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Tag: 1970s (page 1 of 2)

“Never Before Have I Seen Such A Blatant Display Of Poofery!!”

This month, the Welsh actor Windsor Davies, 88, most famous for playing the very shouty Battery Sgt Major Williams in the now unthinkably un-PC – and apparently unrepeatable – 1970s BBC comedy series Ain’t Half Hot Mum, was summoned to the CO’s office in the sky.

AHHM was written by Jimmy Perry and David Croft, the duo behind the other smash hit 1970s hit BBC sitcom Dad’s Army. Croft was also behind Are You Being Served?, thus he and Perry dominated my childhood viewing, making them essentially the architect of my terrible sense of humour.

Set in India in the dying days of both the Second World War and the British Empire, AHHM told the travails of a concert party of misfit men – or ‘boys’ as they refer to themselves in their theme song – that just want to survive the war and have a bit of a giggle amidst the relentless boredom and heat, and put on a show to entertain the men. (Perry was drawing on his own experience: during the war he had served in a Royal Artillery Concert Party in Burma.)

Their old school, barrel-chested, ramrod-backed, racist, homophobic ‘SHUUUUT-TUUUUP!!’ BSM would have scoffed at the new, Mister lah-dee-dah Gunner Graham American Psychological Association guidelines for men and boys. Clearly a fervent believer in the now officially pathologized ‘traditional masculinity ideology’ – though he would just call it ‘backbone’ – he is forever trying, and failing, to turn the ‘effeminate poofs’ in the concert party into ‘proper men’, and save the British Empire from decadence.

A tribute to Battery Sgt Major Williams

Everyone else though – the squaddies they entertain, the local Indians working for the British Army, and especially the pipe-smoking Colonel – love the ‘boys’ of the concert party and their degenerate, painted poofery and can’t wait for post-war, post-imperial dissipation.

There was also a regular hint that this mustachioed scourge of poofdom who sees poofery everywhere has latent ‘omosexual tendencies himself – or is at least ‘guilty’ of behaving like an ‘omo. Williams dotes on Gunner ‘Parky’ Parkin, one of the hunkier (by dismal 1970s standards) young soldiers in the concert party: “Shoulders back, lovely boy, you’ve got a fine pair of shoulders on you. Show ’em orf! Show ’em orf!” He sings his (non-existent) praises to the officers and covers up his failures.

He thinks the lad is his illegitimate son; so he is showing paternal pride and affection for his own virility. But we and the concert party know he isn’t Parky’s daddy, so the joke is he’s unwittingly displaying something else. Freud should have had a writing credit for this sitcom: he saw a father’s love for his son, and the ‘male bonding’ of all-male groups, as a sublimated, socially-acceptable outlet for universal homoerotics.

The BSM also sometimes appears to be wearing eyeliner, though I’m sure this is just a 1970s TV camera pickup issue.

The reason BSM Williams was such a fondly-regarded prime-time act in the 1970s was down to Davies’ great comedic performance (and it was a performance of course – apparently he was a very kind and gentle chap). It wasn’t just about the virtuoso shouting – it was also about those baby blue eyes in silent close-up: so expressive when reacting to/mocking other people’s lines

And because even forty years ago, the bristling Sgt Major represented for most UK viewers under 50 an already outmoded, comically inappropriate imperial masculinity. If one that was still vividly recognisable, especially to a male generation that had, like Davies, done National Service (it ended in 1960)

For anyone under 50 today, probably the most recognisable part is the waxed Edwardian moustache – but only because it’s been recycled on the ironic upper lip of hipsters and Movemberists.

Possibly only one of the concert party ‘poofs’ seems intended to be taken for an actual poof: ‘Gloria’, played by Melvyn Hayes – who was the cross-dressing star of both the concert party and, alongside Davies, the sitcom itself. Yes, judged by today’s standards it was racist and homophobic: I’m sure plenty of 1970s viewers enjoyed seeing the bloody campers getting a beasting from the Sgt Major – I know I did.

But he was the cartoon baddie, and the past. Annoying and ridiculous as they are often presented, the ‘poofs’ were the sympathetic characters, and the present.

