though Katie has suggested they continue in an open marriage.

Katie adopts her male role during the week and at work and feels that nobody knows about her other life, apart from the other like-minded people that she socialises with.

I felt a bit sad for them all: caught in a situation that seems to me to be so difficult emotionally.

Katie doesn’t want to talk to anyone formally at the moment, but this may change.

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My LA-based namesake from Rochdale double-cross-dresses with a drag queen

Amanda Fleming at Soho Theatre this week

Amanda Fleming at Soho Theatre this week

When I last chatted to L.A. based but Rochdale-brought-up actress Amanda Fleming (no relation) it was as an actress in the 26-minute short Titans of Newark. Now she has produced and directed her own short film.

“It’s called What a Drag,” she told me at London’s Soho Theatre this week.

“How did it start off?” I asked.

“David Carlisle, a friend of mine, does a lot of personal dressing for people.”

“Personal dressing?”

“He’s a stylist.”

“Ah.”

“But he also has this pseudonym Candy Floss – a drag queen character – I’ve seen him go out as Candy Floss and…”

“You mean he performs as Candy Floss?” I asked. “He doesn’t meander the streets in drag?”

“Well, he dresses up and he gets paid to make an appearance every now and then. We used to talk about Oh, let’s do a webisode – some banter between a drag queen and a drag king – a female dressing up as a man.”

“So you were going to dress up as Burlington Bertie or whatever?”

“I was originally. But another friend of mine, Cherry Blossom, is a drag queen.”

At this point, if I were capable of raising a Roger Moore eyebrow, I would have done.

“I know,” laughed Amanda, “my whole life is full of drag queens. But they both came down to London from Manchester in drag to see me for Gay Pride and…”

“They came down in drag?” I asked.

A still from the final version of the short film What A Drag

A still from the final version of the short film What A Drag

“Yes. When they came down, I thought we should do a short 10-minute film, documentary-style, about these two characters. But then I thought Do you know what would be really great? If it was a proper 25-minute documentary – but a comedy version – a mocku-docu-drama. You know how you get these reality TV shows now where they’re supposed to be real but aren’t?

“So we discussed doing a spoof documentary where they are asked about their lives, but there are flashbacks to their past – little drama clips in between – that shows the reality was the complete opposite of what they’re actually saying.”

“With you directing?” I asked.

“Yes,” replied Amanda. “I like Mike Leigh films. He and Quentin Tarantino are two of the directors I really like.”

“That’s a bit of a…” I started to say.

“I am a bit eclectic,” Amanda explained.

“If they did each other’s films,” I suggested, “that would be very interesting. I would pay to see Mike Leigh’s Pulp Fiction and Quentin Tarantino’s Abigail’s Party.

“Yes,” said Amanda, trying to get back to the subject. “Mike Leigh gets actors to improvise scenes from basic bullet-points…”

“Perhaps Mike Leigh should create Queens With Machine Guns,” I suggested.

The very feminine Amanda - she had to double cross dress

The very feminine Amanda – she had to double cross dress

“So,” said Amanda, forcing the conversation back on track, “I got together the basic outline – the beginning, the middle and the end – and then the important thing was to get the right questions which would provoke outrageous answers and good improvised scenes. We did all that and then, right at the last minute, the guy who was playing Cherry Blossom got taken into hospital. So I had to stand in for him.”

“As a drag act?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Amanda. “But it changed from being two drag queens to being a drag queen and a cross dresser.”

“So,” I checked, “you were a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman?”

The double cross dresser and the drag queen

Spot the woman: the double cross dresser and the drag queen

“Yes,” said Amanda. “We did one scene and played it back and we were pissing ourselves laughing because it looked so wrong. When you watch it, you don’t really know it’s me. It’s really dodgy.”

“Dodgy in what way?” I asked.

