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Brando Bukkake

 

Tip: Keltik & terrysmalloy 

Quentin Crisp & Hurtian Crisp

The Naked Civil Servant is the best and funniest TV drama ever made. And I’m sorry, but it’s a scientific fact.

And like its subject it could only have been made in the UK. Even if Crisp said he hated England – and he did, over and over again.

So many lines in Philip Mackie’s superb screenplay for the Thames TV adaptation glitter like, well, the icy aphorisms that Crisp filled his eponymous autobiography with. But it was Hurt’s breakthrough performance as Crisp which is most historic: rendering Crisp, as Quentin himself acknowledged – and welcomed – something of an understudy to Hurt’s Crisp for the rest of his life.

The actual, quasi-existing Crisp, born Dennis Charles Pratt in Sutton, Surrey in 1908, sometimes sounded by this stage (he was nearly 70 when the drama aired) like a vintage car tyre losing air ve-ry slow-ly. And was almost as immobile. Hetero dandy Hurt injected a kind of rakishness – a hint of phallicism, even – to Crisp’s defiantly passsssive persssssona that came across rather more invigorating and sexy than he actually was. Hurt rendered Crisp rock ‘n’ roll when he probably wasn’t even up for a waltz. When Hurt repeatedly intoned Crisp’s Zen-like answer to the world and Other People and Desire in general – ‘If you like’ – it sounded slightly more aggressive than passive.

(And for me, Hurtian Crisp was further improved by what I shall call Hoyleian-Hurtian Crisp: I met the performance artist David Hoyle in the early 80s when we were both teenage runaways to London’s bedsit-land. He would perform key moments from TNCS mid-conversation, but always succeeded in making these impromptu excerpts sound as if they were flashbacks to his earlier life. Which, since he grew up a sensitive boy in working class Blackpool in the 1970s watching a lot of telly, they were.)

TNCS, both the book and the dramatisation, is criminally funny precisely because so much of what Hurt/Crisp says – or declaims – is so shockingly true.

The line whispered delicately in the ear of the leader of a 1930s queer bashing gang is now almost a cliche, but still has hilarious force: ‘“If I were you I’d bugger off back to Hoxton before they work out you’re queer.” Cue 1920s style intertitle:

Some roughs are really queer, and some queers are really rough.

Crisp’s truths, particularly about human relationships, are the truths told by someone who has nothing to lose – largely because they’ve already lost everything to the bailiffs of despair. This is the ‘nakedness’ of the Civil Servant.

Because it was one of the first TV dramas to depict a self-confessed and unapologetic – flaunting, even – homosexual TNCS has been frequently misrepresented as a ‘gay drama’. But Crisp’s sexuality is not really what TNCS is about or in fact what Crisp was about.

To a degree it is about being ‘out and proud’, or at least determined to inflict oneself on the world, but not so much as a homosexual, and certainly not as ‘a gay’, in the modern, respectable, American sense of the word. It’s not even, thankfully, a plea for tolerance. Rather it’s a portrayal of the heroic self-sufficiency of someone who decided to stand apart from society and its values, henna their hair and work as a male street prostitute – and then, lying bruised in the gutter, turn a haughty, unsentimental but piercingly funny eye back on a world which regards him as the lowest form of life. It’s the blackest and cheekiest kind of comedy – which is to say: the only kind.

‘I am an effeminate homo-sex-u-alll’, declared Crisp to the Universe, over and over again. And the Universe had no choice but to agree. By being utterly abject Crisp forced the Universe to do precisely as he instructed. A blueprint for celebrity that was to be repeated many, many times by others before his death in 1999 and even more times after – though usually rather less wittily and with less jaunty headgear.

Crisp added that as an effeminate homosexual he was imprisoned inside an exquisite paradox, like some kind of ancient insect trapped in amber: attracted to masculine males – the famous Great Dark Man – he cannot himself be attracted to a man who finds him, another male, attractive because then they cannot be The Great Dark Man any more. Hence the famous, Death-of-God declaration in TNCS, after many, many mishaps and misrecognitions: ’”There. Is. No. Great. Dark. Man!“’

Strictly 19th century sexologically speaking, Mr Crisp was probably more of a male invert than a homosexual and often said that he thought that he should have been a woman, and even wondered whether he was born intersexed (this despite famously dismissing women as ‘speaking a language I do not understand’ – perhaps because he didn’t like too much competition in the speaking stakes). Either way, he doesn’t appear to have been terribly happy with his penis or even its existence – something homosexual males, like heterosexual ones, are usually delirious about. But then again, perhaps rather than expressing some kind of  proto-transsexuality Quentin’s Great Dark Man complex was merely setting up a situation in which he could remain ever faithful to his one true love. Himself.

In Thames TV’s TNCS, which begins (at Crisp’s request) with a pretty, pre-pubescent boy as Quentin/Dennis dancing in a dress in front of a full-length mirror, Hurtian Crisp is an out-and-proud narcissist, who simply refuses to take on board the shame that such an outrageous perversion should entail. When he attempts to join the Army at the start of the war he causes apoplexy in the recruiters for being completely honest about his reasons for doing so: he doesn’t mouth platitudes about ‘doing his duty’, ‘his bit’ or ‘fighting Nazis’. He just wants to eat properly and the squaddies he knows seem to have quite a nice time of it, loading and unloading petrol cans in Basingstoke. His openness about his homosexuality is palpably less shocking to the Army officials than his honesty about his self-interestedness. About his interest in himself.

Or as Hurt/Crisp replies as a preening adolescent youth when asked by his exasperated, buttoned-up Edwardian petite-bourgeois father: ‘Do you intend to admire yourself in the mirror forever??’

If I possibly can.’

And boy, did he. TNCS, which aired slap in the middle of the 70s, was probably more of an inspiration to the glam, punk, new-wave and new romantic generation than to gays in general. Hurtian Crisp and his hennaed hair and make-up sashaying the streets of 1930s London symbolised in the 1970s the idea of an aestheticized revolt against Victorian ideas of proper deportment and dullness that had dominated Britain for much of the Twentieth Century. The best British pop music had always been a form of aesthetic revolt, and Crisp seemed very much his own special creation, which is what so many teens now aspired to be. Crisp was taken for a real original and individual in an age when everyone wanted to be original and individual. Or as Crisp put it himself later:

‘The young always have the same problem – how to rebel and conform at the same time. They have now solved this by defying their parents and copying one another.’

TNCS changed Crisp’s life and made him very famous indeed. A reality TV winner before such a thing existed, his prize was the chance to move to America. Since he had loved Hollywood movies from childhood and was later treated like a Hollywood starlet (albeit in air raid shelters) by American GI’s in London during the Second World War, no wonder he grabbed the opportunity with both hands.

But if there’s anything to be learned from An Englishman in New York, the sequel to TNCS broadcast on ITV recently, it’s that it may all have been a terrible mistake. Even if Mr Crisp never thought so.

Although Hurt turns in a technically fine performance, he seems to have become more Crispian and less Hurtian. Perhaps that’s inevitable with the passage of time (Hurt is nearly 70, the age Crisp was when he first played him). Or perhaps it’s simply that his acting skills have increased. Whatever the reason, it’s not a welcome development here. And I’m sure Crisp would have agreed.

But much, much worse is the redemptive reek of this sequel. Everything is made to turn on Crisp’s ‘AIDS {upper case back then, remember} is a fad’ quip made in the early 80s and the trouble this got him into in the US – and why he was a good sort, really. Despite the things he actually said. So we see him adopt a gay artist dying of the ‘fad’, fussing over him and arranging for his art to be exhibited. We discover him sending secret cheques to Liz Taylor’s Aids foundation. We even hear him explain what he meant by ‘fad’ (supposedly it was a political tactic: minimize the gay plague to avoid a hetero backlash).

Now, this obsession with redemption may be very American and has of course, like many American obsessions, become more of an English one of late – especially when trying to sell something to the Yanks, as I’m sure the producers of this sequel are hoping to do. But if there was any point to Crisp at all it was that he was utterly unsentimental – except where royalty were concerned – and relatively free of the hypocrisies of everyday life.  This sequel supposedly about him is full of them. So forgive me if I’m unconvinced.

Crisp was invincible in his determination to regard the US as the dreamland of the movies of his youth made real: America was as he put it ‘Heaven’ where England was ‘Hell’. And why not? If you’ve spent most of your best years deprived of almost every single illusion that comforts most other people, why shouldn’t you have one big one in your retirement?

And to be fair much of what he had to say about the friendliness and flattering, encouraging, open-hearted nature of Americans compared to the mean-minded, resentful, vindictive English is quite true, even today. But Crisp’s whole approach to life was even more at odds with American culture, even in its atypical NYC form, with its emphasis on self-improvement, aspiration, uplift and success. ‘If at first you don’t succeed, failure may be your style,’ said Crisp, who regarded himself as a total failure. Could there be a more un-American worldview? Apart that is from, “Don’t try to keep up with the Jones.  Try to drag them down to your level.  It’s cheaper.”

In an early documentary from the 1960s Crisp, sitting in his London bed-sitting room sipping an unappetizing powdered drink he takes instead of preparing food, which he can’t be bothered with, that ‘has all the vitamins and protein I need but tastes awful’ he describes himself as a Puritan. Actually Crisp was a Puritan with an added frosting of asceticism. Crisp was deeply suspicious of all pleasure (save the pleasure of being listened to and looked at) and most especially of sex, which he described as ‘the last refuge of the miserable’. And four years of house dust is a very good way of showing how above the material world you are.

It’s a very middle class, middle England, middle century Puritanism – just like Crisp’s background. But Crisp was also his own kind of revenge on himself, or on the world that had made him — of which he was a living parody. Ultimately none of us are really our own special creations. The most we can hope for is a special edition.

Crisp’s Puritanism was part of the reason why he could never embrace Gay Lib (‘what do you want to be liberated from?’). He was recently subjected to a stern posthumous ticking off by Peter Tatchell, an original Gay Libber, in the Independent newspaper prompted by what he sees as the ‘sanitising of Crisp’s ignorant pompous homophobia’ in An Englishman in New York. Post-60s Crisp was apparently jealous of a new generation of out queers who were stealing his limelite: he wasn’t the only homo in town any more.

This broadside was a tad harsh, and Tatchell sometimes sounds as if he’s on the Army board that rejected Crisp (while accusing him of ‘homophobia’ threatens to make an absurdity of the word). But I agree that the sequel does ‘sanitise’ Crisp, though I think this a bad thing for different reasons to Mr Tatchell. I also suspect there’s some truth to the accusation of ‘jealousy’, but I’d be inclined to put them in another form. Maybe Crisp didn’t want homosexuality to be normalised because if it were it would undo his life’s work. Likewise, I think Crisp would have loathed metrosexuality.

And as the sequel suggests, in one of its few insightful moments, one reason for Crisp’s failure to answer the gay clarion call was simply that he didn’t believe in causes, or the subjugation of truth and dress-sense to expediency that inevitably goes with causes. Unless that cause is yourself.

Besides, like many ‘inverts’, Crisp was a great and romantic believer in Heterosexuality – the ideal kind, of course, rather than the kind that heterosexuals actually have to live, and which they execute very, very badly.  He used to call heterosexuals ‘real people’ (as opposed to ‘unreal’ homosexuals), but I suspect he thought he was the only real heterosexual in town. And in a sense, he was.

