After two decades of rounding up as much sport as possible and rebroadcasting the televisual and cinematic efforts of others, BSkyB has, over the past couple of years, made a substantial commitment to original programming. I use the term “original” in the narrow sense of premiere screening. Sky’s channels are certainly not exploring any untried genres. Indeed, the programmes are often clad in the modes of a forgotten age. So Starlings, its rural domestic saga on Sky 1, is a throwback to such ancient stalwarts as HE Bates’ The Darling Buds of May, first (very loosely) dramatised for the box as The Larkins as far back as 1958.
In some ways, though, the commissioning decisions are surprisingly heartening. Perhaps the most unexpected ingredient in Sky’s menu has been a modest revival of the short-form, one-off play. Responsibility for supplying this has largely been given over to that Jill of all trades Sandi Toksvig who, as far as I am aware, hitherto had no particular track record in drama. Toksvig produced and introduced a bunch of new plays for Sky Arts, broadcast live with a studio audience, a couple of years ago, a run which thoughtfully foregrounded the writers. The present series of Playhouse, featuring 25-minute dramas recorded on location, buries the identities of both writers and directors in favour of the “star” actors cast. Even going on-line, I found it taxing to scare up the creative identities, not excluding those of the play that was written by Toksvig herself.
This emphasis on celebrity is of course the prevailing television flavour of the age. It infects every genre of programming, whether appropriate or not, and it is one of the main reasons why Sky’s latest documentary series is such a disappointment. This is a most unexpected project, a three-part series for Sky Atlantic called God Save the Queens. I have watched the first two episodes; the third will be first transmitted on Thursday June 14th. The series attempts to sketch the history of mainstream British entertainment emanating from gay performers. For such a “straight” (and US-orientated) channel as Atlantic, this is something of a psychological breakthrough.
Nonetheless, the programmes are terrible. Every advance in perception, the programmes made out, was the work of a single performer making bricks without the straw of either a writer or a tradition. And, as Sue Perkins’ script had it, each of these stars “has been touched by genius”. I’m gagging just a little on the idea that John Inman or Village People might belong in a sentence including the word “genius”.
Though director-produced by a woman (Rosalind Edwards for Two Four Productions), there is no hint that there might ever have been a lesbian tradition in showbiz. Much emphasis is placed on drag for men, but where are the besuited women? The music hall threw up a succession of greatly loved male impersonators such as Vesta Tilley, Ella ‘Burlington Bertie’ Shields and Hetty King, the last of whom was still performing (I remember her well) almost up to her death in 1972. Long before their time, women sang opera en travesti throughout the Baroque era and continued to play occasional trouser roles in such lushly ambiguous works as Der Rosenkavalier.
The long history of men performing in frocks – boys playing women in Shakespeare; Charley’s Aunt, the record-breaking Victorian farce; Arthur Lucan’s hugely successful act as Old Mother Riley – seems not to have informed the programmes. The British pantomime tradition involved two contrasted kinds of cross-dressing: the woman as principal boy (an unmistakeably female, even voluptuous take on the heroic leader, usually with high-cut breeches, wide-mesh stockings and heels) and the older man as comic female character known as the dame. The comedy style of panto, both at a professional and at a local amateur level, has always been of the kind that later informed the Carry On films and several of the camp comedians: bawdy, physical and packed with sexual innuendo. None of this appears in the series.
The first part of God Save the Queens leapt straight into the tradition of the gay parlance known as polari and its use in the radio comedy Round the Horne. By far the most popular of that show’s regular characters were the “resting” chorus boys, Julian and Sandy, a development of the fey young blades Rodney and Charles who had featured in the show’s predecessor Beyond Our Ken. Both these couples were played by Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams. I have always imagined that Julian and Sandy were named for Julian Slade and Sandy Wilson, respective composers of the two campest retro musicals of the 1950s, Salad Days and The Boy Friend.
This sequence in the Sky series strongly implied that the Julian and Sandy phenomenon was entirely invented by Kenneth Williams. Hugh Paddick was not even mentioned – glimpsing him in passing in photographs, the innocent viewer might have taken him to be Kenneth Horne, the show’s straight man. Also absent was any acknowledgment of the writers, Barry Took and Marty Feldman. Though steeped in showbiz banter, neither Took nor Feldman was gay and it is reasonable to suppose that Paddick and Williams (who were both gay) had considerable input in the Julian and Sandy scripts. A couple of howlers appeared in the sequence. Round the Horne was a wireless series, produced from Broadcasting House and recorded at the Paris Theatre in Lower Regent Street. This was represented on screen by a shot of BBC Television Centre. And among a montage of Julian and Sandy sound clips was one of Kenneth Williams as the po-faced folk singer Rambling Syd Rumpo, whose doubles entendres were of a wholly heterosexual nature.
Moving on to the Carry On films, the programme tried to suggest that some bad feeling grew between Williams and Charles Hawtrey over billing and bragging rights as resident queen, but left out Williams’ advantage in being ever the life and soul of the party and Hawtrey’s demons: chronic alcoholism and compulsive cottaging.