“Dodgy as in funny. Quirky. The thing is that one of the characters is oblivious to a lot of the insults which the other character is throwing at her and it’s not until towards the end you suddenly realise it has started to sink in and they end up in this massive…”

“Has it got a twist at the end?” I asked.

"It could turn into a full-length feature or TV comedy series,”

“It could turn into a full-length feature or TV comedy series,”

“Of a type,” said Amanda. “Some people we showed it to loved it; some people didn’t. We are going to do a mini-screening in Manchester and then hit the international film festivals with it. We are going to try to get it into Cannes next year. I got Titans of Newark in there last year, so I know some of the organisers.”

“It is a very good elevator pitch,” I said. “A drag queen improvises with a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman.”

“It could turn into a full-length feature or a TV comedy series,” said Amanda.

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A remarkable fire-eater talks about a death and British alternative comedy

A poster for the Nell Gwynn/Gargoyle Club

A poster for the Nell Gwynn/Gargoyle Club

In a blog a couple of weeks ago, the So It Goes blog’s occasional correspondent Anna Smith wondered what had happened to her acquaintance, an exotic dancer from Winnipeg called Karen, who was last heard-of in London.

Unfortunately, I can tell her.

I had a drink this week with Philip Herbert, best-known to me as fire-eating comedy act Randolph The Remarkable.

“Sadly Karen passed away,” Philip told me. “She got knocked off her bike in London. She was overtaking a lorry and a bus came towards her.”

“When was this? I asked.

“About 15 years ago,” Philip told me.

“The last time I saw her, she was on her bike and I shouted: Careful on that bike!

“That was the last thing I said to her. And, about a fortnight after that, she was dead.

“At the time, I was on a 12-week tour, doing A Tale of Two Cities at the Oxford Playhouse. So I couldn’t get to the funeral. Her parents thought she was working as an au pair and teaching; they had no idea she was working on the strip circuit. All her friends were freaks, were punks, were entertainers. Apparently the wake was weird because everyone was pretending they knew Karen through her teaching.

“She was going into comedy. She was beginning to speak and tell stories and do poetry.

“In the old days, there was a cross-over between stripping and comedy. 69 Dean Street was the Nell Gwynne strip club until about 11 o’clock and then it suddenly turned into The Comedy Store. When it got successful, they stopped doing the stripping on Friday and Saturday and they did two comedy shows – an 8 o’clock and a midnight.

“If you were on the circuit then, you’d do first act in the first house at the Comedy Store, then go off and do a pub in Stoke Newington or wherever, then rush back and do second or third on the bill in the second show at the Comedy Store. If you were good, you were working in more than one place. Everyone worked round each other and there was a cross-over between street acts and alternative acts”

Philip performed feats of skill as Randolph The Remarkable

Philip performed feats of skill as Randolph The Remarkable

“I must have first seen you in the 1980s,” I said, “when you were Randolph The Remarkable.”

“I still do Randolph The Remarkable: Fire-Eater Extraordinaire. Feats of Skill Involving Fire and a Blue Bowl of Lukewarm Water. The only trouble is now, because of Health & Safety, you have to have a Risk Assessment and Public Indemnity Insurance and a fireman standing in the wings who holds a bucket of sand. If you can do all that, then they’re prepared to book you. In the old days at the Comedy Store, you’d get £5 and a drink token and I used to work under a sprinkler and there couldn’t be anything more dangerous than that. I don’t suppose they’d allow that now.”

Philip (right) as Hugh Jelly with Julian Clary

Philip (right) often performed as Hugh Jelly with Julian Clary

“Back in the 1980s, it was much more risky and exciting and there was that cross-over from people who worked as street performers – I started off as Randolph at Covent Garden and Camden Lock… and people saw the act and said Oh, you must do the Comedy Store. Then people would see you at the Comedy Store above the Nell Gwynne strip club and say Oh, you must do the new variety Cast circuit.

“How did you get into fire-eating?” I asked.

