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Tony Askew at Roller Nation
Photograph: Andy Parsons

Meet the nightlife hero who set up London’s biggest club – and its only roller disco

Tony Askew went from running Bagley’s, London’s biggest nightclub, to setting up the capital’s only dedicated roller disco. This is his London story

By Leonie Cooper

‘I was born in Dulwich in 1934. When I was young we moved to Herne Bay in Kent, which had a big roller skating scene: everyone from six to 60 seemed to skate. But it wasn’t until much later that skating came back into my life, by which time I was running London’s biggest nightclub!

At 18 I served in the Air Force in Hong Kong, working on aircraft communications, and when I came back home I became an aviation technician. By a series of coincidences, I ended up as the technical director of Sands: a restaurant on New Bond Street run by a chap called John Marks. Sands was known as the most beautiful restaurant in the world – Mick Jagger and all that lot used to go. Then John bought the discotheque Hatchett’s, and I built the first ever light-up dancefloor with lights that moved to the music.

In 1969 I starting designing lighting and soundsystems for other clubs, and producing fashion shows for people like Zandra Rhodes. By the late 1970s I had leased the whole of what’s now Camden Stables Market to build stage systems. Then we found out Camden was going to be developed. We started looking for other places and discovered an old bottle warehouse in King’s Cross called Bagley’s.

We got a lease on Bagley’s for £3 a week. You could see why: it was in a state. As well as set-building we created a photographic studio, where Peter Ashworth shot Tina Turner for her “Private Dancer” LP. The cat on the album sleeve was Lucy  – I had rescued her from under the floorboards and she’d made her home in the studio.

By the end of the ’80s, things were getting a bit tough. So when in 1989 my son asked, “Can I put on a party on?” I said yes. Two thousand people came through the door, all paying £20. That was that, really. We closed down the set-building to turn the building into a nightclub.

Bagley’s became London’s biggest club, and we had all sorts of promoters running events. The biggest was Freedom, but we also worked with a man named Rubber Ronnie who had a night where there’d be chaps on leashes. Because I was the licensee, I always had to be there, so I saw some odd things. One night there was someone tied to a cross. We had to measure it to make sure he could get out of the fire exit.

Bagley’s closed in 2003 and reopened as Canvas. I started running a rollerskating event there: a nightclub on wheels called Roller Disco. We then moved to Vauxhall, but central London had become too expensive. After we closed in 2015, I found this place in Tottenham. The landlord was very dubious about turning it into a roller disco, but we finally opened Roller Nation in January this year. About a month ago, I put a pair on and had a good skate at the age of 84.

I actually hated the club scene: I didn’t like the drugs attached to it. All the time you were chasing dealers and bent security. Roller skating is a much nicer scene: people come here for a good laugh and a good time. There’s never a punch-up at a roller disco!

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