And also the future – a future in which ordinary soldiers have become their own concert party ‘poofs’, mincing around on YouTube. 

While many civilians pay good money to be shouted at like that.

It Aint Half Hot Mum – End Credits
Funny Dance – Royal Marines – Call on Me
Be sure to watch all the way to the (happy) ending…

‘I’m Nobody’s Nephew’ – Rare Quentin Crisp interview

‘So you sit there. There’s the nail, and there’s the piece of wood. And you wait.’

Probably for the Great Dark Man to bang it in.

Broadcast on UK television in 1975, the day after The Naked Civil Servant aired, thrilling and shocking the nation, this fine interview by the great Mavis Nicholson is one that I don’t recall seeing before.

Though of course, Crisp didn’t really do interviews – he declaimed. Gloriously. Crisp was forever in the dock, making a final, impassioned appeal to the judge.

And to our sense of humour.

Quentin Crisp interview | Good Afternoon | 1975

Tip: Paul St Paul

Flora Men: Polyunsaturated Masculinity

After my dad had a health scare in the 1970s butter was banished from the Simpson household and replaced with Flora, probably partly as a result of this ad, which ran in heavy rotation for what seemed like most of my childhood. I continued eating it myself for years after leaving home.

Flora 'The Margarine for Men' 1970's.mp4

Back then we – or rather, our mothers – were told that butter with its saturated fats was bad for you. Flora margarine which was ‘high in polyunsaturated fats’ and made from sunflower oil in an industrial process by the giant conglomerate Unilever, was massively marketed as Good For You. It was an extraordinarily successful campaign, encouraging a real shift in social habits.

But that was the 20th Century. Turns out of course that like other margarines Flora contained trans-fats and hydrogenated oils (though Unilever claims that today’s Flora doesn’t) which are now officially Bad For You. Badder in fact than saturated fats. Butter is no longer evil – but still tastes better.

Likewise, the thinking behind the ‘Flora for men’ ad itself seems hilariously outdated now, presenting a vanished world divided into ‘wives’ and ‘men’ – where ‘wives’ spend their time shopping (and cooking) for their ‘men’.

But even here the datedness/sexism is not as one-way as it might first appear: note how the men are separated from the world of consumption by the glass window. They’re left outside the supermarket, like tied dogs – and about as articulate. The ad, despite the ‘Flora for men’ tagline, is after all targeted at women.

The concept of ‘Flora for men’ seems to have been about giving permission to women worried about their man dropping dead before his time to buy Flora – don’t worry, your husband will like it because it’s ‘for men’. Despite its new-fangledness, the flower on the packet and the sissy name (apparently ‘Flora’ was the name of the wife of the head of one of Unilever’s marketing directors at the time).

And despite, above all, its ‘healthful’ qualities. Men weren’t supposed to care about their health back then. The notion that hundreds of thousands of them would eventually buy a glossy monthly magazine full of – constantly changing – hypochondriacal advice with the word ‘men’ and ‘health’ in the title would have been laughed at.

I suppose though that a secondary effect of the ‘Flora for men’ advertising was to ‘de-sissify’ Flora and to some extent health concerns for men, generally. Though today ‘Flora for men’ would probably be targeted at men directly as a separate line, in khaki-coloured, chunky tubs shaped like hand-grenades – with exactly the same gloop inside.

In the early 1980s Unilever ran another ad, voiced by housewives favourite Terry Wogan, which seems to be distancing itself slightly from the happy servitude of the earlier ad by jokily nodding to feminism, with a more assertive woman: ‘Some time ago Sarah Drake decided to change her husband. More and more women are coming to the same decision. They’re changing their husbands to Flora men’.­

And, in a way, they did.

Flora Margarine for Men 1981

The Breathtaking Beauty of Rod Stewart’s ‘The Killing of Georgie Parts I & II’

I recently chanced upon this clip of Rod Stewart performing ‘The Killing of Georgie Parts I & II’ on a late-night BBC4 re-run of a Top of the Pops from 1976. I was completely transfixed. Not by nostalgia though, for a change. Bizarrely, scandalously I don’t recall seeing or even hearing this well-known classic before.