“I was an actor in a community company,” explained Philip, “and we were asked if we wanted to learn how to fire-eat for a historical tour. We did Southampton and Portsmouth. We took people round different historical sites and pubs and re-enacted history – it was a pub crawl, really – and then, as the light faded, we stood on the city wall and did fire-eating and fire-blowing.

“Then I was out of work for months and I thought This is ridiculous. I’ve got this skill. So I did it at Covent Garden and, back then in the early 1980s, you could just turn up and do it. You didn’t need a licence; you didn’t need to audition. Now you have to go through this whole rigmarole and they don’t allow fire there any more because there was a silly accident where somebody spilled paraffin into the crowd.

“I still do Randolph at the Punch & Judy Festival at Covent Garden every year.

Philip as Drag Idol favourite Nora (photograph by John Tsangarides)

Philip as Drag Idol favourite Nora (photograph by John Tsangarides)

“And I did Gay Pride last year and I also do a drag act now called Nora Bone. I was a finalist in last year’s Drag Idol. I was in the last four out of 200-odd acts. I wear a red wig; I’ve been described as a bloated Geri Halliwell, because I wear a Union Jack dress. Not a mini – just below the knee. And white tights and very low heels, because I used to be on a higher heel and I fell. A lower heel is much more sensible for a lady of my age.”

“Are you an attractive woman?” I asked.

“Beautiful. I make the boys’ heads turn. I’m trying to do songs that other people don’t do. Not Life’s a Cabaret or I Did It My Way. I do I’m Too Sexy For My Skirt, Save All Your Kisses For Me, Madonna’s Holiday. The idea is that I’m an ex-recording artist that people don’t remember; an ex-supersize model; that I did a lot of ‘before’ photographs in diet magazines; and I’m a stand-in for Adele.”

“Do you regret not being a full-time actor?”

“Well, Nora is all acting. And doing circus, doing panto… a lot of straight actors knock panto. But I tell them To do panto well is as difficult as doing Shakespeare well – because it’s a set piece. You’ve got all the set stuff with the audience, the interaction. And you’ve got men playing women and women playing men.”

“You’re a character actor, really,” I suggested.

“Last year,” said Philip, “I was in a play about music hall legend Dan LenoThe Hard Boiled Egg and The Wasp. When he was committed to what his wife thought was a care home but turned out to be an asylum, I played the warder.

Philip The Poet

…Philip The Poet…

“I also do a character called Philip The Poet. I’ve always written poetry. I met John Hegley on a bus on National Poetry Day and he said to me Why don’t you do a couple of poems? because he runs a regular night at the Betsey Trotwood in Farringdon. He knew I wrote poems but I didn’t perform them. So I performed at John Hegley’s venue and I really enjoyed it, so I’m doing more and more of that.”

“Would you like to be a straight poet?” I asked.

“Straight-ish,” replied Philip. “With a comical kick at the end. I like my poetry. I comment on things I see. I can write a poem that isn’t a funny poem – that doesn’t need a smile at the end – but I think if you can say something that gets a sharp intake of breath that leads to a laugh… That’s as rewarding as a big guffaw. If you say something that’s quite shocking or meaningful and people gasp and then you undercut it with something that’s funny, then the gasp changes into a laugh and there’s a relief in the laughter. I do like my poetry, but there’s no money in it.

“I sometimes compere gigs as a character called Sebastian Cloy. He comes on in a big frilly shirt – old school compere but not gay – he tells jokes and does the odd song, if required.

“You’re always doing characters,” I said.

“If you create a character then you, in a way, hide behind that character. It’s like a mask. A clown nose. Basically, you put on the clown nose and that allows you to behave in a foolish way. I think it takes a lot of courage just to stand in front of people and say I’m now going to attempt to make you laugh or I’m now going to attempt to sing you a song which I hope will move you.”

“Do you ever actually perform as yourself?” I asked.

