Queer bars and clubs are where drag is most often enacted as both a form of being and entertainment. Funny Girls, a legendary drag burlesque bar in Blackpool, is one of them. It is also arguably a main character in Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings’ new film, ‘Something for the Boys’ (2018), commissioned by Two Queens in Leicester. Presented as a single-channel video installation with surround sound, the 15-minute work also features a gay sex club, Blackpool’s Growlr, ultra-masculine and kinky. Funny Girls is restrained Art Deco with crystals and plumage; its cohesive and monochromatic interior design is paired with intrusive dress codes bursting bright pinks and purples, shiny silvers and golds. Growlr is dark spaces and black walls meeting chauvet colour strobes, leather seats and mucky clothes, its shelves cluttered with relics.
That the venues can be understood as characters in this film is important in relation to Quinlan and Hastings’ on-going collaborative practice. The artists’ body of work under the title ‘UK Gay Bar Directory’ (2015-2016) consists of a video archive documenting over 100 gay bars in major cities around the UK. Through this typological exercise, Quinlan and Hastings make queer archival renderings of these sites by filming locations empty but in full party modes: the blasting music later gets slowed down and edited for a jarring sensory effect. Documentation is the crucial gesture here, one that speaks of the precarious future—and at times already uncertain present—faced by many of these spaces in the context of increasing economic and social alienation .
‘Something for the Boys’ continues this body of research, this time making visible an individual narrative within the broader phenomenon. Club venues are personified in body-and-flesh characters; Miss Betty Legs Diamond is an all-round star, a drag performer and comedian that has been on and off Funny Girls’ stage since it first opened in 1994. Growlr is rendered as a go-go boy in the figure of Ted Rogers, a young, greased, hunky man barely dressed in a jockstrap and military cap. The film fluctuates between both characters—that is, the venues and their subjects—and mixes archival material such as photographs and voice-overs with staged scenes. The overall production of the film is worth noting; while ‘UK Gay Bar Directory’ is made up of straight documentary footage, featuring mostly static scenes with little to no editing, ‘Something for the Boys’ is cinematic in both content and form.
Throughout the film, Funny Girls and Growlr are activated through performative scenes. Rogers makes erotic movements that highlight the delivery of male-to-male entertainment, many of which can be read as effeminate. In another, slowed-down scene he dances in the club, white strobe lights hiding and revealing his sweaty body, creating that all-too-familiar sense that, though close in proximity, he is ultimately beyond reach. Miss Betty Legs Diamond also performs several numbers and, picking up from the beginning of the film, showcases a skilful tap dance. Just before she’s about to get started we hear the cheer and applause of metaphorical crowds, after which the piece is performed without any other sense of reception.
Most of the film operates in a heightened sonic environment where the artists play with sound as a tool to reconfigure the embedded qualities of these spaces. The HD footage that captures the sites’ familiar visual tropes become strange under the influence of Quinlan and Hastings’ synth and remix soundtrack, which only further highlights the lack of other human presence. This high and precise production value creates a feeling of desire that one associates with these spaces of entertainment, an emotion that the work perhaps seeks to provoke.
Such sensory and visual foreplay contrasts with both of the venues’ emptiness, a reality all too familiar to the—now referred to as ‘historic’—holiday resort of Blackpool. The fact that the business of ‘funny girls’ was a main attraction of the city speaks of Blackpool’s broader queer scene and its reputation as the gay capital of the North. Now hit by austerity, these queer sites and peoples risk being relegated to the fringes, with the—well-meaning but by no means fully inclusionary—tourist pick up line ‘all welcome’ now experiencing a downturn. Amongst the symptoms of such changes of heart is Blackpool’s overwhelming majority Brexit vote.
The title might also be read as a subtle nod to exclusion; ‘Something for the Boys’ seems to point the finger directly at the queer community, specifically—though this is my own interpretation—at gay men. In Ancient Greece and Rome, men cross-dressed in theatre and played the roles of women, erasing them from the stage altogether. When women played men in the mid 19th century in burlesque theatre, their masculine performances were politically emancipatory, undoubtedly the kind of drag that informed and allowed queer men to claim a similar position of bending gender identities and developing socially non-confirming practices on the stage.
‘Something for the Boys’ portrays two male-dominated forms of entertainment: drag and leather, both of which frequently feature in gay bars, clubs and parties, catering almost entirely to other gay men with, at times, the explicit exclusion of women. Though these worlds of gay identification have historical associations with resistance—of social and sexual liberation—it is no secret that gay men can also be as misogynist, racist or conservative as their straight counterparts; one need only read men’s profiles on Grindr for concrete proof.
Quinlan and Hastings are subtle in their criticism and position; the film ends up as a somewhat of a neutral portrait of both characters. What I think the artists are getting at, and what remains so powerful and important about their practice more broadly, is a desire to render visible the material and relational possibilities of queer sites. These spaces retain the potential for a kind of drag and sexual freedom that jostles with society’s patriarchal, heteronormative and body-dysmorphic expectations for sameness and order, one that starts to look like the scene in which Rogers paces around Funny Girls’ stage in a pair of tight latex blood-red knee-high boots, or when Miss Betty Legs Diamond lip syncs an emotional rendition of Gloria Gaynor’s I Am What I Am. Ultimately what is at stake here is not only the threat of these sites’ total erasure, but a need to figure a new politics of entertainment, one that is not just for the boys, but for all that make up the beautifully complex queer body politic.
 A recent study conducted by UCL’s Urban Laboratory, ‘LGBTQI Nightlife in London from 1986 to the present (Interim Findings)’ found that a notable intensity of closures of long-standing LGBTQI venues has recently taken place due to an increase of venue rental prices or buy-out prices in London. The findings also note that there are ongoing threats of closure to some of the venues most frequently cited in the survey as of importance to the capital’s LGBTQI communities, e.g. The Royal Vauxhall Tavern, 1880s-present, who major of London Sadiq Khan vowed to save. The recent closure of long-established central London venues that have specifically catered to BAME LGBTQI communities and/or have been important women’s spaces is also notable. ‘Amongst the impacts of venue closures, performers commented on the loss of: safe space, community contact and visibility; employment/business, funding, pay; risk-taking venues to experiment and nurture new talent; as well as increased competition over fewer venues.’ It is important to remember that the survey only covers London, and that other factors (economic and social) affect regional areas.
Something for the Boys, Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings, Two Queens, Leicester, 30 June - 1 September.
Eliel Jones is a writer and curator based in London.