The 'Daddy' of the Metrosexual, the Retrosexual, & spawner of the Spornosexual

Category: comedy (page 1 of 2)

Funny-Peculiar Men: Laurel & Hardy

Tonight the BBC screens Steve Coogan and John Reilly’s well-received 2019 film Stan & Ollie’, about the most famous comedy duo’s disastrous, almost-posthumous 1953 tour of Britain – and also their love for one another. Or at least, our investment in the idea of it. Back in the no-homo early 1990s me and my pal Nick Haeffner wrote a newspaper feature on the ‘queer’ appeal of their on-screen relationship that was cruelly spiked. With Nick’s permission, I expanded it into the version below and included it as a chapter in my 1994 book Male Impersonators .

(Of course, the conclusion is entirely wrong: Rick Mayall and Ade Edmondson weren’t the 90s inheritors of the Laurel and Hardy tradition – it was a cartoon cat and chihuahua….)

—————-

Stan: Well, what’s the matter with her anyway?

Ollie: Oh, I don’t know. She says I think more of you than I do of her.

Stan: Well, you do don’t you? 

Ollie: We won’t go into that! 

Stan: Y’know what the trouble is?

Ollie: What?

Stan: You need a baby in your house.

Ollie: What’s that got to do with it?

Stan: Well, if you had a baby it would keep your wife’s mind occupied; you could go out nights with me and she’d think nothing of it.

Their First Mistake, 1932

SUGGESTING THAT CINEMA’S most cherished comedy duo might be homosexual is not something you are likely to be thanked for. But this is precisely what Vito Russo does in his 1987 book The Celluloid Closet. Boldly claiming Laurel and Hardy for the history of gay cinema, Russo points out that in films like Their First Mistake (1932), the fat man and the thin man exemplified the ‘perfect sissy-buddy relationship, which had a sweet and very real loving dimen­sion’ with ‘unmistakably gay overtones.’

Could ‘buggery-pokery’ really be at the root of Stan and Ollie’s relationship – a relationship which has endured as the most fondly regarded cinema partnership of all time? Could their videos, amongst the all-time best-sellers and considered perfect children’s entertainment, be promoting some kind of queer Eros? Or is this rather the result of over-heated analysis, the product of the perverse imagination of gay critics?

Laurel and Hardy’s classic silent short Liberty seems to con­firm the Russo reading, in the most explicit way. Stan and Ollie play convicts on the run, who, in their haste to change into civvies, manage to put on each other’s trousers, which, given their famously contrasting shapes, proves somewhat impractical. There then follows a sequence of events that will be only too familiar to many gay viewers. Frantically, they try to swap their pants in an alleyway, behind some crates and in the back of a taxi. Each time they are frustrated by being discovered by some horrified passer-by, includ­ing: a housewife, a shopkeeper, a young heterosexual couple and a policeman. Sheepishly they scurry off in search of some other inti­mate place to effect their exchange (a building site, as it happens). 

Even critics unsympathetic to homosexuality have noted the sexual script here: as French film critic Andre S. Labarthe observed: ‘Liberty offers to anyone who can read, the unequivocal sign of unnatural love.’ 

But others have reacted indignantly to the suggestion that there could be anything ‘unnatural’ in the fat man and the thin man’s relationship. ‘There is something rather absurd about dis­cussing this seriously at all,’ harrumphs Charles Barr in his book Laurel and Hardy, responding to Labarthe. What is revealing is not so much Barr’s response as the example that he selects to refute the imputation: ‘Their First Mistake surely gives, to anyone who can read, an explicit rebuttal of Labarthe’.

In Barr’s analysis, the signs of ‘unnatural love’ represent in fact, through infantilization, the very naturalness and purity of Stan and Ollie’s love: ‘since their mental processes, particularly Stan’s, are those of nursery children, one takes it for granted that they should share a bed as in the nursery.’ Their infantilism, in other words, guarantees their ‘pre-sexual’ status.

This response by Barr sounds a bit like a dismissal of filthy foreign slanders, reminiscent of Leslie Fiedler’s remark in Love and Death in the American Novel that, ‘in our native mythology, the tie between male and male is not only considered innocent, it is taken for the very symbol of innocence itself.’

In effect, Barr is defending the myth of America itself, positioning the purity of the Great Ameri­can Childhood between Laurel and Hardy and those who would seek to corrupt their legacy. ‘After Mark Twain,’ writes Fiedler,

‘one of the partners to such a union is typically conceived of as a child, thus inviting the reader to identify with the Great Good Place where the union is consummated with his own childhood …’

Laurel and Hardy’s own ‘innocence’ serves to keep the critical lid on a veritable Pandora’s box of forbid­den desires. We laugh at their ‘queer’ antics to relieve our discom­fort at their associations. But we also enjoy that discomfort. This is why both Barr and Labarthe are correct. Stan and Ollie by their own behaviour reveal that they are not so innocent after all: why else would they display shame when discovered trying to swap their pants?

