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Prom Night
Evening Standard (August 2001)

There may not be gallons of pig’s blood or any violent outbursts of telekinitic activity, but otherwise it’s a scene straight out of “Carrie”. Henry and Kat have stepped onto a podium in the Islington Bar on Caledonian Road, to be crowned the Prom King and Queen of London’s latest club, Prom Night. It’s an emotional moment, with Henry looking every inch the Eighties playboy in a beige jacket with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, and Kat tottering on her heels, the best part of two bottles of champagne sloshing around inside her. They’re slowly being draped in their ceremonial sashes, when a girl in a flash party dress storms onto the podium. “Noooo!” she screams. “I should be Prom Queen! Not her!”

Just when you thought London’s club scene had reached its kitsch limit with Schooldisco and the Bagley’s rollerdisco parties, along comes Prom Night. While a lone karaoke crooner tackles Elvis standards in the pub opposite, a bunch of late twentysomethings have gathered to live out their prom night fantasies. Men sport either tuxedos in a bid to feel like the romantic lead from “Pretty In Pink” or the casual Don Johnson suit and t-shirt look, and their escorts favour outrageous ballgowns and as much fake jewellery as possible. And the soundtrack is painfully unhip: Pat Benetar’s “Love Is A Battlefield” follows “We Built This City” by Jefferson Starship. Both receive huge cheers.

The night is the brainchild of DJs Duckie, Heather and Blane (who claim they had no idea they share names with three characters from “Pretty In Pink”, but are heard responding to the slightly more commonplace Rob, Theo and John). Duckie, a 27 year old American now living on Caledonian Road, thinks “the English feel a profound sense of loss because they’ve never experienced the prom”, and has made it his purpose to revive some horrific music and even scarier fashions on the last Friday of every month. He’s even grown a moustache to fully get into the part. “The DJ at prom always had a moustache,” he says, cueing up a Huey Lewis “classic”. “I do look extremely stupid, yes, but I also feel like Al Pacino.”

Although Duckie provided the original impetus and set up their website, www.promnight.co.uk, which has links to tuxedo rental shops and a limo service, his fiancé Heather adds the sense of pizazz that helps the Bridget Jones generation connect with Prom Night. “It’s all about dressing up and living a silly teenage fantasy,” she says, resplendent in a red gown that makes her look like she should be perched on a giant toilet roll. “We didn’t have prom when I was young, so now’s our chance. It’s also an excuse to buy luscious dresses. The whole idea of dressing down to go to a club is abhorrent to me. You should dress as OTT as possible.”

Glancing over to the dancefloor, where a gang of girls are waving their arms in the air to “Walking On Sunshine”, each with a fag in one hand and purse in the other, it seems Heather’s not the only one after some raucous glamour. The dresses are showy, cocktail numbers usually reserved for posh work dos or wedding receptions (and Prom Night is essentially the wedding reception from hell). And even though they’re dancing around a handbag like Essex is the fashion capital of Europe, at least it has the good grace to be made from replica snakeskin. Heather smiles in approval. “If Bridget Jones showed up here, she’d love it. She could get drunk and have fun without feeling self-conscious.”

Just to confirm the Brit Lit connection, it turns out that the jealous girl who demanded to be crowned Prom Queen is actually Jenny Colgan, author of “Amanda’s Wedding” and the forthcoming “Looking For Andrew McCarthy” (who, spookily enough, was the actor who played Blane in “Pretty In Pink”). “I was a swot at school, so I didn’t get invited to any cool discos in the Eighties,” she says, restorative cocktail in hand. “Now I’m grown up, I can go. So this is me rewriting the past. I was never allowed to wear these clothes to school. I was the weediest girl in school, but tonight I’m a prom goddess.”

Does Prom Night provide something that’s lacking in London’s club scene? “Definitely,” Jenny nods. “I love things like Schooldisco, but this is better. You spend an hour with your girlfriends getting the giggles while you dress up and then you get to dance like you did in the Eighties.” Roni Dutta, who tonight relinquished her Prom Queen title to Kat, agrees. “The whole club vibe in London is so casual,” she says. “This is an excuse to say ‘yes, I am dressing up. I’m going to be really ostentatious and wear a huge pink meringue’.”

True to her word, Roni is indeed wearing a huge pink meringue. And were the fashion police to make a sudden raid on Prom Night, that’s not the only crime they’d be noting down. Prom King Henry is a repeat offender: red bow tie, cummerbund, his jacket collar turned up, converse sneakers, it goes on. He looks absurd, but knows it and seems to be hugely enjoying the fact. And if there’s something that sums up the appeal of Prom Night, with its ludicrous soundtrack and shocking dress sense, it’s this sense of jokey nostalgia, reliving a past you didn’t have in the first place. “It’s not about the quality,” Henry confirms, an emotional Jenny finally on his arm. “It’s about the memories.” Even if those memories are as reliable as Molly Ringwald’s career.

Ian Watson
Music, film, comedy and travel journalist based in London

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