Gateways Grind

Gateways Grind: Sandi Toksvig is uncovering the forgotten story of an iconic lesbian club in this new BBC documentary

Posted by for Entertainment

Just in time for Pride month, a new BBC documentary pulls back the curtain on an iconic club that played a pivotal role in the history of the UK’s lesbian scene.

The King’s Road: a fabled street in London synonymous with the swinging 60s, mod culture and Vivienne Westwood’s pioneering punk fashion.

But one notable establishment of the area that history has all but forgotten is Gateways, a little-known but incredibly successful lesbian nightclub where women found friendship, love and community for three decades. Hidden away beneath the King’s Road, the basement club saw many extraordinary events and well-known faces gather behind its signature green door – and now, a brand new documentary is bringing them to light.

Announced as part of the BBC’s wide-ranging programme of LGBTQ+ content to mark the 50th anniversary of Pride, Gateways Grind is the first-ever film to tell the story of the iconic lesbian venue.

Presented by writer and broadcaster Sandi Toksvig, who retraces her footsteps back to the ‘Gates’, the enlightening documentary follows the quest to commemorate its important place in lesbian history.

The iconic Chelsea venue opened in 1931 for a mixed crowd, before being taken over by Ted and Gina Ware in 1943. By the mid-50s, the glamorous Gina was running the club alongside Smithy, an American butch lesbian who was rumoured to be Gina’s lover.

By the mid-60s, however, Gateways was a lesbian-only club, and steadily grew a dedicated and diverse clientele until its closure in 1985. Many women who graced the dancefloor during its heyday share their colourful stories in the film, from notable public figures such as the late civil servant Barbara Hosking, LGBT poet laureate Trudy Howson, DIVA magazine publisher Linda Riley, Stonewall co-founder Lisa Power and artist Maggi Hambling, as well as a variety of club-goers who came from far and wide seeking sanctuary.

The documentary also collates fascinating archive images and video of Gateways, including a pivotal sequence from 1968 film The Killing Of Sister George, which was shot inside the club and recruited many of its regulars as extras.

The news that the documentary, which premiered earlier in March at London’s BFI Flare film festival, is coming to the small screen is an important step forward for lesbian representation. Though there are endless stories of LGBTQ+ trailblazers buried in the history books, those of lesbians and queer women suffer from a disproportionate level of invisibility, largely because female homosexuality wasn’t acknowledged in the past.

Speaking to Pink News, filmmaker Jacquie Lawrence said she “absolutely” believed that lesbian stories are disproportionately erased.

“Gay men were criminalised, so that was something to protest against and build stories around. Also, in any genre, male stories are pushed to the front,” she explained. 

“There are so many incredible documentaries and dramas which eradicate or minimise the role of lesbians, because Queen Victoria said we didn’t exist. Because we weren’t criminalised it’s like we weren’t there.”

Lawrence, who has been producing, directing and commissioning queer content for over 25 years, wasn’t aware of the legacy of Gateways until she began work on the project.

“I had heard of the Gateways – sadly I just missed out on going myself – but I had no idea it was this amazing historical onion; the more you peel back, the more you learn,” she continued.

“We knew we were opening the green door, but we had no idea how much we’d find. We interviewed around 35 people, but since then we’ve had new women come forward to tell their stories. I think there will be life after this documentary, maybe an exhibition.”

Now heralded by many as a lesbian landmark, a campaign to instal an official blue plaque beside the now-whitewashed door is underway. With this documentary, the chances of that happening just got a bit brighter.

Gateways Grind will air at 9pm on 21 June on BBC Four and BBC iPlayer.

Images: Getty; BFI Flare

Share this article

Christobel Hastings

Christobel Hastings is Stylist's Entertainment Editor whose specialist interests include pop culture, LGBTQ+ identity and lore.