In Their First Mistake Ollie is sued for divorce by his wife (with Stan named as ‘the other woman’). The action then centres around Ollie’s incompetent attempts to run a house and look after an infant. Eventually he and Stan end up in their bed with the baby. Ollie falls asleep but is awoken by the baby’s cries. Half asleep, eyes closed, Ollie reaches over with the feeding bottle, but it inevitably ends up in Stan’s mouth who is sleeping alongside him, cuddled in his arm. Stan instinctively sucks it dry in his sleep.

The scene’s humour depends precisely upon reading this as both ‘innocent’ and ‘queer’, with the second reading held under the first. In other words, the signified ‘pre-sexual’ status of Stan and Ollie defuses the threat of the bed scene but does not remove the charge – if it did, where would the gag be? The disavowal of Stan and Ollie’s queerness does not erase it, otherwise they would never have cut it as a comedy duo and would have long been forgotten.

Ollie’s oral gratification of Stan is ‘funny’ precisely because to take it any other way would be shocking and indecent. The absurd protects itself against enquiry by salvaging the disturbing reading beneath the innocent one — by humorous ‘contamination’. Thus ‘there is something rather absurd about discussing this seriously at all’. In other words, Barr continues the disavowal through the idea of the ‘joke’.

Of course, Laurel and Hardy are not ‘gay’. But they are clearly not ‘straight’ either. Attempts by gays to claim them as ‘the ultimate gay couple’ almost miss the point. Laurel and Hardy’s dalliance with perverse signifiers – their ‘queerness’ – is actually a measure of their gender nonconformity as much as, if not more than, a sign of sexual deviation. Their refusal/inability to perform heterosexuality and play the role of ‘men’ is what defines them. 

This is the other mean­ing of their infantilization, their escape from the usual masculine standards. Unable to hold down a job for the length of a film, irresponsible, cowardly, living in the shadow of their Amazonian wives and regularly given a good pasting by them, our heroes are wonderfully, thrillingly catastrophic failures as men. Which is of course why we love them — gay or straight.

In her book Gender Trouble, Judith Butler argues that from a queer perspective heterosexuality prescribes ‘normative sexual positions that are intrinsically impossible to embody’. These in turn become ‘an inevitable comedy,’ and heterosexuality becomes a ‘constant parody of itself’. But the popularity of comedy duos like Laurel and Hardy show that this perspective is not exclusive to lesbians and gays. The particularly rigid enforcement of gender roles that ac­companied the arrival of capitalism and the sexual division of labour still rankles in the popular subconscious, and any ‘safe’ revolt against them, especially the transformation of ‘straight’ roles into pantomime, is enthusiastically welcomed.

Laurel and Hardy base their own brand of sex-role panto on the impossibility of the demands of manhood. The joke, so to speak, is on masculinity. This is even suggested in the title of their first headline movie together, Putting Pants on Philip (1927). In it Stan plays a kilt-wearing Scotsman visiting his American uncle Ollie, who is embarrassed by his nephew’s unorthodox leg-wear. Despite Stan’s portrayal as – of all things – a woman chaser (a peculiarly jarring image), most of the jokes revolve around Stan’s ‘skirt’. 

At one point Stan even treats us to a bizarre premonition of Marilyn Monroe’s trademark by standing over a ventilation grille, with predictable results. At this, women in a crowd that has been attracted by Stan’s strange apparel faint and a policeman warns Ollie, ‘This dame ain’t got no lingerie on.’ It is not Stan whom we laugh at, but the social agonies of the respectable gent played by Ollie who desperately tries to get his nephew kitted out in some ‘proper’ masculine attire, to no avail.

In a later silent, You’re Darn Tootin (1928), the trouser motif, or rather the lack of them, is taken to glorious extremes. It climaxes with the duo’s infectious mayhem embroiling a whole street full of men in one of their tiffs (brought about by their failure, once again, to success­fully perform a job). Soon trousers sail through the air in a ‘de-bagging’ orgy. No man, however dignified, is safe: workmen, busi­nessmen and even policemen succumb to the irresistible chaos Laurel and Hardy have brought to the masculine world – and quite literally lose their trousers. The gag is simple but universal in its effective­ness, relying on one basic assumption: men and the way they take themselves so seriously are actually the biggest joke going – just pull their pants down and you’ll see why.

Stan and Ollie, meanwhile, waltz away from this scene of masculine devastation sharing a pair of trousers. Unmanly men they may be, but together they have just enough dignity to go round after the ‘real men’ have been stripped of theirs.

