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.
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.
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 (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!”
Watching the exhilarating ‘l’amour fou’ movie I Love You Phillip Morris recently I found myself falling in love with Jim Carrey all over again – after several years of taking him for granted.
So much so I forgot he was there all over again. The role of Steven Russell the gay con-man is one he was born to play. It’s a return to the Jim Carrey of The Cable Guy – his best and most overlooked film until now. But a bit more grown up, slightly less scary, and with Ewan McGregor instead of Matthew Broderick as the object of his swirling attentions. I don’t fancy Carrey, and I suspect McGregor probably doesn’t either, but Carrey in full-on comic madman mode is impossible to say no to.
So I thought I’d post this love letter to him orginally published in the Independent on Sunday back in 2002.
Fears of a Clown
He’s the funny guy famous for his deviant comic roles. So what is it about Jim Carrey, asks Mark Simpson, that makes him the perfect embodiment of American psychosis?
(Independent On Sunday 19 May 2002)
Whenever I finally confess to my friends that I’m a Jim Carrey fan I almost always get the same reaction. “Oh, I see,” they say, looking me up and down as if really seeing me for the first time. “Yes, well, I can’t stand him, I’m afraid.” Then they pull a slightly sour expression as if I’d farted and explain: “You see, It’s the…” “…gurning” I say, completing their sentence. “I know. That’s exactly what I like about him.” Clutching for some middle ground they then offer: “I quite liked him in The Truman Show, though”. It’s at this point that I quickly change the subject.
It’s all a case of mistaken identity: they see a vulgar spasming idiot where I see a god of comedy… who is a vulgar, spasming idiot. Hence people who don’t like Jim Carrey will probably like his new movie The Majestic. Like The Truman Show (1998), it is played straight(faced), and very competently. People who like Jim Carrey, however, will pull their lower lip over their forehead in frustration.
Appropriately enough, the film is about mistaken identity. Carrey plays Peter Appleton, a Hollywood B-movie scriptwriter who is caught up in the Anti-Red paranoia the 1950s and sacked by his studio and blacklisted as a Commie. Of course, Carrey isn’t really a Commie but just “a horny guy” who was trying to get into the pants of a girl at college who happened to be a Commie. But the cold warriors see what they want to see and Carrey is threatened with a subpoena.
So he gets drunk, crashes his car and suffers amnesia, staggering into smalltown America where he is mistaken for someone more interesting again – Luke Trimble, a young Marine who failed to return from the Second World War. The still-grieving town, having lost several sons, has a form of mass hysteria: benign and healing where the McCarthyite variety is malign and divisive, and everyone believes he is Trimble, even Luke’s father and his former girlfriend. Carrey/Appleton, still with no idea who he is, decides that he might as well be who they want him to be.
However, there’s another case of mistaken identity in this movie: Jim Carrey has clearly mistaken himself for Jimmy Stewart. Carrey makes a passable Stewart, but why on earth should someone who is the unnatural love-child of Dionysus and Jerry Lewis want to be Jimmy Stewart? Besides, Stewart isn’t even dead – Tom Hanks, after all, is still with us.
Mr Carrey, who has just turned 40, is ranked number five in Hollywood’s “star power” ratings – which effectively measures whether we see what we want to see when we look at a screen actor. At 98.46 he comes behind Mr Cruise, Mr Hanks and Ms Roberts who all score a “perfect” 100, and Mr Gibson at 98.68. Although he is already one of the most famous and wealthiest men in America (and recently announced this by buying his own $30 million jet), Mr Carrey would very much like to close that 1.54 point gap and be a perfect 100. Hence the Jimmy Stewart preoccupation.
Carrey’s success of course has come largely through his maniacal, edgy, inspired, disturbed/disturbing – and gurning – performances in films such as Dumb and Dumber (1994), Ace Ventura Pet Detective (1994), The Mask (1994), and Liar, Liar (1997). He even almost succeeded in rescuing the rubber codpiece meltdown that was Batman Forever (1995), with his toxically camp interpretation of The Riddler. Alas, Carrey’s ambitions are “bigger” than such roles allow. He wants to be mistaken for that truly freaky thing: a well-rounded, redeemed human-being. Frankly, his green-furred misanthropic Grinch (The Grinch, 2000) was a more sympathetic character than that.
Carrey seems to be a curious, furious tension between a craving for revenge and adoration. From a Canadian blue-collar trailer park family with a sickly, hysterical mother and a manic-depressive father, he tried to please and distract in equal measure. He wrote himself a cheque for $15 million when he was starting out in the 1980s. (In a curiously ambivalent gesture, he placed the cheque in his father’s coffin). Having succeeded, he surpassed fellow Hollywood comedians such as Steve Martin, Mike Myers and William Shatner – like them, he is a Canadian whose job it is to be mistaken for an American.
