Still the king of cheap sentiment

Has Barrymore's open homosexuality turned off his viewers? Paul Vallely detects wishful thinking
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The Independent Online
Michael Barrymore in gay ratings shock, proclaimed the tabloids earlier this week. Could it be that commercial television's top light entertainer had yet again invited uniformed members of the Royal Marines onto his show? Alas, it was nothing so exciting. The news - if one may use the word so loosely - centred around the suggestion that the viewing public have begun to spurn Barrymore since he announced last year that he was homosexual.

"Barrymore turns off 2 million viewers", was the way the Daily Mail put it. A year ago Barrymore regularly attracted 11.5 million viewers, it revealed. "But figures have plummeted by 18 per cent - more than any other show in TV's Top 50 - since the star came out of the closet. The programme now has an audience of 9.4 million, taking it from 17th to 32nd in the ratings."

Well, up to a point, Lord Rothermere. Michael Barrymore (for those who are otherwise occupied on Saturday evenings) is the Eighties equivalent of the lovable music-hall cheeky chappie whom the cultural historians thought would die out when the final remnants of Variety passed away. He croons comically, tells bad jokes without apparent irony, insults his guests without malice, says risque things without giving offence and ladles on the sentiment shamelessly - when he gets a little blind girl on the show to sing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" he chokes up and his audience chokes up too.

The Eighties equivalent because there is already something old-fashioned about the high-energy larks and verbal slapstick of this life-and-soul- of-the-party, man-in-the-Essex-pub funny guy. It's partly the sharp suits. It's partly the workaholic in him (Barrymore is the kind of performer who only appears to exists when in public; he once got so carried away he did a two-hour warm-up and exhausted the contestants before the show began. "When he opens the fridge door and the light comes on he does 20 minutes," said one insider, pinching a remark which was originally made about another great manipulator of cheap sentiment, Al Jolson.)

But Barrymore does it all in a slightly fey style with a camp edge to it. All very amusing in a heterosexual. But do the public view that kind of thing differently now they know it comes from an outed gay? Is there a wince factor now in evidence?

It is sad for journalists when the facts get in the way of the story. When Barrymore was attracting 11 million viewers last year he appeared on a Sunday night (the day of the week when most people watch TV) with nothing more enticing than Songs of Praise on BBC1. His total share audience was 44 per cent.

It is true that his audience is now averaging around 9.3 million but his share is only down to an average 41 per cent compared with the 42 per cent for BBC1 which screens the very similar Noel Edmonds' House Party at the same time. "It's not regarded as much of a drop," said one industry observer, "especially as Barrymore has a very poor lead-in from the previous programme, The Shane Richie Experience, which is the real dud of the evening, pulling an audience of only 7.5 million. Barrymore boosts that by 1.5 m. Yet for some reason people talk about Richie as the blue-eyed boy and Barrymore as being on his last legs."

In addition, Noel's House Party has the dual advantage of starting eight minutes earlier than Barrymore and gaining extra viewers towards the end of the programme as people switch on early for the National Lottery results which follow. It is a pattern that BBC1 has had in place through the autumn, building up an established pattern of viewing habits for the early-evening viewer.

The Jeremiahs are not to be fobbed off with such detail. Even within the gay community there are those who are happy to discern some greater sociological purpose behind the facts.

"Before he was crossing boundaries - of class and gender - all the time, but now he last lost some of his ambiguity and some of the cheekiness is lost with it," says Mark Simpson, author of the forthcoming collection of essays It's A Queer World. "People are looking at him now as a Homosexual with a capital H and everything he does is over-determined - it has too much meaning attached to it now."

Such comedy, he insists, lies in the contradictions Barrymore brought together, not least in the ambiguity of his sexuality. "It was implied rather than stated. The audience knew full-well that in his behaviour lay the possibility he might be homosexual, but it doesn't want to be told definitively."

In previous times performers such as Frankie Howerd, Kenneth Williams and Larry Grayson knew this. They disavowed their sexuality, by avoiding direct mention of it, or - if questioned - by denying it. "It was part of their contract with the public," says Simpson. "They presented a version of themselves but they didn't push it all into the face of the public." There was something of the eunuch about them; they never prompted their audiences to ask what in private they might do with their genital equipment.

One of the reasons that the recent remakes of the Carry On films didn't work is that they were playing with boundaries - of class and gender - that people no longer recognise. The old Sixties films remain funny because they conjure up a world in which such things mattered. But contemporary attempts to maintain that they still do gain no purchase.

By contrast Barrymore is the first top performer to come out of the closet. Simpson reckons that some people now find him less amusing - not out of homophobia but because campness without the irony of ambiguity loses its humour. "He may well now have to renegotiate his contract with the public."

But the hard-nosed money-brokers of the television industry have little time for such musings. Following the principle of the 12th-century nominalist philosopher William of Ockham (who advised thinkers never to introduce extra elements into any explanation) they dismiss the gay hypothesis in favour of more mundane explanations.

Half of the 2-million fall in viewers is said to have occurred since Barrymore's latest series began in January. But this coincides with an expected seasonal variation - January always has more viewers than March because it is the month with the darkest nights of the year and people stay in more because they are hard-up after Christmas. This year the effect was compounded by particularly cold weather. "High viewing figures are what you would expect, as is a fall-off soon after," says Chris Boothby, broadcast director of BBJ which buys television airtime for advertisers.

In the circumstances Barrymore has done rather well, says Ian Lewis, another buyer, of Zenith Media. In January his show wasaired at 6pm where it pulled in 10 million viewers against the 8 million who watched Jim Davidson's Generation Game on BBC1 at the same time. ITV then moved Barrymore into a far more competitive slot against Noel Edmonds and the resulting drop in figures was to be expected. "No advertisers have contacted me to ask me to avoid the programme," Lewis says.

"The public's view seems to be that Barrymore's sexuality is his own concern," adds Edward Lloyd Barnes, of the TV airtime buyers IDK Media. His clients include Pizza Hut, BT and Express Newspapers - all pitched at the downmarket, older Barrymore audience. There has been no change in the type of products people want to advertise there and no price discounting which would be the sure index of falling interest. "He delivers a huge and valuable audience."

All of which is far less interesting than discovering convenient facts to support suppositions about the nation's continuing homophobia. But then money has no prejudices, in matters of sexuality at least. Which is more than can be said for some newspapers.

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