‘We were influential—just by being there’
An interview with Claire Lawrie about her documentary short BEYOND ‘There’s always a black issue Dear’.
In 2013 Claire Lawrie decided to make a group photo of black LGBTQ friends and acquaintances to celebrate what they meant to her and more importantly, what they mean to the collective history of London’s alternative club, fashion and dance scene.
Claire was surprised that “two major retrospectives on the 1980s club scene showing in ‘London, Club to Catwalk’ and the ICA ‘A journey through London Subculture:1980s- now.’ had totally missed the chance to add the influence of black LGBTQ voices and creatives to the shows” and wanted to tell the full, and much richer, story.
‘It’s as though we didn’t make any impression, no mark or even contribution’
“I was really surprised by the omission, as it wasn’t the way that I experienced the 80s at all either here or in America when I went to live in NYC. Black creatives were everywhere, making the music, running clubs, creating fashion, doing the makeup, choosing the records, they were alongside their white contemporaries and there was always an ‘identification between the two groups, either open or closed, direct or indirect, acknowledged or unacknowledged’.” (Dick Hebdidge)
She started with a photoshoot: while Claire took the photos, the shoot was filmed by her friends Kim Mnguni and Emile Kelly, it’s clear from the footage how fun that day was.
Claire explains: “It’s that do-it-yourself attitude that echoes the attitude of the cast and of the times we grew up in.” So she was spurred on to make a longer documentary: “the genesis of the film really came from the experience of making the group photo.”
“I carried on making the film recording these really long interviews (I had never made a film like this before, just 5-minute shorts), so I had no idea how I would edit them. Working, at first, with filmmaker Emile Kelly I started to gather these stories and transcribe and edit them and to assemble a cohesive story that captures their influence and their tenacity and that includes these really important questions about the time period.”
“I’ve known most of the cast for many years: we met through the London club scene in the early 1980s. I used to see Winn, Roy and Ken at clubs and Les was in the Michael Clark Company which we all would go and see perform. I was even part of a dance performance with Lana Pillay at the Place Theatre: it was those times where if you were around you sort of fell into stuff and we all made friends in those clubs and lived in the same areas. Nicky Green used to crash at my flat for a while - we can’t remember quite why - but I remember Nicky coming in, I would watch her take off her makeup siting on the end of my bed. They were all people that I looked up to, admired and was inspired by, and as I’ve grown up they still are. The people that I didn’t know well until the making of this film - like Andy Polaris and Frank Akinsete - I knew of, or had met briefly, because they were all connected to what was quite a small alternative club scene in the 1980s and early ’90s.”
‘I wasn’t going to apologise for being black, I wasn’t going to apologise for being gay’
The cast were the first generation to grow up after the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality and their experiences shed new light on the UK in the 1970s/80s as it came to terms with both multiculturalism and sexual freedom. It was a pivotal time for both black and LGBTQ activism. They were trailblazers, just by being there and breaking into those closed worlds of art school, ballet school, TV, film and the fashion world they were at the forefront of change.
‘At school you were either Reggae or Soul’
Determined to be themselves, they have directly influenced current and future generations. Les Child was the first black student to apply and get in to Bournville School of Art, he was a member of the Lyndsey Kemp dance company, Ballet Rambert and later the Michael Clark company. AND he started the House of Child which brought Vogueing to the UK.
Roy Brown was the winner and only black contestant in the first Mr.Gay Britain 1986. He hadn’t come out yet to his parents and Peter Stringfellow (who ran the competition) helped him out by telling the mainstream press that they were to call it a ‘male beauty pageant’ instead until Roy had had a chance to go up to Birmingham and tell his parents! Since then he has been photographed, sculpted painted and drawn by the most amazing artists, and had a hugely successful career modelling, dancing and making music.
Frank Akinsete ran a fabulous vintage boutique called ‘Souled Out’ in Portobello, creating the first vintage clothing concession ever for Top shop. He later on became a hugely successful stylist in the music industry.
Lana Pillay a punk rocker, singing background for The Fall, became the star of the comic strip and youth TV in the 80s when Channel 4 started up. She starred in the movie ‘Eat the Rich’ alongside Miranda Richardson and had a hit single ‘Pistol in my pocket’.
Kenny Campbell made the most iconic make up looks in the Face and for years in Paris, spray painting Kate Moss gold and creating looks for Neneh Cherry, working with photographer Ray Petri, Jean Baptisite Mondino and loads more.
Andy Polaris was the lead singer of pop band Animal Nightlife, Robb Scott ran big club nights with the 999 boys, Kenrick Davis worked for Leigh Bowery and Rachel Auburn, and Winn was THE face of the club Kinky Gerlinky, compering their huge shows and vogue balls all over the world, but to be honest, if they hadn’t have achieved any of that stuff and there is loads more it wouldn’t matter to the film, Andy is right that ‘just by being there’ they were influential, because that wasn’t the norm they had to ignore certain expectations and just push through. “That kind of ‘stay in lane’ attitude was echoed in the interviews with the cast. It came from all sides, the white establishment and from the black community. It was just a sense that you should not try to break out from these very tight definitions, but of course that was the tension because that’s exactly what they all did.“
Claire contacted the only black LGBTQ archive in the UK - the Rukus! Federation Limited - which is housed at the London Metropolitan archive and run by Topher Campbell and Ajamu X. She was able to look though this incredible archive and found a piece written in 1993, in The Pink Paper by David Cutler, that really stuck in her mind. It was a letter that the Foreign Office had sent to filmmaker Isaac Julian, denying his film ‘Young Soul Rebel’ a screening abroad for being ‘not quite British’ enough.
Claire wondered whether she was right to tell these stories: “I am white and straight, should I be doing this?”
“ I discussed that kind of reticence with them, they were all, ‘just get on with it girl’ ‘you were there, child’ so I did. Their recollections are so good they would wake me up at night! But it was very important that I did what I set out to do, no one needed to be validated by an ‘experts’ voice over that’s not what this film is about, it really is a document, an archive, proof as it were that they and loads of other young black LGBTQ people were there doing things like everyone else at that time, trying new things and ways of being in a very straight and conservative world. Beyond ‘There’s always black issue Dear’ is a love letter to my friends and to London and to being lucky enough to have grown up with them in such a brilliant time period”
You can see the trailer for Claire’s documentary here.