It’s 1979. Hull’s once mighty fishing industry is on its knees, unemployment is going through the roof and Margaret Thatcher has taken up residence in 10 Downing Street. Meanwhile, up nine stone steps and through a large imposing door an alternative world is starting to emerge in an old converted Georgian terraced townhouse. Over the next decade The Silhouette would provide a colourful late-night escape from the grim reality of daily life which carried on outside.
It wasn’t just any old nightclub. It was Hull’s first late-night venue where gay and straight mixed together without any animosity. In a tough no-frills working-class Northern city, the ‘Sil’ was ground-breaking without ever making a song and dance about it. As artist and musician Dave Whatt recalls, the club became a second home to what he affectionately describes as Hull’s “outcasts”. He said:
“The Sil was a great place – it attracted Hull’s ‘alternative’ folk of all classes: the LGBTQ community well before they embraced that acronym, painters, sculptors, actors and theatre people, goths, ne’er-do-wells, punks, new romantics, bikers, under-age drinkers, leather enthusiasts, hippies and even blokes in smart suits and women in bright dresses who desperately needed somewhere to go for a spot of exciting late night drinking.
“The club was tatty, loud, cheap and always interesting. The music was very good, the air was filled with hairspray, aftershave, alcohol and smoke and the clientele were generally bright-eyed, jolly and friendly, they all seemed to mix.”
From ‘60s casino to ‘80s drag shows
The Silhouette had previously operated as a slightly seedy late-night casino in the ‘60s and ‘70s when it was known as the 51 Club. In its new guise, the only physical difference appeared to be the arrival of a pool table to replace the poker table. On occasions, it still seemed like arriving for a party in someone’s house. The intimacy stirs more memories for Dave Whatt.
“It was on two floors. The upper one had a bar with a very good jukebox, a hatch in the wall where you could buy after-midnight snacks (mainly trays of chips with tomato ketchup as I recall), a room with heavily-patterned flock wallpaper, a sticky worn carpet, low tables, comfortable chairs and a very large TV which was always set with colour control on full and the volume at maximum. There was also a smaller back room with just enough space for a medium-sized pool table.
“Down in the basement there was a dark, thudding, low-ceilinged sweaty disco room, a small bar, the toilets and a murky room where unusual and interesting people would go and sit in the dark and smoke a lot of cigarettes.
“The atmosphere was generally good-natured and friendly. There were hardly any fights, although there were usually plenty of camp and cutting insults flying around the place. What style it had.”
Twice-yearly drag shows only added to its reputation. Until then, just about the only drag artist in town was the legendary Bobby Mandrell who was popular on Hull’s pub circuit. Three decades before RuPaul launched his Drag Race show on TV, the Sil’s drag shows featured rival queens competing against each other, miming to backing tracks while dressed to match a different seasonal theme – Miss Winter Wonderland, Miss Easter Bunny and Miss Beach Bag were just some of them.
‘A Queer Sort of Paradise’
A new book by author Andy Roe – a Silhouette regular back in the day – aims to capture those heady days. Titled Silhouette Club: A Queer Sort of Paradise, it’s a follow-up to an earlier book charting the history of Spiders, another legendary alternative Hull nightclub which opened in the same year. He said:
“Spiders and Silhouette shared a lot in common so I thought a book about Sil would complement my Spiders one, and vice versa.”
The book features many submitted tales about the place in response to an appeal for memories on social media last year. He added:
“What makes this book different from my Spiders one is that it has a political angle, insofar as some anecdotes allude to the way gay people were perceived with suspicion and prejudice during the 1980s, not only by sections of the public but by the authorities and successive Thatcher governments, too, which introduced controversial homophobic legislation.
“I would argue that the Silhouette was part of a number of gay clubs in this country
and beyond where the seeds of the LGBTQ movement began – a collective mindset change, you could say.
A diverse melting pot
“It was a melting pot that attracted a whole medley of people, some of whom were creative types who have since become very successful in their chosen fields.
“Many of the contributors felt the club had changed their lives for the better as it was one of only a handful of venues in Hull where ‘alternative’ types – both gay and straight – could go without feeling threatened.
“It’s important to say that I never set out to create this book for the sake of nostalgia alone, but to show the Silhouette was a community hub in all but name – an essential environment that our splintered modern-day society could learn many lessons from as these types of social hubs offer people the opportunity to share their passions and beliefs with other like-minded individuals.
“Such places are merely flowerbeds, where young seedlings have a chance to blossom and mature into confident and colourful people, which in turn benefits society at large. That’s got to be a good thing.”
Times change and so did the Sil when it moved from Spring Bank to nearby Park Street in 1990, turning into more of a full-on indie dance venue. Even so, Andy believes the original Sil still lives on in the hearts of all those who ventured up those famous stone steps.
“The club has certainly left a legacy, and I hope my book illustrates this.”