‘Pants’ also symbolize the civilization and refinement of the ‘nether regions’; their loss stands for disorder. For the Russian critic and medievalist Bakhtin, laughter brings the mighty low and turns the natural world upside down – returning us to the body. The carnivalesque in our comic duo’s films resides most obviously in Ollie’s belly and bottom: soft, wobbly, outsized and irresistible, they are hardly ever out of frame. Especially that bottom.

The arse is the first line of defence in the paranoid masculine struggle against being ‘unmanned’. It is the inevitable site of floods of jokes designed to allay fears about being penetrated, sexual passivity and ridicule. And in case we should forget Ollie’s laugh­able arse and all that it represents, a stream of missiles launch themselves with unerring accuracy at his flabby flanks: water jets, nails, arrows, pitchforks, shotgun pellets and pins ‘prick’ his bot­tom in a sadistic torture that makes us squirm while we guffaw.

And, true to Bakhtin’s carnivalesque characterization of popular humour, everything these ‘crap’ men touch turns to shit. Objects exist only to be broken; conventions, to be flouted. Now wincing, now cheering, we follow their sniggering trail of destruc­tion to a millionaire’s trashed mansion, to a banquet become a battlefield, or to the remnants of a grand piano – the ultimate symbol of failed bourgeois pretension. 

In the anally-fixated, scato­logical humour of popular comedy, shit, bottoms and mess are gleefully celebrated as an antidote to the repressive strictures of high-minded middle-class respectability: bathos triumphs over pathos; the ridiculous over the sublime. Mess, destruction and disaster, epitomized in the custard pie fight, are fundamental fun. 

If their humour is medieval, then Stan and Ollie’s relation­ship is more modern. Inhabiting a resolutely hostile world where nothing goes right, the inadequate co-dependents that are Stan and Ollie have only each other to count on or blame: ‘That’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!’ We identify not only with their hopelessness but with their love. We can laugh at their spiteful, shin-kicking, eye-poking squabbles only because we are sure that their love will endure. We know that out of the rubble of a Beverly Hills villa, the heap of torn trousers and the sea of ‘custard’, Stan and Ollie will emerge unscathed and indissoluble; survivors of everything the world can throw at them.

So admirable is their love that very often it is set against conventional male heterosexuality, as both a resistance to it and, for all our silly pair’s ‘crapness’, as a favourable contrast. Pack Up Your Troubles (1932) begins with war being declared and Stan and Laurel unsuccessfully trying to evade conscription by faking inval­idity (again their unmanliness allows them to display traits, in this case cowardice, that other men are forbidden). Once inducted into the army, they continually demonstrate their hilarious inability to perform the martial myth of manhood. In drill they are, needless to say, disastrous. Stan cannot get the hang of left and right and so hooks his arm around Ollie’s. 

True to form they both end up marching in the wrong direction — arm in arm. They are sent to the trenches, where their love continues to defy the expected manly performance: we see them at reveille in the same bed, arms wrapped around one another with their feet pressed against a hot water bottle. A sergeant major barks at them and orders them to capture some Germans. Their bungling ineptitude saves them from certain death and wins the day without the death of a single soldier, American or German.

One American soldier, however, is captured by the Ger­mans. Stan and Ollie resolve to visit his baby girl on their return home. On their visit they discover that she is being ill-treated by her foster parents. We see the girl being deprived of love and affection by uncaring husband and wife, especially the husband who is tyran­nical and sadistic. On this scene of glum misery the door opens and it is good old Stan and Ollie, clearly representing ‘love’. Naturally they rescue the girl from her ogre foster father and set about trying to locate her grandparents (what, I wonder, would be the popular reaction to the kidnap of a little girl from her heterosexual guard­ians by two men who lived together if it occurred off screen?). Tracing her grandparents proves problematic – they only know their surname: Smith. This provides the entree into a series of gags.

The first Mr Smith they locate turns out to be a boxer. When the door opens Ollie cheerily announces, ‘We’ve got your son’s child!’ ‘Blackmail, eh?’ replies the boxer and punches Ollie on the chin with a bone crushing right hook.

In another ‘Smith’ confusion they bring mayhem to a bour­geois wedding ceremony, leading the father of the bride to think that the little girl belongs to the groom. The wedding cancelled, the bride rushes over to Laurel and Hardy and thanks them effusively for saving her from an unwanted marriage. Once again our lovers manage to upset the heterosexual applecart in heroic fashion, offer­ing a moral contrast in their understanding of love to that of the cynical male characters they encounter who are sadistic, violent, selfish and callous. It is instructive of Laurel and Hardy’s relation­ship that a film that begins with a declaration of war and conscrip­tion quickly devotes itself to a sentimental storyline about children.

