The Royal Vauxhall Tavern is one of London’s most famous gay bars. As a venue, its history dates back over 150 years.
Commonly referred to as the RVT, it’s been welcoming LGBTI customers for decades – firstly as an underground gay haunt and more openly since the 1970s onwards.
As such, it’s a venue steeped in history.
It’s this history that has been explored in a series of ten comics by a London-based illustrator Baz Comics.
Baz (who prefers not to reveal his full name), aged 42, is originally from Cornwall but moved to London 20 years ago to study art.
After college, he moved into book editing, but resumed his drawing in his 30s, and has been exploring comic art.
‘I’m quite late to comics actually,’ he says in a phone call to GSN. I read them as a kid but they didn’t really take hold of me, and superheroes didn’t really float my boat.
‘I started dipping my toe in again in my 30s. I started reading graphic novels and getting back into it that way. I went to a brilliant evening class at the Royal Drawing School in Hackney, which gave me the confidence to start my drawings again.
‘I was doing quite personal, anecdotal, semi-autobiographical stuff, and then I started to do one-panel comics for the LipSinkers.’
The LipSinkers are a troupe of London-based drag queens and performers. It was this that led to a friend, Ben Walters, suggesting Baz turns his eye to the RVT.
Walters is the former cabaret editor for Time Out magazine. He led the initiative to secure a Historic England listing for the RVT – the first venue in the UK to get one in recognition of its LGBT performance space history.
Baz began the comics in 2015 and by the end of 2016 had completed ten. He thinks he will probably not do any more. However, a few weeks ago, his boyfriend suggested that he turn one of the strips into an animation.
‘My boyfriend works in marketing and video and is quite switched on about what gets picked up on social media. He said, “I know it’s more work, but I really think you should consider making a simple, DIY video.”
‘He said it would have a bigger pick-up on Facebook, so I thought I would have a try. I launched it last week and have been really surprised at how popular it has been. I’m galvanized now and will try to do the others.’
Baz’s first short film documents the night in January 1987 when police raided the RVT. Drag queen Lily Savage, aka Paul O’Grady, was performing on stage when around three dozen police men burst in to the pub. Many wore rubber gloves: this was at the height of the AIDS hysteria.
Why exactly the raid took place is unclear. Police charged customers with ‘being drunk on licensed premises’ and arrested 11 men. It was the second raid in a matter of months, and some in the LGBTI community felt the authorities simply wanted to intimate the bar’s customers.
‘What the hell goes on behind those blacked-out windows!’
Baz’s own history with the RVT goes back to the early 00s.
‘I met my boyfriend quite soon after moving to London. We’ve been together 20 years. We used to go out in Soho in the late 90s, early 2000s. That was where the gay activity seemed to be. We went out and kind of enjoyed it, but I don’t think we really knew what we liked. We didn’t really know there was anything more out there that we truly identified with.
‘I was actually working a stone’s throw from the Tavern at that time, and I used to walk past it on the way to work. I saw the blacked-out windows and thought, “My God, that place looks so intimidating – what the hell goes on behind those blacked-out windows!”
‘Then my boyfriend was doing some voiceover work with Amy Lamé, who was running Duckie. She said “Come to my club!”.
Duckie recently celebrated its 21st birthday. Amy Lamé is host and co-founder, and is also the Mayor of London’s recently appointed Night Czar.
‘Anyway, 2002 was the first time we went to Duckie and it just totally opened our eyes and minds – we just realized there was a whole side to gay life and gay community that we didn’t really know was there. We’ve been going ever since and I’ve made some of my best gay friends there. I can’t imagine London life without it.’
Other notable moments that Baz had recorded in comic form are the night Princess Diana secretly visited the RVT in 1988 disguised as a man, and when the venue was built back in 1861.
The RVT has shared Baz’s work via its own social media.
Jason Reid, its social media manager said, ‘The RVT is the oldest LGBT venue in London – over 150 years – and its history is very important to all of us here, as well as to the customers, and the LGBT community as a whole.
‘We were delighted when Baz approached us with his Tales of the Tavern project. Baz Comics’ ‘Rubber Gloves Raid’ video has gone down a storm on social media, reaching over 50,000 people. A testament to how loved the venue is and the quality of Baz’s work.
‘We’re currently working hard behind the scenes on similar social media projects, highlighting all that is great about the RVT.’