Losing Lost Vagueness: remembering Glastonbury's first 'naughty corner'

Burlesque, robots, trapeze artists, a wedding chapel, a casino, extreme art events at 4am — Lost Vagueness was an anarchic, original idea that saved the Glastonbury festival at a difficult time. But, finds a new film, it could not survive

The morning sun slowly cooks the inside of your tent. You wipe away the mud flaking on your brow, and with a cider-induced thunderstorm crashing inside your skull you come around, and you ask yourself: did I get married last night?

Many who went to Glastonbury in the mid-2000s and visited Lost Vagueness, the festival’s first after-hours party area, may well recognise this scenario. It hosted the Chapel of Love, an anarchic marriage institution that unofficially wed inebriated attendees (allegedly including Kate Moss and Pete Doherty) as well as offering a boxing ring for those who weren’t getting along so well.

It was all part of a muddy take on immersive theatre, albeit one with a “turn a blind eye” policy to patrons bringing their own drugs and booze. Lost Vagueness’s psychedelic backyard version of Vegas – presented through a blend of Victorian freak show dress up, cabaret, burlesque casinos, ballroom dancing, scrapheap robots, 1950s kitsch and gothic glamour – was the festival within a festival that reignited a spark in Glastonbury during the period in which it needed it most.

“We weren’t selling as many tickets before it,” Glastonbury founder Michael Eavis says in a new documentary, Lost in Vagueness, whilst former operations director Melvin Benn goes one further, saying: “Without it, Glastonbury would have died”. The area ran from 2000 to 2007 and gave birth to the festival’s “naughty corner” of carnivalesque nighttime revelry which, for many punters, is as much of an attraction as any band or DJ.

Lost Vagueness founder Roy Gurvitz in a tank.
Lost Vagueness founder Roy Gurvitz in a tank. Photograph: PR Company Handout

When it began, Lost Vagueness offered some glitz amongst the grime. Regular attendee Nick recalls his first time there in 2005 wearing a backless gown and fur coat. “In teen movie dream sequence-style, we were greeted with approving glances and a nod. The velvet rope was held back and we entered into a heady mix of smoke, chandeliers, gaming tables complete with kitted-out croupiers, trapeze artists hanging from the roof and a topless female Elvis impersonator serenading the unflinching regulars. Making our way to the private bar we were informed they sold three things: champagne, whisky and cigars.”

Like many, Nick found himself hours later in the chapel about to be hitched to a stranger. “We were married by a DJ in front of a congregation of pilled-up and passed-out revellers. We spent our honeymoon on a deserted bandstand watching the sun come up and never saw each other again.” Another unnamed attendee recalls going into the area, imbibing some LSD he was presented with in the casino by a fellow attendee, “seeing a lot of weird shit” and then waking up in a portaloo the next day.

When filmmaker Sofia Olins went there in the early 2000s she was instantly taken with its charms. “It gave that feeling of being a child, like, ‘what have I stumbled upon?’”, Olins tells me, just before her film’s premiere at this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest.

A Fatboy Slim DJ set in the Lost Vagueness area of Glastonbury Festival in 2007.
A Fatboy Slim DJ set in the Lost Vagueness area of Glastonbury Festival in 2007. Photograph: Angell/PR Company Handout

Made up of footage she took in the years since, the film is ostensibly about Roy Gurvitz, Lost Vagueness’s founder. A traveller, he began working at Glastonbury in 1986, first as a crew member, then a bar manager. His desire to create Lost Vagueness was triggered by abuse he and some friends received at Glastonbury when they went out one night dressed up in leotards, suits and sparkles – outfits that are positively de rigeur these days. “One of us even got beaten up,” he says. “You would think that would put us off, but it massively encouraged us, because we knew it would invoke something in people, that it would cause a reaction.” So the next year they started a cafe, and ran a tent called Top Turns. “It was awful cabaret, very basic. It involved plying people with a lot of tequila, and once you’ve had enough tequila, then anything is cabaret, isn’t it?”

The film documents a rocky relationship with Michael Eavis, capturing them butting heads spectacularly in a showdown over the positioning of some bars housed in giant aeroplane cockpits. “As far as I’m concerned I’ve never really fallen out with Michael,” Gurvitz says, “It was Melvin Benn who I was having problems with.” Benn was brought in to help the festival professionalise, and crack down on fence-jumpers; his more corporate style chafed with Gurvitz’s traveller mentality. “I wanted Michael to have my back, but I guess he didn’t”. Their relationship broke down, and Gurvitz was “forced to walk away”.

Gurvitz is an argumentative and volatile person in the film, and it’s not difficult to see why he may have been tricky to work with, although age and time away from the festival appears to have mellowed him. “We weren’t there to cause trouble, but we did cause trouble,” he says. Aside from the operational troubles and budget negotiations, Gurvitz’s choice of acts also came into question. “One year a local vicar complained to Michael about Mouse’s performance in the tent at 4am,” Gurvitz recalls with a hearty laugh. The Mouse in question was a performer known for some extreme on-stage acts, such as an enema with dog food to give the illusion of, well, you get it. “So I asked the vicar what he was doing there at 4am. The complaint was withdrawn.” In the film, Mouse talks about what she can and can’t eat when she’s due to perform this act. “Mushy peas are a bit iffy”, apparently.