***

I can’t leave you without pointing out that while Quentin Crisp may have dismissed Aids as a ‘fad’, Hurtian Crisp became more associated with ‘the gay plague’ than almost anyone save Rock Hudson: literally becoming the sound of the seriousness of the subject. In 1975 hetero Hurt plays the most famous stately homo in England. The success of this gets him to Hollywood, where four years later in 1979 he is cast in an even more globally famous role – as ‘Patient Zero’ in Ridley Scott’s Alien: the first host for the terrifying unknown organism that enters his body by face-raping him and which proceeds to kill-off in horrifying, phallic-jackhammer fashion, his shipmates. Two years before the first identified Aids cases in NY.

Eight years later, Hurt is cast as the unforgettable fey-gravelly voice for those terrifying tombstone ‘AIDS: Don’t Die of Ignorance’ ads – complete with jackhammers – that ran in heavy rotation on UK TV, urging people to read the Government leaflet pushed through their letterbox and practise safe sex.

In other words, The Naked Civil Servant had become a rubber-sheathed civil servant.

Old Spice: interview Crisp gave Andrew Barrow of the Independent a year before his death.

Crispisms

‘In an expanding universe, time is on the side of the outcast. Those who once inhabited the suburbs of human contempt find that without changing their address they eventually live in the metropolis.’

‘It is not the simple statement of facts that ushers in freedom; it is the constant repetition of them that has this liberating effect. Tolerance is the result not of enlightenment, but of boredom.’

‘To know all is not to forgive all. It is to despise everybody.’

‘You fall out of your mother’s womb, you crawl across open country under fire, and drop into your grave.’

‘I simply haven’t the nerve to imagine a being, a force, a cause which keeps the planets revolving in their orbits and then suddenly stops in order to give me a bicycle with three speeds.’

‘It is explained that all relationships require a little give and take. This is untrue. Any partnership demands that we give and give and give and at the last, as we flop into our graves exhausted, we are told that we didn’t give enough.’

‘The consuming desire of most human beings is deliberately to place their entire life in the hands of some other person. For this purpose they frequently choose someone who doesn’t even want the beastly thing.’

‘The simplest comment on my book came from my ballet teacher. She said, “I wish you hadn’t made every line funny.  It’s so depressing.”‘

‘Even a monotonously undeviating path of self-examination does not necessarily lead to self-knowledge. I stumble towards my grave confused and hurt and hungry.’

‘Someone asked me why I thought sex was a sin. I said, “She’s joking, isn’t she?” But they said, “No.” Doesn’t everyone know that sex is a sin? All pleasure is a sin.’

Transexy Alex Reid

Katie+and+Alex+in+Brighton

Yesterday’s Daily Star tells us, in a news item that seems to be full of invisible exclamation marks, that ‘The hunky cage-fighting lover of sexy Kate Price is a secret cross-dresser called Roxanne{!!!}.’

Muscleman Alex Reid, 34, has had the dual identity throughout his adult life.  As Roxanne he wears full make-up, women’s clothes, wigs and high heels and even alters his voice to make him sound like a woman{!!!}. He also snaps at anyone who calls him Alex while he is in his female character{!!!!!}.

Well, can you blame him?  If I went to all that trouble to model myself on a Sting single about a loose lady putting on the red light and people still called me boring old ‘Mark’, I’d be a bit sharp too.

His family are said to be relaxed about his double life and girlfriend Kate, alias Jordan, 31, is sticking by him. Yesterday she even admitted: “I find it really horny.”

Yes, it certainly has a sexy publicity angle to it….

She is so accepting of his Roxanne role that she bought him dozens of pairs of size 10 stilettos on a recent shopping trip{!!!}

Despite the relaxed attitudes of Price and family, there are quite a few dissappointed punters out there.  Many of them trannies.  It was Michelle, my male-to-female tranny friend and former male stripper called Stud-U-Like, forwarded me this story – in disgust.  Sometimes trannies have the greatest faith in masculinity, despite knowing its weaknesses very intimately.  But then, I suppose that’s what faith is.  And besides, it’s always a bitch when tranny-fuckers turn tranny.

I’m not much of a believer myself.  Not in these mediated, metrosexual days of male sluttery.  Besides, I don’t really mind strapping lads in basques who want to be high-heeled sluts.  I’m just not sure where I’m going to get the energy to deal with them all{!!!!}.

And regardless of whether or not ‘Roxanne’ really exists, for some time I’ve looked at those ubiquitous pictures of of Alex and Kate going shopping and thought: Your beefy new boyfriend is borrowing your bronzer and is even more aroused by large lenses than you.  In other words: it’s a perfect match.  For all that cage-fighting cabbage-eared muscleman shtick – which looked as hyper-real as Price’s boobs – he seemed even more like a MTM transexual than her previous partner Peter ‘Abs’ Andre (who of course is no longer a MTM, but a MTJW: male-to-jilted-wife).

Besides, it’s all so inevitable.  I wrote an essay for Out magazine last year, partly inspired by my friend Michelle’s transtastic journey from Stud-U-Like to Chick-U-Love, about how we’re all going transexy:

Looking around at our sexually transparent, stimulated-simulated, implanted-imploding, cam-fun-anyone? world, it’s difficult not to conclude that most of us are going tranny but without the, er, balls to actually change sex or even properly cross-dress. We’re all becoming male-to-male and female-to-female transsexuals: transexy.

Nice to know that at least one transexy male celeb has the balls to properly cross dress.  But I guess if you’re a cage fighter then people are more likely to remember to call you ‘Roxanne’.  And not laugh.  At least, not in front of you.

Or else this might happen.

Tip: Michelle

The End of Michael Jacksonism

Michael_Jackson_sculpture

By Mark Simpson

(Edited from a feature that originally appeared the Independent on Sunday in July 1997, titled ‘Now the end is near’)

Only a Michael Jackson gig could begin with a ten-minute computer-generated sci-fi video which obviously cost more than most artists can muster for an album.

The film beamed on to the three giant screens at Wembley, the first leg on MJ’s current tour of Britain, show a golden android getting into a capsule and then riding a big-dipper track at high speed through pop culture, art and the last thirty years of history – the moon landings, little Michael performing ABC, Nixon, hunger and war in Africa, tall skinny Michael in ‘Wannna Be Startin’ Somethin’’, the Berlin Wall coming down, macho Michael in Bad. And then, on the vast stage with a large bang and a flash, out steps the android and takes off his mask. It’s the King of Pop!

Michael Jackson, you see, is the present, the past and the future. He’s our connection with the looking glass world of media: he is the man in the mirror. His-story is our story. Michael Jackson is all human culture. Moondancing.

All the same, few things could be as uncool in Britain today as admitting you like Michael Jackson. You can wear slip-on shoes. You can watch A Question of Sport. You can even drink lager and black – but don’t ever, ever admit that you like Michael Jackson. American, inauthentic, corporate, sincere, tacky, irony-free and no sense of modesty whatsoever, MJ is the antithesis of Britpop – the great Satan to Britpop’s fundamentalism.

When uber-cool Jarvis Cocker made his now legendary stage invasion at last year’s Brit awards, interrupting the King of Pop’s ascension into heaven serenaded by a choir of angelic children during a vast performance of ‘Earth Song’, he was supported not so much by revulsion at the (dropped) child-abuse allegations but by a much stronger feeling: revulsion at an American taking themselves so seriously at the Brit Awards.

And yet, Jarvis’ mooning might possibly have been inspired by  jealousy. MJ’s performance of ‘Earth Song’ (containing probably the best and most bathetic pop lyric ever: ‘And what about the elephants?’) did steal the show and really was a religious experience. Yes, it was astonishingly arrogant, tasteless, blasphemous and doolally, but then the best pop always is.

Brit-pop – despite its much-heralded demise – still has a stranglehold on British pop music, and is a highly reactionary music form, harking back to the Sixties sound of all-white bands like the Beatles, but surgically removing any of the R&B sound that informed so much of the ‘Fab Four’s’ music. Oasis are not the Beatles again: they’re the Beatles minus Chuck Berry. And MJ, despite his kabuki-mime pallor, is very ‘black’ in the sense that most of his music is rhythmically orientated.

Though of course the basis of MJ’s brand that he mixes his American blackness with American whiteness until you can hardly distinguish the two: ‘Black or White’ is as much a question as a statement – like asking how you like your coffee. (Funnily enough, it was probably precisely because his skin-colour changed that many white British critics felt able to attack Jackson.)

So I’d love to report that the latest show is brilliant – but in fact it’s an epic, grinding disappointment. The intro video was by far the best part of it. Anti-climax is probably inevitable when you go to see the most famous man in the world. But there’s also a kind of pointlessness to it. MJ is so fantastically plastic, so extravagantly synthetic that there is nothing really added by going to see him ‘live’ and watching him on a giant video juke-box with thousands of others in a sports arena. In fact, something is taken away. MJ is a simulacrum, a copy for which no original exists. The image is the man, not the tiny imposter jigging around on stage between the video screens the size of football pitches – and beneath the towering Stalinist statue of himself.

It’s precisely because MJ is so phoney, so artificial, so mass-produced, processed and pre-digested that he has been so popular. MJ is the Big Mac of pop music – scorned by faddists and know-betters but very popular with people who want something fast, fun, and nutrition-free that gives them a buzz. Most people are uncool, thank god, and quite happy that way.

But for all his popularity with the masses, the MJ brand, like Big Macs, is clearly in decline. This tour has failed to sell out and there isn’t anything approaching the ‘Jacksonmania’ that has greeted previous ones. His last couple of albums have been less than impressive and the kiddie-fiddling charges can’t have helped. But perhaps the real problem for MJ Inc is beyond the MD’s control. The world’s love affair with Americana has peaked. When the Cold War ended and the Stalinist statues were pulled down and replaced with McDonald’s golden arches, people stopped dreaming the American dream. It had become an inescapable reality.

Michael Jackson, the greatest embodiment of that dream, the creature of consumerism, individualism and aspirationalism, the most famous man who never lived, is also a victim of his own success. Hence the hubristic use of that blockbuster intro video and Ceaucescu-esque statues on the cover of the History album and next to the stage on this tour is eerily apt. Those who try to embody history usually end up victims of it: toppling over beneath the weight of their own contradictions. And besides, Jacksonism isn’t much of a replacement for Jacksonmania.

Put another way, Michael’s audience has grown up while he, valiantly has not. At Wembley, while MJ cavorted with some female dancers on-stage, a fan behind me shouted out: ‘They’re a bit old for you, aren’t they Michael?’

You really know the world’s changed when MJ fans get cynical.

© Mark Simpson 2009

How I Fluffed Big Brother And My Chance to be REALLY FAMOUS

That shameless hussy show Big Brother will soon be spread-eagled across our screens again.  The puddle-deep fame factory and test-tube celembryo hatchery starts it’s Summer-long domination of the TV schedules next week.

I have no intention of watching it – like most, I had my BB fling years ago and wish it would stop trying to woo me back.  But I do have a slight curiousity about who the contestants are this year.  Why?  Because they might have been my housemates this Summer. They might have been people I was arguing with over crumbs in the margarine, bitching with about other housemates, or pretending to have sex with under a duvet.