Alas, the parody of masculinity and the example of another kind of loving that our boys provide us with is dependent, finally, upon the exclusion of women. This is shown in Their First Mistake: the problem Ollie and Stan are debating is how to get the women out of their life. Any femininity entertained by them in the form of their frequent dragging up, for example, is a mere semblance (although it has to be said that Stan is unnervingly convincing in a frock). Real femininity, in the shape of their knuckle-dusting wives, is something to flee from – however, in contrast to the tradition, these fearsomely strong women are also very attractive.

Given this, it is perhaps unsurprising that the popular international Laurel and Hardy fan club is called Sons of the Desert, after the film of the same name where the boys can go to a convention of their men-only Sons of the Desert club in Chicago only by tricking their wives. Of course their wives find out and there is hell to pay.

This exclusion of women is an almost universal tradition in male comedy duos. From the sleeping habits of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin or Morecambe and Wise to the drag extravaganzas of It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, any transgression of masculine standards is predicated upon the maintenance of a boys-only environment including even the 1990s out-of-the-closet comedy of Terry and Julian. Red Dwarf, a comedy set in space, takes this maxim to the cynical extreme of having the only female character played by a computer – i.e. femininity literally disembodied. (This is why Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders’ all-female comedy can be so refreshing and why their vengeful impersonations of men, complete with ball-scratching and fat arses escaping from jeans, so hilarious.)

However, it is Adrian Edmondson’s and Rik Mayall’s double act that must be the direct inheritor of the Laurel and Hardy tra­dition in Britain; like our defunct duo they are utterly ‘crap’ men and for them everything exists to be destroyed. Of course, their relationship is depressingly up-to-date. They sleep in separate beds and are spectacularly cruel to one another without respite in an almost ritualistic fashion; they are not allowed any of the tender moments that Ollie and Stan enjoyed in between the nose-twisting and foot-stamping. 

Nevertheless Rik and Adrian remain together and their tainted, twisted ‘love’ survives an equally tainted, twisted world. And, as with Laurel and Hardy, the rectum is both an exclamation and a question mark hanging over them – a fact freely acknowledged in the title of their latest incarnation: Bottom.

It is not, as some would have it, an age of innocence that has been lost, but rather an impossible tenderness between men.

In an interview towards the end of his life, Foucault sug­gested that the rise of homosexuality as an identity has coincided with the disappearance of male friendships:

‘the disappearance of friendship as a social relationship and the transformation of homosexuality into a social, political and medical problem are part of the same process’.

Perhaps what we have seen in the period since Laurel and Hardy is an increase of the presence of homosexu­ality as a thing to be disavowed in male-to-male relations, rather than its sudden arrival. If male-to-male ties were once taken to be ‘the symbol of innocence itself’ then perhaps this was only through a suspension of disbelief that is no longer tenable in an era when homosexuality is so much more visible.

In Ollie and Stan’s day the audience’s anxieties/interest in queerness could be titillated and the joke could safely be substituted for its actual expression: their behaviour could be ‘funny’ in a sense that was ‘peculiar’ but disavowed by being funny. But nowadays this mechanism, even with infantilization and the exclusion of women, seems unable to cope with any tenderness between our male comics. Looking back, contemporary audiences can enjoy the antics of the fat man and the thin man because, like Barr, they place them in a pretended pure and innocent past — ‘the Great Good Place’ — that never existed. 

Finally, perhaps Laurel and Hardy are regarded with such fondness today because they represent an impossible contradiction: innocence and queerness. They are men who are in every sense ‘impossible’ – then, and especially now: impossibly ‘funny’ and impossibly touching. Reports that Stan was ‘inconsolable’ after Ollie’s death only heighten our own sense of loss at the passing of their screen affair.

Nick Haeffner’s new solo album A New Life Awaits You is available on Band Camp

How I Killed Father Ted

This year is the 25th anniversary of the launch of the much-loved UK sitcom Father Ted. This unpublished interview with writers Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews – in which I pointed out how many priests drop dead in their hit sitcom – was commissioned by Deluxe magazine in February 1998. The day after I handed my copy in, Father Ted, alias Dermot Morgan, 45,dropped dead of a heart attack. The interview was spiked and the series cancelled.

‘Nobody comes. Nobody goes. Nothing happens. It’s awful!’

Waiting For Godot, Samuel Beckett

Every decade has its sitcom. In the Sixties it was Steptoe and Son – generational conflict between two junk men left behind by Progress. In the Seventies it was Are You Being Served? – class war, campery and skiving in a department store going to the dogs. In the Eighties it was Blackadder – doomed get-rich-quick schemes of an ambitious, selfish, spineless loser. 

And in the Nineties it is Father Ted – crap priest exiled to a crap house on a crap island by the crap Italian-based multinational he works for, which forces him to mouth a crap corporate dogma which, try as he might, he can’t quite sound convinced by.

