On the afternoon of 20th October 2021, the cold northern air is blasting down on a huge group of brightly dressed people. They are, for the most part, patiently queueing. They are also a very eclectic group. It would be hard to pinpoint a common denominator other than a certain eccentricity: the Queen of the New Romantics, Eve Ferret, her red beehive rising above the group, shivers and laughs with some men who look like they have come straight from the Conservative Golf Club and might never have heard of “The Blitz”, let alone donned black eyeliner at any point in their lives. Bright young people move in and out of the group. Many others, who are elderly, laugh together, and the atmosphere is electric.
A strong, male, northern voice pipes up.
“Bloody hell man, what are they playing at? Are they trying to boost profits? We’re all going to die of bloody cold standing out here!”
There is irony there, as the group, including me, are all standing at Mountsett Crematorium in Dipton, and it is just the kind of comment the man the group are there to honour would have made. The man I would describe as “The King and Queen of Everything”, Vin Welch: husband, father, grandfather, actor, drag queen, charity worker and friend to so many.
Indeed, the group mirrored his diverse lifestyle.
As the hearse drove up, holding its pink, glittery coffin, you knew that his daughters Debbie Dedes and Denise Welch were determined that the day would reflect their dad’s life. A celebration, and a right royal knees-up after, full of glamour, glitz and love.
It seemed like only yesterday I had popped over to see my friend, journalist Lester Middlehurst, at his home in Kemptown, Brighton. His bright, bubbly cousin, Rose Hirst, was staying, as was her stunning blonde friend, Denise Welch. They were appearing in Gaslight at the Nightingale Theatre. Denise was playing the part made famous by Ingrid Bergman – Paula Alquist Anton. Rose was playing the maid. Denise was from one of the towns where I grew up, Whitley Bay, and I fell for her at first sight. She had a great sense of humour and was a Gemini, like me. But this is not about Rose or Denise. It was not long, anyway, before Denise introduced me to her parents.
Her glamorous mum Annie, a psychiatric nurse, had an air of the Joan Collins about her. She also had her daughter’s down-to-earth sense of humour. The life and soul of the party, meanwhile, her dad Vin was dashing, and a walking one-man show. Back in the 1980s, the word “gay” was still taboo in many households. Much as my parents knew I was gay and accepted it, they would still cringe if asked what it was like to have a gay son.
In the Welch house, it seemed to be actively encouraged.
“What’s the problem? I’d love to have a gay son,” Vin said to me, quite quickly, upon meeting me. Denise was brought up in a household that preached diversity long before it was a buzzword. Everyone was treated with the same respect. Gay people were just the norm for Denise and Debbie, growing up. Of course, their dad popping a frock on and coming out as his alter ego, Raquel, was also quite common. (He performed “Raquel” for many North-East charity events.) Denise adored this, although Debbie felt less enthusiastic about Raquel’s presence.
In fact, the tale of Debbie working as a beautician on the cruise liners, and her parents joining her, is legendary. Debbie had asked her dad to be discreet. But of course, at the Captain’s
Ball, Vin was the life and soul of the party, as always. Everyone was loving him. Suddenly, he disappeared. After a while, Debbie went in search of him. Walking along the ship’s corridors, she was finally confronted by a glitzy, glamorous Shirley Bassey lookalike. It was her dad. It was a shock to her when, later that night, he was named both King and Queen of the evening.
The idea of one of your friends’ parents coming to a party would normally not be idyllic. With Vin and Annie Welch, however, they were the party, and Vin was always last to leave. I remember Denise telling me it had its downside. On her sixteenth birthday, her friends were keener to hang out with her mum (in her beaded catsuit) and her fabulous dad.
But Vin was more than a party man. He was a charity worker and friend to so many, and
he possessed rare qualities. You could trust him, and he was loyal to you. His often sarcastic humour could have you in stitches. Vin loved to gossip; I would tease him: “You’re worse than a queen.” But if you wanted to tell him a secret, he would keep it.
Vin would often come and stay with me after Annie passed. He loved her dearly.
Walking along Old Compton Street one night, he shed a tear and said, “There will never be another woman for me like my Annie.” He often hid his sensitive side with humour, but those that knew him saw he had a heart of gold.
Vin loved life and the ladies, and the women loved the sparkling, pink-suited man.
One of the last times he came to stay was especially memorable. He truly kept up with me (and more) when it came to going out. As we were seated in a bar, waiting to see his friend, the cabaret star Eve Ferret, a very attractive woman approached me, sat on my lap and proceeded to kiss me. She pulled back in horror after realising her mistake.
Vin asked, “How do you know her?”
I explained that I didn’t, and he replied, “Bloody hell, man, I wish I had sat in your chair.”
After the show, Vin stayed on, and he finally got in at 2 am, having popped down to Stringfellows, where he was an honorary member.
Yet he was up by 10am the next day, having his usual breakfast – a “Cup a Soup” (mushroom) and an orange. He was suited and booted by lunchtime, and off to see “Man of La Mancha” starring Kelsey Grammar and the incredible Cassidy Janson, who shared the same agent as his daughter Denise Welch.
We were invited backstage to meet Cassidy when her parents were there. Vin charmed everyone. When Kelsey popped in, however, Vin turned to him and commented,
“I thought you were great. Don’t listen to what all those critics say.”
Kelsey was left opened mouthed, and I was trying hard to hold back the tears of laugher.
You would think that would be enough for any stay, but we were off to see one of his grandsons the following night: Matt Healy, lead singer of The 1975. He was incredibly proud of all his family. His other grandchildren came too – Olivia, Alex, Wills and Louis – although taking Vin to Wagamama’s before the concert was not a great idea. “Worse meal of my life”, Vin told me upon leaving An hour into the electric show, there was Vin, bopping away with three or four girls and loving life.
That was Vin. He loved life. As Denise Welch said, “He knew how to live life, and he knew how to die.”
There will only ever be one Vin Welch, but boy, were we all so lucky to have had him in our lives.
R.I.P. Vin, you will be missed.