Danny La Rue dressed as Margaret Thatcher, Bette Midler, Dolly Parton and Mae West
Danny La Rue dressed variously as Margaret Thatcher, Bette Midler, Dolly Parton and Mae West

Drag: A British History (University of California Press) by Jacob Bloomfield

It’s tempting to open this review by saying that drag – and particularly women’s clothing worn by men on stage for entertainment – has never felt more vexed. The popularity of TV shows such as RuPaul’s Drag Race clashes with far-right mobilisations against events for children, especially the “Drag Queen Story Hour” readings at public libraries. But, as Drag: A British History skilfully elucidates, arguments about whether drag performances are a corrupting influence or harmless entertainment are as old as the term itself, dating back to the Victorian period. These arguments have shaped the type of acts that have found mainstream success, with schisms long existing between those who fight for queer and trans acceptance, and those performers who, however implausibly, distance themselves from LGBTQ+ communities and activism.

Bloomfield opens his account in the late 1950s, as wheels were set in motion to repeal the Criminal Law Amendment Act that had outlawed “gross indecency” in 1885. A single story about undersecretary Ronald John Hill’s visit to London’s Twentieth Century Theatre in February 1958, to report on whether an “all-male revue” called We’re No Ladies should be censored, contains all the contradictions that eventually led to the abandonment of such strictures. Even before he studiously noted the contents of this clearly frivolous show, Hill noted that its apparently smutty material was enjoyed by “most respectable” people with “wives and girl-friends”. He had his suspicions about the performers’ inclinations but found “no concrete evidence” of the theatre “becoming a focal point for pederasts” (men who have sexual relations with boys or youths) and noted that “There is no law which prevents female impersonation on the stage; it is in fact as old as the stage.” Drag, by 1958, had a long and storied tradition, and the Lord Chamberlain’s Office was unmoved by letters from outraged members of the public who felt that for drag acts to sing “God Save the Queen” was “an insult to a gracious lady” and “to English people”. The revue was let off with a “stern warning”.

Throughout, Bloomfield’s use of case studies to illustrate the evolution of these wider tensions is exquisite. Focusing on men dressing as women on stage between 1870 and 1970, Bloomfield suggests that “Culturally conservative Victorian attitudes did not seriously hinder the growth of drag as a theatrical form in the nineteenth century, nor did the liberalisation of social and cultural attitudes in the 1950s and 1960s, usually associated with ‘permissiveness’, prompt a newfound acceptance of the art form.” In the mid-19th century, arrests for cross-dressing – against which there was no specific law – tended, with a few exceptions, to focus on individuals rather than drag balls, and these individuals were often acquitted of public order offences, or treated leniently after claiming their behaviour was just “a lark”.

After a whistlestop tour of the emergence of sexology and arguments about the sexualities and motivations of “transvestites” around the turn of the century, Bloomfield studies the once hugely successful but now forgotten Old Mother Riley, created by Arthur Lucan in the 1930s, drawing on the well-established character of the pantomime dame. Riley had a radio series and starred in 15 films, which were seldom critically acclaimed, but they all struck a chord with working-class audiences, often showing a downtrodden Riley rising against a political or economic elite. The Riley media empire pushed British drag beyond short songs and sketches into a sustained character for the first time, and was an influence on 1970s duo Hinge and Bracket and contemporary sitcom Mrs Brown’s Boys. These too, Bloomfield notes, have not been highly rated by critics but have found massive audiences.

Bloomfield’s exploration of First World War “servicemen-performers” – such as Reg Stone and Hal Jones’ Les Rouges – who were “virtually full-time entertainers” and turned their wartime acts into touring revues, is especially intriguing. As news from the Western Front became ever more horrifying, the public turned away from Roll of Honour documentary films and towards things that reminded them of the war but not of its barbarity – and the concert parties proved perfect. The “national ideal of the soldier-hero” was rigorously maintained, Bloomfield argues, giving inter-war servicemen license to “push the boundaries of sexual morality”. It was not just that the troops received unusually high levels of goodwill: Bloomfield finds extensive evidence that Stone was a highly talented artist, supported by glamorous press photographs. The ex-servicemen, more than any other drag acts, relied on a strict demarcation between their on- and offstage personas, partly to assure the public that the forces weren’t involved in “Nancy business”, but mostly for comic effect.

After the Second World War, the emergence of the homosexual, transvestite and transsexual as distinct and recognisable identities made it harder to position drag acts as good clean fun. But ultimately, Bloomfield suggests, the public simply got bored of the ageing troops’ shows. Drag moved into nightclubs, with Danny La Rue opening his own club in 1964. Like Old Mother Riley, Danny La Rue was a huge star, appearing on films and TV and winning numerous awards, but has been dismissed by historians of the form for his “milquetoast and uninteresting” act, especially when compared to Dame Edna Everage or Lily Savage. Certainly, La Rue’s tendency to distance himself from the “permissive society” in general, and even the term “drag”, is an interesting contradiction, related to La Rue’s Catholicism as much as outside pressure.

In a short book that ends in 1970, there is little space to explore the reactions against La Rue’s approach, such as avant-garde artists Leigh Bowery and Lindsay Kemp, but this is an excellent primer to the complexities of drag as “a queer art form” and so much else besides.

This article is from New Humanist's winter 2023 issue. Subscribe now.