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Duckie at Royal Vauxhall Tavern
Amy Lamé gets stuck in. Photograph: Jonathan Perugia

We celebrate 27 years of nightlife legend Duckie

The queer extravaganza has taken over the RVT every week for nearly three decades. Now it’s moving on

Written by
Nick Levine
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This Saturday night, July 2 2022, as the Pride in London festivities segue from street parade to dance parties, Duckie will say goodbye to the Royal Vauxhall Tavern after 27 years. In its own inimitable fashion, the queer arts collective and club night is ending this chapter with a healthy sense of humour. The RVT and its neighbouring railway arch will be turned into a tongue-in-cheek ‘Straight Pride’ event where the dress code is ‘smart casual’ and there’s ‘strictly no cross-dressing’.

Duckie: Gay Shame
Gay Shame. Photograph: Edson Costa

‘It’s going to be a bit like the Ideal Home Show,’ says Duckie’s producer and co-founder Simon Casson. ‘We’ll have stages around the venue where straight people can demonstrate how they live their lives by doing washing-up and sitting on the sofa watching TV. It’s about celebrating their culture for a change.’ There will also be music from Duckie’s legendary resident DJs, the Readers Wifes, performances from satirical cabaret duo Bourgeois & Maurice and ‘a special guest from America’. They’re being kept secret, but they’ll definitely complement the time-honoured Duckie vibe: edgy yet friendly, with a healthy dose of ‘anything goes’.

We just wanted to play the records we’d listen to if we were staying in

‘It’s one last moment of collective joy at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern,’ says Casson, who admits Duckie is departing reluctantly after hosting Saturday nights there since 1995. ‘It’s not our choice,’ he says. ‘The owners want to take back control of Saturday nights and do their own thing from now on. It’s sad, but we’re going to ply our wares elsewhere.’ Duckie is a lot more than a club night – it puts on bespoke shows at cultural hubs including Southbank Centre and runs The Posh Club for senior citizens – but Casson says a weekly showcase is embedded in its DNA.

So, from August 27, Duckie will be hosting a new daytime party just down the road at another Vauxhall LGBTQ+ venue, Eagle London. It will run from 2pm to 8pm every Saturday with what sounds like a lightly remixed version of Duckie’s hit formula: ‘short, sharp’ alternative cabaret shows, brilliantly eclectic DJ sets and compere Azara presiding over ‘a bit of a bunfight’ at the end. ‘You can have a drink and a dance, get your dose of culture for the week and still be at home for 9pm,’ Casson says.

Given that Duckie has become a beloved London institution – how many club nights last for 27 years? – its new incarnation should benefit from plenty of goodwill. ‘And some of our punters who’ve been coming for that long might appreciate an early night,’ Casson adds wryly. Still, because it has been going for so long, it’s easy to forget how revolutionary Duckie was in 1995 when Casson launched it with five likeminded mates: Mark Wood and Mark Johnston, aka the Readers Wifes; self-styled ‘door whores’ Jay Cloth and Father Cloth, and compere Amy Lamé, who now serves as London's Night Czar.

We just thought we could give the scene a breath of fresh air by putting on a different kind of club night

‘Back then, the LGBTQ+ scene was dominated by ecstasy, handbag house music and [buff gay men known as] Muscle Marys,’ Casson recalls. ‘We were this group of young queers who wanted a nice job in the arts but didn’t think we’d ever get one. We just thought we could give the scene a breath of fresh air by putting on a different kind of club night with loads of weird performance-art shows and pints instead of pills. And we decided to play rock ’n’ roll music instead of handbag house.’

Right from the start, the Readers Wifes’ uncategorisable DJ sets were a huge part of Duckie’s USP. ‘We just wanted to play the records we’d listen to if we were staying in,’ recalls Wood, one half of the duo. ‘We had a box of seven-inch singles that we took along that first week that was filled with old soul records, David Bowie, Kate Bush, some ’80s electro like Pet Shop Boys and a bit of Britpop. We didn’t expect people to dance; we just thought we’d be playing records between the performances.’

Lullaby at Duckie
‘Lullaby’. Photograph: Hugo Glendenning

But punters did dance, and by week four, Duckie had queues running around the block. ‘We adapted pretty quickly, but we felt it was very important that we didn’t mix the records [like typical DJs],’ says Wood. ‘We always wanted it to sound like different people were going up to the record player and changing the music. And we wouldn’t play anything you might hear on Capital [Radio].’ The Readers Wifes have been honing this approach ever since. A Spotify playlist Wood compiled for Duckie’s twenty-fifth birthday features everything from Missy Elliott banger ‘Work It’ to Carly Simon’s Bond theme ‘Nobody Does It Better’.

Over the years, Duckie has welcomed legends of the queer scene, including David Hoyle and Le Gateau Chocolat, plus a few cutting-edge performers who fell flat on the RVT’s goldfish bowl stage. ‘We’re not afraid of trying something new and we don’t ever want to play it safe,’ Casson says. ‘There’s something a bit boring about things being really slick and professional all the time.’ The message is clear: don’t come to Duckie expecting to see a drag queen doing a well-honed death drop to a Dua Lipa song.

There’s something a bit boring about things being really slick and professional all the time

Though Duckie has stayed true to its guiding principle of mixing spiky performances with equally spiky pop music, it's always managed to move with the times. When it returned last August after the pandemic, it was with a new frontperson: multi-disciplinary artist Azara Meghie, who took over from Lamé after she was ‘poached by HRH Sadiq Khan’, according to Duckie's website. ‘Oh my gosh, those were some big shoes to fill, but the punters have been really warm and welcoming,’ says Meghie, who’s been working with the collective for 13 years. ‘A few came up to me and said they were surprised not to see Amy back, but then they also said they loved what I was doing.’

Meghie says that Duckie wouldn’t have lasted for 27 years without fostering a genuine sense of community among its regulars. Now, the collective is hoping that this deep-rooted loyalty will smooth the transition from nighttime to daytime, and from Royal Vauxhall Tavern to Eagle London. ‘We get a younger crowd but we also get punters who’ve been coming to Duckie for most of their lives,’ she says. ‘When they arrived at Duckie, they were like: “Okay, I’ve found my spot.” And we’re still going to give them that spot in the new venue.’

Duckie’s Straight Pride, The Royal Vauxhall Tavern, Sat Jul 2. Advance tickets are sold out, but there will be some on the door.

Duckie thereafter will take place every Saturday at Eagle Londonfrom Aug 27, 2pm-8pm.

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