Rod Stewart – "The Killing Of Georgie" (Part I & II) (Official Music Video)

I have a bit of a blind spot about Rod Stewart. As a kid I hated ballads. They were bor-ing. Like the kissy-wissy bits in films. And by the time I got into pop music in a big way Stewart was the Bawling Balladeer. I did go to see the Stewart musical Tonight’s the Night with a friend when it opened in 2003. Alas, it was written by Ben Elton and so we had to leave at the first interval.

But I found myself utterly mesmerised by Rod’s achievement here. It’s undoubtedly one of the best to-camera performances I’ve ever seen by any artist. Literally breathtaking. And although the song perhaps owes a debt to ‘Walk on the Wild Side’, produced by David Bowie four years earlier in 1972 (the gay/outsider journey to New York on a Greyhound bus, the doop-doop backing…), I think David would give his non-dilated eye to have done this.

The song tells the story – remember when songs did that? – of a gay friend of Stewart’s who, rejected by his family after explaining that ‘he needed love like all the rest’, moved to New York where he ‘soon became the toast of the Great White Way’. But was cut down in his prime during a random mugging.

It’s not so much the subject-matter (a true story, apparently) that got me. It’s the astonishing performance itself, which in its fearless extravagance and beauty seems the perfect tribute to his fallen friend. It’s as if Stewart, the working class footballing lad and lady-killer, is showing you with his drag queen gestures and shining androgyny what Georgie the show queen liberated in him. (Stewart has said that he Georgie wasn’t a close friend of his personally, but that he was ‘surrounded by gay men’ at the time.)

It’s there in the lyrics, of course:

He said “Never wait or hesitate
Get in kid, before it’s too late
You may never get another chance
‘Cos youth a mask but it don’t last
live it long and live it fast”

But it’s much more ‘there’ in Rod’s ‘gay abandon’ in front of the camera – and Marlene Dietrich eyes. And that wink he does when he sings: ‘he needed love like all the rest’.

I’ve watched the clip several times now and the final line to ‘Part I’ – ‘Georgie was a friend of mine’ – delivered with arms stretched out, open-palmed towards the audience, towards the world, and that unswerving, heavy-lidded gaze gets me every time.

The ‘Part II’ coda is a frank, almost embarrassing expression of love and loss, mourning and melancholia. Rod weeps for his lost friend:

Oh Georgie stay, don’t go away
Georgie please stay, you take our breath away

But by taking our breath away too, at the height of his youth, his beauty and his talent, Rod ensures Georgie – and the glamorous gayness of the pre Aids 1970s – also lives forever and never goes away.

No matter what Rod himself was to turn into, as the mask of youth slipped – as it does for all of us who don’t die untimely deaths.

Welcome to AbbaWorld – Prepare to be Abbassimiliated

abbapic

“NO MORE F****** ABBA!!”

So bellowed an ageing transsexual Terence Stamp in Priscilla Queen of the Desert, driven to distraction by his fey fellow bus passengers’ obsession with the silly Swedish 1970s super group.

Some hope. We’re all trapped on a Day-Glo bus full of drag queens squawking along to a loop tape of Abba Gold playing on the stereo. And that’s just watching the Sydney Olympics. The Abba revival in the 1990s turned out to be not so much a rediscovery of a critically overlooked band, as an ascension to pop cultural Heaven and eternal airplay.

Bjorn, Benny, Frida and Agnetha are all our angelic friends now – and we believe in them, something good in everything they do. We hear their sweetly harmonious voices almost every day, though they stopped making records 20 years ago. And we still see their warm, smiling, never-ageing, non-aligned Nordic faces, the epitome of benignity. They just want us to be happy. In fact, Bjorn, Benny, Frida and Agnetha are not just our friends – they’re our parents. Not our unconvincing, biological ones, but our shiny, postmodern ones who will never let us down, except perhaps in their dress-sense. After all, the cute acronym of their names Abba means “Our father” in Aramaic (though in Sweden it’s also the name of a tinned fish company).