If only I wasn’t so precious.  Or was a bit more of a masochist.

Late last year I received an email via this blog from Endemol, the makers of BB, trying to persuade me to ‘audition’ for BB 9.

I inititally dismissed it out of hand, of course.  But then I actually thought about it for a while – if only because I was trying to make sense of it.  Why me?  Am I so obviously mad and desperate and unknown?

I quickly stopped asking myself those questions… and began to think practical instead.  Yes, the whole notion of appearing on BB filled me with horror and terror, but perhaps I was just being snobbish, and cutting off my own snooty nose to spite my face. 

Was there any way, for instance, that I could make something nice and vulgar like money out of it? 

But then I realised that the only way you make money out of BB, aside from winning – which, along with surviving more than a couple of weeks would be completely out of the question for Nasty Mark – is through tabloid interviews and provincial club appearances.

Somehow, I don’t think tabloid readers or clubgoers anywhere are going to get very excited over me.

I very briefly thought about the ‘inside the belly of the beast’ pop-cultural angle, but realised that the so-called serious press wouldn’t really be interested in that either.  They’d just want wordy, hypocritical pieces about the girl with the big knockers who kept fellating bottles.

Besides, imagine agreeing to a BB audition and being rejected?

So I replied to Endemol:

‘Whilst it’s always nice to be asked, I think I’ll have to turn down your offer because:

a) I don’t do telly for free (terribly old-fashioned, I know, but that’s me)

b) Although I do have prison fantasies, they don’t usually involve Davina McCall’

 

Madonna and Guy – An Old Fashioned Celeb Couple

guy1903.jpgMadonna interviewed with this month’s Elle magazine, excerpted this week in the Daily Mail under the headline ‘My amazing sex-life‘. Apparently hubby Guy has encouraged her to be more feminine.

Madge said: “I think I’ve been honing and finessing my feminine side. I’ve always been very comfortable with my masculine side – the confidence, the ballsiness. I’ve learnt to be more pliant, more vulnerable – and to be comfortable with that.”‘

I know it’s rude to quote yourself, especially in public, but it does remind me of something I wrote for this month’s Out magazine about transexy celebs who are obliterating sexual difference with botox:

‘Even when a celebrity couple, like Maddy and Guy, act out a reassertion of traditional roles, it only serves as parody. When Madonna brags about her mockney gangster groupie husband bossing her about, it only serves to make it clear that Guy is the English nanny whose duties include having to pretend to dominate Madonna seven or eight times a week.’

But what, I wonder, was Guy saying when the pic (left) was snapped?

Given this story from last year about Madonna’s sex toy gift for him, perhaps it was: “The strap-on was that big I couldn’t get my hand around it!”

Melts in Your Mouth: Eminem’s Shady Sexuality

eminem2r2ck.jpg

By Mark Simpson 

(Nerve.com, February 22, 2001)

Eminem, aka Marshall Mathers, may have won only a few consolation prizes at the Grammys yesterday, but clearly the white rapper behind The Marshall Mathers LP has created the Album of the Year in every other sense. Em is the hottest property not just in the music business, but in pop culture itself, and, like Big Gay Al, aka Elton John, who sang a duet with him on stage, no one – the fans, the press, the critics, the police, the Vice President’s wife – can leave him alone.

Especially, of course, the gay rights activists, two hundred of whom picketed the Staples Center in protest at his “violently homophobic lyrics” (and what they saw as gay Elton’s “betrayal”).

Afterwards, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation solemnly expressed “gratitude” that Em was not awarded Album of the Year, but complained that the three minor Grammys awarded Eminem showed that “Academy members were willing to place their stamp of approval on lyrics that promote hate, prejudice and violence.”

Amen. But the rather important point that the protestors appear to have overlooked is, Sure, Em’s music is violently homophobic. It also happens to be violently homosexual. The two facts are not necessarily in contradiction of each other. Actually, in the world beyond the Care Bear sexuality of GLAAD, they’re inseparable. It might even be the case that the Grammy didn’t go to Em precisely because his lyrics are too queer.

To understand this you just have to pay attention to the music instead of the press releases. Sodomy never sounded so seductive, or seditious. When fellow Detroit rapping duo Insane Clown Posse ‘wittily’ renamed Slim Shady “Slim Anus” on their last album, the squeaky blond bombshell responded quickly and explicitly. “Slim Anus? You damn right Slim Anus / I don’t get fucked in mine like you two little flamin’ faggots,” he retorts on a track on Marshall Mathers, the CD that lost the Grammy.

But then in the track “Ken Kaniff,” he all-too-enthusiastically impersonates the voices of the ICP frontmen engaging in lip-smacking fellatio complete with very convincing grunts and groans and backed by cheesy porno Muzak: “Fuck yeah! Suck it! That’s good!” (ICP have since placed a downloadable track on their website featuring an Eminem-on-poppers-soundalike getting reamed by his hip-hop producer, Dr. Dre.)

Am I the only one who got aroused by all this “homophobia”? I suspect not. After all, sodomy – and graphic sodomy at that – is really the only sex you’ll find on Em’s record-selling CD, whether in the form of invitations to the listener to “suck my fucking dick, you fucking faggot” or dismissing his critics as bitter queens: “He’s just aggravated because I won’t ejaculate in his ass.” If Em really is the “New Elvis,” it seems that Jailhouse Rock is his starting point (which would at least explain his prison punk look). Even when he leaves the violent sodomy alone for a moment and turns to romance, it’s of a rather queer kind, as in the hit single “Stan,” in which a fan sends a series of unrequited love letters to his rap-star hero – the song Eminem chose to duet with Elton John with at the Grammys.

Em himself “comes out” and acknowledges his obsession/passion in another skit on Marshall Mathers in which a furious record exec complains that he can’t sell his records because instead of rapping about his wide-screen TV, Eminem is “rapping about homosexuals!” (Of course, the joke here is that Eminem’s records “about homosexuals” could hardly sell better.)

Now, if all this “fuckin’ homo” stuff seems adolescent, that’s probably because it is. It’s meant to be. Adolescence is a time of hormonal anxiety about identity for boys, but nowadays it’s not just a phase, it’s a career. And what is it that boys are supposed to grow into these days anyway? Masculine certainties have vanished, in many cases, along with dad, family and blue-collar jobs. The only certainty left to bastard boys like this is that they are “not a fag.” It’s a negative identity that can’t sustain a sense of self, let alone sustain one in a world which has made boys useless – i.e. faggots – by making traditional, mature masculinity redundant.

Rapismo like Eminem’s articulates that frustration, then soothes the anxiety the articulation produces. Eminem’s own story (now the stuff of legend) is instructive. A poor, pretty, blue-eyed white boy growing up in a depressed black area of Detroit without a dad, he left the house the definition of “different.” He claims that he was neglected by his mother, which she vigorously disputes. Perhaps the truth is that he was spoilt and fussed over and then ended up hating his mother for as he saw it turning him into a sissy: “I used to be mommy’s little angel at twelve” he sings in “I’m Back.”

To avoid complete emasculation, he rebelled against his mother and chose to be fathered by pop culture, in the form of hip-hop and the humongous phallus of black street culture. To Eminem (and other “shady” white boys of uncertain paternity from better homes) the world seems like a post-feminist nightmare where Mom is the law – and political correctness is merely “wash your mouth out with soap” writ large. He’s South Park‘s Kyle, ten years down the line plus plenty of drugs and disappointment.

In this cartoonish world, homosexuality isn’t only emasculation and weakness, it’s also the ultimate machismo, and the ultimate rebellion against “bitches” – as well as a contradictory solution to the problem of being fatherless, easing as it does the ache for male intimacy. But easing that ache means acknowledging it. And that means weakness. So homosexuality has to be constantly “stabbed in the head,” to use one of Em’s more infamous lines, even as it is constantly being evoked.

Every stab just leads to another target. After all, homos are everywhere nowadays in pop culture. And the blatancy of male passivity in a world where males are sex objects only makes this “stabbing” more imperative – even when you’re not, like Eminem, a pretty bottle-blond boy with “cock-sucking lips” (to quote ICP) and more than a passing interest in having your picture taken. “All I see is sissies in magazines smilin'” groans Eminem. “Staring at my jeans, watching my genitals bulging / (Ooh!) That’s my motherfucking balls, you’d better let go of ’em / They belong in my scrotum, you’ll never get hold of ’em.”

 

Look at the pictures of him in his book Angry Blonde (interesting spelling, that), skim past the one of him in blond pigtails to the ones where he is surrounded by a crowd of bleach blond Shady male clones gazing at him with shining, hungry eyes. Has pop culture ever looked more disturbingly queer?

Slim Shady is famously a character Em invented to express his “dark thoughts.” But maybe Slim is himself just a screen. This is not to say that Mr. Mathers is “really gay” (just as he clearly isn’t “really straight”), but just “really fucked up.” Perhaps the “real” Em is as neurotic, mother-identified/mother-hating, homeless, vulnerable, narcissistic and passive (aggressive) as the lyrics and the picture of him on his album cover suggest. In other words, all the things that make a great star, from Elvis to Lennon to Cobain.

And, alas, he’s all the things that can make young men these days who will never be stars sad and sullen, and sometimes suicidal. A seventeen-year-old white Eminem fan in Devon, England recently threw himself in front of a train. Apparently he was depressed by the “dissing” he’d experienced from friends after a gay boy said he fancied him at a party. The liberal coroner thought the lad’s anxieties foolish and misplaced: “He appears to have been unusually worried over his sexual orientation which really should not affect people a great deal either way.”

Maybe. But Eminem and the sexually shady, not to say confused, world of white hip-hop show that such a preoccupation is anything but trivial for too many boys today. It’s all they have left.

 

This essay is collected in Sex Terror: Erotic Misadventures in Pop Culture

Simpson Tops Arnie and Freud in GQ Spread

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From this month’s GQ Russia.

My Russian is a little rusty, but I think the piece from this 50th anniversary of GQ issue is about ‘Forty Things That Changed Men’s Lives’.

I’ve no idea what GQ has to say about me, but all I care about is that:

  • there’s a scarily large picture of me oiled-up pulling my pants down and
  • I’m ahead of, and much bigger than, Sigmund Freud, Arnold Schwarzenegger and – this is really impressive – Biotherm Homme

I only wish I’d, err, trimmed a bit. Or worn some snug, designer, possibly padded, blindingly white underwear.

And had Freddie’s body and face. Or Beck’s airbrusher. (See below.)

MS Pic by Michele Martinoli

Madonna’s Arse Tickler’s Faggot Fan Club

Madonna and Guy Ritchie recently celebrated his 39th birthday at Claridges, London.  The Daily Mail claims, and the pictures of them leaving seem to suggest, she presented him with an unconventional present.  One he didn’t fancy being seen carrying himself:

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Let’s have a closer look….

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Oh, it’s the Purple Penetrator strap-on!

Here’s what AnnSummers.com has to say about it:

‘Strap it on and slip it in!! 6″ dildo with adjustable waist and back strap to fit all sizes. Comes with perfectly positioned vibrating bullett to give the wearer clitoral stimulation whilst pleasuring her mate!’

Guy is a man who has a history of interest in ‘arse-intruding dildos’.

In ‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrells’ (1998), an all-male gangster movie obsessed with bumming and ‘pooves’ written and directed by Guy (and remade by him a couple of years later as ‘Snatch’), one of his oh-so-cheeky chappies explains, in loving, lengthy detail, the ‘perfect’ scam:

‘Listen to this one then; you open a company called the Arse Tickler’s Faggot Fan Club. You take an advert in the back page of some gay mag, advertising the latest in arse-intruding dildos…. They send a cheque to the company name, nothing offensive, er, Bobbie’s Bits or something, for twenty-five quid. You put these in the bank for two weeks and let them clear. Now this is the clever bit. Then you send back the cheques for twenty-five pounds from the real company name, Arse Tickler’s Faggot Fan Club, saying sorry, we couldn’t get the supply from America, they have sold out. Now you see how many of the people cash those cheques; not a single soul, because who wants his bank manager to know he tickles arses when he is not paying in cheques!’

For her part though Mrs Ritchie didn’t appear to have any embarrassment in letting the world and its bank manager know that she might tickle Guy’s arse when she’s not paying in cheques.

Probably it was just an elaborate joke at Guy’s expense, but I for one find it remarkably easy to imagine him Purple-faced and having his Snatch… snatched.

Tip: Anglophenia

The Kingdom of Diana

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An extract from The Queen is Dead:

London, 5 October 1997

Dearest Steven,

Greetings from the Kingdom of Diana.

I never thought I’d live to see a revolution in this country, but that’s almost what happened here after the Princess of Wales took a ride in a car driven by one of those Parisians who make you wonder why they bother painting white lines in the road. The famous stoic stiff upper lip of the English has quivered, cracked and broken into public sobbing. And who has achieved all this? A bulimic, self-mutilating, manipulative blonde bimbo from a broken home.

After our own (black) Velvet Revolution, Princess Diana is the dead drama-queen of all our hearts.

OK, so I exaggerate a tad. But by sheer pressure of public outrage over their silence after Di’s death the Royals were forced to return to London early from their traditional Scottish holiday at Balmoral. In the British context it was as if they’d returned in a cart lined with straw and rotting vegetables.

I visited Kensington Palace, Di’s former royal residence, the Day After, escorted by my glamorous tranny friend (and former male stripper ‘Stud-U-Like’) Michelle and her male-to-male trannsexual model friend Enzo (Pierre et Gilles have painted him, but this was an exercise in redundancy since the flesh-and-blood Enzo is so perfect, so airbrushed and colorized already – he’s post-production). Both Michelle and Enzo adored Di. They recognized a kindred spirit. But that didn’t stop Michelle joking, as we approached her former home, ‘It’s a good job she sold those frocks, otherwise William might have turned into a Norman Bates!’

Hundreds of candles guttered in the wind at the foot of the railings in front of the palace; thousands of bouquets of flowers and messages fluttered on the railings; an ocean of flowers in front of the gates gave off a shockingly strong smell of sweetness that filled the eerily silent air. A long, respectful procession of people clutching their own tributes inspecting those that had already been left there shuffled past – giving murderous looks to Mich and Enzo who were kneeling in front of the candles singing, a la Madonna, ‘Life is a mys-ter-ry…‘.

The next night I took The Divine David [a performance artist from Manchester who sings Smiths songs in the style of Shirley Bassey while looking like an exhumed Bette Davies] to Ken Palace as well. At the sight of all this sombre devotion he burst into tears and croaked in a small, hardly ever heard un-ironic voice, ‘This is what love looks like, Mark.’ The implication being that this was the closest he or I would ever get to it. He cheered up, however, when I drew his attention to one of the madder messages pinned to the railings:

‘YOU who are responsible for the death of DIANA will find no hiding place, you will DIE in agony and be sent straight to HELL – the CURSE of TUTTENKAMON is upon YOU!’

A week later, the night before the funeral, I accompanied David to the gates of Buckingham Palace, where a different kind of demonstration was happening. Initially I hadn’t understood why people were placing flowers there, but it rapidly became apparent that for some it was a calculated snub to the Royal Family who were considered to be covered in Diana’s blood. David harangued the CNN cameras, shouting ‘LIARS!’ as they interviewed hand-picked people to announce how satisfied they were with the Queen’s humble-pie TV address earlier that day.

He also confused unsuspecting bystanders by asking them what they thought about the (non-existent) second broadcast she made: ‘Personally, I think she did the right thing,’ he’d say, looking suitably serious/sympathetic. ‘It’s the best for the country. I mean, abdication was the only thing she could do…’ Or: ‘Apparently they’ve announced open house and the Duke of Edinburgh’s having a barbecue in the back garden. Liz has also agreed to allow people to sit on ‘er throne and try on ‘er crown so they can get some idea of what it’s like being Queen.’

Then he produced, from where I have no idea, a pair of big inflatable red lips with a flashing torch attached to the back that made them pulse with light. Clambering clumsily over the floral tributes, he hung them on the palace gates making the large round ornaments above the hinges look like eyes and the whole gate like one huge crazy cartoon. As David put it, for a moment (before the police removed them) the Battenburg-Saxe-Coburg-Gothas had a human face.

Sadly, the evenings jinks came to an end when the police, who had been eyeing us warily since we arrived, suddenly accosted us, asking David threateningly. ‘Planning to ‘ang around, Sir?’

‘No, I think not officer, said David tactfully. ‘I’ll be on my way.’

Outside Westminster Abbey the next day I saw the coffin arrive on the gun carriage (David: ‘How offensive that they should have put a woman who campaigned against land-mines on a gun-carriage and wrap her in the Royal standard when they deprived her of her royal title coz they though it’d be a laugh that she would have to bow to her own kids!’). Sweltering in the sun, we listened to the service, and clapped loudly at Earl Spencer’s bitter speech. Some people cried quietly. I didn’t.

Which is just as well. A CNN camera was inches from my face. Not to worry though, CNN had apparently arranged for a couple of girls next to them to weep and sob openly through the service. When a woman fainted the cameraman leapt down to clear people away, shouting, ‘Give her some air!’, only so that he could start filming her. At this the crowd turned into a lynch-mob: ‘STOP FILMING HER!’ they yelled as one. And he did.

After the service ended I went home and watched on television the funeral cortege drive through North London, along Hendon Way (a mile or so from here) and up the M1 to the Spencer estate in Northampton. All along the route, which was over 50 miles, people lined the sides of the road and threw flowers in the hearse’s path. Then, in the privacy of my own home, I finally allowed myself some some tears. It would have been churlish not to at such an image.

Life goes on, of course. An hour or so later I went to the supermarket. Which meant driving along Hendon Way. Already the flowers had been crushed into the road by the traffic, forming ghostly flower-shadows on the tarmac. It’s astonishing how flat flowers press, how little substance they have.

The next day in the gym, a young football-crazy lad I often chat to spoke to me about watching the funeral on telly. ‘I had a little cry,’ he told me. Strangely, I couldn’t quit bring myself to tell him I did the same. I also saw another gym-romance of mine, a twenty-something squaddie farrier (two fantasies for the price of one) with the Kings Troop Royal Horse Artillery – the Regiment who provided the gun-carriage and escort for Diana’s coffin. He had shod the horses that drew Diana’s coffin himself. How did he feel about it all?

‘Very sad,’ he said, fixing me with his guileless clear green eyes. ‘She was the best we had. You couldn’t help but cry.’

Love,

M

Elvis Hasn’t Left the Building

Why Elvis the ‘virile degenerate’ refuses to let us rest in peace

by Mark Simpson  

(Independent on Sunday, April 2000)

Elvis didn’t want to be black, he wanted to be Tony Curtis.

A natural blond, Memphis’ belle boy dyed his hair in imitation of his 50s idol’s shiny black pompadour and continued tinting it that unnatural-supernatural blue-black colour until the very end (though later it was probably merely to hide the grey). Even those virile sideburns, which by the early Seventies seemed to be bracketing the world, were deceivingly dyed too.

I know this is a shocking, indecent thing to bring up, and not just because of the way Tony Curtis’ ‘hair’ looks now. We like to think of Elvis as rock’s Unmoved Mover, The King, the original, the alpha and omega – the fount of all pop cultural sovereignty. ‘Before Elvis there was nothing,’ as John Lennon famously put it. In a world where popness has become the measure of everything, we’re all Elvis impersonators now – and we don’t want to think that we might be inadvertently ‘doing’ Tony Curtis.

As the parade of celebs who lined up recently for the premiere of the re-released, re-edited, re-mastered 1970 Vegas gig movie ‘Elvis: That’s the Way It is’ bears testimony, all the new pretenders want to be seen in His presence, even if it’s only a celluloid one. Maybe it’s just the PopStars in Your Eyes, but Elvis seems to keep on getting bigger while those that came after him keep getting smaller. Elvis was the first truly giant pop star created by post-war consumerism and it’s attendant media.

Since then, shopping and looking have become everything, and Elvis has become the personification of the looking-glass world we inhabit now, a latter-day Narcissus who drowned in his own reflection (on his bathroom floor) – but granted immortality in a universe of surfaces and permanent (shallow) memory. ‘Elvis’ is Fame’s first name in an age when ‘fame’ is something we’re increasingly over-familiar with.

Perhaps this is why in Elvis’ face we can see an angelic/demonic premonition of the needy faces of so many of those stars that have come after: Tom Cruise, Mick Jagger, Michael Jackson, Jim Carrey, Madonna, Bill Clinton, Diana, Jeffrey Dahmer. Elvis’ masculine androgyny and animal smartness seem even more modern today than when he launched his career. In footage of The King in action, all the male faces in the crowd – and many of the women – seem strangely frozen and meatish next to his, even when he is clearly half-paralysed by downers, the eyes all hooded and sleepy. As the lesbian Elvis Impersonator k.d. Laing observed: ‘He had total love in his eyes when he performed…’.

It only makes his ‘total love’ all the more potent that when he sang, he didn’t mean it, or didn’t know what he meant; we are left to sort it out, like the swooning victims of a passionate but exquisitely, totally careless lover (which is the condition of human subjectivity in a mediated world).

Elvis the Lover is also however the archetype of the post-war male ‘Pervert’. Radiantly narcissistic and dramatically unable to negotiate his Oedipus Complex, he is the prime idolatrous icon of a decadent, post-patriarchal age. Again, he may not have invented virile degeneracy (Clift, Brando and Dean, whom he also imitated, have a prior claim) but he patented it. True, it may have been campy Liberace who was accused of being the ‘quivering distillation of mother-love’, but it was good ol’ boy Elvis-the-pelvis (and Liberace fan) who got away with it and in fact made it cool.

Elvis, the beautiful boy who loved his mammy and almost forgot he had a daddy (as we did too: we always call him by his first name), the boy who desired to be desired so much he persuaded the whole world to eat him up, is the patron saint of the New Matriarchy.

Even today, twenty four years after his death, as we stumble into a century he never actually swung his hips in, Elvis the rock star, pop star, stand-up comedian and self-medicating Vegas showgirl remains the acme of the mediated male, and also of male desirability. Male love-me-tender passivity and vulnerability was endorsed and legitimised and transmitted by Elvis, helpfully preparing men for the (prone) role that consumerism had in store for them.

