For a generation of gay British actors and performers, camp comedy was a way to promote queer culture, through media of television and radio, into the nation’s living rooms.
Up until homosexuality was decriminalized by an act of Parliament in 1967, being gay or, admitting to homosexual acts, was a crime punishable by imprisonment or chemical castration. The latter was used as sentence on the code-breaking genius and computer pioneer, Alan Turing—which gives an idea of the brutality and bigotry of Britain pre-1967.
But through the use of camp comedy, performers such as, Kenneth Williams, Frankie Howerd, Charles Hawtrey, John Inman and Larry Grayson, were able to subvert the horrendous, homophobic orthodoxy of their time.
For me, each of these men were revolutionary, and together with writers like Eric Sykes, Galton and Simpson, Marty Feldman and Barry Took, they were able to subtly change the public’s attitudes to sex and sexuality.
In her Notes on ‘Camp’, Susan Sontag describes camp as a means for promoting integration:
...Camp proposes a comic vision of the world. But not a bitter or polemical comedy. If tragedy is an experience of hyperinvolvement, comedy is an experience of underinvolvement, of detachment.
...The reason for the flourishing of the aristocratic posture among homosexuals also seems to parallel the Jewish case. For every sensibility is self-serving to the group that promotes it. Jewish liberalism is a gesture of self-legitimization. So is Camp taste, which definitely has something propagandistic about it. Needless to say, the propaganda operates in exactly the opposite direction. The Jews pinned their hopes for integrating into modern society on promoting the moral sense. Homosexuals have pinned their integration into society on promoting the aesthetic sense. Camp is a solvent of morality. It neutralizes moral indignation, sponsors playfulness.
Camp may have been a weapon for education and change, but it wasn’t the sole preserve of gay men. Comedians such as Dick Emery, presenters like Bruce Forsyth, actresses like the Late Wendy Richard and Lesley Joseph, and most importantly writers (in particular Marty Feldman and Barry Took, who created the inimitable Julian and Sandy for Round the Horne) helped promote camp comics as innuendo-laden revolutionaries.
What A Performance is a wonderful romp through the lives and careers of some of Britain’s best known and best loved Kings of Camp: Kenneth Williams, Frankie Howard, Larry Grayson, John Inman, Julian Clary, Lilly Savage and Kenny Everett. The documentary contains contributions from Matthew Kelly, Lesley Joseph, Clive James, Harry Enfield, Chris Tarrant, Jonathon Ross, Barry Took, Wendy Richard and Cleo Rocos.
With thanks to Mark Dylan Sieber