So it’s perhaps no coincidence that in most of his films he seems to have “identity issues” – darkness, disintegration and exhilarating release is always just a few facial tics away. In The Mask, appropriately enough the film which brought him to the widest public attention, he plays a mild-mannered nerd who discovers a mask which imbues its wearer with the spirit of the Norse god of mischief. In Liar, Liar he’s a lawyer beating himself up to stop himself from telling the truth. In Me Myself and Irene (2000), he plays a mild-mannered nerdy cop who keeps flipping into a deviant Mr Hyde personality
And then there is the The Cable Guy (1996), in which he plays a nerdy cable installer who wants nice Matthew Broderick to be his best buddy and flips over into a compelling psychosis when Matthew disappoints him. Of all Carrey’s movies, The Cable Guy is the one which comes closest to the truth of his screen persona and also perhaps the truth of the best comedy – that it is about desperation and darkness. Carrey is like the Id monster in Forbidden Planet on the rampage and with a lisp. He turns in one of the most original performances ever seen in a movie – and most reckless, given that this was his first $20 million role.
So when the critics pasted it and audiences used to his “alrighty!” slapstick hated it, Carrey and his entourage panicked and scrambled to make sure that his future projects would not expose so much of his dark side: that people would see what they wanted to see, instead of the rage of Caliban in the mirror. Ironically, even a schmaltzy non-comedy film like The Majestic requires the knowledge of the dark, Satanic Carrey to sustain our interest in his everyguy performance. The gurning lies underneath.
Carrey is a man clearly possessed by voices – the trashy voices of American pop culture we all hear inside our heads: Captain Kirk, John Wayne, Bugs Bunny, Elvis, Lucille Ball. He’s a latter-day “Legion”, the Biblical madman of Gadarene who spoke in a hundred voices, whose evil spirits were exorcised by Christ (and who, evicted, promptly commandeered a herd of swine and drove them squealing over a cliff into the sea). Unfortunately, given his “healing” tendencies in his straight movies, Carrey also sometimes seems to think he’s Christ too. (In his next movie, Bruce Almighty, he is set to play God.)
Actually, Carrey is someone much more important than God: he is America. At least in terms of his contradictions: hysterical/professional, needy/maniacal, narcissistic/high-minded, base/aspirational, idealistic/hypocritical, cynical/sentimental, amnesiac/media-addicted. In The Majestic Carrey’s character recalls a movie plot but still can’t remember who he is: “You mean you can remember movies but not your own life?” says Laurie Holden. “That’s terrible!” Maybe, but it’s not so unusual.
Like The Truman Show, The Majestic ends with Carrey’s character renouncing the inauthenticity of fame for “real life”. Fortunately for us, the real Jim Carrey is never likely to make that choice.
Mr Humphreys is no longer with us. He has been transferred to another department. One that even the cheery Grace Bros. lift – forever ‘going up!‘ – cannot reach.
Comic actor John Inman, best known for his portrayal of the flamboyant shop assistant in the 1970s British sitcom ‘Are You Being Served?’, finally got ‘promoted’ last week, aged 71.
The Great Floorwalker in the Sky tapped him on the shoulder and asked him if he was ‘free’.
Let’s hope there are lots of divine inside legs for him to measure in the Heavenly Menswear Department. Even if he still doesn’t have a key to the Executive Washroom.
Set in Grace Bros., a fading London department store, and written by Britcom legends David Croft and Jeremy Lloyd, ‘Are You Being Served’ ran for thirteen years from 1972 to 1985. It was lambasted at the time for its creaky scripts, smutty humour and abject reliance on crude double entendre – e.g. ‘Captain Pee-COCK’, ‘Mrs Slow-CUM’, ‘Miss BRA-hms’, and of course, ‘Mr HUMP-free’. Many critics wondered why Auntie was airing such off-colour trash.
I loved it. As a lad in the 1970s I never missed an episode, practically wetting my grey school shorts every time. It made me the man I am today. So perhaps it should have been banned after all.
What’s more, history, not to mention ratings, were on my side. This low-rent, gutter humour was, it is clear now, the golden apogee of the Great British Sitcom: an astonishing 22 million people tuned in for a 1979 episode of AYBS – half the population of the country at the time – just to have a titter at Mrs Slocombe’s tired old pussy. As I observed in an article for the Independent on Sunday about the death of the British sitcom in 2000 (posted below for anyone interested in its obituary), AYBS managed to encapsulate an era:
Lloyd and Perry’s peerless BBC sitcom ‘Are You Being Served?’ WAS the British 1970s. Everyone is fed up, everyone is skiving, everyone is seething with resentment and nobody is ‘being served’, in either sense of the double entendre. Except the ancient, filthy rich Mr Grace who is probably impotent and the camp poof Mr Humphreys who lives with his mother. So palpable is the frustration that Mrs Slocombe’s pussy has a life of its own.
