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Drag Race UK has found its feet by representing actual British pop culture

When the spin-off series first aired in the UK in 2019, it presented British drag filtered through an American lens. But in prioritising real British voices and pop culture in series two, its created one of the best series in the franchise’s history, writes Isobel Lewis

‘You ain’t my muvva!’ Ellie Diamond and Bimini Bon Boulash in the ‘BeastEnders’ challenge
‘You ain’t my muvva!’ Ellie Diamond and Bimini Bon Boulash in the ‘BeastEnders’ challenge

If the first series of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK was your only introduction to British culture, you’d be forgiven for thinking that every person in the country worshipped the Queen, only listened to the Spice Girls and was obsessed with period dramas. In trying to appeal to international audiences, the British spin-off offered a simplified vision of British pop culture, like an A-to-Z book for tourists.

The queens dressed as Elizabeth II and Bond girls and performed in a sketch parodying Downton Abbey. The Snatch Game characters were internationally recognisable figures: Donald Trump, Mary Berry, David Attenborough. As anyone who’s done a YouTuber on the celebrity impersonation challenge can tell you, it’s hard to make RuPaul laugh at someone he’s never heard of, with his limited knowledge of UK pop culture rendering many celebrities difficult.

But during series two, which comes to an end on Thursday, something changed. Having laid the groundwork for international viewers with the first lot of queens, the show began to feel more authentically about the UK than what others thought about the UK. Sure, there were still the Bake Off references and Cats-themed Rusical. But there were also nods to chicken shops and panto dames on the runway, a Steps lip-sync and Ru greeting contestant with the words: “Y’alright babes?” It felt like World of Wonder, the US production company behind the Drag Race franchise, took a step back and let BBC Three and the queens themselves lead, to impressive results.

Where the last series featured a girl band challenge, it was replaced by the RuRuVision song contest, creating the ultimate nonsensical earworm that is “UK, Hun?”. It’s not that girl bands aren’t British, because of course they are, but it showed that the programme was looking at what actually mattered to the LGBTQ+ community in the UK. In Snatch Game, we had Vicky Pollard, Louie Spence and Katie Price. Would viewers from outside the UK know who they were? Unlikely, but they proved that funny is funny with or without context.

As Bimini Bon Boulash, Ellie Diamond, Lawrence Chaney and Tayce prepare to compete for the title of the UK’s next drag superstar during Thursday night’s final, the series has already been declared one of the best in the show’s history. Hailing from Scotland, Wales and London, the finalists paint an image of Britain’s varied drag scene that the show hasn’t always been able to portray.

Clockwise from top left: Ellie Diamond, Bimini Bon Boulash, Lawrence Chaney, Tayce

Part of bringing Drag Race UK back to Britain was almost certainly a matter of circumstance. The show faced a seven-month hiatus in the middle of filming due to the pandemic, making the internationally recognised British guest judges like Andrew Garfield and Maisie Williams harder to book. Instead, we had Sheridan Smith, Natalie Cassidy and Lorraine Kelly (upgraded to a seat on the judging panel after making a guest appearance in series one). This helped not hindered the show.

This change was never clearer than during the acting challenge, which took place in last week’s semi-final. In series one, the queens starred in a parody of Downton Abbey, a show international audiences associate with the country’s history far more than the people who live here. For British people, EastEnders felt like a better representation of what the culture is actually about: namely excessive amounts of leopard print and fighting in a pub.

Parodying the soap in “BeastEnders” (cue eye rolls), Drag Race UK managed to produce one of its funniest challenges so far, made all the more hilarious by the knowledge that nobody would get it outside of the UK. Soap operas exist across the pond, but not in the same on-five-days-a-week-for-35-years way they do here. This challenge was so tightly packed with cries of “you ain’t my muvva” and other highly memed quotes from the show that it was near impenetrable for anyone not au fait with this fundamental part of British pop culture. “This episode… I think you have to be from the UK to get this,” season 8 winner Bob the Drag Queen said on recap series Purse First Impressions, adding that nearly all the jokes from the scene had whooshed over her head. It probably didn’t help that the celebrity guest judge turned out to be a plastic mannequin of Danny Dyer, which left me pretty stumped, too.

RuPaul’s Drag Race UK series two has been a triumph for the franchise, showing that it excels when it trusts the queens to do what they do best. It’s not been perfect – wobbly moments have included Ru and Michelle Visage failing to recognise Joe Black’s David Bowie or Brighton Pavilion looks and A’Whora stand-up set being deemed “too vulgar”. But the series has overwhelmingly got it right by allowing the show’s UK team to take the reins, producing a run of episodes loved by UK and international viewers alike. As we see more international versions of Drag Race pop up across the world, I hope they follow in the BBC’s footsteps and allow these countries’ cultures and drag scenes to shine through. After all, that’s what we’re here to see.

RuPaul’s Drag Race UK concludes tonight at 7pm on BBC iPlayer.

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