Tony Curtis fixation notwithstanding, Elvis really is ‘the original’, the template from which everything else is stamped, because he has become the ego-ideal of a mediated, ‘perverted’, dyed-sideburns culture. Since his death, through a process of global mourning and melancholia and constant re-runs and revivals, the lost lurve-object has been introjected into our collective Unconscious so completely that we don’t have to be lonesome tonight or tomorrow or in fact ever again. His absence has become an overwhelming presence.

Elvis really is alive. It’s just the rest of us that I’m not so sure about.

This essay is collected in ‘Metrosexy: A 21st Century Self-Love Story’


America – meet David Beckham

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(The Guardian, 13 July, 2007)

America, meet David Beckham. America, meet The Metrosexual.

You’re going to be seeing even more of both.

As most of the world already knows, today Becks is proudly ‘unveiled’ by LA Galaxy on their home turf. Brand Becks, the ultimate metrosexual who transformed himself from a talented professional soccer-player with a cute smile into global me-dia, is the not-so-secret weapon in their campaign to seduce America into opening its arms, legs – and, most importantly, wallets – to that obscure version of football played without crash helmets, Frankenstein padding or artillery barrages by the rest of the world.

In case you can’t wait for the unveiling, you can find a selection of adorable photos of Ken Doll David ‘taken’ from every delicious angle in his new strip in The Times of London. Or coquettishly meeting your gaze on the cover of Sports posh_becks_pose.jpgIllustrated, on a red carpet. Or stripped to the waist on a car bonnet on the cover of ‘W’ magazine flexing his tits and tatts in trousers that appear to be pulling themselves off. Oh, and that ex-ex Spice Girl wife of his is somewhere in the picture too.

And, of course, you can always catch Brand Beckham endorsing major brands like Motorola and Nike. Or is it the other way around?

Spice Boy Becks is the total commodity who has totally commodified himself – and turned soccer into his personal billboard. ESPN, the channel televising Beck’s first game in his LA Galaxy strip on 21 July have arranged for an extra TV camera to feast solely on David for the duration of the entire game, lest we miss any precious moment of his spornographic body in motion – as well as making sure that they get their money’s worth. Who said that football was a game of two teams of eleven men? Or two halves? Becks is all that you could need and all that you could want. The Alpha and Omega of soccer.

ESPN are already airing an ad promoting the match in which Becks leaves a heartbroken Europe for an ecstatic US, with the Beatles’ ‘Hello Goodbye’ as the soundtrack – referencing a previous ‘Brit’ invasion. Some are already talking about ‘Beckmania’. The Beatles may have been bigger than Jesus, but Becks is bigger than soccer (which is why all those lengthy articles debating whether he will or won’t make soccer popular in the US somewhat miss the point).

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And after all, in the Sixties the Mop Tops successfully exported pop music back to the US, the country of its birth, having taken it further and transformed it into something even more saleable. Becks in the Noughties is exporting metrosexuality back to the US, and in fact to the very town, which, in the Fifties, came up with the prototype for it in the delectable, Cinemascoped form of Marlon Brando, Monty Clift, James Dean, and Elvis Presley.

It was also the US that produced possibly the first metro sports star in the form of Seventies NFL star Joe Namath, dubbed ‘Broadway Joe’, an aesthetically inclined quarterback who advertised shaving cream and… pantyhose. But once he retired, America pretended he had never happened – leaving the field open to dandy foreign players like David Beckham.

America and Hollywood, so long at the cutting edge of commodifying masculinity, have fallen far behind. America is today conflicted, fearful and hypocritical about one of its greatest inventions: the mediated, male sex object. Speedos, the perfect ‘package’ for the male body and Beckham’s favourite beachwear, are all but banned on US shores because they are seen as ‘gay’. Which, apparently, is still the worst thing you can accuse a man of in the US – and the reason why the US, unlike the UK, experienced a backlash against metrosexuality, albeit a men-dacious one.

American masculinity desperately needs some tarty tips on how to tart it out more. Enter Becks, the tartiest tart in Tart-Town who relishes being seen as ‘gay’ – and also relishes being seen by gays (‘because they have good taste’). What’s more, he’s a jock not an actor.

Which reminds me, perhaps Becks will offer some friendly advice to his new Scientologist neighbour Tom Cruise. Cruise, the All-American Dream Boy gone wrong, who once wooed the world by dancing in his underwear on a sofa in his 80s film ‘Risky Business’, but now jumps up and down on chat show sofas (while President Bush jumps up and down on Iraq), needs Becks more than Becks needs Cruise, who is now globally much less popular than Becks.

However much Becks may deny movie star aspirations, his Hollywood career has already begun.

Copyright Mark Simpson 2007

In a Darkened Underpass

by Mark Simpson

(Originally appeared on Salon.com, April 23, 2004 as ‘Who’s the hunted now?’)

In the seven years since she died in a high-speed car crash in a tunnel in Paris, the pictures of the bafflingly mangled black Mercedes that ferried Diana to her death have become almost as famous as its most precious passenger.

Looking at the pictures, snapped at night with flash photography (like many of the pictures of Diana), it’s difficult not to wonder at how such an expensive, glamorous, chauffeur-driven, bodyguarded limousine could end up such a shapeless mess – or how such a mess could have been a car at all, let alone such a famous one. To wonder how a limo whisking someone from the Paris Ritz could have turned so suddenly into a hearse. To wonder just how mangled the expensive, glamorous Diana was.

But of course, no matter how hard you look at the picture, you can’t see her – she has already been whisked off to the hospital where she would die soon after from “internal injuries” (something we know she had been suffering from for many years, and they were not caused by any car accidents). Until this week, Diana’s expiring body is literally obscene – “off scene” – in a way that much of her life was not.

Standing in for the totaled body of Diana, the wrecked Merc — the ultimate rubbernecking image – has somehow become a symbol not of prurience but of discretion. We all knew that pictures of a dying Diana in the back of the car were snapped by the paparazzi pursuing her moments after the impact, and that these landed on the desks of newspapers the next day. Until the CBS documentary about her death this week, no English-speaking publication or TV station has dared to show us the pictures.

The media always has to navigate between catering to public curiosity and voyeurism, and on the other hand avoiding provoking the disgust of their audience – with themselves. “What kind of lady do you take me for?” is ever the response of Dame Public when they feel they haven’t been romanced enough before being given “what they want.” The public could not get enough of Diana – but after her death, they turned out to be as bulimic as the shy, awkward, exhibitionistic, sophisticated, vulnerable, feisty girl they voraciously consumed.

Unsurprisingly, the British press has been fairly unanimous in its condemnation of CBS. The left-liberal Guardian denounced the way CBS had plumbed “new depths of prurience”; the Daily Mail thundered on about the “ultimate betrayal.” Much of the media here, though, had few qualms about showing images of, say, mutilated Americans in Fallujah. JFK’s head has, of course, exploded on U.K. prime time more often than fireworks on the Queen’s birthday.

Mohamed al-Fayed, the father of Dodi al-Fayed, Diana’s consort that evening who also died in the crash, ordered his lawyers to write to CBS before the broadcast to make a “personal plea” stating, “We cannot imagine that CBS News would want to be the first enterprise to breach the collected understanding of the media based upon good taste, propriety, decency and sympathy.” Good taste, propriety, decency and sympathy are qualities that Mr. al-Fayed, the Pharaonic proprietor of Harrods and chief retailer of Diana conspiracy theories, is well known as exemplifying.

What is really remarkable is not that CBS showed these images but that these images have not been shown before, that for seven years we have been satisfied with the “discretion” of the mangled Merc in the “tunnel of death,” as empty as her womb (according to the doctor who famously testified at the British inquest that she wasn’t pregnant). Part of the reason why there are so many conspiracy theories is because people don’t want to let go of Diana or her “secret life.”

Diana, queen of the English-gossiping world in the last two decades of the 20th century, the celebrity princess, was anything but discreet herself (CBS was responding to rival NBC’s recent airing of tapes recorded by the princess talking about her marriage and confrontation with Camilla Parker Bowles in the early ’90s). Her life was a series of revelations, ever more dramatic and orchestrated, which left the British monarchy looking rather like her last ride.

But this was part of the disavowal of her death that was engaged back in 1997. It was the paparazzi, you see, rather than our own appetite for her — and her appetite for us — that turned Diana the huntress into the hunted, and that ultimately killed her. “They” wouldn’t leave her alone! “They” afforded her no privacy! “They” hounded her to her death! “They” have no decency!

I remember standing with the crowds outside Westminster Abbey in the September sunshine in 1997 as the funeral service for Diana was being conducted. In the passion and the heat a lady fainted. One of the many news teams there began filming the collapsed woman. A posh middle-aged lady shouted out “Have you no decency at all! She’s not well!” As one, we all bristled at the camera crew, who quickly fled. Satisfied, we all went back to the private business of crying in front of the myriad other TV cameras.

There was also much talk after her death about how “the boys” – William and Harry – would not be exposed to the same treatment. And out of “respect to Diana” or rather the public outcry/self-disgust following her death, the boys have been off-limits for much of their adolescence. However, the boys are growing up (William is 21; Harry, 19), and the death of Diana and the collective guilt associated with it is receding into the past. Photos of Prince William having his feet massaged at rugby matches by girlfriends and sharing ski lifts have made their way into the press despite protests from the palace. Most recently the world was ogling pictures of the heir to the throne, in snug Speedos at a water polo match.

The pictures are eerily reminiscent of some of the most famous images of Diana before her death – snapped on al-Fayed’s yacht in her bathing costume (allegedly after tipping the tabs off herself). Those shoulders, those long limbs, those cheekbones, those flashing teeth, that foggy, English, aristocratic skin. William is being offered to us by the media in almost as sexualized a fashion as his mother, even when taking part in something as innocent and boyish as a water polo match.

Much discussion followed about whether tight Speedos and their “anti-grab” material flattered William or not – and whether his wearing them would increase sales. The same Google search that listed these stories also provided a link to a posting on a gay Speedo fan Web site where, on the basis of the tiny picture, someone deduced with scientific precision that William is averagely endowed (“if not smaller — though that may be an effect of temperature”).

Tawdry, slightly pervy speculation about the “crown jewels,” yes. But is it really so different from the more innuendo-based noises the respectable press had been full of?

Interestingly, CBS insisted that its pictures of dying Diana were “tasteful” and featured only her “head and shoulders.” The program also featured the French doctor seen attending to Diana in the pictures, assuring us: “I can tell you her face was still beautiful. She didn’t have any injuries on her face.” This is both reassuring and slightly disappointing. You don’t have to be J.G. Ballard to see that horror and glamour are closely intertwined.

Celebrities tend to lead car-crash lives, and if they also happen to have car-crash deaths then who can blame us if we want to slow down and take a good look?

Copyright Mark Simpson 2007

We Have Been Served – Mr Humphreys Hangs Up His Earthly Tape Measure

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), ‘Are You Being Served’ 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 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 single entendre 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.


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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 loveable 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 sit com 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 glossy 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 sit-coms ‘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 martialling ‘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?’), it’s 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 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 sit-com 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 – and watch SKY instead of the BBC.

Ban the folk mass! Interview with Rufus Wainwright


Rufus Wainwright confesses his priestly urges to Mark Simpson  (Pride magazine, 2005)

The man who has been described as the ‘Joni Mitchell of his generation’, lionised for his genius by such as the Scissor Sisters, Elton John, Neil Tennant and Michael Stipe, is changing onstage from jeans and shirt into a blue glitter thong, red pumps — and a hairy chest.