As I got older I did wonder about Mr Humphreys. First as ‘one of them’ and then, slowly, as ‘one of us’. Though like many if not most homos growing up at that time Mr Humphreys was one of the reasons why I thought I couldn’t possibly be ‘one of them’. Inman’s flamboyantly effeminate powder-puff Mr Humphreys (along with Generation Game host Larry Grayson) practically defined male homosexuality in Britain in the 1970s – and in fact, to this day if you read the tabloids.
The Sun newspaper has a house rule that you can’t refer to a male homosexual without putting the word ‘camp’ in front of their name or profession. Pretty much the only way you can avoid the giggly moniker preceding you and your achievements if you’re a famous homo in the UK is to become a rapist or serial killer. Which seems to me like a lot of trouble to go to just to be taken seriously.
Inman’s skittish, swishy portrayal was attacked at the time by gay rights activists, but with the comfortable wisdom of hindsight this seems like tilting at lisping windmills. After all, everyone at Grace Bros. were caricatures. What’s more, Mr Humphreys was a likeable caricature – and the only person, aside from Mr Grace, who was allowed to have any fun.
The protesters’ point I suppose was that Inman was part of the general portrayal of male homosexuals in the culture as being emasculated irrelevant creatures. But then, after all these years of gay lib, gay rights and gay respectability we have…. Graham Norton. Someone loved by gays, apparently. Compared to Norton, three decades old Mr Humphries is no more ‘masculated’, somewhat less irrelevant and rather more like a recognisable human being. What’s more, he’s actually funny. Norton on the other hand seems to do most of the laughing himself, but then I would if I was paid that much. He is however ‘out’.
For his part Inman always denied his character was homosexual, as did the writers. Inman himself announced in 1999 that he had been straight all his life and that he had been involved in a ‘serious relationship’ with a woman for 28 years. Reportedly, no one was more surprised than his friends – and none of them had any idea who this woman was.
I suppose though that was the whole point of double entendre. It was knowing at the same time as innocent – double entendre was deniable entendre. Smut without responsibility. Sniggering connotation without serious denotation. In other words: it wouldn’t upset your dear old mum.
‘I’m free, Captain Peacock!’ Free for a spot of gratuitous symbolic humping. Free for some good old fashioned tittering. And free also of any tedious political statements – or definite meanings. But probably not free, alas, of sexual guilt.
In other words, ‘double entendre’ may be French in origin, but it’s very, very British.
DEATH OF THE BRITISH SITCOM
by Mark Simpson
(Independent on Sunday, October 2000)
Here is the news:
“I don’t belieeve it!”
Everyone must know by now that to fill the gap left by the demise of that timeless national institution The Nine O’Clock News the Beeb is bringing back the nation’s favourite misanthrope Victor Meldrew for one last marvellous moan. This is, we are told, the very final series of ‘One Foot in the Grave’ and to make sure of this, Victor actually dies and is buried six feet under in the final episode. Which will probably come as something of a relief for him since it is, after all, what he has been waiting for impatiently ever since the series began in 1990.
However, when Victor finally draws his last, indignant, muttering breath it will be nothing less than a national catastrophe. It won’t just be Britain’s most lovable miserable old git that we lose but an institution once as important as, well, the Nine O’Clock News. For years now it’s been clear that the great British sitcom has also been in retirement, waiting for death. Victor is its last gasp.
You don’t have to be a UK Gold subscriber to know that the sitcom has been in decline ever since the 1970s – the Golden Age of the BBC and also of Victor and Anne (probably the last time they had sex – albeit with the lights off). Then they lived a cheaper street or two from ‘The Good Life’s’ Tom & Barbara, and a few doors up from ‘Terry and June’, holidaying every August at ‘Fawlty Towers’, where Victor and Basil got on famously. And it’s glaringly obvious they bought most of their current wardrobe at young Mr Grace’s department store.
The 1970s was such a rich era for sitcoms and the Beeb because sitcoms were indispensable back then. Everyone was bored, frustrated and repressed. Nowadays there are plenty of things to do – whether it’s Playstation, taking drugs, casual sex, remodelling your home, watching cable TV, surfing the Net or making money. (They may not be things worth doing, but they certainly occupy people’s time.)
