Entertainer Marcus Craig was best known as Diamond Lil, the "50 year old mutton-dressed-as-lamb who simply adores sailors, common as muck but with a heart of gold".
His drag act became an sensation, entertaining 1970s nightclub audiences with ostentatious costumes, lashings of innuendo and a voice Sunday News once described as a "crosscut saw wrapped in toilet paper". Craig had a complex relationship with his creation. "I’ve never aimed to be a female impersonator," he said. "What makes people laugh at Lil is that she’s so obviously a man and there’s no pretence at anything else".
Marcus Craig entered the world as David Lennard. He was born in 1940 in Naracoorte, a small South Australian town. His father was a returned serviceman and died in a workplace accident when Craig was five. Craig’s theatricality had maternal roots; his English mother peformed with the Carl Rosa Opera Company in Brisbane, and his maternal grandmother was a pianist for silent movies. Money was tight, but Craig’s mother insisted her son experience classical music. Craig developed a deep knowledge of opera, and as a boy soprano was good enough to win the junior section of a national radio talent quest. Opera would always be his deepest love.
At 16 Craig moved to Adelaide, and worked behind the classical counter in a record shop. His first taste of the stage came via a girlfriend who put him forward as an extra in a musical comedy. "Once I got on stage and I saw the audience out there, they couldn’t get me off".
Craig joined a professional touring troupe, then later headed for the bright lights of Sydney. Starting from scratch, he sold encyclopaedias and dug graves while hustling for work. His first break was as an "ooh-ahh kid", singing harmonies in the backline of nightclub acts; he even sang support for stars like Shirley Bassey and Dusty Springfield.
He joined forces with a dancer, and the pair worked up a "music-dance-comedy" act. New Zealand was only supposed to be a stopover. After touching down in Auckland in 1970 Craig looked around a "deserted" Customs St and thought "what have I done". Following his nose to Mercury Theatre, he was impressed by the play. Afterwards he chatted with director Tony Richardson and was offered a part in Mercury's next show. Soon Craig was acting full time, from Shakespeare to musical comedy.
In 1972 Craig had his first taste of drag; he delivered the song 'No One Loves a Fairy when She’s 40' in a ballet tutu as part of a short-lived revue at the Star Hotel. In January 1975 Auckland entrepreneur Phil Warren (owner of the Ace of Clubs cabaret) sent Craig the script for his new revue, including a drag component. Initially Craig wasn’t tempted. Whatever reservations he had, in February Auckland got its first taste of Diamond Lil. Her early incarnation was positively tame. "At first I played her as a glamorous, refined young lady, but I wasn’t happy with that."
Craig upped the ante and the costumes, and lowered the tone. Lil's signature greeting "allo dears" was born. The show mixed showtime tunes and jokes happily purloined from many sources and edited by writing partner Doug Aston, who also appeared in many Lil shows. Craig always maintained that Lil’s material wasn’t "dirty"; any "filth" was purely in the mind of the audience.
Craig knew his nightclub audience well, and honed his act accordingly. “You can’t have a sketch longer than 10-12 minutes, with the booze situation they aren’t going to listen long”. He took notes from famous British comedians and drag artistes like superstars Danny La Rue and Frankie Howerd (both of whom saw Craig perform). Late night Auckland embraced drag, and Diamond Lil led the charge.
From 1975 to 1979 Diamond Lil performed over 1000 times alongside top New Zealand entertainers of the late 70s like Ray Woolf, Tina Cross, Erana Clark, Howard Morrison, David McPhail and Jon Gadsby. In 1976 Craig released album 'Listen! Listen!', and with John Clarke, made the top ten with a live duet of Fred Dagg’s famous ode to gumboots. Prime Minister Robert Muldoon was a high profile fan. The live entertainment industry recognised Craig with numerous awards, like the Merit Award and a Scroll of Honour from the Variety Artists’ Club. In 1981 Craig was voted Professional Performer of the Year and received Variety's Benny Award, and the prestigious Golden Microphone.
Craig’s screen roles began back in Australia, where he appeared in several episodes of childrens series Skippy the Bush Kangaroo and played a barman in 1970 Mick Jagger movie Ned Kelly. In 1974 he acted in Kiwi anthology series Spotlight;later he played roughly 40 roles in Derek Payne’s 1976 sketch comedy series Something to Look Forward to. The same year he played a small role in TV2’s high profile series The Immigrants. He was a guest for those other masters of innuendo, Hudson and Halls.
