LONDONERS AT HOME: The Way We Live Now
Living in the World of Doctor Who -
Gavin Robinson (with his dog, Lulu)
Date of photography: 9th May 2017
It would be to put a strain on the concept of understatement to say that Gavin is a Doctor Who enthusiast: his home is literally a treasure trove, an Aladdin’s Cave of Doctor Who memorabilia; it feels almost like a shrine into which, for the uninitiated, it is the rarest of privileges to be invited. With one turn of the key, the front door opens on to the captivating world of Doctor Who; every wall in Gavin’s flat is lined with shelves bearing hundreds of replicas of the characters from the BBC’s long-running science fiction television programme, a series that has entranced generations of Brits (young and old alike) since it was first broadcast on Saturday 23rd November 1963. Every room, every bookshelf, every cupboard, every morsel of spare, flat surface in Gavin’s home is overlaid with Doctor Who merchandise, publications, videos and iconic imagery, all beautifully maintained and arranged, with immaculate attention to detail. It conjures such an all-pervading atmosphere of Dr Who-ness, that one’s imagination is instantly transported to the inside of the very Tardis itself, to the extent that one is tempted to ask Gavin to take command of the bridge and set off on a journey through time, leaving the present far behind and transporting us back to his childhood; in essence, that’s exactly what Gavin’s collection does.
The unconventional home of Gavin Robinson, lies behind the astonishingly conventional facade of a 1960s estate. With a friendly, welcoming smile, Gavin ushers me up to his flat, with his excitable little dog, Lulu, panting as she leads the way, her short little legs ill-suited to the long staircase we have to climb.
One turn of the key and the door opens on to the captivating world of Doctor Who - every wall of Gavin’s flat is lined with shelves bearing hundreds of replicas of the characters from the BBC’s long-running science fiction television programme, a programme that has entranced generations of Brits (young and old) since its first broadcast on Saturday 23rd November, 1963. This was a doubly historical day for television as the planned broadcast had to be delayed because it clashed with a programme about the brutal assassination of President John F Kennedy. But the twenty-five minute weekly programme was soon established as a favourite with viewers although its violence was seen as shocking too, with morality campaigner, Mary Whitehouse, complaining bitterly about its content and its possibly deleterious effect upon impressionable yputh.
Gavin’s flat is a treasure trove of Doctor Who memorabilia - in every room, every bookshelf, every cupboard and every bit of flat surface is covered with Doctor Who merchandise, publications, videos and iconic imagery, all beautifully arranged, with immaculate attention to detail. It feels to me like being inside the Tardis itself and I wonder if I should ask Gavin to take me on a journey in time, leaving the present and taking us back to his childhood; and in essence, that’s exactly what he does.
“I was born in South Wales, in Sebastopol, the most southerly suburb of Pontypool, within the historic boundaries of Monmouthshire. My father was half Roma and half Welsh and though my mother was pure Welsh, I guess it must have been the Roma blood from my Dad that gave me the desire to be free, to be different.” Gavin smiles a knowing smile, and winks. Pontypool was an industrial town, its prosperity built on steel - this is where thr first steel sheets were rolled. The furnaces requited coal, a lot of it, and Gavin’s father was a manager in the biggest local coal mine, in Blaenavon, locally known as the ‘Big Pit’. His mother was a professional seamstress and her talent ensured that she was always in great demand, at one time bringing in twice as much income as her husband.
Gavin continued: “We had a good childhood and we were sometimes spoilt. We were usually the first people to have the latest gadgets, a microwave, a colour television, or a video recorder. I went to the local comprehensive and after that, I trained as a chef. I took to cooking like a fish to water; I just raced ahead, completed the training in half the usual time and, by the age of 19, I was head-chef in a restaurant.”
I asked Gavin to reverse the time machine just a little and to tell me a bit more about his teenage years, so he did: “I knew that I was different from early on; I preferred the company of girls and, while this might sound a bit stereotypical, I sometimes almost wished that I was one of the girls. I remember having major crushes on boys when I was 13. Everyone is full of uncertainties at that early stage of adolescence but by the age of 15, it was quite clear to me that I was gay; I knew that I was only sexually attracted to men.” Coping with the realisation that you are gay and therefore different, not normal, is never easy; it requires great strength of character and, if you happen to grow up in a very religious or conservative family, ‘coming out’ is often out of question. The change in the law that partly decriminalised sex between men only dates from 1967 and it was many years after that before the prevailing social attitudes towards homosexuality changed significantly.
If you were a gay teenager living in London or Manchester or Birmingham, it was at least relatively easy to connect with other LGBTI people in the locality and to find positive role models, but Gavin was growing up in a small Welsh community - he might literally have been ‘the only gay in the village’ - so I took the liberty of asking him about his own experience. After a thoughtful pause, he replied: “When I was around 15, my mother asked me directly if I was gay and, despite the fact that both my parents were quite progressive, I panicked and denied it. When I was 18, I flew the family nest and moved into a bedsit in Newport where, before long, I endured something of a gay baptism of fire: one night, I was queer-bashed by four men with baseball bats. I ended up in hospital and, inevitably, my parents came to see me there. So, whether I liked it or not, my dreadful secret was out; however, instead of the maelstrom of accusation, lamentation and recrimination that I expected, my father told me, there in the hospital, really quite tenderly: ’You daft boy, of course we know you’re gay; it’s you who’s making a big deal out of it. You are who you are, and we love you just the same’. It was almost worth the queer-bashing to hear this.”
