David Raven is the man behind the legend that is Maisie Trollette, at 86, the UK’s oldest working drag performer. Dave Cross recently travelled down to Brighton to chat to the actor, who has been performing in many roles for more than 60 years.
Did you always want to be a performer, as a child?
No, not at all. I always wanted to be involved with horse racing, we lived just outside Newmarket and my whole family loved it.
What was your family life like back then?
It was lovely. Honestly I was spoiled really by my mum and my older brothers. The family businesses was a pub in Norfolk and I first worked there when I was 14 or 15 I think and my brother ran a butchers.
Did you know you were gay then?
No, I had no idea about anything like that. I was courting a girl and it was her sister Brenda who first said to me that she thought I was more interested in Andrew, a boy we knew, than I was in her sister. She worked in a hairdressers and I think she’d met other gay men and recognised the mannerisms in me. I’m still friends with Brenda now, she’s been an amazing friend over the years.
At that time it was still illegal to be homosexual, you could be arrested?
Yes it was, but that never happened to me. I used to go out and play darts and working in the pub I don’t think most people had any idea.
What was your first gay experience?
I think that was with this boy, who was the Postmaster’s son and I asked him how come he wasn’t with a girl and he said he’d rather be with me, which I was a bit shocked by. We went and fooled around in, seems so funny now, in the pigsty, can you believe it.
Were there any gay venues then?
Oh yes there were a few in and around Great Yarmouth. I used to tell my mother I was going to the Greyhound racing on a Saturday night. I’d watch the first three races and then go to the gay pub, then on the way home phone the track from a phonebox to get more results, so when I got home it looked liked I’d been there all night. There was an American airbase nearby so there were a lot of American boys looking for a blowjob… what can I tell you!
When did you start performing?
I’d always sung a bit at the pub, I was lucky in always having a good voice, does that sound big headed?
Not at all…
And then Brenda and I went to see a show in a holiday camp and that led to my first professional show which would have been in a summer show. I was the lead boy, singer and dancing, I must have been around 22.
How did that lead to performing in women’s clothes?
Well that would have been in panto at The Hippodrome in Great Yarmouth. I was doing a lot of other things as well, I did One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest in Perth and that’s where I first met Don, who was my partner for 30 years, until he died.
What about performing in gay venues in London?
I’d become friends with Jimmy, but we weren’t called The Trollettes then, and we did a show at The Greyhound in Battersea, but our big break was at The Black Cap.
Tell me about that?
It was actually a competition, a talent show. We played a country and western musical family, I was called Ma Kettle. We won that night and came back and won the final a month later, and that night Phil Starr and Mrs Shufflewick were in the audience and they became great friends and that really started the whole cabaret thing?
Where did the name for The Trollettes come from?
That was actually my Don, Jimmy and I were putting on our make up and wigs and he said we looked like a pair of trolls… the things that live under bridges or in mountains. I was horrified that the man I loved said this, but then I thought it was funny and I liked the word, and we had the idea of us being like a girl group, like The Marvelettes, but trolls.
Was this full time?
No, not at first. In Norwich I was the manager of the Co-op, but when I moved to London I was working at Selfridges for a long time and doing the cabaret in the evenings.
What about the pantos?
Oh yes, well Jimmy and I did pantos as ugly sisters, for I think 19 years consecutively. I worked with a lot of big names, Wendy Craig, Barbara Windsor, Kathy Kirby, who used to come and see me in drag at gay bars, Colin Baker, he was Doctor Who, and actually Tom Baker too and I was good friends with John Nathan Turner who produced the show. I’m terrible for the name-dropping aren’t I?
What other venues do you have good memories of?
The Royal Vauxhall Tavern was always an amazing place, still is. You know the story about Princess Diana going there in a headscarf, she was with Freddie Mercury and Kenny Everett – and that wasn’t the half of it with Paul, I mean Lily, Regina and the rest. I’ve performed at The Two Brewers a lot, sometimes we used to do two or three nights there a week and had some real crazy nights there. I still get to do The Old Ship in Limehouse and some here in Brighton.
What do you think makes a good cabaret or drag act?
I don’t have time for these acts who put the way they look above the act they do on stage. I like acts like Jason, Miss Jason and Dave Lynn.
Have you ever watched RuPaul’s Drag Race?
Looking back over your career what stands out?
There’s been so many things, I’ve been very lucky, I got to sing at Danny La Rue’s funeral, I was the only one who did, that was special.
And at the age of 86 what are you most proud of?
That I still wake up with a hard on.