God Save The Queen

The Victoria is a beautiful 19th Century pub which stands proudly on the corner of John Bright Street, beneath the mezzanine that connects the two halves, old and new, of The Alexandra Theatre.

There are so many reasons to love this pub, from its elegant exterior, curving around the bend of the road, to the funky murals that adorn the walls the back bar. A bust of Queen Victoria sits on the internal canopy above the now superfluous central door (It should really be on the corner of the bar, like the one in its fictitious namesake on the BBC soap opera EastEnders), keeping an imperious eye on events. 

I experience a daft thrill every time I arrange to meet friends at The Victoria, because in my mind I have the raspy East End tones of Phil Mitchell, when I say, “See yer daaaaan the Vic.”

The place had a far more shabby feel when I first visited, but had a great collection of signed photos, from the multitude of stars that had frequented the bar while performing at the theatre next-door, framed and displayed up the stairs leading to the function room. I was always enamoured with the one of the marvellous Yootha Joyce, best known for 70’s sitcom George and Mildred.

A decade or so ago, The Vic underwent a thankfully sympathetic makeover, which gave the gaff a much-needed spruce up, while retaining all its original character and charm, which is more than can be said for the poor Prince of Wales, the theatre pub situated behind the Birmingham REP.

The Prince of Wales was a gem, complete with separate bar, lounge and snug, but I received a shock, over twenty years ago, when I went in and found that the partitions had gone, and all the original Victorian features had been ripped out and replaced with mock Victorian facsimiles. I had been half distracted by the book I was reading as I entered (I used to be able to read and walk. Nowadays, I can’t even text while on the move without mishap) and actually thought for a moment that I had wandered into the wrong pub, going as far as stepping back outside to check the sign.

I positioned myself on a seat by the door to await my friend’s imminent arrival and see her response to the changes. She didn’t disappoint, stopping sharp on the threshold and giving a flutter of flummoxed blinks, as though she had just received a slap to the face.

“Yes,” I said, “that was my reaction when I walked in too.”

A few days later, I was telling a colleague about the fate of the Prince of Wales, when she started bobbing about excitedly and interjected, “Oh my God, I agree! My dad owns a print company and while it was closed for refurbishment, he and went on a stealth mission one night and bill posted the windows with sarcastic posters saying, ‘A little bit of Disney in the heart of Birmingham.’ The contractors left them there for ages as they thought that the brewery had put them up.”

The Victoria was the site of my first tantalising encounter with the Birmingham gay scene (Wondering when this was going to go gay weren’t you? A mention of Yootha Joyce not enough?!).

To expand our understanding of modern art, my A-level art class had been instructed to buddy up with a partner and visit the Ikon Gallery, which at the time was located just down he street from The Victoria.

So, one weekend, we obediently made our way to the gallery, under our own steam, where we made notes on any work that caught our attention.

As we headed back toward New Street Station, we passed The Victoria.

The pub has always attracted a mix of gay and straight clientele and on this summer’s afternoon a group of lads were gathered outside on the pavement, enjoying a drink and cigarettes in the sun.

At the sight of two fresh-faced chickens, the boys began to wolf whistle and call out lude comments, much to my friend’s discomfort and my barely concealed delight.

This was my first encounter with anyone that was gay, and I couldn’t let the moment pass without somehow letting them know that I was secretly one of the family.

I used to wear my keys on a long chain attached to one of the beltloops on my trousers. I had been warned by my sister to always keep the keys in my front pocket, because having the chain lead to your rear pocket meant you were queer, in a secret signal akin to the handkerchief code or which side you had your ear pierced.

As we continued down the road, I discreetly took my keys from their ingrained front pocket and slipped them pointedly into the back, then stole a quick glance to see the response.

The catcalling immediately halted and one guy nudged his friend to draw attention to my symbolic gesture. I remember briefly seeing their smiles of understanding and one boy gave me a subtle nod of solidarity. For the first time, I was not alone.

Some evenings, you might see the odd famous face in The Victoria, if the cast of whatever show is on at The Alex goes to the pub for a post-performance drink.

I was told by the lesbian couple that ran the place, prior to its makeover, about the night TV Timelord, Sylvester McCoy (7th incarnation of Doctor Who), strolled into the bar, slammed his walking cane on the wooden floor, and declared, “THE DOCTOR IS IN!”

Both women looked at each other and simultaneously asked, “Who?”

On another occasion, I was lucky enough to sit two tables from a childhood crush, when Todd Carty (Grange Hill’s Tucker Jenkins) called in after a performance of Spamalot.

When he headed toward the gent’s toilets, my mate nodded in his direction and suggested, “Now’s your chance.”

It had been many years since Todd Carty had been the lanky heartthrob of my youth (having moved on to EastEnders, The Bill and hilariously lost control and crashed off the rink and out of Dancing on Ice… through the emergency exit), but some bits never change, so I followed him in for a peek.

There’s Tucker’s cock ticked off the bucket list.

I clearly remember the first time I had a drink in The Victoria.

