The Safari Bar: a gay bar, in a zoo, in Bognor Regis, in 1983…

Alf Le Flohic January 27, 2023

If the Safari Bar appeared in a film, you’d quite confidently pull a face, shake your head, and say ‘Well that never happened’. But it did indeed happen: a gay bar, in a zoo, in Bognor Regis, in 1983. Just let that sink in for a minute…

Before we go any further, I just want to say that the bar wasn’t strictly inside the zoo, it was tucked out of the way at the back. Even so, what this was like for the animals living in the zoo doesn’t really bear thinking about… but it was acceptable in the ‘80s!

The zoo began life around 1950 as Pets Corner within Bognor’s Hotham Park. It was the 1979 reincarnation of the business as Zootopia that we must thank for the Safari Bar.

Barrie Appleyard is originally from Brighton, but the family moved to Bognor Regis where he got a job working in a menswear shop. In his spare time, he was a DJ, spending hours at Rounder Records back in Brighton sourcing new music.

Barrie remembers being approached by fellow gay DJ Ian Harding, who he had met through the Cairo Club in Littlehampton, and who knew Mike, the manager of Bognor Zoo. “Ian contacted me and a couple of others to say ‘Shall we try something with the zoo, you know, gay nights or something?’”

Ian, Barrie and another gay friend Andy became the Safari Bar DJs. Barrie also had a friend Laurie who worked down at the zoo looking after the donkeys.

Safari Bar flyer designed by Barrie Appleyard and Ian Harding

Having suggested a jungle theme, Barrie set about decorating the bar and function room. “I covered the till in fur fabric, the bar stools and the shelves behind the bar. The walls were covered in bamboo fencing and we hung leis, flower leis, over the bar.”

“During the daytime it was a cafeteria. The bar was gay on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday nights. We’d have the disco and we’d be playing all the latest Hi-NRG stuff.”

Alongside the zoo, some of the acts from Gerry Cottle’s circus lived on-site in caravans. On DJ Andy’s birthday, Baba Fossett arrived and performed for him.

Baba can be seen in the 1981 Soft Cell video for Entertain Me, doing her fire-eating act. Given the amount of flammable fake fur in the Safari Bar you’ll be relieved to hear she did her contortionist routine that night!

To encourage punters on a Wednesday evening the Safari Bar offered a Movie Nite via a huge back projection TV, although Barrie has confessed “We used to crank the music up and have gay porn playing.“

Barrie and Laurie at Granny’s Nightspot, courtesy of Barrie Appleyard

As well as a ‘movie’, your £1 entry fee would also get you a complimentary ticket to Granny’s nightspot in Portsmouth. Within a Brutalist concrete shopping mall and car park, an external lift took you to the club which welcomed a gay crowd on Wednesdays.

Although they never met, Chris Cage from Bognor was working behind the bar at Granny’s on Tuesday and Wednesday nights that year, while studying architecture at Portsmouth Polytechnic.

“Tuesday was Heavy Metal night – headbangers and tribal dancing to Eye of the Tiger.

Wednesday night was a bit more sedate. Pretty cheesy music as I recall. I wasn’t excited by the music, but I was much more excited by the clientele on a Wednesday.”

“I was known as the Bona Barman. I might have flirted a bit with some of the customers… in fact my first gay sex was with someone I met in Granny’s nightspot – a hairdresser called Maurice.”

But back to Bognor… the discos and cabaret shows were in the function room off the bar area. “To make it look even more jungle themed,” remembers Barrie, “Andy found loads of old artificial Christmas trees in one of the storerooms, took them to bits and stapled them to the ceiling. Here and there he’d have it trailing down a bit, so it looked like vines.”

The first Saturday of the month was a Girls Only Nite, and the second Saturday was Cabaret Nite. For Saturday, 12 February Ian organised the appearance of Rebel Rebel, “our first drag act, from London’s Vauxhall Tavern”.

Rebel Rebel publicity photo courtesy of Kenzie Jones (previously known as Butch)

Drag legend Dave Lynn remembers Rebel Rebel, aka Butch and Arthur, and worked with them on occasion. “They were very classy and popular. They were the first double act of colour”.

Butch remembers that gig: “I remember the smell of the place. I remember we had to change in a little caravan that was once used by Gary Glitter, there were pictures of him plastered all over.”

Also in the bar area was a parrot that had once starred in adverts for Kodak. Fame had gone to its head, as Butch found out: “That bloody parrot we had to walk by, having to say ‘Hello Captain’ each time. If we didn’t it would proper go off!

“It was weird as fuck, so tacky and camp. I remember me and Arthur giving looks to each other and laughing saying ‘What the fuck dear’”.

The bar was a great success initially. “It used to get quite busy, you’d get a bar full of people, especially on a Saturday night with the disco,” recalls Barrie. It seems there may have been reasons for that…

“There were two spare caravans which we used to call the Sex Dives. So, if there was somebody you wanted to have a bit of nonsense with, you’d say ‘Right, get into the caravans’”.

And if caravans weren’t your thing… “In the dark you could walk into the zoo. Right underneath you had little animatronics like the DwarvesDiamond Mine. You’d go down there for a bit of how’s ya father as well.

“It caught on to begin with and was busy, and then it sort of… I think to be honest there were better places to go really.”

It seems the Safari Bar only lasted six to nine months in total, but for that one summer Bognor was offering something quite unique thanks to Barrie and his pals!