First published in www.gscene.com 01/01/2017:
Happy New Year! If I close my eyes I can take myself right back to living at home with my Nana and Sister, laughing at the campness of the likes of Larry Grayson (Shut that Door) and John Inman (I’m Free!) which we all really loved. As I got a bit older, these two characters where lambasted by right-on gay men, with cries that they did not represent the gay community. My guess was that it was never their intention, they were just being themselves, doing their job. There was further outcry that their characters were deemed safe’ to be on the telly as they were both sexless. I think if anyone bothered to re-watch a few episodes of Larry Grayson’s stand up performances they’d see plenty of sexual innuendo going on with his references to his postman, Pop it In Pete, or his more romantic suggestions with his song, My Friend Everard (get-it?) Is More Then A Friend To Me.
Of course the writers of Our You Being Served and John Inmman both said the character, Mr Humpries wasn’t gay, the gag was the same with Mrs Slocombe was genuinely about her cat each time she mentioned her pussy, to do otherwise was to ruin the magicial nod, nod, wink wink on which the series was famed for. For me, I recognised the gay ellement in John Inman’s character and connected with that. I clearly remember sitting up straight when watching an episode of Are You Being Served, when John Inman suddenly popped out of a Wendy House, alongside a gorgeous bloke dressed up as a sailor, sporting a black beard…maybe that’s when my fixation with bearded men first began. To me, both these men are gay icons, along with the brilliant Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams aka Julian and Sandy (Ohh, how Bona!)
Sure, it would have been great to have a more diverse set of gay characters on the TV/radio but back then, and for a good while after, camp men where the only visible gays out there; the alternative would be guilt ridden stereotypes, I know which ones I prefer.
Another favourite gay icon of mine is Quentin Crisp. When I was eighteen, I saw Crisp’s autobiography TV drama, The Naked Civil Servant in which Crisp describes how he wanted to make his homosexuality, ‘abundantly clear’, by hennaing his hairand painting his nails red, even though such acts made him the target of homophobia. Crisp’s bravery made me all the more determined to be a happy, out, gay man.
Around this time, early 1980’s, there came a new influx of ballsie gay/bi men via the music scene, including: Marc Almond, Boy George, Marilyn, Pete Burns; these guys where ‘out there’ with their looks, but I was really drawn to the likes of Holly Johnson and Paul Rutherford (Frankie Goes to Hollywood) and the trio from Bronski Beat, Jimmy Someville, Larry Stienbachek and Steve Bronski. Frankie for their sexually explicit lyrics and video for Relax and Bronski Beat for their many unashamedly political gay songs, from Small Town Boy, Why and It Ain’t Necessarily So.
These musicians may name check, David Bowie as a major influence, but it is the likes of Grayson, Inmanand Crisp who way before them were shaking up the norm, paving the way for other peacocks to shine. However, there’s a section of society both LGBT and straight who find camp men offensive. I recently saw the Play, Boys in The Band (see clips from the movie) that shows that although we can all be a bit camp, it is very easy to turn on the sissy. I personally salute the sissy, the camp man, the queer. What isn’t right is that there is still very little acknowledgement for these camp men’s (as Ru Paul would say) “Charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent”. They may not have seen themselves as queer pioneers but without them this world would most certainly be a much less interesting place.
for more camp:The Queens of Camp Comedy