Sitcoms reflected back that world to their captive audience, in grotesque and liberating parody. Croft and Perry’s peerless BBC sitcom ‘Are You Being Served?’ WAS the 1970s. Everyone is fed up, everyone is skiving, everyone is seething with resentment and nobody is ‘being served’, in either sense of the double entendre – except the ancient, filthy rich Mr Grace, who is probably impotent anyway, and the camp poof Mr Humphreys who lives with his mother. So palpable is the frustration that Mrs Slocombe’s pussy has a life of its own.
As the rigid hierarchy of the doomed department store demonstrated, Seventies Britain was paralysed by class. Sitcoms made fun of hopeless aspirations: in ‘Rising Damp’, everyone is trying to climb the greasy pole and desperately position themselves above each other, but as the name suggest, the only thing that is rising is the moisture problem. In the 1980s the arrival of the grocer’s daughter Mrs Thatch and her loyal supporter Essex Man changed all that. However, before the loadsamoney culture got underway, high unemployment offered some sitcomic potential. ‘The Young Ones’ featured epic amounts of boredom and frustration (they were meant to be students, but in those days students were unemployable),
As the economy picked up, unemployment queues dwindled and social mobility went into overdrive, sitcoms had to resort to time-travel to find boredom and frustration. Croft and Perry retreated to the safety of a joyless, regimented 1950s holiday camp in ‘Hi De Hi’; Mr Blackadder in class-ridden, VCR-less Jacobean England, or the aspiration-less mud of the trenches of the First World War. The North-South divide offered sitcom makers less costly time travel by simply motoring up the M1 (‘Bread’ and ‘Last of the Summer Wine’). But if you couldn’t escape Essex Man, you had to make him affectionately inept (‘Only Fools and Horses’).
By the Nineties most of the younger generation had been lost to the smart-Alec, exhausting wisecracking style of the American sitcom: for them Channel Four’s line-up of ‘Cheers’, ‘Roseanne’, ‘Frasier’ and ‘Friends’ ruled the airwaves. The reason for the success of these American ‘lifestyle sitcom’ products was quite simple: post Eighties the British were no longer so repressed, no longer so class-bound, no longer so bored. No longer so… British.
To achieve a non-American sitcom success Channel Four had to take us to a priest’s tumbledown draughty house on Craggy Island. Only there could they be sure of boredom (it’s an island off Ireland), official frustration (priests are supposed to be celibate), and a rigid class system (Father Ted is forever trying to avoid kissing the Bishop’s ring).
Recent high-budget, high-profile attempts by the Beeb to jump on the American titterwagon with slick, wisecracking shows like the glossy sitcoms ‘Coupling’ (‘Friends’ in Soho) and ‘Rhona’ (‘Ellen’ with a Scottish accent) haven’t worked. They’re so grindingly unfunny because young British people who aren’t repressed, shot in soft focus with high production values in nice bars, aren’t funny. They’re just very annoying.
It’s no coincidence that the Beeb is also marshalling ‘The Royale Family’ along with ‘One Foot’ to fill the Nine O’Clock gap. Almost uniquely for a recent BBC sitcom a great success and extremely funny. But then, Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash are hugely talented writer-performers, and the show is about a bored working class Northern family where there’s no hope and no serious aspiration – and no sex, except when someone’s ‘trying for a baby’ and Jim’s over-enthusiastic arse-scratching. Despite being nominally contemporaneous (they watch programmes like ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’), its real location is the 1970s of Caroline Aherne and Cash’s childhood. You can tell because everyone watches the same TV.
More to the point, ‘The Royale Family’ is not really a sitcom – it’s an observational comic drama of details which depends on a great deal of irony. It’s Bennetesque. The close-ups of the overflowing ashtrays, the endless bacon sandwiches, the sympathy for that strange, sad illness called vegetarianism. It all depends upon a we-know-better-now attitude. It’s the affectionate and nostalgic mild snobbery of a generation that, like Aherne, has ‘done well for itself’.
‘One Foot’, the last true and the last great British sitcom isn’t ironic. It is nostalgic, however, and more than mildly snobbish – Victor is supposed to be an ex-security guard, but he’s clearly BBC Home Counties middle class and his wife Anne talks like someone out of ‘Brief Encounter’. And, like the BBC middle class today, he has the voice of entitlement but no money, and is tormented by the uncouth C2s who have moved onto his close, with their wads of cash, drunken wives and their disrespectful kids.
Unlike Victor, who is thankfully too uptight and too set in his ways, they have sex, take drugs, play video games.