But Ted, now about to air its third series, is not just the best sitcom in years. It’s High Art. This is Beckett, but with better gags. Ted (Dermot Morgan) and his Holy Fool sidekick Dougal (Ardal O’Hanlon) are waiting for a Godot that will never come in a wasteland of frustration, bereft of any certainties, any values, any purpose or any decent night-clubs. A place where the only consolation is an endless supply of hot tea from Mrs Doyle which you didn’t ask for. 

Father Ted is so inspired that even Ted’s hair, with its enigmatic greyness and mysterious, shifting voluminousness, is a character in itself. Naturally my first question to the writer-creators Arthur Mathews and Graham Linehan is, was it scripted?

Arthur: ‘It came with Dermot’.

Graham: ‘Dermot suggested it’.

Arthur: ‘Dermot suggested his own head’.

Time passes. 

Graham: ‘And it was just as well, because we were going to go for someone else’s head.’ 

Despite their occasionally Beckettian conversation, they seem like nice if slightly naughty Irish boys. They look the approximately the same age – thirty going on fourteen – but Arthur is actually ten years older than Graham who is 29. Graham talks more than Arthur, and seems more confident, but it’s not clear who wears the trousers in this relationship. Arthur grew up in Drogheda, a country town; Graham in Dublin. ‘I’m the City Slicker and Arthur’s the country boy,’ explains Graham. ‘I provide the hip cultural references and Arthur provides the authenticity.’

‘Thanks,’ says Arthur sarcastically. ‘I think that what Graham is saying is that it’s helpful for me to be from the country.’

‘And it’s helpful for me not to be,’ adds Graham.

They met when working on the Dublin listings mag Hot Press; Graham as a writer, Arthur as art director. After experimenting with a U2 pastiche band called The Joshua Trio they moved to London and wrote some sketches for Alas Smith & Jones before writing a very surreal series called Paris for Alexei Sayle in 1994. It wasn’t a hit.

Says Graham: ‘If you’d put it next to Ted and asked me which one was going to be a hit, I don’t know I’d have given you the right answer. I think perhaps it didn’t work because it didn’t have as many rules as Ted, and we didn’t realise that the central character is never as funny as all the satellite characters.’

Like Mrs Doyle, for instance, who is a seer and a prophet and deserves to be worshipped. Why don’t they give her more lines? There’s so much more that needs to be said about tea and sandwiches.

‘It’s funny you should say that,’ responds Graham, ‘because in this series we’ve tried to work a plot around each character and you get to meet Mrs Doyle’s friends. Who are, of course, exactly the same as she is. I’m sure you recognise some of your mother in Mrs Doyle…’

You know my mother??

Graham: ‘Well, you know the sort of thing I mean – you go round to your friend’s house and their mother….’

Arthur: ‘…will almost kill themselves if you ask them to nicely. “Would you mind killing yourself?” [Putting on a Mrs Doyle voice]: “Well, I don’t know…. Okay, I will.’

What do our dynamic comedy-writing duo like about one another? 

Arthur: ‘Graham’s a perfectionist. To a fault. He knows what works – he has really good instincts.’

Graham: ‘What do I like about Arthur? Er, well, it’s kind of like an imaginative haemorrhaging. He’ll sit down at a typewriter and millions of ideas will come out. That is so useful when you’re trying to get started. Arthur also has a lovely feeling for the way that priests talk.’ 

Where did the idea for Ted come from?

Arthur: ‘Growing up in Ireland we were surrounded by priests, of course, and so we didn’t have to look very far. The other day I saw a TV documentary from 1964 about Mods and there was a clip where we saw priests blessing their scooters. Now that’s pure Ted.’

Graham: ‘Arthur also used to do Ted as a stand-up character, so that makes writing for Ted very easy, because Arthur just has to start putting on his Ted voice and we’re away.’

It seems that the Irishness of Ted is the key to its success. Croft-Perry classic shows like Are You Being Served? and Dad’s Army, which Ted is very much in the tradition of, depended upon a repression which no one would really believe in if it were set in ‘classless’, individualistic Nineties Britain.

Graham: ‘I think that British repression is kind of dull now because it’s been done. But no one knew what a repressed Irish person would do.’

Arthur: ‘And in Ireland, of course, Catholicism takes on the role of class. Everyone’s very deferential to the priests.’

The lads claim Ted isn’t anti-clerical, and certainly Ted’s bungling, agnostic vanity (i.e. his human-ness) is probably a PR victory next to newspaper headlines of be-cassocked kiddie-fiddling. But I put it to them that priests do tend to die on the show like flies. Every time Ted calls a dog-collared mate on his mobile another one bites the dust. 

Graham: ‘S’funny, no one’s pointed that out before. But… people dropping dead is funny. In a comedy.’

Arthur: ‘As opposed to a drama. Where it’s not.’

Come on, you don’t see many people dying in comedies. It isn’t that funny. But dead priests are for some reason. [At this, Arthur laughs very loudly]. Maybe it’s because they wear black and talk about death all the time. Or maybe it’s because they’re just not very real people….