He’s singing a song from his new album Want Two called ‘Old Whore’s Diet’ — “Gets me goin’ in the mornin'” — as the finale to his show in Reading, England, the first of his UK dates. Rufus Wainwright, the rockstocracy son of folk legends Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, keeps turning round and showing us his thirty-one-year-old decidedly, commendably non-circuit-party ass. A little later he turns into the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz, before ‘melting’.

Rufus may or may not be referencing British Music Hall, but he’s definitely channelling Monty Python and Judy Garland. He may or may not now be teetering on the edge of global domination after years of critical praise and modest sales, but he’s clearly teetering on some kind of edge. Bless ‘im.

M: Want One had you dressed as a knight in armour, apparently dead. Your new album Want Two has you dragged up as a kooky, drowned Ophelia figure. This is horribly Freudian, but it occurs to me that you have now enacted the deaths of both your parents — your distant, armoured father, and your ethereal, spiritual mother.

R: [laughs] I haven’t heard THAT before! But I’m willing to go there. I’m going to see Bella Freud tomorrow, so I’ll ask her! I’ve had a real yin and yang existence: my mother’s very bohemian and Irish Catholic; my father is quite rigid and a disciplinarian and logical. Both of those forces have been necessary for my survival. I’ve had to learn to accept my parents for who they are, taking what you need, and not blaming them for it.

M: And, besides, you have your own gay daddy now, don’t you?

R: Yeah, I’ve got several actually, Elton John, Neil Tennant, Michael Stipe..

M: It could be argued that you’ve found another kind of daddy now in the ‘higher power’ of AA, now that you’ve kicked alcohol and crystal meth.

R: I don’t like to talk about whether I’m in that or not. Once I went to rehab, that was where it ended. My drug using and alcohol became a very private issue. Just because if I say, ‘Oh, I don’t drink’, then people see you drinking. What I will say is that I was spiritually bankrupt. And I needed God, really, in some form.

M: Were you looking for discipline?

R: It was just like surrender really. The thing about show business is that you spend so much time being in such control you think you can really rule the world. And that’s maddening – because you can’t! I wish you could. At some point you have to admit that there is something greater than myself.

M: I understand that Quentin was your fairy godmother.

R: I was thirteen when I was introduced to Quentin. Was that specific Summer when I came out to myself about my sexuality. I had a lot of sex that Summer but I definitely do believe there’s something called statutory rape. I was just too young to be in that world, but I wanted to go there so I went there! And both of my parents, understandably, just really kinda freaked out and didn’t know what to do, so my father called up Penny Arcade. She was a friend of the family and had been involved with the Warhol Factory and all those drag queens and was now Quentin’s babysitter so she had a lot
of experience of handling gays! My mother and father aren’t particularly homophobic, but my mother was not happy and my father just didn’t do anything really. He didn’t want to talk about it at all.

M: Would you perhaps have preferred a passionately negative response to one of apparent indifference?

R: I got what I got – and that’s what I have to work with. [laughs]. I think he handled it in the only way he knew how to. Sending me to hang out with Penny and Quentin was a pretty good option. I think I fared pretty well.

M: Did Quentin offer you any advice?

R: Gee, I don’t think he every really acknowledged me, to tell you the truth! I was in the same room with him many times. I noticed that the way he operated was that there was the audience and there were the servants. And I chose to be an audience member. But then, he deserved servants!

M: Your work seems to own that melancholy that contemporary gays have disowned. I have a theory that your music is what’s playing in the heads of circuit party boys when they’re coming down. But they don’t want anyone to know.

R: [laughs] Right, right! I would say, that it’s definitely not the sound in their heads when they’re going out! I have had a difficult time with the gay press in the US. It seems to be coming around now. I don’t think that they have a choice but to acknowledge me. They’ve tried their damnedest not to in the past.

M: Well, you’re a movie star now, you did that rather wonderful cameo as the strung-out lounge singer in THE AVIATOR.

R: Yeah! They’ve got to notice me now! I think it’s due to this limited aspect of gay life that is worshipped and publicised — one of FUN!, y’know, style, SEX!, nice physiques, and all that, which you know I’m prone to as well, I’m prone to the same fucking disease, the obsession with the middle of the body, and so forth, but I have always tried to illustrate the other side of the rainbow and be the Sunday morning music, the alone time. It’s very difficult to get that across to certain gay people. I remember a long time ago doing my first show in London. It was a real cross section of fans, young women, middle aged women, my father’s fans, gay people — gay people were the first ones to leave. Most people stayed to the end, but the gay people had somewhere better to go, something way better to do.

M: Today’s gay culture seems to be in denial about the ‘alcoholic homosexuals’ you sing about in ‘Hometown Waltz’ on the new album — The Judy Garland factor. Someone whom I understand was a friend of the family…

R: It’s true! She made my grandfather’s school sandwiches! Look, given the amount of kind of treachery tragedy that the gay male community has gone through for the last 2000 years, not to mention that the worst of it has been in the last 25yrs with AIDS, there is no kind of bouncing back fast from this. Homosexuality right now is really enemy No1 whether it’s Islam, or Catholicism, or even Judaism in my opinion, look at the Kabala. I don’t think you should live your life under constant awareness of oppression, but I think that you have to accept a certain amount of sorrow, and realise that
in a certain way it’s how we’ve survived.

M: You’ve suggested before that gay men take drugs because they’re oppressed. Is that really true? Don’t they just take them because they like them?

R: Let’s not underestimate the power of chemistry. It’s a very potent combination: gays and drugs! I strongly believe in that romantic idea that in primordial time gay people were shamans. I think we’re spiritually destined to have to dig a little deeper. And that is a role, a tougher role. Some people just don’t’ want to go there. Which is understandable.

M: You dedicated your performance of ‘Gay Messiah’ tonight to the Pope. I take it you didn’t go to see him lying in State?

R: Oh, no. I’m here, protesting in Reading.

M: Is there any religious background to your family? Your music is very Catholic.

R: My mother is kind of a latent Catholic, she doesn’t really go to church, but she has Catholic ways. So, yeah, I was brought up in a very Catholic environment. But I’m actually not baptised. In an odd way she tried to send me to church, but I could never take the sacraments or do confession. That was an interesting road to take.

M: If you’d been born in an earlier age would you have been a priest?

R: I think I would have been a priest. For sure. I’ve often thought that. And I mean a priest who has sex.

M: There are quite a few of those.

R: [laughs] Yeah, but with men. With other priests.

M: Not with the altar boys.

R: Well, maybe with the altar teenagers!

M: If you were made Pope what would your first Papal decree be?

R: I’d ban the folk mass and bring back everything in Latin so we don’t know what the hell we’re talking about.

 

Copyright Mark Simpson 2006

Tears of a Clown: Michael Barrymore’s Trial By Media

A young man drowns in the pool of television’s highest-paid entertainer. The star is branded a killer. But, says Mark Simpson, the case against the ‘OJ of Essex’ doesn’t add up. Now, as fresh evidence emerges, Michael Barrymore talks about that tragic night, his demons and why the facts weren’t allowed to get in the way of a good story

(Independent on Sunday, 02/03/2003 – uncut version)

“FOLLOW THE BROWN SIGNS,” Michael Barrymore’s PA tells me when giving directions over the phone for the Essex leg of my car journey to the infamous “House of Horror” of the former Mr Saturday Night. “The ones pointing to Paradise Wildlife Park,” he adds, without a hint of irony in his voice.

The 50-year-old comedian’s Roydon home may not be an official tourist attraction, but since the body of 31-year-old Stuart Lubbock was discovered in his swimming pool in the early hours of 31 March 2001, it has become, like its owner, the ‘butt’ of countless off-colour locker-room jokes. Many of these focus on the serious sexual injuries the young man was said to have suffered.

But most of the Barrymore “jokes” didn’t come from the changing-room. They were supplied by the Fourth Estate. Most memorably, Private Eye ran a front-page picture of Barrymore being asked: “What killed Stuart Lubbock?” His balloon reply: “Buggered if I know!” And also the front page of the Sunday Mirror (15 September 2002), two days after the inquest into Lubbock’s death delivered an open verdict and the press declared open season on Barrymore, featured a picture of Barrymore and the huge, hilariously serious headline: “YOU ARE A KILLER!”

Jokes are irresistible ideas, as seductive as they are preposterous. Laughter, after all, is a very physical response to something we are rejecting and accepting at the same time; a reflex located somewhere between orgasming and vomiting. Over the past few months, this preposterous idea of Barrymore, the television funnyman, as a kind of murdering anal rapist has proved irresistible to the British media. It’s been having hysterics. Retching, raving, shuddering hysterics.

Barrymore, however, isn’t laughing. “I’m not letting that one go. At all,” he says of the Sunday Mirror’s “Killer” verdict. “It’s being dealt with. Action is being taken,” he insists. Written off only a few months ago, Barrymore seems to be regaining the initiative. In recent weeks the perjury investigation against him, prompted by his ex-wife Cheryl’s allegations, has been dropped and Essex police have reopened their inquiry into Lubbock’s injuries because of fresh claims that they occurred after he was declared dead.

According to Barrymore, the Sunday Mirror headline was a form of revenge. “It only came out because they didn’t get their way,” he says. Apparently, the paper rang the day the inquest finished asking if Claire Wicks {Lubbock’s ex-girlfriend} could visit Barrymore’s house with her two children by Lubbock as they “wanted to see where their Daddy died”.

“Not a problem, we said. Would be very happy to have Claire and the kids here for the day. But, of course, they wanted photographers and journalists to come with her so we asked, is this Claire’s idea? And they had to admit it wasn’t. So we said no. Two days later: ‘You Are a Killer!'” says Barrymore.

Possibly only Iraq or OJ Simpson’s house have been photographed from the air more than Barrymore’s home. He is, after all, by decree of the popular press, the Sodom Hussein of Roydon, the OJ of Essex. The bungalow is not as large as it looks from above through a telephoto lens, but it’s certainly large enough, as are the vast, shiny leather sofas we are sitting on. The “death pool”, as the News of the World dubbed it, clearly visible through the French windows, also looks smaller at ground level but it is also, alas, big enough to drown in.

“I’m actually quite quiet,” says Barrymore, talking about how people expect him to be the hooting extrovert they see on telly. There does appear to be a low-energy shyness to him. He’s sitting diagonally across from me, initially with his arms and legs crossed and his body quarter-turned away. But then, I am, after all, a journalist.

“This is not a trial,” the coroner had declared at the start of the Lubbock inquest. The inquest, however, was turned into a media show trial of epic proportions, and set the climate for others that were to follow, such as that of John Leslie and Matthew Kelly. As with all show trials, Barrymore was guilty until proven innocent and then still guilty anyway – or “morally responsible”, if you’re a broadsheet reader.

I suggest that there has been an almost playground spitefulness in some of the press coverage. “Yeah,” he says, now looking at me directly, “but what have I actually ever done to them? In the playground, or anywhere? What have I done to them?” His gaze doesn’t waver. “Say they succeed in finishing me off, what good does that do them? They haven’t got you any more to exploit, have they? What do they gain from that? Tell me?”