I was away at university but visiting my home city to see a production of Martin Sherman’s Bent with some friends.

We were puzzled by the eclectic mix of characters in the bar, which included a group of old chaps in flat caps, scene queens and a crowd that appeared to be work colleagues.

Curious to determine the demographic, I approached the matronly barmaid.

“Excuse me,” I asked, “but what type of pub is this? I can’t work out if it is gay or straight.”

“Oh luv, it’s a mix of everyone,” she told me. “We ‘av gays, residents from Stephenson Tower (now demolished) and postal workers from the Royal Mail building (now the The Mailbox). We all muddle along together.”

Here’s to The Victoria, the reigning Regina of Birmingham pubs… then, now and forever.

Queer as Fuck: An Audience with Russell T Davies

I have always hoped that the T in Russell T Davies stood for Tiberius, as in ‘James Tiberius Kirk’. I suppose I could just Google it to find out, but I would only be disappointed to learn that it was something more mundane… besides I had the opportunity to ask the man himself when the Midlands Arts Centre hosted an event to celebrate 20 years of Queer as Folk last Summer.

I couldn’t believe that 20 years had passed since this ground-breaking TV series first aired. At the time I was living in a flat over a chip shop in bohemian Moseley (my room always smelled of fried chicken). My flatmate and I would watch each new episode then jump into a taxi and head to Hurst Street. Watch it. Live it.

The event at mac, as the arts centre is affectionately known, consisted of a screening of the first two episodes of series one, followed by a live Q&A with Russell T Davies, expertly hosted by a local guy that I recognised from the scene. It had originally been programmed to start at 7.30, but the mac’s marketing department realised that this would clash with the Eurovision Song Contest and create a conflict of interests for the target audience, so moved RTD to an earlier slot. I love the fact that the management at mac realised that Eurovision night is ‘Christmas for the Gays’ and amended their schedule accordingly.

Russell T Davies talked enthusiastically about all things Queer as Folk and other aspects of his career, starting with how Channel 4 had originally guaranteed him total artistic licence to write whatever he wanted, no holds barred, until he presented them with his finished scripts entitled ‘Queer as Fuck’ and they reasoned that such a title would never be permitted to appear in the pages of the TV listings.

Russell was clearly enjoying the evening and even insisted on continuing when the interviewer tried to wrap things up after the allotted 45 minutes.

“Let’s carry on,” he said, in that booming Welsh voice of his. “I’m having a lovely time. More questions. How marvellous!”

He may not have actually said ‘How marvellous’, but I like to imagine that he squeezes that phrase into every sentence.

After an hour and a half of chat, Russell decided that it was time to finish.

“One last question,” he announced, “from the handsome man on the back row.”

The interviewer took the roving mic up to the audience member that Russell had indicated.

The handsome man took the mic and said, “Hello Russell. I met you at a book signing 10 years ago and you called me a ‘handsome boy’ then.”

Russell chuckled and replied, “Well at least I’m consistent!”

The interviewer returned to the stage and began to make a closing statement about how touching it had been to hear so many people in the audience express how much Russell’s work had affected them and in particular Queer as Folk.

Russell interrupted, “Yes, that has been nice. Guys usually just come up to me in the street and say, “I had a really good wank over your stuff”!”

After the event was over Russell kindly stayed behind in the auditorium to sign autographs. I had brought along a few DVD covers, just on the off chance that this might happen, so joined the queue that had formed on the stairs.

As I waited, I realised that this was my opportunity, not to ask him about that middle initial, that could remain a tantalizing mystery, but to tell him how I owed him for making me look really cool during a sexual encounter several years earlier.

I had picked up a young guy in Unit 2, Birmingham’s recently closed and much missed gay sauna. We had retreated to a private cubical, with its standard issue wipe down mattress, and started to play around. This lad was in his early twenties and, while I doubt it was his first time, it was clear from his reactions that this was all still virgin territory for him.

The lad was lying on his front on the mattress and it put me in mind of a scene in the first episode of Queer as Folk where Stuart Alan Jones takes Nathan back to his apartment. Purely for my own amusement, I began to re-enact one pivotal moment from that scene. Beat by beat. Lick by lick.

I licked between his shoulder blades and he shuddered.

I licked the nape of his back and his spine arched.

I parted his cheeks and went in for the star prize and he gasped in an identical manner to Charlie Hunnam in the actual scene. It was like the lad knew the episode and was playing along.

I immediately darted my lips to his ear and whispered Aidan Gillen’s line, “They never told you about that did they?”

I had never appeared so cool during sex before and it was all thanks to Russell T Davies.

Finally, it was my turn to meet the man himself and tell him how my re-enactment of Charlie Hunnam’s most famous scene, well ‘most famous’ until he made it big in Hollywood with the aptly named movie Pacific Rim, had me look like the sauna’s greatest Lothario.

I gazed up at Russell’s pleasant open face, thrust my DVD covers at him and said…  “What do you think of Jodie Whittaker as Doctor Who?”