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, £16.99Reuse content