When we think of UK drag, our minds often turn to the likes of Bimini Bon Boulash and Lawrence Chaney. While RuPaul's epic international franchise of commercial drag has heightened its popularity, a sense of distinctly British history has flown under the radar. While the next generation easily has access to who threw the first brick as Stonewall, figures such as Lily Savage and Dame Edna Everage have long been left in the shadows. Documenting a retrospective on the UK's oldest performing drag act Maisie Trollette, director Lee Cooper has offered audiences a fresh take on the fading pantomime of blue eyeshadow and ropey wigs.
How did this story land in your lap?
I'm a massive fan of drag in all forms of life and I live in Brighton — which is obviously the capital of camp — so there's a lot of drag history here. And a lot of amazing drag performers. David Raven (aka Maisie Trollette) is a bit of an institution in drag circles anyway, but particularly in Brighton, where he resides now. I was just fortunate enough to be given an introduction to him. Quite quickly it was apparent he was quite a character, both in and out of drag. And it just sort of spiralled from there.
This is your debut feature. Is documentary filmmaking always something you wanted to do? Or was it more ‘right story right time?'
My other hat is a fashion art director, so I've spent a lot of time on set working with stills. I've always wanted to explore wider storytelling and went back to film school. That's how I found the story. The film was actually part of the course! The brief was to go and make what was a three-minute documentary, and I just couldn't possibly fit David into three minutes. So I parked it for a little while and then came back to it a year or so later.
How was the filming process for you personally? I imagine if you already knew each other and then share those intimate backstage spaces, there are a lot of bonds made there.
It was nerve-wracking, quite frankly. And you know, I'm very much the person behind the camera. I'm not the tech, I'm the storyteller. So the whole experience was a massive learning curve for me. David just made it really, really easy. Just so generous with his time. He and Walter were both just really generous. I think they get to an age where they just like doing what they want, warts and all. That made it a lot easier. We were very keen to involve the people who surround and support David — mostly Miss Jason, who's an icon in his own right, and Dave Lynn, who's another famous act. We found that when David was talking to them on camera, it became easier and also more natural. It's very much a fly-on-the-wall documentary. It's not Talking Heads, and hopefully, it's more powerful because of that.
Do you ever in the back of your mind think about toeing the line between personal boundaries? Including the radio interview about David's partner, Don was a really respectful way to address what happened.
David is quite frank. I think they all are. This may come as a surprise, but drag queens are not scared of a camera. I think they quite enjoyed the experience. I think as long as it felt authentic to David's story, we kept it in. Some of these spaces were really small and intimate. There was me, there was the sound guy, the DOP. They were quite full rooms. It wasn't like it was any surprise what was being said. And ultimately, we just thought if it pertained to David's story, then it felt okay to leave it.
I love the immediate refusal of the ‘drag queen' title as opposed to a ‘drag artiste'. Did you see a difference while filming to distinguish the two?
I think with David, that reference to being an artiste rather than a drag queen actually comes from a place that's quite melancholic. He's been performing for over 65 years. But when he was first performing, it was very underground. The queer scene was behind blacked-out windows, and it was illegal for two men to commit homosexual acts. So I think part of it comes from being called ‘Queen' as a slur. I think his using the word artiste is his way of removing himself from what he sees as that. Nowadays even the word queer is fine, we've reclaimed that. David finds words like queer quite triggering. David's use of artiste is much more born from an almost internalised homophobia rather than a performance reference.
Perhaps as you've been doing projects like this, do you feel there's almost like a yearning for a kind of drag that just isn't as prevalent anymore?
I liken it to when the grey squirrels came over from America and killed off the red squirrel. That RuPaul style of drag most quelled the very traditional British style of drag, which is born from pantomime eras. The American style is born from the pageantry and it's all about the lip sync, performance, costume. Whereas these traditional British drag acts are very much from the end of the pier or are seen as a bit risqué. I'd say it's sometimes a bit dated nowadays. But I wanted to preserve that on camera. I personally love it.
With that in mind, did you ever want the film to be seen as educational? Obviously, we've got all these teens over here now whose idea of British drag is your RuPaul queen. There's not that sense of history that they are aware of.
Absolutely. I think just in general just queer stories about elders are just not around. There are loads of amazing coming-out stories committed to film but you rarely get to see the other end of the tale. So aside from the educational piece about drag, it was important for me to show David's vulnerability. The film is as much a film about ageing as it is about drag, and I think some people will be quite surprised when they come to expect it to be all sequins and glamour. The film definitely takes a turn at that midway point, and that was quite intentional.
I really loved Darcelle's visit. The mirroring of the same generations of UK and US drag is so intriguing because I'd never have thought to compare the two. And was that always going to happen?
Honestly, that was a happy accident. I didn't know if any other drag acts were still performing in their 80s. We kind of assumed that David would be a Guinness World Record holder. So we thought “Wow, maybe this we can make that part of the story.” Very quickly, we found out that Walter, who performs as Darcelle XV in Portland, Oregon, is in fact the Guinness World Record holder. He beats David by some three years. So it was important to get him involved somehow. I thought I'd maybe get a phone call, or he'd do a little interview. And it was just this amazing accident that he was in London for maybe one of the last times And he very graciously came to Brighton. The two of them met over afternoon tea, and it just kind of snowballed.
What I found most interesting was when David is off-screen, it's actually as a gentleman. He'll hate me for saying it. And actually, when he puts on drag on, he becomes Maisie. He's actually almost more forceful. Whereas Darcelle is quite a blokey bloke when he's not in drag and becomes much more feminine.
The ‘trip down memory lane' ending felt like a really nice way to encompass such a vast career. How did you decide to work with archive footage?
Sadly there's very little archive footage from 60 years ago, let alone 16 years ago, because the queer scene is so underground. So we had limited footage of David. We felt that the best way to pursue his story was actually to say that this is not the life of Maisie Trollette, but in fact is a day in the life of David. However, David has got this amazing archive of photographs with all the celebrities he's met over the years. Many of them are not around to interview or talk to. It felt authentic to show them in the same way David took us through the photos, not overly explaining them. Almost let them let it wash over audiences in the way David's memories very much wash over him nowadays.
Paying such homage to the notions of history, heritage, and reminiscing, are you pleased with the part your documentary now has to play in that continuation?
I mean, I hope so. It's my first project, but I think some people will be expecting more archived and historical content. Preserving David as he is today is just as important, getting people to take away the messages that are in there that hopefully we haven't laboured. What it's like to be queer within our community, how the community can be really supportive. And just to really cherish this icon.
Maisie is in cinemas and on BFI Player and Bohemia Euphoria from 5th August.