The actor and wit Rupert Everett is in trouble again. There’s nothing terribly surprising there: Rupert Everett rows break out with the same reliable regularity as Jeremy Clarkson rows, although their themes tend to be rather different. There is a tremendous furore, earnest discussions about offensiveness, sometimes a half-hearted apology, and off we go again.
“What’s happened to humour?” Everett, promoting his new memoir, Vanished Years, has wailed to an interviewer. “Everyone gets so angry about everything.” We are, indeed, less easily amused than we used to be, as the life of another gay and controversial Everett, Kenny – shown this week in dramatised form on BBC4 – has reminded us.
As usual in TV plays set 30 or 40 years ago, authority figures, particularly BBC executives, were presented as stuffy, middle-aged public-school types. Repeatedly, the disc jockey Kenny Everett got himself fired for ignoring some silly broadcasting rule which must have seemed important at the time. Showing us that the recent past was more uptight (or, alternatively, more mindlessly hedonistic) than our own age of balance and good sense is a subtle form of flattery. It makes us feel better about ourselves.
It is also a distortion. Kenny Everett was funny, but he was also wildly out of control much of the time. Yet, as the Tim Whitnall play The Best Possible Taste showed, his career survived. Even after he appeared at a fringe meeting of the 1983 Conservative party conference, and bellowed, “Let’s bomb Russia! Let’s kick Michael Foot’s stick away!”, his TV show remained on prime time. He was accepted, both by his employers and by the public, as a licensed jester, a child-like figure who liked to tease the straight, respectable world.
Try to imagine that happening today. It wouldn’t be just the suits who disapproved; it would be the world at large. A contemporary Kenny Everett, perhaps with the help of his characters Cupid Stunt and Mary Hinge would manage to offend virtually everyone. His life would be one long apology.
Can we really feel so superior now that our court jesters, good or bad, are expected to be as well-behaved as a presenter of Songs of Praise? It is difficult to see who gains when a gay actor who skittishly expresses his opposition to same-sex parents causes such outrage that he actually receives death threats, as has happened to Rupert Everett.
We need people to scandalise us and goose our cosseted sensibilities. Bullying them into silence may make us feel virtuous, but that kind of suppression can easily morph into something more menacingly political. Gloomily, then, one has to accept that even Jeremy Clarkson has to be tolerated, although he is plumply in the middle of the establishment and not funny. Society needs its fools to tease and enrage the grown-ups.