By 1977 Diamond Lil’s fame was such that Craig accepted his biggest TV job, co-hosting variety show Top of the World with Payne. Guests included Cliff Richard and Mavis Rivers. Craig was always nervous about overexposure in New Zealand’s relatively small TV scene. Diamond Lil also appeared in several Telethons and in 1985 was interviewed by Cathy Saunders. He also acted in an episode of the Comedy Playhouse series, and competed on Personality Squares.
While Craig’s professional career was peaking, his personal life was falling apart. In June 1977 he was charged with two acts of indecency against two male teenagers. In October the case came to trial and he was eventually cleared of both counts. In 1988 he was cleared of another three charges of indecency against a teenage male, charges that lead to him being "sacked" from the line up of that year’s Telethon. Craig’s complicated relationship with his Lil persona extended to his personal life. Craig had separated from his Australian wife in the mid 1960s. He played a woman but disapproved of "female impersonators".
By the early 80s Craig’s health was suffering. He was relying on alcohol. After undergoing an operation on his throat he hung up his wigs and left for Australia, visiting Adelaide to finally meet the daughter he’d never known. For four years he worked in a Kings Cross "adult book and video shop" which he said earned him "more money" than he ever made performing. He intermittently dusted off Diamond Lil and returned to Auckland for Telethon stints. In October 1985 he performed his last season at the Ace of Clubs, before it was reduced to rubble to make way for the Aotea Square.
In late 1987 he announced Diamond Lil’s Kiwi comeback. The sex industry in Kings Cross was experiencing a clampdown, and he needed work. By the early 1990s Craig was again touring small venues around New Zealand with singers Valerie Rose and Chris Powley, and a revolving cast of pianists, performing a familiar mix of show tunes, sketches and bawdy banter to a loyal, older audience. Diamond Lil’s diamond days were gone.
In the mid 1990s Valerie Rose became a mother and wanted out. Craig shut shop and left Aotearoa for the last time.
He had come full circle, working at another record shop in Brisbane, as their resident classical expert. Craig’s last stint behind a microphone was at a community radio station "raving brilliantly" about opera and playing his favourite records. His final move was to the Sunshine Coast. On 10 August 2013 he died at age 73, from complications associated with diabetes. Chris Powley collected his ashes and a Kiwi memorial was held at The Bays Club in Browns Bay, a regular Diamond Lil venue.
Profile written by Gabe McDonnell; updated on 29 July 2020
Infofind - Radio New Zealand Library
Carol Crome, 'Lil’s a rough diamond with a lot of glitter' - The Dominion Post, 17 October 1980
Donna Chisholm 'Marcus expects telly shivers' -The Auckland Star, 15 March 1977
Adam Dudding 'Cabaret Confessions’ Stuff website. Loaded November 2017. Accessed 30 September 2019
John Evans, 'Marcus, dressed to kill' - The Sunday Times,14 November 1975
Genevieve Forde, 'The man in the life of Diamond Lil' - The New Zealand Woman’s Weekly, 22 June 1981, page 9
Graeme Kennedy, 'Ooh she’s awful but Craig likes her' - 8 O’Clock, 4 September 1976, page 18
Graeme Kennedy, 'Marcus and Lil – a 1000 times, yes!' - 8 O’Clock, 1 September 1979, page 6
Graeme Kennedy, 'Marcus Craig and Diamond Lil reunite' - The Auckland Star, 15 November 1987
Peter McLennan, 'RIP Diamond Lil (Marcus Craig)' Dubdotdash website. Loaded 18 August 2013. Accessed 30 September 2019
Claire Parker, 'Lil, lean, lovely and lush' - Sunday News, 4 September 1983
Claire Parker, 'Marcus in sex scene' - Sunday News, 1 July 1984, page 8
Frances Parkin, 'The 'Something' 300: start with four, then add some...' - The Listener, 21 August 1976, page 14
Lew Pryme, 'Bye bye dears, I’m off home- Diamond Lil not forever!' - Truth, 30 March 1983
West Wallis, 'Sheer hell for Marcus' - Sunday News, 16 October 1977
Kirsten Warner, 'Diamond Lil now playing her last Ace' - The NZ Herald, 5 October 1985, page A5
Unknown writer, 'Shameless hussy of a nightclub to show true colours' - The NZ Herald, 30 December 1975, page 9
Unknown writer, 'Entertainer says he played role in police station' Unknown publication, 12 October 1977
Unknown writer, 'Diamond Lil just wants to forget the ordeal - 8 O’Clock, 15 October, 1977