Abba were a fiendishly clever and catastrophically successful Scandinavian plan for total world domination. Deploying pop singles instead of longboats, aspirations instead of horned helmets, they kidnapped pre-teen children everywhere, ultimately making the world safe for that other Swedish four- letter word: Ikea. Abba were the ultimate suburban aspirational group and the two crooning couples the ultimate aspirational parents. Now that we’re grown up, we’re all Abba now. We’ve all bought the dream of Swedish bourgeois classlessness, excellence and niceness, the soft furnishings and cool green frosted glass kitchen cabinets that scratch surprisingly easily if you’re not really careful.

It’s significant that nowhere was Abba’s strategy more successful than in Australia, where not just pre-teens, but pretty much the whole country was abducted overnight. When they performed on TV there, more than half the population tuned in. Abba: The Movie was set in Australia. The Abba tribute band Bjorn Again is Australian. Australian films are obsessed with Abba (eg Priscilla and Muriel’s Wedding).

Why did Australia go “ABBAustralian” as one paper put it at the time? Unkind Poms might say it was because the Aussies identified with the Swedes’ problems with the English language, but the truth was that Australia, the former penal colony, was a “bastard” country looking to be adopted by well-mannered parents with nice teeth who weren’t sheep farmers or uranium miners.

The Abba makeover to which Australia surrendered worked perfectly: nowadays Australia is a country of nice, friendly middle-class people, dental hygienists, publicists, models, personal trainers, lawyers and cheery soap operas. In other words, once assimilated, Australia was able to go about the business of running the AbbaWorld. Hence that triumphal climax of last year’s closing ceremony at the Sydney Olympics, broadcast around the world to billions, featured AbbaChild Kylie Minogue on a Priscilla float singing “Dancing Queen”, the national anthem of AbbaWorld. (And a literally irresistible pop song – which is to say, it wrestles your better judgement to the floor, sits on its face, and leaves you free to make a complete fool of yourself.)

Britain was the first non-Scandinavian country to succumb to Abba, that Eurovision night with Katie Boyle back in 1974 at the Brighton Dome was when we met our Waterloo. It’s probably why that nice Mr Sven has had so much success with his makeover of the English football team, most of whom were born post Abbassimilation and have no trouble recognising their masters.

Scandinavian design, with its clean lines, high quality, what-you-see-is-what-you-get lack of hierarchy, is the only kind of bourgeoisdom we Brits seem willing to recognise nowadays. Those satanically clever and clean Abba hook-lines and impressive arrangements (praised now by everyone from Pete Townsend to Bono) were the product of craftsmanship and professionalism. The very things that made them deeply unhip in the 1970s and led to them being described as “cynical” and “icy” are what makes them the soundtrack to a careerist, managerial age. Those tunes may have sounded innocent to kids back then, but now that they have grown up they’re glad to discover that they weren’t – that like everything else these days, they were very, very calculated.

I’m not sure how much of this fellow Swede and uber AbbaChild Carl Magnus Palm, author of Bright Lights Dark Shadows: The Real Story of Abba would agree to. The flyleaf describes him as “the world’s foremost Abba historian”, but really his book isn’t as bad as that would lead you to believe. It’s all clearly and soberly written, painstakingly detailed and incontrovertibly definitive. Very professional. Well crafted. The prose slides in and out smoothly like a fitted kitchen drawer. But there are not enough clean lines. Some of this detail and definitiveness is not likely to appeal, unless you’re the world’s No 2 Abba historian. Thankfully, his main thesis about “the Nordic angst being there all along, just beneath the surface” isn’t really borne out. So the band members turn out to be actual human beings who have rows and bust ups? Big deal. There are fewer “dark shadows” here than in an Ikea showroom. And, being an AbbaChild, the author can’t contemplate the possibility that Abba itself may have been the “dark shadow”.

As a pal of mine, a blonde male-to-female transsexual Abba fan (“Abba made me what I am today!”) pronounced after devouring the book: “There’s no dirt. No one’s ever been able to find any.”

She didn’t sound disappointed. Which is, perhaps, the scariest thing of all about Abba.

zap_abba

Originally appeared in the Independent on Sunday October 2001

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