The last time I saw Danny La Rue — at the memorial for veteran Stage editor Peter Hepple, who had worked for Dan as a publicist at his legendary Hanover Square club — he berated me along the usual lines.
“You and people like you know a lot about the theatre,” he said, “but you know nothing about entertainment.”
Admittedly he’d sunk into a post television fame sulk by then and had basked in what he saw as a campaign of rejection and antipathy with the sustained bitterness of Dirk Bogarde in his final years, but he had a point.
None of us really “got” his special relationship with the British public, or celebrated sufficiently his extraordinary stage glamour, or the beauty of his costumes, or the rich Black Velvet of his Irish vocal effervescence: Guinness and champagne.
Well, maybe we did, but the last twenty years had been difficult. Lily Savage became the nation’s favourite drag queen, and she was a bit of a slut. Dan the Man — he was always a cock in a frock — was a vision you could reference to a few of his closest friends: Diana Dors, Elizabeth Taylor, Marlene Dietrich. I nearly said Princess Margaret, but just stopped in time.
He took over the role of Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly! from Carol Channing, another of his gallery of girls, and he always relished the story of the night when the great, lubricious comedian Arthur Askey pinched his bottom and said, “I’ve always loved you, Dan, as Carol Channing”; except that it really was Carol Channing. “That made her jump, I can tell you!”
He made cock jokes sound almost innocent. In panto, in the forest scene, a huntsman would invite him, in full drag regalia, round to the back of the bush to give him a big surprise. “If I came round that bush,” said Dan, “I’d give you a bigger one.”
Or he’d appear at the top of a large staircase in a figure-hugging canary swimsuit, draped in a feathery train, and sashay down to the front of the stage, a vision of unflawed beauty with a big band build-up, and open his mouth like a displaced docker: “I know what you’re thinking, ladies: I wonder where he puts it!”
I saw Dan in panto countless times, and at the Palace in his record-breaking variety show, and last onstage ten years ago at the Birmingham Hippodrome, as the Baroness Voluptua, toast of the Parisian halls, alongside a megawatt co-star, Brian Conley.
“Vivienne Westwood, eat your heart out,” he cried, shaking an exemplary leg through a slit in a violent pink ball gown and breaking into a chorus of “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.”
He was simply sensational, and each one of his dozen costumes — lovingly maintained by his close friend Annie Galbraith, who cared for him in his final days at their home in Tunbridge Wells — was a gorgeous riot of colour and glittering jewellery.
Dan’s father was a big, brawny carpenter from Cork who died when he was eighteen months old. His mother brought the family to London where she kept them all in Soho on a widow’s pension and a modest income as a seamstress.
When he returned home to the Cork Opera House fifty years later, he exclaimed: “See what they did to me in England: I left in short pants and I’ve come back in a frock.”
A life-long Catholic, and former window dresser, he often struck me as a slightly more tasteful version of Liberace, and there’s a wonderful photograph of the two men dancing with their respective mothers in their clubland heyday.
Dan’s life partner Jack Hanson died in his arms in 1984, and he survived his subsequent slump into alcoholism as triumphantly as he had already survived the collapse of his property and nightclub empire after a scam by a pair of criminal associates.
Noel Coward, appearing in an advertisement for Gillette shortly before he died (in 1973) was required, reported Kenneth Tynan, to give a list of things that in his view had style: he included Danny La Rue alongside Jane Austen, Cassius Clay, The Times “before it changed,” Charleston in South Carolina, a Brixham trawler, Gertrude Lawrence, Margot Fonteyn, any Cole Porter song and Marlene’s voice.
I was lucky enough to see Dan at his peak, in the night club and on the stage. He kept the best company and many of his closest friends and fellow artists — Barbara Windsor, Ronnie Corbett, Toni Palmer, Barry Cryer — will be in very deep mourning today.