Graham: ‘Well, we certainly trade on unreality in the programme. We’ve constructed a kind of mythology around the priesthood. Because being a priest is a closed book to most people you can make up stuff…’.

Or as Ted put it: ‘That’s the wonderful thing about Catholicism, Dougal. It’s so vague that no-one really knows what it’s about.’ If Catholicism were a movie, it would have to be a cartoon. And there is a very strong cartoon, ‘surreal’ element to Ted. 

Arthur: ‘We’re big cartoon fans. Especially of The Simpsons.’

I can see there’s some Homer Simpson in Ted, but isn’t there more Daffy Duck?

Graham: I’d say it was Rain Man and Daffy Duck. We had a joke which we never used where Ted drops some toothpicks on the floor and Dougal instantly says, ’4,777’ and then cut-to an hour later and Ted, whose been counting them, says: ‘4,777 indeed. It’s 4,776, actually.’

Catholicism also provides a useful reason why Ted and Dougal are stuck together and why they share the same bedroom in such a big house – like Laurel and Hardy and Morecambe and Wise. 

‘Yes, there’s something that connects them all,’ admits Graham. ‘It’s as if they were non-sexual lovers, as if they were co-dependent brothers.’

Or just married – most marriages are non-sexual and co-dependent.

‘Maybe,’ laughs Graham. ‘I always hoped we’d get a gay following for Ted, in the same way as The Golden Girls did. But it didn’t happen.’

Probably because you don’t have enough drag-queen female characters. Will you be having a fourth series, now, boys?

‘You have to be careful not to outstay your welcome,’ hedges Graham. ‘We have to make each series better than the last. And that gets harder each time. At the moment we’re not sure.’

Go on. Go on. Go on, go on, go on. Just in yer hand. You will. Go on. 

“You’re As Camp as a Brighton Bus Queue!” – The Bon Mots of Benidorm

I’ve snobbishly held out against the sun-damaged charms of ITV’s package holiday sitcom Benidorm, set in the ‘all inclusive’ Hotel Solana, for several series. But the sixth one – which sadly this week pours the sand out of its shoes and packs its bags for another year – had me surrendering to it more legs akimbo than the Solanas’ Mrs Slocombe-esque manageress Joyce Temple-Savage for Matthew Kelly.

Created and written by Derren Litten (co-writer for The Catherine Tate Show), Benidorm is Carry On meets St Trinians meets Are You Being Served? meets Lady Windermere’s Suntan – and gets an ‘all-inclusive’ hangover and runny tummy. A proper character actor ensemble, rather than a vehicle for some jumped-up stand-up’s overweening ego, and with some lines that glisten like an obese Brit’s back in the Costa Del Sol noon-day sun, it’s very old-fashioned comedy – which is to say, actually funny instead of just sneery-cringey.

No wonder the critics hate it. (See also that other recent ITV comedy triumph Vicious.) Benidorm is tacky and trashy and stuck in the past but doesn’t mind who knows it, thank you very much.

Kenneth Du Beke

Kenneth Du Beke (Tony Maudsley)

Everyone is a caricature but instantly recognisable. Well, everyone is a caricature except for Kenneth Du Beke (Tony Maudsley) the overweight chain-smoking gay manager of the Solana’s salubrious hairdressing salon Blow ‘n’ Go who, with his rather ‘young’ and ‘cheery’ styling, was mistaken by Philip Olivier (aka ‘Tinhead’ from Brookside) for a children’s entertainer. He’s just documentary.

Tacky and trashy and trapped in the past it may be, but Benidorm is also often well-written and sharply observed. The whole of episode three (below) is quite brilliant and takes on a very contemporary subject – judgey gay assumptions about the relationship between masculinity and sexuality – that most ‘serious’ dramas wouldn’t dare.

The scene at 21:38 between loveable Liam Conroy (Adam Gillen), the swishy Tenko and Dynasty fan and hairdresser who has fallen in love with a girl, and his narrow-minded tight-clothed gay boss who knows better and insists Liam is ‘really gay’ and is going to end up ‘living a lie’ deserves an Oscar:

Liam: “You need to learn to accept people for who they are! Just because I don’t fit into YOUR stereotype of how a man should be doesn’t give you permission to call me names! I am what I am and what I am [swings arm and pirouettes, badly] needs no excuses!!”

Likewise Benidorm is what it is and needs no excuses either. And as Liam’s cross-dressing dad Les/Lesley from Wearside would say: “Thank fook for that!”

‘Sex Terror’ Now Available on Kindle – Sweet Dreams.

Sex-Terror-cover-web

SEX TERROR

Erotic Misadventures in Pop Culture

Mark Simpson

This book will change the way you think about sex. It may even put you off it altogether.

