The Big Interview: 'You only get one chance to be London's first night czar'

By Amelie Maurice-Jones

- Last updated on GMT

What's the story of Amy Lamé? The Morning Advertiser finds out
What's the story of Amy Lamé? The Morning Advertiser finds out

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On Saturday I’m cutting shapes at Fabric. On Monday I’m at City Hall to meet London’s night czar Amy Lamé. 15 minutes before the interview, I phone to get let in. After some confusion, the press officer double checks, “you are at Docklands right?” No. I’m at Tower Bridge.

It turns out there are two city halls. So, after a breakneck journey darting through tourists and speeding the DLR I’m face-to-face with Amy Lamé as cable cars meander peacefully past the window, gentle giants, in a slick glass building in east London, where the mayor’s office has been based, I learn, since 2022.  

Eight years have passed since Lamé became London’s first night czar in 2016. But this week, she’s been slammed​ in the press for ‘globetrotting’ to Australia, Italy and Spain on a £117,000 salary while London loses 1,165 venues in three years – a rate one Tory MP said “would make the Blitz blush”.

Lamé hit back at critics. “I’ve been working closely with businesses, venues, boroughs and Londoners to support them throughout these challenges, and I’m delighted that London’s hospitality industry sales outpaced the rest of the UK last year,” she wrote in The Independent,​ citing the “huge challenges” faced by hospitality across the country in recent years: the pandemic, Brexit, the cost-of-living crisis, rising rents and business rates. A spokesperson for London mayor Sadiq Khan​ has defended her “important job” to support and promote sectors worth billions of pounds.

Our interview took place before all of this. But it’s not the first time the night czar has made her way to headlines. A 2018 article in NME​ begged the question, ‘London night czar Amy Lamé, what exactly is the point of you?’ Well, let’s find out for ourselves. Lamé speaks generally on these kinds of comments: “It’s inevitable I’ll get some criticism because you can’t please everyone all the time. But that’s what leadership is, and I just have to carry on.”

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A czar is born: Lamé was appointed as night czar in 2016

So how did the New Jersey local become the mouthpiece for London nightlife? She takes us back 32 years, when she left her waterside hometown, Keyport, for England’s capital. She was enchanted by the city; a shining “beacon” for people wanting to be themselves. “I just wanted to live my best life really,” she muses, looking back fondly on the LGBTQ+ Soho late-night café-bar where she found her feet: “It was, like, one of the first in London to open where you didn’t have to be secretive so that atmosphere was very refreshing, there were people from all over the world that worked there and I met loads of friends.”

“I feel very proud to have what I think is the best job in the world”

Among these was Simon Casson, and the duo launched club night Duckie at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern,​ carving a niche for beer, Bowie and performance art in a queer scene hounded by electronic dance tracks and cheesy disco. And since, she’s unapologetically brandished the torch for LGBTQ+ nightlife. Today, there are more venues the queer community can go and feel welcome, but “we’ll always need our own safe spaces,” the 53-year-old says.

That’s why much of her work as night czar has been about stemming the closure of LGBTQ+ venues​ in London, with 58% vanishing from the city from 2006 to 2017. She set up the Culture and Community Spaces at Risk office to support grassroots sites, created an LGBTQ+ venues forum, and during the pandemic put together an emergency fund for these spaces. She speaks candidly: “It makes me quite emotional. We didn’t lose one venue on the other side of Covid.”

Losing these establishments would sap the “lifeblood of the city”. And the opening of new Spanish lesbian tapas bar La Camionera in Soho two weeks ago showed there’s a strong appetite for new LGBTQ+ spaces, with hundreds of queer women flooding the streets for the viral launch in what has since been coined ‘Winter Pride’.

@lleoworld LESBIANS UNITE #lesbianthings#lesbiansbelike#wlw#wlwtiktok♬ The L Word Theme Song (The Way That We Live) (Full Version) - Betty

The question of closures

But, of course, it’s not all sunshine and rainbow bunting. Data shows almost a third of nightclubs have vanished​ across the country, and a separate study revealed London is losing pubs faster than anywhere else in England, with 46 sites calling last orders in the first six months of 2023. Closures in London include Space 289 in Bethnal Green and Werkhaus in Brick Lane and G-A-Y​ in Soho. Queer venue the Glory also shut its doors in January, and iconic nightclub Heaven recently announced it’s at risk of permanent closure.

This has sparked a flurry of articles mourning the “annihilation”​ of London’s party scene. Some lament that the capital is no longer a 24-hour-city,​ unless, of course, you’re up for afters at Billingsgate fish market chased with a full English at 24/7 eatery Duck & Waffle at £18 a head. Think-pieces​ have tried to get to the bottom of the question, ‘Is this the end of the big night out?’

“Sadiq and I have done everything we possibly can, and we will continue to support the industry,” Lamé insists. “But if you look at the support that has been given from central Government, it is severely lacking.​ So here in London we are trying to preserve and support what we can, but there are larger forces working against us and working against the industry, which makes it very difficult.”

Mercato Metropolitano -14-1
Working together: Lamé has secured later licenses for venues including She Bar 

She also holds the opinion that being a 24-hour city is more than nights out, with 1.3m people working regularly in London at night in jobs like healthcare, cleaning, and gyms as well as transport​: "London has always been and will always be a 24 hour city". But a recent BBC Politics​ interview with the night czar went viral on X when she made this claim. Londoners begged to differ, flooding the post with stories of getting kicked out of pubs by 10pm, struggling to source pints post 11pm, then having difficulties getting home afterwards due to cancelled trains. When it comes to licensing, Lamé also points out that City Hall has no formal powers and decisions are made at a local council level. 

That central and local government seem to shoulder so much responsibility makes the question posed to Lamé by BBC Politics​ fair enough: “You don’t actually have any powers to enforce any of your suggestions. Does that hamper the work you can do and the impact you can have?”

According to Lamé, it all comes down to building partnerships. “For me, it’s about values more than politics. If we share the same values, regardless of whatever angle you’re coming from, then there’s common ground,” she says.

First week in the job: Lamé led the deal to reopen Fabric in 2016

Starting the role, for instance, was a baptism of fire. The mayor’s first request? To reopen Fabric.​ The license of the electronic nightclub was revoked following two drug-related deaths in 2016, “and I was like okay, I’ve been in this job about an hour,” Lamé remembers, “and it was one of the biggest challenges, because at that time, it was a global story. But I was able to get everybody round the table and find a solution. So even though things were political, and things continue to be political, I like to cut through all of that and really find where our common ground is and what we can build on together.”

She’s also been able to secure later licenses for the Lower Third on Tottenham Court Road, Camden’s iconic Electric Ballroom, as well as LGBTQ+ venues She Bar and Little Ku in Soho. What’s more, a new report has also revealed the Night Time Enterprise Zones, pioneered by Lamé and Khan to boost London’s highstreets, has had its desired effect. Bromley, Vauxhall and Woolwich high streets saw spending rise by up to 70% after they joined the programme last year.

A spokesperson for the mayor praised the initiative as a “ground-breaking” aspect of the night czar’s work, alongside standing up for better pay and conditions and protecting venues. They added: “Lamé is helping to put women’s safety​ at the heart of more than 2,1000 organisations, making licensing easier to navigate, and supporting boroughs to develop night-time strategies to plan better for all aspect of life at night.”

Mark of respect: Lamé was inspired by Sadiq Khan even before she took the role

The Women’s Safety Charter offers guidance to improve safety for women at night. It has now been adopted by 10 other cities across the globe, including, most recently, Tallinn in Estonia. Lamé says: “It feels great to have that impact here in London, but also to inspire other women and male allies, because we can’t do it alone. We need the guys with us on this one.”

And then there’s the triumph of Tottenham’s mega-club, Drumsheds,​ which Lamé worked to open. “Oh my gosh, I mean, what a moment,” she marvels. The 15,000-capacity venue boasted DJs like Bicep, DJ Hazard and Marcel Dettman in the stellar lineup for its first season. “That is such a great success story – working with Broadwick Live, working with the council, working with the different players to help open the largest nightclub in the UK.”

