Why we're glad to watch gays

Channel 4's history of comedy and coming out has failed to explain British viewers' enduring love affair with camp men on TV, says Mark Simpson

One of the most enduring and gut-wrenching love-affairs of the last 50 years of British culture has been that between the viewing public and effeminate male comedy performers. In the post-war period, the British just haven't been able to laugh enough at their camp comics. It's as if the end of rationing were to be welcomed principally for the uninterrupted supply of sweet but saucy mincing Marys this entailed. Which is just as well, seeing as many of them hogged the nylons and lipstick.

From Danny to Lily, Larry to Julian, Kenneth to Kenny, John "I'm free" Inman to Graham "£6m" Norton, the Brits appear to adore their silly poofs and just want to hug them to their televisual bosoms until the poor dears shriek "Ooh Matron! Take them away!" (though of course, they never do). Even shiny, cynical new 21st-century forms of TV such as Big Brother seem to depend on the antics of screaming queens for their ratings, this time bereft of any script - or gags - except their own breathless hysteria.

If you've ever wondered what the reasons for this might be, what it is about the British that makes them so obsessed with campery and buggery jokes, Channel 4's Inside the Comedy Closet will be less help than Kenneth Williams in a crisis.

Instead it has chosen to tell the story of camp homo comics in terms of the politics of "coming out" and the legal and social advances that have occurred in the last 50 years. So we learn how awful it was for Frankie and Ken and Larry having to hide from the world the fact that they were homosexuals, about the heart-breaking lies they had to tell, and how Graham (and by the same token, contemporary society) is so wonderfully open and honest and healthy and how marvellous it is that everyone accepts him for who and what he is and also his curiously shaped sex toys.

There are a few problems with this modish approach, however. First, its worthiness and touching faith in Progress, despite snazzy editing, makes for somewhat tedious and self-congratulatory viewing of the kind that any camp comic worth their salty retorts would have been itching to sabotage. The second is that any account of history which presents Graham "What an interesting butt plug!" Norton as the climax of comedic let alone homosexual evolution just cannot be taken seriously.

Out and proud "role model" Norton's shows are anything but "sex positive" - they seem to be an attempt to neuter sex through over-exposure. Apart from cow eyes at the occasional pretty boy-band guest, on-screen Norton doesn't have a sexuality. His role, like the camp comics before him, is to be a giggling conduit for his viewing public's ambivalent attitudes towards sex, and is at least as emasculated as they were.

The third, and most damning problem in terms of the historic approach the programme has chosen to take, is that for the most part its premise is ridiculously inaccurate. In what way, pray, was Frankie Howerd or Kenneth Williams' or for that matter Larry Grayson's homosexuality a secret? As our Ken would have said, "Ere! Stop messin' abaht!"

At one point we're told by one of the expert commentators that, "If Kenneth Williams had admitted he was homosexual the police would have broken down his door and taken him away". Of course, this is a very serious matter indeed, so I won't say something flip like, oh, if only getting a uniformed date were as easy as that. But it does need to be pointed out that this image of a tightly-policed pre-liberation reign of fascist hetero-terror is largely the product of contemporary propaganda; for the most part, discretion and a degree of tacit toleration seems to have been the order of the day. Yes, sex between men was illegal up until 1967, and some were imprisoned for it, but by many accounts there was rather more of it going on back then than now - not least because almost every street had a public lavatory (see Joe Orton's plumbing diaries). In the 1960s a secret Royal Navy report concluded that if it dismissed all the men that had "sinned homosexually" it would lose half its manpower. And it was never illegal to be a homosexual, not even a flaming one.

Unlike the saturnine Howerd, who prowled saunas and seduced stage hands ("what lovely big hands you have", he liked to declare, his voice heavy with innuendo), Williams may not have had much of a sex life - at least with other people - but he certainly didn't hide his homosexuality and took great, and probably erotic, pleasure in flaunting it. It's what made his career - albeit in the very English, very "discreet" form of merciless single entendre (though he was to regret bitterly the role he had played so enthusiastically in his youth).

What he and the pre-1980s generation of camp comics never did was stand up in church and announce solemnly, "I am a homosexual", which is of course what our modern, tabloid culture of indiscretion and confession dictates. And why the out gay or lesbian "stand-up" comic whose "outness" seems to stand in for talent has become so popular (and why the guests on Norton's show, celeb and non-celeb, also crave to confess their indiscretions with cucumbers). The pre-gay-lib camp comic knew that so long as he relied on and lived by innuendo he would be protected by his colleagues, his bosses and the media - and loved by the public. Interestingly, there are no lesbian comics in this history of homosexual comedy - perhaps because, as Rhona "Did you spill my pint?" Cameron demonstrates so persuasively, there's no such thing as lesbian humour. (I can say such unkind things, but this politically correct programme shouldn't be allowed to get away with assuming them.)

In a sense, Inside the Comedy Closet is less about homosexuality than male effeminacy. The two are not by any means identical, but the British certainly like to think so. The camp comic is loved precisely because his homosexuality is as obvious as it is supposedly harmless; the pointed threat of the poof's prick is blunted by laughter. When it goes too far - such as Clary's "fisting Norman Lamont" joke in the early 1990s, or the injuries to Stephen Lubbock which the British media, contrary to all the evidence, wanted to imagine Bugger Barrymore as somehow being responsible for - the laughter turns to outrage.

You won't find it explained in this documentary, but the camp comic is loved because he represents a holiday from British repression. Because he represents, in his mother-worshipping way, the matriarchal culture that is Britain (especially Britain in front of the telly). Paradoxically, he is also the embodiment of British repression. The camp comic is the quivering, arching, tittering - no, missus! - symbol of our fear of sexuality and the practical jokes it plays on us.

'Inside The Comedy Closet' will be shown on Saturday 3 July on Channel 4. Mark Simpson's 'Saint Morrissey' is published by SAF, £16.99

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Web Developer - ASP.NET, C#, MVC - London

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Web Developer -...

Ashdown Group: .NET Developer : ASP.NET , C# , MVC , web development

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Excellent benefits - see advert: Ashdown Group: .N...

Guru Careers: 3D Package Designer / 3D Designer

£25 - 30K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an exceptional 3D Package Designer / 3...

Guru Careers: Interior Designer

£Competitive: Guru Careers: We are seeking a strong Middleweight / Senior Inte...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss