As Blue Peter aficionados know, you can always give the humble hanger a new twist,
A twist here, a wrench there, a dollop of brandy and hey presto! - a coathanger, we learnt this week from the life-saving performance of Professor Angus Wallace, head of orthopaedics at Queen's Medical Centre, Nottingham, can become a life-saving medical instrument. Of all the tools - Sellotape, a bottle of Evian and a pair of scissors - used by Professor Wallace during his makeshift surgery at 35,000ft on the collapsed lung of Paula Dixon, the coat hanger is the one people will remember.

Why? Because it is the most spectacular reinforcement of the Blue Peter programme's premise that, with imagination - or in Professor Wallace's case, desperation - you really can do anything with a coat hanger.

We're not just talking about simple things like Blue Peter advent mobiles or car aerials. Take Africa. There, coat hangers form an integral part of civilised culture. In parts of South Africa, according to expats, the coat hanger is most commonly used as a skewer for the barbecue (affecting the sale of kitchen skewers quite seriously).

Meanwhile, in Kenya, it is used as a safeguard from dangerous wildlife. For some inexplicable reason, Kenyan electric fences are often manufactured with a gap at the bottom, which allows creatures as large as baby elephants to get through. Though not, the Kenyans have discovered, if a coat hanger is dangling down.

As conductors of electricity, coat hangers are, as the unfortunate baby elephants have discovered, superb (though, as Blue Peter would point out, it is not advisable to use a piece of one in place of your average household fuse). As lock-pickers, back-scratchers, garden plant-holders, fingernail cleaners, curtain rings, key rings, spectacle frame fixers, toasting forks, tyre puncturers, garden cloche frame supports, and an aid to zipping up tight jeans, the coat hanger's uses are unparalleled.

But one should not limit the coat hanger's flexibility to the merely physical: it is also, after all, the perfect artistic symbol of domestic drudgery - a fact that the German opera director Ruth Berghaus exploited when she staged the Welsh National Opera's controversial production of Don Giovanni in London a few years ago. She suspended a giant coat hanger from the ceiling under which Don Giovanni's beleaguered manservant Leporello laboured endlessly on his master's ironing.

For gay men, the coat hanger is more than a symbol: it is an icon that expresses the essence of campness. It acquired this significance in the late Seventies, during the first screening in New York of Mommie Dearest, the film about the life of Joan Crawford. As the screening reached what the directors intended to be its tragic climax, Crawford (played by Faye Dunaway) beat her daughter with a coat hanger and cried out rhythmically in protest against poverty: "No more wire hangers." But instead of weeping, as the film-makers intended, the audience, mostly gay men, collapsed with laughter. "It was just so inexpressibly camp. The concept of the coat hanger was changed for ever," explains a gay colleague. "Nowadays, say the word 'coat hanger' at a dinner party and everyone explodes in laughter."

Even the fashion industry, which one assumes would be the only body still to ascribe to the coat hanger its conventional function of clothes- hanging, uses it, more often than not, as a metaphor. Weary of describing Elizabeth Hurley as an "actress", the new term for her among certain clothes columnists is "TCHFTD" - "The Coat Hanger For That Dress".

Then there are the coat hanger's other, more zany, uses: Zimmer frame for chihuahuas, harmless butterfly net, prosthesis for actors playing Captain Hook, replacement frame for a cat's hang-glider, baby's trapeze and, last but not least, visual aid for a lecture on the Bermuda Triangle. Some uses are more believable than others, but, as Professor Wallace demonstrated so miraculously this week, only a fool would underestimate versatility of bent wire, whatever Joan Crawford thought.

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