***

IF YOU’RE GOING to drown in a celebrity swimming pool, choose carefully. Not all celebrity swimming pools are equal. In March last year Daniel Williams a 23-year-old fireman drowned in another male celebrity’s pool. But while Lubbock, a butcher by trade, became a household name, Williams became yesterday’s news.

As with the events surrounding Lubbock’s death, there was a party, Williams amused himself in the pool at the London house, while the other guests drifted indoors. No one saw him drown. He was found submerged dead, or dying, in the early hours of the morning. The toxicologist’s report showed that Williams had consumed the same quantities of alcohol (nine pints), ecstasy (four or five tablets) and cocaine (a line or two) as Lubbock. Likewise, there was no forensic or witness evidence of any struggle.

Unlike the Lubbock case, the press didn’t find Williams’s death mysterious or even particularly interesting. They accepted the results of the police inquiry (which, as with Lubbock, ultimately produced no charges) and the Home Office pathologist’s conclusion was that he had died by drowning. They didn’t splash each day’s (carefully selected) inquest “highlights” across their front pages, printing speculation as scientific fact, or constantly interview Williams’s family and friends. Nor did they lynch his host’s career from the lamppost of public indignation. Instead they treated the death for what it was, a terrible accident.

Why? What was the difference? Was it in part that Williams drowned, accidentally, in a swimming pool belonging to a married film celebrity – the actor Art Malik – instead of a very famously gay and off-the-rails television celebrity called Michael Barrymore?

There was however another ‘fundamental’ difference: the injuries to Lubbock’s anus, described as serious and significant by the pathologists, “fearful”, “nightmarish” and “horrific” by the press. These injuries, combined with his hosts very public homosexuality, presented an irresistible idea – arousing all those column inches and making the inquest one of the most heavily and excitedly reported – and distorted – of recent times.

For example, the papers, tabloid and broadsheet, told us repeatedly how Lubbock was found floating face down in Barrymore’s pool. Untrue. All the witness statements agree that Lubbock was found at the bottom of the pool face up. Apparently, the image of a “handsome”, “heterosexual father-of-two” floating dead, face down, and arse up – literally drowning in passivity – in the pool of Britain’s most famous ‘arse-bandit’ was just too seductive for the press to resist.

But this relatively minor kind of kinky distortion was just the beginning. For example, in the space of his first few sentences, (13 September 2002) the Sun’s resident sodomy expert Richard Littlejohn, forced all the important facts to surrender themselves to the impatient heat of his passion: “The inquest is finally underway into the death of the man found floating face down [false] in Michael Barrymore’s swimming pool. Stuart Lubbock was pumped full of drink and drugs [false: in fact, he helped himself to Barrymore’s drinks and toxicologist reports showed he was a long-term user of cocaine and/or ecstasy], and had been rogered senseless [fantasy]. Pathologists agree he suffered a serious sexual assault [false].”

In fact, the pathologists were divided as to how the injuries were caused. It was not even established that the injuries were caused by sexual activity. Indeed, DNA testing showed that Lubbock had not had sexual contact in the hours before he died.

Since it seems to have been such an important part of the coverage, I ask Barrymore if he fancied Lubbock when he met him in the Millennium, the nightclub in Harlow that the star attended with his then-boyfriend Jonathan Kenney before returning home in a taxi with Lubbock and two other party guests, Kylie and Jonathan Merritt, who he had met that evening (Kenney following later). “I spoke to that many people at the Millennium that night. I wouldn’t have picked Stuart out. It was reported that I couldn’t even remember his name. Well, I didn’t know his name. He jumped in the taxi with Kylie and Jonathan and I thought he was with them. When he was here he did whatever he was doing, like most of the other guests; I just said here’s the drink and here’s the music. Most of the night I was with James Futers and Simon Shaw, who I knew from the village. If I was trying to chat Stuart up, I think I would’ve spent a bit more time with him. Besides, my boyfriend at the time, Jonathan, was here.” Barrymore adds, “It just doesn’t tally up.”

Barrymore is convinced that the papers built the story the way they wanted to build it. ‘That’s why most of them didn’t mention that there were three girls at the party, because it got in the way of the “Gay Sex Orgy” headlines.’

How many of the guests were actually gay? “None. Just me and my boyfriend,” says Barrymore.

So not much of a gay orgy then. “Nope. Not much of an orgy of any kind. No sexual activity took place whatsoever,” insists Barrymore.

I ask him about the only indisputably culpable thing he did that evening: his departure from his house after Lubbock’s body was retrieved from the pool – and catch a glimpse of the evasiveness that irritates many. “Yeah, well, it was wrong,” he says quickly, “but I’ve answered that. I didn’t run away… immediately – I ran into the house and got Jonathan who knows about resuscitation, while the lads {James Futers and Simon Shaw} were getting Stuart out of the pool. I wouldn’t have know what to do… there were four people working on him… it wasn’t my idea to leave the house. James and Simon said, ‘Come away, there’s nothing you can do here….’

“I’ve admitted it was a stupid thing to do,” he continues, sounding irritated, perhaps with himself as much as the question, “but no one knows how they’re gonna react… it was just a nightmare. I rang my PA to tell him where I was going so that I could be contacted. Why would I do that if I was running away?” Barrymore’s call to his PA, which was reported in some papers as a call to his PR (“something I’ve never had”) was taken as further evidence either of his guilt or his celebrity arrogance: “I’m a celebrity, get me out of this!” Of course, it was precisely his celebrity status which meant that his fears about what the press would do were well founded.

Likewise his reported silence at the inquest was seen as callous and suspicious. In fact, he answered all the questions put to him – save those relating to illegal drug taking in his house. Barrymore’s exercise of his legal right to refuse to incriminate himself was seen as doubly incriminating. Much was made in the press of the allegation that, during the party, Barrymore tried to rub cocaine on Lubbock’s gums; however, leaving aside the fact that Lubbock was a long-term user of drugs, the small amount of cocaine – a stimulant – in his system was not identified at the inquest as a likely factor in his death.

It’s worth mentioning that perhaps that the most unbelievable thing about that night for some was the fact that television’s highest-paid celebrity would attend a nightclub in Harlow, and invite working-class strangers back to his house for a ‘chill-out’ party simply because he might enjoy their company, and that he might not want to treat a butcher like a piece of meat. “It wasn’t unusual for me to have people back for drinks. Wasn’t a regular thing. Just not unusual. It’s partly my Irish background and it’s partly that I don’t like being alone,” explains Barrymore. Much of the broadsheets’ hostility to Barrymore, their almost universal failure to criticise the tabloid gang-bang of his reputation, and indeed their complicity in it, was down to class: Barrymore was a vulgar man who entertained vulgar people in a vulgar way. Worst of all, he was paid vulgar amounts of money for doing so. (A senior editor on a liberal broadsheet, explaining shortly after the inquest why no, he definitely would not be running an article anatomising the press’ distortions, told me in no uncertain terms that Barrymore was ‘low life’.)

Born Kiernan Michael Parker into a working class family in Bermondsey in 1952, this Norman Wisdom fan and former Redcoat’s adopted stage moniker (‘there were too many Parker’s on Equity’s books’) became a household name with his madcap comedy performances on the TV game show Strike it Lucky in 1986. Barrymore brought the physical, audience involvement comedy that he had perfected on the workingmen’s club circuit to the relatively up-tight and staid world of prime-time commercial TV with great success. By 1992 Barrymore was one of TV’s highest paid entertainers, and a prime target for tabloid gossip. After many run-ins with the press over his drinking, drug abuse and sex life, this married working class hero finally came out as gay in 1995 – the first family entertainer to do so. ‘I thought I was finished,’ he says. In fact, more awards and hit TV shows followed, and he remained ‘Mr Saturday Night’ – even after Lubbock’s death in his swimming pool in 2001. It wasn’t until the universally damning coverage of last September’s inquest that his career finally ran aground.

However, the real inquest into Lubbock’s death, rather than the virtual one reported in the media, largely went well for Barrymore. It emerged there was no evidence that he, or his guests, were responsible – even indirectly – for Lubbock’s death or injuries. However, the summing up of the coroner, Caroline Beasley-Murray, seemed to assume, despite evidence to the contrary, that Lubbock’s injuries must have occurred at Barrymore’s house, and appeared to criticise the partygoers and the host for not being able to explain them. This and the open verdict – itself not uncommon in inquests – provided the press with enough rope with which to hang Barrymore again and again.

“If his injuries occurred here,” asks Barrymore, “why was there no blood on his boxer shorts? Why is there no blood in the house? Or in the pool?”

It’s a vital question. Lubbock’s anal injuries, lacerations as well as bruising and dilation, would have involved a substantial amount of bleeding and even small bloodstains are notoriously difficult to eradicate. Moreover, since the inquest, Stuart Nairn, one of the A&E nurses who worked without success to resuscitate Lubbock for over two-hours, has provided a detailed sworn statement to Barrymore’s solicitor which has sparked the new investigation by Essex police and thrown the coroner’s presumption about where the injuries took place into even more doubt.

Nairn’s assigned task for the entire two-hours was repeatedly taking Lubbock’s temperature rectally with a small, thin, thermal probe. Nairn performed this operation 16 times, pulling apart Lubbock’s buttocks and opening his sphincter each time. His statement makes clear that he saw no evidence of the injuries described at the coroner’s inquiry. Indeed he noticed no dilation or significant bruising (according to the pathologists’ report, even if Nairn’s small temperature probe were actually quite large, he would not have needed to open Lubbock’s sphincter muscle at all). “I am sure that I would have noticed this,” says Nairn. “Moreover, I would have reported this to the doctor.” He also mentions that aside from a small smear of blood on the probe towards the latter stages, which was not unusual given the number of insertions, there was no evidence of bleeding. (Perhaps this level of information is distasteful to you – perhaps, like Yasmin Alibai-Brown of the Independent, you are keen to assert it makes you ‘want to throw up’; but Lubbock’s anus has been made an object of such fascination and symbolic importance not by Barrymore but by the Great British Press and its readership.)

Nairn was due to appear as a witness at the inquest but the police say they lost contact with him. A similar statement by Nairn was read out at the inquest, but it was dismissed by Professor Crane, one of the pathologists, who claimed that someone in A&E would not have had time to notice such injuries, and would have been preoccupied with other things anyway. Nairn’s second statement makes it clear that he would have noticed. In fact, he probably spent more time observing Lubbock’s anus than any pathologist.

If, as now seems likely, the injuries to Lubbock occurred after he was finally pronounced dead at Harlow General Hospital and Nairn’s treatment ended, then they must have occurred in the seven hours between this time and the body’s examination by the Home Office pathologist, who was the first person to record them. Essex police are unable to confirm that the body was guarded during this time. Instead they can only say that this matter, and the issue of who had access to the body during this time, is “part of the current investigation”.

Does Barrymore have any idea how the injuries occurred? “Well, I have my ideas about it, but it would be wrong for me to speculate,” he declares. “That’s for the police to investigate. I’m not about to point fingers at anyone.”

If those injuries did occur after Lubbock was pronounced dead, it seems possible it was Barrymore’s special kind of fame, which was to blame. At the inquest, Emma Bowen, another former girlfriend of Lubbock’s, who was at the Millennium in Harlow that night, stated that when clubbers spotted Barrymore with his partner Jonathan, they “were shouting out: ‘That’s Barrymore’s boyfriend!’ ‘Up your bum!’ and other such comments.” Perhaps “for a laugh”, someone couldn’t resist sticking something up the bum of the dead man who had been found in “that Michael Barrymore’s” swimming pool?