A bar set in an old aircraft fuselage in the Lost Vagueness area of the Glastonbury festival.
Muddy drinkers, in a bar set in an old aircraft fuselage in the Lost Vagueness area of the Glastonbury festival. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Despite leaving Glastonbury, Lost Vagueness mania had caught on with UK festivalgoers, and Gurvitz and his team were soon performing at various other events, striking when the iron was hot. “We struck too much, we did too much ironing!” Gurvitz says, “We never said no to anything”. This crazy schedule, along with rising costs and infighting, meant the whole thing soon became untenable, and Lost Vagueness closed down in 2009. “It was never well thought out in terms of a business,” Gurvitz says. “It was a bit like setting sail across the Atlantic in a rowing boat and going ‘we can do this’, and then ending up halfway across and going, ‘where are the bloody oars?’ If I’d have carried on I would be six feet under.”

In its place now is Shangri-La, a multi-area after-hours zone. Like many people involved today, its creative director Kaye Dunnings came from a Lost Vagueness background. She originally ran the Laundretta, a kitsch 1950s style house that doubled up as a hair and nails bar. But while Shangri-La continues to grow more adventurous and politically engaged with every passing year – its 2017 theme is around environmental waste – Lost Vagueness was perhaps too rigid to survive. “They were on the cusp of something enormous,” says Gurvitz’s one-time nemesis Melvin Benn. “It’s sad, really, because what Roy created was extraordinary. If he could have got over that hump of allowing people to be inspired by him, rather than fearing them, then I think he could have gone on to create great things.”

Olins meanwhile feels that something like Lost Vagueness was always going to be of a specific time, something almost destined to implode. “Like any exciting underground movement it burns brightly and then dies brightly,” she says. “Maybe that is an implicit need of any game-changing cultural movement – that it has to have that explosive nature to it.”

Lost in Vagueness is screening at Shangri La at Glastonbury Festival on Friday and Sunday at 3pm. There is a one-off London screening on 13 July, tickets available at lostinvagueness.com


Daniel Dylan Wray

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
At the drive-in: Julien Temple's Glastonbury Cineramageddon
One day the film-maker hopes to project movies on to the clouds. But for now he’s launching a drive-in unlike any other

Gwilym Mumford

22, Jun, 2017 @5:41 PM

Article image
Lost in Vagueness review – high times in a fond memoir of Glasto legends
Sofia Olins’ doc tells the story of the festival legendary party area where drag, drugs and debauchery were unrivalled

Gwilym Mumford

01, Jun, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
Sorry, poncey fashionistas – you can wear what you like at Glastonbury
You don’t need instructions on how to dress when in search of freedom. Throwaway fashion is sullying what’s left of the festival spirit

Michele Hanson

19, Jun, 2017 @1:19 PM

Article image
‘What’s the most strong and stable thing in your tent?’ – meet 2017's Glastonbury campers
Peach schnapps, bumbags, fold-up camp beds, fry-ups … would Worthy Farm festivalgoers pass the Maybot test, or were they more a coalition of chaos?

Leah Harper

25, Jun, 2017 @12:12 PM

Article image
Ed Balls goes to Glastonbury: ‘Even the police have glittered cheekbones’
The politician-turned-Strictly star found Radiohead a ‘dirge’ and got papped in the queue for the showers. But would the wonders of Worthy Farm and hordes of selfie-taking fans prove infectious?

Ed Balls

26, Jun, 2017 @5:00 AM

Article image
From Bowie to Beyoncé: Glastonbury's 50 greatest moments
Michael and Emily Eavis pick the best bits of the world’s greatest music festival, from the healing fields to Stormzy

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

26, Jun, 2020 @5:00 AM

Article image
NYC Downlow: Glastonbury's celebration of 50 years of LGBT culture
Half a century after the Stonewall riots, this haven of after-hours partying pays homage to a golden age of gay creativity

Alex Needham

30, Jun, 2019 @12:16 PM

Article image
Lost Vagueness upholding the Glastonbury spirit
A twisted, disorientating and hidden corner of Glastonbury 2004 defies the claim that the corporate, cleaned-up festival is not what it used to be.

Patrick Barkham

26, Jun, 2004 @9:50 AM

Article image
Pitch perfect: Glastonbury's tidiest tents
The lifestyle guru Marie Kondo’s attitude to sparking joy is all well and good at home. But what about in a field in the middle of Somerset?

Interviews by Elle Hunt

30, Jun, 2019 @11:54 AM

Article image
Boy Better Know: ‘We should have been playing big festivals six years ago’
With Drake on their label and Corbyn in their contacts, grime collective BBK are big-time. Skepta, JME and the rest of the crew get in the Glastonbury mood, talking vegan food, politics and adventures in the healing field

Kate Hutchinson

22, Jun, 2017 @5:31 PM