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Duckie’s Simon Casson on taking nightlife beyond the ephemeral

Simon Casson (centre) and Readers Wifes in the 1990s

Since 1995, Duckie has been putting on fun nights out for queers and their pals. The collective began by establishing a Saturday night residency at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern that continues to this day – a night of dancing and weird performance produced by Simon Casson and hosted by Amy Lamé, with tunes from DJs the London Readers Wifes (faves: Bowie, Bush, Smiths) and support from ‘door whores’ Jay Cloth and Father Cloth.

Since then, Duckie has created bigger, longer shows, including tongue-in-cheek Gay Shame club events, Olivier award-winning alt-cabaret shows and parties themed around London’s queer past. It’s also branched out into events curated by queer and trans people of colour, non-public-facing socially engaged projects, and summer schools for young queer performers.

Ahead of this week’s 21st birthday bash at the Electric in Brixton, I caught up with Simon Casson to talk about caning it, middle-aged punters, neurodivergent cool kids and the “inconceivable, revolutionary places” that paved the way for today’s scene.

Ben Walters: Duckie is 21! How surprised are you that it's lasted this long? What would Simon of 1995 think about how things have turned out?

Simon Casson: Simon of the Nineties would have been too wasted on cheap speed and snakebite and blackcurrant to think beyond the next week, let alone 21 years ahead. We were indie kids, five-nights-a-week clubbers, total caners – it came with the territory. We came from the culture of Popstarz and Marvelous and Club Vaseline. Some of the best of us, like Simon Hobart of Popstarz – who was an inspirational figure on the gay scene of the time – didn’t survive.

I know that most young people just want to get wasted and get laid but I do think that my anxieties about growing up young and queer-led to quite self-destructive behaviour. Most of my mates – like the Readers Wifes say, or the Cloths, or most of the punters – could handle their drink but I was the weird one who went too far. When I read Matthew Todd’s book Straight Jacket it all makes sense.  I packed in the booze and the drugs 10 years ago and started to try to make stuff that was meaningful, as well as a laff.

BW: What can people expect of the 21st birthday bash?

SC: We are concentrating on big stage shows rather than our usual sideshows. Lots of dance – tap dance, mime and spectacle. The theme is ‘Las Vegas in Lambeth’, so expect tubby blokes dressed as showgirls and illicit gambling. We have the LipSinkers, plus a dozen older ladies from Crawley doing tap routines – a lost art, methinks – plus 25 Polish folk dancers and an avant-garde performance group with learning disabilities, or neurodivergent cool kids, which is the new empowering term we are using. So it will be quite different from G.A.Y., I suppose!

Also, all of the punters are middle-aged now and because we are queer some of us never stop going out. So I expect there to be a roadblock of middle-aged lesbos and benders in Brixton next Saturday, and it will be interesting to see if many young people come.

Simon Casson and Amy Lamé

BW: Duckie has recently been branching out into more socially engaged projects such as the Posh Club for older people and the Slaughterhouse Club, based at hostels for people with alcohol and drug issues. How do these relate to putting on parties for queer people?

SC: Duckie like to use performance and culture and parties to empower communities. It would be boring to just stick to queer folk so, whilst we are a queer-led group, we like to create events for other (sometimes marginalised) groups. That might be working class older folk, homeless people in Vauxhall, or even LGBT youth. We are making up the rules as we go along and following our heart and our interests. We are trying to create a new model of community arts.

BW: Duckie has also long been interested in queer heritage, creating events linked to LGBTQ historic themes. Why is this part of Duckie’s work?

SC: So far we have looked at the 1960s in Gross Indecency, the 1950s in Duckie Goes to the Gateways and the 1930s in Lady Malcolm’s Servants’ Ball. We might try the 1970s next. Underground queer culture is a continuum, isn’t it? So the 1940s closet clubs that Quentin Crisp would disrupt are linked to the butch boozers of the rebel dykes of the 1950s which are linked to Boy George and Marilyn letting rip in an early 80s squat which is linked to the molly houses of the eighteenth century. Gay nightlife has been enormously important in my life, much more than theatre or books. I think the club scene has charted the queer condition with integrity – from when we were illegal to nowadays when apparently we are acceptable to the mainstream. Gay clubs are incredible places, where people come together and create the zeitgeist. The most legendary queer clubs – Bootylicious, Taboo, The Lift, Sadie Maisie, Venus Rising, Do-Dos – are inconceivable, revolutionary places. I like the fact that queer history can be an important tradition that can be traced and mapped rather than just ephemera. There is a good website called History is Made at Night which looks at nightlife as an important catalyst for social change.

Amy Lamé around the corner from the Royal Vauxhall Tavern (RVT).

BW: Amy Lamé is London's night czar! How do you think her Duckie pedigree will inform her work with the GLA, and will her new appointment have any impact on her involvement with Duckie going forward?

SC: It’s wonderful, isn’t it? She has had a bit of stick from the Tories and the rightwing press but that’s to be expected, I’m told. I think she will be great in the job – she has been looking for a challenge like this to get stuck into.

What is brilliant is that the GLA have appointed her as a champion of the underground, of all the weird stuff that happens. With her chums at RVT Future, she has been working hard to save the Royal Vauxhall Tavern from property developers, and the hope is that she can bring some of that magic to the job, to try to halt all of the pubs, music venues and nightclubs from disappearing. Also, clubbing and nightlife are potentially important artistic movements, and that’s what people want from London, not just blandness.

She had to resign as chair of RVT Future because of the potential conflict of interest but she can’t stop doing Duckie. After 21 years of compering, it’s in her blood.

BW: And what can we expect from the next 21 years of Duckie?

SC: We like to mix politics and entertainment. We coined the term ‘progressive working class entertainment’ to describe our work and I’d love to see us really deliver on this – to make big outdoor musical shows that tour council estates, for instance. It’s quite hard to get big things of the ground and to be genuinely ambitious. But for the future, expect parades, outdoor shows, clubbing for OAPs, community solidarity and Duckie being part of an organised, creative opposition to this scary post-Trump rightwing climate.

Duckie is 21 is at the Electric, Brixton on Saturday December 3. More details at duckie.co.uk

Full disclosure: Ben Walters is currently working with Duckie on a PhD about their work, and is also a member of RVT Future.