The story of Polari, Britain's secret gay language
Oooohh, how bona to vada your dolly old eke! Author Paul Baker joins former Music Hall superstar Ida Barr (the comedy creation of Christopher Green) and her special guests for an evening of conversation and fun celebrating Polari, the camp language of gay men. With a saucy vocabulary including omi (man), palone (woman), lallies (legs), riah (hair), naff (awful), dish (bum), vada (look) and bona (good) Polari was used to conduct conversations in secret up until the 1960s, operating as a form of bonding and humour that helped gay people live through more oppressive times. It was popularised by Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick in the radio comedy series Round the Horne and since then has largely disappeared from the gay scene, viewed as silly, unfashionable and politically incorrect. However, in recent years it has been rediscovered and reappraised as an important aspect of gay social history with younger queer people using it in new ways for very different reasons to the original speakers. If you want to be able to tell your lallies from your luppers or find out why it’s never good to hear ‘nada to vada in the larder’, put on your campest drag, give your riah an extra zhoosh and troll along to the British Library for a night of games, music, reminiscences and simply fabulosa polari.
Ida Barr has graced stages at the National Theatre, Tate Modern and Britain and the Barbican, as well as livening up many a variety and comedy night around the globe. Ida’s unique take on Music Hall and Artificial Hip Hop – a mashup of the classics of that genre with the modern sounds of RnB and grime (think Rihanna with Dan Leno and Skepta with Noel Coward) – gets any audience pumped up on joie de vivre. Ida doesn’t speak polari but she’s terribly theatrical.
Paul Baker is professor of English language at Lancaster University. He has written eighteen books, including Fabulosa: The Story of Polari (2019), Sexed Texts (2008) and, with Jo Stanley, Hello Sailor! (2003). He regularly gives talks and workshops about Polari and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.
Sister Belladonna in Gloire de Marengo is now a resting nun, his lallies and oggles are almost worn out but his carts-noshers are holding out, just. He is a founder member of the London House of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and raised merry hell with OutRage and ACT-UP during the early 1990s. He also spent quite a bit of time annoying fascists.
Penny Burkett and George Reiner met in an art crit while both studying Fine Art and History of Art at Goldsmiths, University of London. Both are interested in linguistics, performativity, writing practices, and the possibilities of queer theories in practice. They have collaborated on a book, cruising for lavs, which is written in Polari and explores a journey around St Ives, focusing on differences between London and St Ives, geography, belonging, language and identity between cosmopolitan and coastal surroundings.
Christopher Green is a multi-award-winning theatre artist. He was the first artist in residence at the British Library and curated the library’s exhibition There Will Be Fun about 19th Century popular entertainment. His book, Overpowered! The Science and Showbiz of Hypnosis was published by the British Library in 2015.