The next star to be credited with rather more ground-breaking than he himself would have recognised was Danny La Rue, “one man who took [drag] from the gutter and made it into an art form”. La Rue’s contemporary Rex Jameson may have ended many a night in the gutter but his wonderful character Mrs Shufflewick contained as much art as any music hall invention (as, to his credit, La Rue – a famously kindly and generous man – would have been the first to acknowledge). La Rue certainly added a big star level to the costume budget of his shows and the level of sophistication achieved at his own club made him more fashionable among a mainstream clientele than could be replicated by his no-less-glamorous fellow drag artists who worked the cabarets, pubs, clubs and drag balls: Douglas Byng, Jean Fredericks, Regina Fong, the Disappointer Sisters, Marc Fleming, Lee Stevens (who acquired all Alma Cogan’s old gowns), Hinge and Brackett.
On to Frankie Howerd: “Howerd’s heterosexual, sex-mad alter ego was even given his own show in 1969″ said the commentary. That is not quite how Up Pompeii! came about. Howerd had enjoyed a personal success as the slave Pseudolus in the West End run of the Roman farce musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove based on the writings of Plautus (my Mum took me to see it). Howerd’s character Lurcio in the television comedy series is exactly the same character, customised for Howerd.
Cilla Black was a chum of Howerd’s and apparently this makes her an expert on gay entertainment, so her two-penn’orth was cut in every so often. She essayed that Howerd would have been outed by modern media, as if that weren’t already happening long before Howerd’s death in 1992. The programme might more productively have explored why notorious sex pests like Howerd and Hawtrey were left alone by the tabloids while discreet dabblers were harried.
Black also managed to mangle a renowned quote from Liberace, whom she called Libbie – I have not encountered that nickname anywhere else. When Bill Connor, writing as Cassandra, offered an excessively disobliging description of Lee (his actually nickname) in the Daily Mirror, making his homosexuality abundantly clear, the flamboyant entertainer sent him a telegram: “What you said hurt me very much. I cried all the way to the bank”.
In Cilla’s version, “he was the first person to coin the phrase ‘You can say what you like about me, but I’m laughing all the way to the bank’.” Apart from Liberace’s original being wittier and more apt, it was not his coinage – it had been doing the rounds as an expression of triumphant disdain for at least twenty years.
Lee was a resourceful and shrewd performer. I covered the press launch for an appearance of his at the Palladium, surely his last. He fielded the impertinent questions of the hacks with endless aplomb, good humour and good grace and then mingled with them confidently in the bar. When my five minutes came, I happily shared them with Keith Howes of Gay News. “Oh my”, exclaimed Lee when Keith introduced himself. “You know, I was just looking at those small ads in The Advocate– have you seen those? And they were so interesting, I thought I might reply to some of them myself”. And he roared with laughter, presumably secure in his libel victory over Cassandra all those years before. Nobody ever had any doubt that Liberace was a big fairy – though Cilla, remarking that “he would come on like the King of England, but we all knew he was the Queen of England”, may have misheard his Milwaukee accent as the cadences of the Wirral.
Some idiot from “reality television”, who can’t have been born when Liberace died, reckoned that “he was like a male Shirley Bassey” – oh purleze – and that “he was just an amazing pianist”. Really? Go and listen to Richter, Horowitz, Argerich, Gould, Rubinstein, Uchida, Lupu, Larocha, Andsnes, Perahia, Gulda, Curzon, Hough, Ashkenazy, van Cliburn, Cortot, Jablonsky, Lipatti, Anderszewski, Pollini, Schiff, Hamelin, Mewton-Wood, Serkin, Kovacevich, Jacobs, Gilels, Pletnev, Bavouzet, Cherkassky, Brendel and Paul Lewis and then tell me what an amazing pianist is.
A sequence on Larry Grayson failed to mention the obvious prototype for his kind of slow-burn timing and prissy manner: Jack Benny. A continuing thread in the programme surfaced again here, the notion that “the public never realised what it was” as Grayson’s producer put it. “They just thought this was a funny man”.
Later, that reliably unreliable commentator Grace Dent reckoned that “the majority of the British public did not put two and two together and think that [Freddie Mercury] was gay”. I guess she’s based that on market research. But, you know, the public are a lot more wised up than these showbiz types imagine. Some of us may perhaps choose to tune out the possibility that an entertainer that we like prefers same to opposite sex. Or we may accept it and not be bothered. What noisy god-botherers claim and what everyone else says to market researchers is not necessarily the whole story.
Further pieces of misinformation turned up in part 2. Nicholas Parsons – why was he on the programme? – declared that “it was the Wolfenden Report which made homosexuality legal”. No it wasn’t, it was the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 (not 1966 as an on-screen journalist dated it). Of Kenny Everett’s disc-jockeying career, his biographer David Lister said “None of these things had ever happened before on radio. No DJ had comic characters. There were no jingles”. I refer you, Mr Lister, to one Jack Jackson. If he was before your time (which actually I doubt), all the more reason to do your homework before pontificating.
Indeed, it is the lack of rigorous research that hobbles this series and so many other contemporary television documentaries. The philosophy that allows any inanity onto air if it emanates from the mouth of a celebrity is a lazy and self-defeating philosophy. If your expensive interviewee promulgates a piece of bollocks, it is your job to put him right and gently suggest that the interview be reshot. In the end, the amour propre of some tuppenny-ha’penny individual who sometimes appears on television should be less of a consideration than the making of a programme that has intellectual merit and authenticity.Tags: Arts, Domestic (UK)
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This post was written by W Stephen Gilbert