While living in Newport, Gavin frequented the only place where gays and lesbians gathered; it was a venue that featured nights of alternative entertainment, with guest drag artists. With his lively, outgoing personality, Gavin was seen as a welcome addition to the regular clientele and then, on one of those evenings when the guest artiste cancelled unexpectedly, Gavin agreed to go on instead. Partly out of mischief and partly out of curiosity, he put on what he described as a truly god-awful frock, together with a white wig, and went on stage as ‘Phyllis’. “I went down a treat and from that moment, I was hooked on drag. Within six months, I became the club’s regular drag night hostess.” The Phyllis persona, which was in many ways Gavin’s alter ego, came to play a significant part in his life.
By the age of 19, Gavin (and Phyllis too) had outgrown Newport; it was time to move on, to mount a larger stage, and for Gavin, it had to be London. He lived in a bedsit in Walthamstow and worked as a cook in a pub in Chelsea - beginning in a new place is always hard and the job was pretty demanding. Despite the existence of a myriad of gay places in London, Gavin did not venture on to the gay scene for over a year - cash was tight and there wasn’t much time for having fun. Then things started to change for Gavin: “My career was progressing well and I was gradually moving towards management. I was still cooking but I was also managing my own pub in Swiss Cottage. From there, I moved on to managing restaurants in Peckham and a number of other places. When an opportunity came to work at Brief Encounter in St. Martin's Lane (a well known gay establishment) my life changed completely. I quickly progressed to become a promoter of special nights; I even became a DJ; and, what is more important, I also had the opportunity for resurrecting Phyllis.” These proved to be the most fun years for both of them, with Phyllis performing extensively for many years, bringing her act to numerous London venues. “Unfortunately, most of these places are closed now,” says Gavin. “I used to be a hostess in a famous private drinking club in Leicester Square, where I used to drink with the fourth Doctor Who, Tom Baker, who was a regular there. I tell you, at that stage in her career, Phyllis was to be seen all over the West End, attending most film premieres and theatre openings, and always in the company of the rich and famous - they used to call me Soho Face. On one occasion, I remember, we were stuck on a tube, late at night, due to a signalling problem; Phyllis was returning home so, to kill the time, I decided to perform for about 20 minutes while my friends went round with the hat. They returned with £60. Those certainly were the golden days!” Gavin reminisces.
I asked Gavin about his extraordinary collection of Doctor Who memorabilia: “I have been a fan of Doctor Who ever since I was a child and when the range of action figures was launched in 2005, I started collecting them. Since then, I’ve managed to amass quite a large collection, as you can see. Trying to count how many items I’ve actually got is no easy task - I did try once but gave up when I reached three thousand. Of course, I also collect books, magazines, sonic screwdrivers, police boxes, and suchlike.” It is truly an astonishing collection, with many of the action figures having been meticulously enhanced and modified by Gavin, making this a unique collection. A fridge in the kitchen is covered with Doctor Who magnets, and there is even a Dalek bottle full of bubble bath in the bathroom. “Yes, I suppose you could call me a Doctor Who fan,” says Gavin, giggling. “By now, my collection is known world-wide. Even though I have been offered big money, I couldn’t possibly part with it - all these objects are now part of my life.”
Well, our time travel excursion in the Tardis has brought us back to the present, so I ask how is life for Gavin now, now that he is 50. “Unfortunately, my health is not great. When she was on stage, Phyllis weighed in at almost 30 stone. I am now down to half of that and my priority is really to stabilise my health before I think about anything else. These days, Phyllis lives in a cupboard in the hall, and now that I’ve lost so much weight, I need to adjust all the costumes - not an easy task, though I am contemplating giving Phyllis a new lease on life fairly soon, perhaps later this year. I have already started purchasing some new outfits, together with metres of exotic fabrics to make into the most sensational evening dresses. Though we’ve lost so many of the venues where drag artists used to perform, thankfully, I still have contacts with a number of existing performers who might get me an intro’. Mind you, I do realise that I’ll need to work my way back gradually to the high profile I used to have.” Whilst I’ve never seen Phyllis performing, I can well imagine how, with remarkable, long-practised ease, the soft-spoken Gavin might transform himself into the provocative, extrovert Phyllis. I wish them both luck.
I left Gavin’s home, an astonishing world of Doctor Who, with the Dalek Clock chiming three with ‘Exterminate, Exterminate, Exterminate’, and I take with me an experience that will stay with me for a long time. Isn’t humanity simply fascinating? So great are the similarities between people yet so remarkable are the diversities to be found amongst them. On these occasions, I feel it is such a privilege to be invited into people’s fascinating homes and lives.
Text edited: 15th June 2017
Update (February 2018)
We have to report the sad news that on Friday, 23rd February 2018, Gavin Robinson passed away; he was only 51 but he had been in uncertain health for some considerable time. Gavin will be much mourned by his family, by his large circle of friends at the Stockwell Park Community Centre, and by all those who knew him. May he rest in peace.
Page modified: 22nd April 2019