NOW AVAILABLE ON KINDLE 

Amazon.com * Amazon.co.uk * Amazon.de * Amazon.fr * Amazon.es * Amazon.it * Amazon.co.jp * Amazon.com.br * Amazon.ca * Amazon.in * Amazon.com.au

In his full-frontal follow-up to his widely acclaimed It’s a Queer World, Mark Simpson dispenses with the monkey business of sexuality and gets to grips with the organ grinder itself: SEX.

Subjecting our saucy new god to his sacrilegious satire, Simpson sins against every contemporary commandment about doing the nasty: It must be hot. It must be frequent. It must wake the neighbours. And it must be Who You Are.

Simpson argues that we all put far too much faith in sex these days, and that in actual fact sex is messy, confusing, frustrating, and ultimately disappointing.

Especially if you’re having it with him.

Along the way he gets worked up with Alexis Arquette over Stephen Baldwin’s bubble-butt, gets intimate with Dana International, Aiden Shaw and Bruce LaBruce, and – very gingerly – confronts Henry Rollins with those ‘gay’ rumours.

Praise for Sex Terror:

“MARVELLOUS… open Simpson’s book at any point, as many times as you want, and you’ll find the sort of gem-like sentences that Zadie Smith would give her white teeth for.”

– Suzi Feay, Independent on Sunday

“A chainsaw cock of wit… blisteringly, endearingly honest… insightful and valuable.  VERY FUNNY INDEED.”

– Dermod Moore, The Hot Press

“Setting common sexual sense on its ear, Simpson’s Swiftian proposals strike at an emotion dear to us: sexual desire. His anarchic mission is to free sex from sermonizing, convention, egoism, and cultural bias. But unlike Foucault, his deconstructing weapon is built of ribald humour and potshots at pretension. Simpson’s essays produce rancour and HILARIOUS LAUGHTER, DISBELIEF AND DELIGHT. Some call him wonderful, and some call him outrageous, but I call him A TRUE ORIGINAL and YOU SHOULDN’T MISS THIS BOOK.”

– Bruce Benderson, author of Pretending to Say No and User

“BRILLIANT… With surgical precision Mark Simpson peels away the layers of modern masculine culture, leaving few iconic figures un-scarred. This book is certain to provoke and likely to offend; we would expect nothing less from one of the most important voyeurs of contemporary life.”

– Bob Mould, Musician and Songwriter

“When the culture of sex breathes its final breath, Mark Simpson will be there to deliver the eulogy with great zeal. And what a GLORIOUSLY SARDONIC AND INSIGHTFUL farewell it will be!”

– Glenn Belverio, Dutch magazine

“One of those books that bounces up and down on your knee yelling ‘read me, read me…. Brutal honesty and razor wit  – a perfect feast. QUOTABLE GENIUS.”

– RainbowNetwork.com

“BLOODY GOOD…  every outrageous insight is just that – an insight into the modern  condition that often makes you laugh out loud and, if you are not entirely beyond hope, think. Simply some of the best writing on modern culture around.”

– Brian Dempsey, Gay Scotland

“One of England’s MOST ELOQUENT AND SARDONIC commentators.”

– Bay Windows

“Mark Simpson won’t be every reader’s cup of tea, but those who enjoy a biter blend of DARK HUMOUR AND KEEN SOCIAL OBSERVATION will want to drink deeply.”

– Washington Blade

“…never fails to amuse, bemuse, stun and stir… a writer at his peak, a SHAMELESS SUMPTUOUS SERVING OF SOCIAL SATIRE you’ll be digesting long after you put the book down”

– All Man Magazine

ABOUT MARK SIMPSON

English author and journalist Mark Simpson is credited/blamed for coining the word ‘metrosexual‘. Simpson is the author of several books including: Saint MorrisseyMale Impersonators, and Metrosexy.

Sex Terror cover image taken by Michele Martinoli.

Jerry Lewis & Dean Martin’s 50s Love Makes Today’s Bromance Look Like Bromide

Mark Simpson pays tribute to Lewis & Martin, ‘the hottest male comedy double-act of all time’

(Originally appeared in Out, May 2009)

Forget hair whorls, genomes, amniotic fluid, older brothers, domineering mothers or disco. I can reveal with absolute, religio-scientific certainty that the cause of my homosexuality was just two words.

Jerry. Lewis.

As a kid in the 1970s I watched reruns of his movies, especially the ones from the early fifties with his on-screen boyfriend Dean Martin, with a level of breathless excitement that nothing came close to – until I discovered actual buggery in the 1980s.

Films like Money From Home where he pins Martin to the bed wearing a pair of polka dot shorts camper than Christmas in West Hollywood (1953), and Sailor Beware (1951), where he is pricked by several burly USN medics wielding ever-bigger needles until he squirts liquid in all directions and faints made me the man I am today.