Mark Simpson on the hell of other people’s crumbs in your margarine
FLATSHARE OFFERED: Easygoing bloke with GSOH seeks business traveller who needs place to keep spare toothbrush. No pets, no friends, no conversation. Paranoid introverts who keep themselves to themselves and are actually invisible welcome. Rent dependent on how much oxygen you use.
Rooming with people is rubbish.
Contrary to the propaganda put out by shows like ‘Friends’ and ‘This Life’ roommates are not trendy or clever. Roommates are a social disease.
Sartre, you see, was wrong: Hell isn’t other people. Hell is other people’s crumbs in your margarine tub.
As a species roommates insist on doing irritating, thoughtless, selfish, anti-social, psycho things—like using the bathroom and cooking. They switch lights on and off—click, click, click, click—irritating you and wearing out the contacts in the switches. And they have the effrontery to encourage people to send their personal mail to your address, littering your doormat.
I’ve even had roommates who actually invite their friends around and sit drinking coffee and laughing in the sitting room, behaving for all the world as if they actually lived here! As if they didn’t know that the only reason you allowed them to pay half the rent and use the spare set of keys was to change the bin-liners and make the place look occupied when you’re out.
Of course, you also get the occasional outright basket-case. One loony ex-roomie of mine used to smile and say ‘Hello’ whenever he ran into me. Creepy or what? Sometimes he’d follow me into the kitchen, freaking me out by asking me scary, leading questions like, ‘So, how was your day?’ or ‘Turned out nice again, hasn’t it?’
He lasted less than a week and he would have gone sooner if I hadn’t made allowances for the fact that he was from the country.
Even when they realise that you’re not interested in idle chit-chat they don’t give up. They’ll try and get chummy another way. One bloke would leave cheery notes outside my bedroom door which I, of course, never replied to. Blackmail shouldn’t be dignified with a response. Another used to try and bribe me by leaving Post-It notes on food she’d bought, saying things like ‘Eat Me!’. But these attempts at being ingratiating just grate. Of course I’m going to eat their food. It’s in my fridge.
You try vetting them at the interview stage, but it never really seems to work. People just lie. You know the ones: “Oh, I work very long hours and I’m seeing somebody who lives in Bristol – I’m hardly ever here.” Then, of course, you catch them sneaking in one weekday night several minutes before midnight. Or they try to tell you that just because their partner went and died in a car accident they won’t be visiting them any more. People are so unreliable.
There’s nothing for it, you’ve got to be hard. Anyone who’s ever had a flat-mate will know that it’s so easy to be taken for a ride. When you realise you’ve been had you feel so stupid and foolish, you could kick yourself, or rock backwards and forwards, your knees drawn up into your chest, moaning and muttering in the corner of your room with the lights turned off for a week or so. It’s a frightening world. There are so many kooky people out there who want to move in take over your life and move your collection of glass coffee tables a whole inch out of alignment.
The worst thing about roommates is that they make you feel like you’re the one with the problem. They go running around telling everybody that you’re impossible to live with, or a fruit-cake, just because you asked them to buy and label their own toilet seat. Really, some people have no concept of hygiene at all.
Or gratitude. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve tried explaining to people that the Calor gas camping stove and basin of water in their bedroom are top of the range models and that no one could ask for more. They also never seem to grasp why their door has bolts on the outside.
I once thought I’d found the ideal roommate. One of those corpses in cryogenic suspension. We were very happy together for a while, but in the end it didn’t work out. We had too many rows about the noise and astronomic electricity bills his frozen nitrogen pump was causing.
Getting rid of the roommate infestation once they’ve settled can be very tricky. Especially without communicating with them. So you have to resort to indirect methods. A kipper under their bed often conveys a helpful hint, as does the old horse’s-head-at-the-foot-of-the-bed trick. But I generally find that walking into their bedroom naked in the middle of the night, arms outstretched, moaning, ‘BRAINS!! I NEED BRAINS!!’ is most effective. Come to think of it, just walking into their bedroom naked usually does the trick.
Why haven’t I done the sensible thing and got a place by myself? Well, I suppose that, if I’m honest, I have to admit that in spite of everything I’m a bit sentimental and I sorta like having somebody around to avoid. See, I’m a People Person and I think I’d be a bit lonely if I lived by myself.
I mean, what would I do on a wet Thursday afternoon if I didn’t have a roommate’s underwear drawer to rummage about in?
(Originally appeared in Attitude, 1996 & collected in Sex Terror)
Books by Mark Simpson
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Banning gay propaganda can backfire. Spectacularly.
All saints should be considered guilty until proven innocent
The book that changed the way the world looks at men
It's a Queer World
A warped look at a fin de siecle world of pop culture where nothing is quite as straight or gay as it seems.