“Hardly ever,” said Philip. “though I’ve been doing a one-man show on-and-off for about three or four years. It’s called Naked Splendour. I’ve done life modelling for artists for as long as I’ve been an actor. When I started, the pay was £1.94p clothed and £1.98p naked – 4p difference.

His ongoing one-man show is Naked Splendour (photograph by John Tsangarides)

The man himself in his own Naked Splendour (photograph by John Tsangarides)

“I’ve performed Naked Splendour at the Hackney Empire, the Edinburgh Fringe, Soho Theatre and The Rosemary Branch.

“In it, I sit and pose. People can draw – they’re given materials as they come in. I start dressed, then I undress and I sit and pose and tell true stories. Funny stories. Not all funny. Stories like falling asleep. When you’re in a long pose lying down, you do nod off sometimes. And then, at the end, I get dressed and invite people to bring their work down. They put it on the floor and we have a mini-exhibition like a show-and-tell.

“The trouble is, being on your own, you end up doing four months promoting via the computer. For me to do it again, I’d need someone to take it on.”

“So in Naked Splendour,” I said, “you are yourself.”

“But,” came the reply, “I always cringe slightly if I’m introduced as Philip Herbert, because I’m not used to it. When people say Philip Herbert’s here, I look round and say Who? Whereas, if someone says Randolph The Remarkable or Hugh Jelly from Julian Clary’s show… then I know that’s me.”

YouTube has a video of Philip in bed with Julian Clary:

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Fanny & Stella: “I had wanted to write a book which was completely gay”

Last night, I had a gay old time with Chaps in Dresses.

Perhaps I am old-fashioned at heart. Like many others, I lament the change in meaning of the word ‘gay’.

But, last night, the highly esteemed Sohemian Society hosted an evening billed as Chaps in Dresses.

The evening started with the recitation of a limerick from famed Victorian porno publication The Pearl, circa 1879-1880.

There was an old person of Sark,
Who buggered a pig in the dark;
The swine, in surprise,
Murmured “God blast your eyes,
Do you take me for Boulton or Park?”

Fanny and Stella bookLast night’s Chaps in Dresses was a talk by writer Neil McKenna nimbly plugging his new book Fanny & Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England about Boulton and Park.

The Sohemian Society meeting took place in an upstairs room at the King & Queen pub in Foley Street in what I think estate agents now call North Soho. It was a stone’s throw – or as Neil McKenna put it – “a strong ejaculation away” from 19 Cleveland Street, the site of a famous Victorian male brothel.

Fanny & Stella is a merry tale of Victorian men who liked to dress as women – Fanny and Stella were actually Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton who, according to the book’s publicity, had their “extraordinary lives as wives and daughters, actresses and whores revealed to an incredulous public” at a show trial in Westminster Hall “with a cast of peers, politicians and prostitutes, drag queens, doctors and detectives” in a “Victorian peepshow, exposing the startling underbelly of nineteenth century London.”

But I was equally interested in Neil McKenna’s tale of the problems he had getting the book published. He gave a health warning before his talk:

“When I did a talk in Kirkcudbright in Scotland,” he explained, “in a hall where the average age was about 82, they provided not one but two defibrillators. We got through without mishap but then, a couple of weeks ago at Gay’s The Word, we were doing very well when suddenly a lesbian fainted and had to be carried out. Then I did a talk at Waterstone’s Gower Street and I was just getting into my stride when a woman rather ostentatiously walked out.

“We must also spare a thought for poor Virginia Blackburn, a reviewer for the Sunday Express who read my book and said she was no prude but felt she had to skip over some passages – which begs the question What sort of ‘passages’?”

Neil McKenna believes that, until very recently, gay history has been largely written by heterosexuals who “have an agenda” but, to an extent, things have slightly improved. For example, this month is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans-Gender History Month – a title which, Neil McKenna admits, is “a little bit of a mouthful”.

“Gay history, as generally told,” Neil said last night, “is a history of criminality, repression and punishment but, actually, gay history is also the history of people who fall in love, people who go out and have sex with each other, people who create a sub-culture and who form an identity. And that’s really what I wanted to write about, although the story in the book is framed within the context of a criminal trial.”

Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park were arrested in drag outside the Strand Theatre in 1870 and put on trial in 1871.

“My publishers, Faber, were a little ‘challenged’ by the content of the book when I first delivered the manuscript,” Neil admitted last night. “They went a bit green and then a bit white and then they went a bit blue and, more or less, said This is not at all what we were expecting. I said Well, you’ve met me. What were you expecting? Hardly Patience Strong.

“So they were all a bit tense and we had quite a few tense weeks of discussions and chit-chats. My agent sort-of abandoned me and said: You’re on your own. But it was all resolved because Stephen Page, the CEO of Faber, read the book and announced that he liked it. So suddenly everyone liked it, which was rather useful.

“Instead of having a book they were rather sceptical about – I think largely because it’s an in-your-face book – they got behind it and I think it’s quite new and quite exciting for Faber to publish a rip-roaringly gay, unmediated, utterly-butterly book about gay men, drag, bottoms, fucking and cock-sucking.

“I had wanted to write a book which was going to be completely gay. I was fed up with writing stuff that had to be seen through a prism of heterosexuality. I just thought I’m going to go for it. I’m going to write a book that is totally and completely gay. I’m going to call Fanny and Stella ‘she’ because that was what they called themselves… and that was a little bit of a sticking point again at various stages of the publication process. I much preferred to call them ‘she’ and that was a battle I won.

“I wrote the book because I’d finished my book on Oscar Wilde and I was looking for another subject. I had mentioned Fanny and Stella in the Oscar Wilde book and I wondered if there was any mileage in them.

“I discovered there was a full trial transcript in the National Archive, put together with maybe 30 or 40 depositions and maybe 30 or 40 letters. It’s remarkable, because most Victorian trials don’t survive. Sometimes there’s a shorthand account of a trial or part of a trial but, usually, we’ve only got fragments. I think that’s because the Public Record Office was bombed in the War and lots of stuff was destroyed. But also lots of stuff was never kept. It was never considered important to keep. So I’m very grateful to the the succession of people at the National Archive who thought this was – maybe – important to keep.

“That was my first step… and then I found curious things like a ledger of Treasury payments to some of the witnesses in the trial and to some of the policemen in the trial. It was strange, because normally the Treasury shouldn’t be paying witnesses, even in 1870. So why were there payments to some of the witnesses? That started little alarm bells going off in my head. And, as I probed and probed, I discovered that there was… well, Fanny and Stella were accused of conspiracy to induce and incite men to have sodomitic sex with them.

“But there was also a parallel conspiracy… the police, probably the Home Secretary, certainly the Attorney General and perhaps Sir Richard Mayne, the Chief of the Metropolitan Police had all conspired to create a show trial, to make an example of two young cross-dressers.

“I discovered Fanny and Stella had been followed for a year. They had been under surveillance for a year. In the MePo files – the Metropolitan Police files – in the National Archive, there are also surveillance reports not of Fanny and Stella but of various other people who were considered a threat to the State. So we know in the late 1860s, 1870s, Britain was becoming a little bit of a police state, because lots of people were being surveilled.

“But why were Fanny and Stella such a threat? What was the problem with two very silly young men? They’re not intellectuals, they love to dress up, they love to perform, they love the theatre and when they weren’t in the theatre, they were on the streets selling their bottoms to raise a bit of cash to buy frocks so they could perform. They were very silly boys. They were not a threat. They were not terrorists. They were not Fenians. So why bother?

“The death penalty for buggery was only abolished in 1862, eight years before the arrest of Fanny and Stella. I think it has something to do with sexual identity.”

But, even so, why the big hoo-hah, the conspiracy and the trial in Westminster Hall? And why did the jury find them innocent after deliberating for only 53 minutes?

“You’ll have to read my book,” Neil McKenna said last night.

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