Earlier this year, after a lifetime of being ignored by a cross-armed Academy Awards that never gave him so much as a nomination when he was making movies, Lewis is finally getting an Oscar.

But not for his hilariously cute films with Dean Martin or his solo classics such as The BellboyThe Errand BoyThe Nutty Professor, and The Disorderly Orderly – in which, memorably, he happily hoovers with the appliance plugged in up his own ass – but for his fundraising for Muscular Dystrophy.

It’s a charity Oscar – in every sense. Lewis is 82 and has had serious health problems for some time.

The Hollywood gays though were reportedly Not Happy. They had a hoover up their ass about Lewis.  Apparently some tried to block his Oscar because this ill, old man born in 1926 almost used the word ‘faggot’ last year after hosting a twelve hour telethon.

In effect, The Gays are running down the street screaming Maaaaaaa!!

Likewise, because he isn’t himself gay, and because his early nerdy, ‘retarded’ sissy persona has been deemed ‘exploitative’, Lewis has been almost completely spurned by gay studies, when really he should have his own department. If nothing else, Lewis Studies would be a damn sight more fun than Queer Studies. (As long as they didn’t include the Telethons).

His films should be set texts, but it was his anarchic early 1950s TV shows with Martin when a twenty-something Lewis was at his queerest and giddiest. Their heads so close together in those tiny 50s cathode ray tubes, gazing into each other’s eyes, rubbing noses, occasionally stealing kisses or licking each other’s necks to shrieks of scandalized pleasure from the audience. They were a prime-time study in same-sex love. And were adored for it – literally chased down the street by crowds of screaming young women and not a few men (especially popular with sailors and soldiers, they were the Forces’ sweethearts).

This half-century old double act from the homo-hating 50s is much more alive, much more flirtatious, than today’s supposedly liberal and liberated ‘bromantic’ comedy, which goes  out of its way to purge the possibility of anything physical. Next to Dean and Jerry’s simmering screen-love, bromance just looks like bromide.

Whatever the nature of his off-screen sexuality, Lewis’ comedy partnership with Martin – the most successful of all time, along with most of their best gags – was based around the matter-of-fact, unspoken assumption that they were a couple.

Their very first TV show opens with our boys arriving at a posh ball full of Waspy straight couples being announced: ‘Mr & Mrs Charles Cordney!’, ‘Mr and Mrs Walter Christiandom!’.  And then: ‘Mr Martin and Mr Lewis!’.  The dago and the jew. Setting the tone for their series, Lewis promptly trashes the place with his nervy-nerdy slapstick.

The Martin and Lewis partnership was queer punk rock before even rock and roll had been invented, trashing normality right in the living rooms of 1950s America, courtesy of Colgate. No wonder they’ve been almost forgotten.

They should never have existed.  True, the explicitness of their pairing depended on the official ‘innocence’ of the times, and the nostalgia for buddydom in post-war America, allowing the audience to enjoy the outrageous queerness of what was going on without having to think too much about it. Literally laughing it off.

But official innocence is a mischievous comedian’s gift-horse. A skit depicting (fictionally) how Martin and Lewis – or ‘Ethel’ and ‘Shirley’ as they called one another – met, climaxes with them being trapped in the closet together: pushed together mouth to mouth, crotch to crotch, by Martin’s vast, vain collection of padded jackets.

In another skit our boys end up sharing a bed with Burt Lancaster playing an escaped homicidal maniac: Jerry: ‘Boy, Dean, these one night stands are moider!’

Moider was exactly what they got away with.  In a skit set in prison, Jerry’s bunk collapses on Martin below. ‘What are you doing?’ asks Martin. ‘I felt loinesome,’ replies Lewis.

Lewis’ on-screen queerness may have been just a phase – but what a phase! It was so unruly, so indefinable, so crazy, so ticklish, so exhilarating that gays – and probably most people today – don’t know what to do with it. Or where to put it.  It’s a bit scary, frankly.

But that – in addition to still being piss your pants funny – is precisely what is so great about it. And why I still think classic Lewis is as much fun as sodomy.

 

An ‘exploision’ of D&J kisses in this cheeky and charming clip painstakingly compiled by a YouTube fan.

The noise made by the audience when Dean falls on top of Jerry in the bath wouldn’t be heard again until Elvis shook his pelvis.

Jerry joins the Navy, gets some big pricks, and then sprays everywhere.

Jerry, Dean and James Dean – the perfect locker room threesome.

Dean and Jerry join the Army as paratroopers. Watch Dean’s eyes during the blanket scene.

‘I was loinesome!’

A slightly fictionlised account of how our boys met, complete with closet clinch climax.

Never been kissed… Yeah, right.

Special thanks to Elise Moore and Hannah for sharing their pashernate love of Dean & Jerry — and reminding me of mine.