Facing the music

Publicly representing a sector of 1.3m people is no walk in the park. But for Lamé, the pressure of the job is mixed with passion. “Every day, every night, is completely different, and you never know what’s going to happen. It could be something brilliant, or it could be another challenge or whatever.

“The pressure comes from just making sure I’ve got enough sleep, catching my Z’s when I can, to make sure I’m resilient when I’m out there, all day and sometimes all night doing the job. With a city of well over 8m people and hundreds of thousands of businesses that are so important to our economy, you’ve got to do it more than full-time.”

There are few job titles as cool as ‘night czar’. This isn’t lost on Lamé: “I feel very proud to have what I think is the best job in the world,”​ she says, and then quickly adds: “The mayor, obviously, thinks he’s got the best job in the world, but I think I’ve got the best job."

The Guardian​ recently argued Brits should stop bemoaning the loss of nightclubs and should get out and rave.​ Does Lamé still go out for fun? “Oh my gosh, yes!” That’s why she loves living in Camden,​ everything’s on her doorstep. She’s got the Dublin Castle which runs backroom gigs for “seeing bands nobody’s ever heard of that could be the next big thing”, as well as the Roundhouse, KOKO and the Jazz Café.

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Business support: The night czar visited food hall Mercato Metropolitano in January

It’s good to know it’s not all work and no play. But I wonder if she has a favourite night out or does being night czar mean they’re like her kids and she can’t pick a favourite. She laughs, but then leans forward with a glint in her eye over black-framed glasses to let me in on the secret: “I’ll tell you what, there’s a really cute little pub with a downstairs cocktail bar. It’s open late, and it’s the Somers Town Coffeehouse, and they’ve got a really lovely space underneath the pub, so you can have your pub thing, you can have a meal, then if you want to carry on, you can just go downstairs.”

“It’s also important to also connect with the real reason why I’m doing this, which is to help people and to recognise the people that are often not seen, doing the important roles, keeping our nightlife and our city at night ticking over”

Going out does wonders for her mental health. The weekend before our interview, she went for cocktails after an emotional rollercoaster watching Andrew Haigh’s blockbuster All of Us Are Strangers at Soho cinema the Curzon. (I’ve yet to see it: “take every handkerchief you’ve got,” she warns me. “I’ve got goosebumps just telling you about it. I’m just saying it’s heart-breaking but it’s full of hope”).

When she’s not at a gig, Lamé can be found outdoors, which is also a way she protects her mental health​ in a high-intensity job. “I’m lucky that I live not far from Regent’s Park, so actually yesterday I was there, just noticing little changes in nature like, buds are coming up in the trees, the first snowdrops… it’s that sense of connecting with nature and a sense of continual renewal, being in the seasons, which really helps me.”

Vibrant streets: Soho is home to a host of iconic London venues

Listening to music​ off the clock also helps Lamé, who’s also a Radio 6 DJ, to be a better leader. She shuffles an eclectic melting pot of classical, afrobeats and Cuban music from the 50s to cunningly “keep the algorithms on their toes”. “I love music,” she says. “It’s also important to also connect with the real reason why I’m doing this, which is to help people and to recognise the people that are often not seen, doing the important roles, keeping our nightlife and our city at night ticking over.”

Lamé’s clear: This isn’t at PR exercise – this is for real. Inspired by the mayor, who she talks of with all the joviality and respect of an old friend, she wants to use her position to pull up younger women,​ especially those from diverse backgrounds. “All this stuff really matters,” she drives home her point. “We’re talking about people’s livelihoods, people’s ability to work, feed their kids, pay their rent, put shoes on their kids’ feet when it comes to night workers, and to ensure we’re encouraging new leaders to come up through those roles is really important.”

When Lamé came to office, there was no blueprint for being a night czar. She’s London’s first one, and it’s not like you can go to uni and score a degree in nightlife. Is there anything she’d have done differently?

“Gosh,” she pauses, choosing her words carefully. “It’s a really tough one… I don’t regret not having the blueprint, because no one really know what the role could or should be, and in a way, it gave me the opportunity to craft the role as my own.

“You only get one chance at being the first night czar of London, so you’ve got to go big or go home.”

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