The tabloids were given more ammunition by the scorn of Barrymore’s ex-wife and former manager, Cheryl, and her book Catch a Falling Star about her marriage. It was published immediately after the Lubbock inquest and was luridly serialised in the Daily Mail with front-page headlines including “The Night Michael Tried To Kill Me”. Her claim that Barrymore lied to the inquest when he said he couldn’t swim, sparked a perjury investigation, which has now been dropped.

Barrymore’s views on his ex-wife’s interventions are clear. “She jumped in on the drowning affair, demanding, ‘I wanna know what happened!’ when it was nothing to do with her whatsoever, but she started to get involved as if she cared about Stuart and the Lubbocks and that, and yet has never been to see them once, yet made all these statements. What for? To sell a book. And then in the middle of it turns round and tries to get me done – possibly seven years – for perjury, saying that I lied in court about not being able to swim! The police went to speak to the list of friends of hers that she said would corroborate her statement and not one of them did. They just said, ‘I’ve only seen him stand in the shallow end.’ That’s why they dropped it. They didn’t even get as far as questioning me.”

What about her allegations that he was violent towards her in their final years together? “It got heated sometimes,” he admits, “but I’ve never, ever punched her. I pushed her away. If she comes flying at me then I’m not going to stand there and get scratched to bits. I’d push her away. The way she dramatises it, well, it just makes you sick,” he says.

Barrymore complains now that she wanted to control him, but I put it to him that perhaps the things that drove him away from Cheryl were the things which attracted him in the first place. “Yeah, well I was quite happy to hand over the control, and most of our 18 years together were very happy. But the control got completely out of control. I couldn’t make a move without her say so, even if I went out fishing it would have to be with somebody who worked for us. Somebody who could then give her a run down of everything that happened. That’s one of my weaknesses, I allowed it to happen. It suited me.”

How easy has it been to live without it? “Well, I’ve got freedom from that. It was the thing that was killing me. Or one of the things that was. I just couldn’t live with it any longer.”

But freedom doesn’t appear to have cured Barrymore of his addictions. “Being in a relationship or being free, drinking and drug addiction is entirely different – it’s the disease which takes control.” Barrymore says he attends AA meetings almost every night. “It’s all or nothing. One drink’s too much, 1,000 isn’t enough. You have to keep it in check on a daily basis. I’ve had 21 months of sobriety now, have got involved more [with AA] and become secretary.”

One of his dogs, a Jack Russell, jumps on my lap. “JD! Get down!” says Barrymore. His dogs are called JD and Sprite, his former favourite drink. Since the police inquiry was reopened, Barrymore has had a few offers of work. It was only in November of last year that Granada finally released him from his exclusive contract, having put him on ice for over a year. “‘We’re not using you,'” they said. “‘We’re not paying you. And you can’t work for anyone else.'”

Given the headlines, can you blame them? “I’m not responsible for what the press has done – but the network made me responsible. So that means that they base their business on, on…”

What’s popular?

“Even if it’s incorrect?”

If Barrymore is feigning innocence of the ways of the world, he’s convincing. “That’s a bit sad isn’t it? They were the ones who suggested in caring tones that I go to rehab. I haven’t had one phone call from them since. Haven’t phoned me to ask if I’m well, or have kept off the drink. They haven’t phoned once to ask my office or me, ‘Is this or that true?'”

Maybe they’re not interested. Maybe they’re only interested in what sells.

“If I don’t sell, then why is Strike It Lucky on twice a day on Challenge TV? If I can’t be on family time, as they said in one of their letters, why was I on GMTV the other day at eight in the morning? I was on The Salon the other day on C4.”

It’s slightly pathetic that Barrymore, once the unchallenged king of prime-time, should be invoking re-runs on cable television, or an appearance on an exploitative reality television show, as proof of his popularity. But then, this is a man who, after the inquest, was publicly branded by TV executives as “finished”. Questions were asked about him in Parliament. His autobiography, commissioned long before Lubbock’s death (though portrayed in the press as a ‘cash in’ on it) was dropped by BBC Books. Daily Mail columnist Lynda Lee Potter declared that she would “rather stick pins in her eyes than watch Barrymore on TV again”.

Barrymore thinks the television bosses should go with him on his trips to Tesco. They can take him four hours because so many people greet him with smiles and laughs and handshakes, asking when he’s going to be on the telly again, and then call up their mums, dads and kids on their mobiles and ask him to bark “Awoight!” down the phone. “They feel that they can approach me,” he says. “With someone else famous they might say, ‘Oh look there’s so and so over there,’ with me they come up and shake my hand. It’s what my act is based on. If you tried to fake or contrive that you’d be sussed out straight away.”

I suggest though that these are the very people that buy the papers which have attacked him so viciously. He doesn’t disagree. “It’s gossip, isn’t it? The tabloids save you chatting over the garden wall.” I press the point further: couldn’t their casualness towards him be because, like the press, they consider him their property? “They consider me part of the family,” he corrects. “Because of the way I work on telly, which is about approachability and vulnerability. And because,” he adds, resignedly, “yeah, because much of my private life has been acted out in the tabloids.”

How much of Barrymore, or for that matter of Michael Parker (his real name perhaps offering an anonymity which he might be forgiven for missing now), is left after all of this? Has his latest and darkest experience of the celebrity cycle taken the edge off his appetite for ‘success’?

He comes up with a paradoxical and possibly self-deluding reply. “You ask yourself, do I need all this? But thing is, what they’ve done this time in being relentless is they’ve allowed me to get well. Because what used to happen before was I’d go straight into rehab then come back out, go straight into a studio and be ill again. But this time that hasn’t happened, so I’ve had a chance to get well properly this time.”

Oddly, for all the accusations of self-pity, Barrymore hasn’t played his main victim card. He has not cried “homophobia”. Several times in the course of this interview I’ve given him the opportunity to mention it, but he hasn’t taken the bait. Perhaps it’s down to his wish to reclaim his stake as a mainstream entertainer; perhaps it’s down to pride. Whatever, it’s clear that the way the press played the Lubbock story was in large part, a delayed but apparently highly satisfying backlash for his coming out several years ago (a move which, if nothing else, deprived the gentlemen of the press of one of their favourite sports: bullying the closeted gay celeb).

Barrymore, whose act and popularity depended on crossing boundaries of taste, class and genre (and sexuality), grabbing and manhandling members of the audience, male and female, was cast as the predatory gay rapist of the public’s nightmares, and his deceased guest as an awful example of what happens when a homosexual manages to get between a straight-man’s back and the wall.

This, against the evidence of the case and also, ironically, despite the fact that penetrative sex, according to Barrymore, ‘is not my bag’. As Dr Freud pointed out, we like to laugh at what we fear, and by the same token we also fear what we laugh at. One irresistible idea can lead to another. In the same way that laughter provides a socially acceptable way for people to vent their anxieties, the Barrymore-Lubbock affair provided an acceptable route for the media and the public to ‘out’ pent-up fears about male homosexuality, that ‘gay-tolerant’ contemporary Britain otherwise might feel slightly embarrassed about.

He may not quite realise it, he may not want to realise it, but Barrymore, the nation’s most popular, most ‘loved’ funny man, has just been starring in his latest, biggest, if possibly final, hit show. The currently ongoing police investigation at Harlow General Hospital may or may not show conclusively that the injuries to Lubbock’s anus occurred after he arrived there. But whatever the outcome, it will most likely prove difficult for Barrymore to rehabilitate himself – after all, his ‘crimes’ were committed in the minds of the great British public, and they will be unlikely to fully forgive themselves such thoughts, or him for provoking them.

The writing was on the toilet wall as long ago as 1995. After he had outed himself, the front page of the new, ‘gay-tolerant’ Sun joked, “WE’RE RIGHT BEHIND YOU MICHAEL – BUT NOT TOO CLOSE!’ In fact, they were there all along – and much too close. Just waiting for Barrymore to drop the ball.

Independent on Sunday, 02/03/2003

UPDATE 3/10/2006

  • A month after this piece appeared Essex Police concluded their (reluctant) investigation into whether the injuries to Stuart Lubbock occurred at Harlow General Hospital or not by saying: ” We are as satisfied as we can be that the injuries did not occur at Princess Alexandra Hospital.’
  • The Home Office Pathologist, Michael Heath, the man who first discovered the anal injuries and the only pathologist to examine them in person (rather than photographs) resigned this year after it was established that he found foul play in at least two other cases when there was none, leading to innocent people being charged for crimes which had not occurred.
  • Whilst Barrymore was in the BB house Stuart Lubbock’s father, Terry, Barrymore’s nemesis, appeared almost daily in the papers denouncing him and tried to obtain permission to bring a private prosecution against Barrymore relating to the death of his son (it was eventually thrown out of court for lack of evidence). Shortly after Barrymore left the house in triumph Terry finally agreed to meet him and told him ‘I don’t blame you, Michael’ (according to The Sun’s front page headline). Though he later apparently retracted this. And then un-retracted it. Now he has reportedly penned a book with well-known homophobe Anthony Bennett called ‘Not Awight: Getting Away With Murder’ due for publication later this month and is picketing Barrymore’s book-signings calling him a ‘liar’ and condemning him for ‘making money off the back of Stuart’s death, how low can you go?’.
  • Shortly after Barrymore’s CBB victory and The Sun’s volte face, Essex Police announced they were ‘routinely’ re-opening the investigation into Lubbock’s death. Both Barrymore and Terry Lubbock have welcomed this, though for apparently different reasons.
  • Essex Police investigated but declined to charge one of the witnesses from the fateful party for perjury, following her retraction of her sworn statement that Barrymore had rubbed cocaine on Stuart Lubbock’s gums that night. She made this retraction when faced with a lie-detector test organised by Barrymore’s new ally – and long-term abusive co-dependent in this celebrity marriage from Hell – The Sun.

UPDATE 29/12/2012

Barrymore gives the Independent what they bill as his ‘first in-depth interview to a national newspaper in ten years – i.e. since the one he gave me above. Although he never did succeed in winning back the Nation’s hearts, time seems to be vindicating Barrymore’s claims of a set up by the press:

He claims he has been “framed” by the press over the death of a man, Stuart Lubbock, found floating in his swimming pool in 2001. He also says he suspects he fell victim to a “conspiracy” to fabricate an earlier allegation in the News of the World that he raped a rent boy in the toilets of a nightclub in central London. Evidence from medical staff support his claims over the timing of injuries sustained by Mr Lubbock.

Michael Barrymore’s Big Brother Comeback

‘Shamed TV entertainer’ – as he was re-Christened by the British press – Michael Barrymore’s new autobiography ‘Awight Now: Setting the Record Straight’ has just been published by Simon & Schuster.

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I’ve yet to see a copy, but the title and the blurb, the publicity, the large publisher behind it and the reports of a C4 series later this year suggest that Barrymore’s remarkable fight-back from being depicted as the most reviled figure in British light-entertainment history, if not British public life, and exiled to the penal colony of New Zealand, continues. It was dramatically kick-started earlier this year by his surprise appearance on Celebrity Big Brother and, even more surprisingly, not only somehow surviving right to the end but being voted the most popular actual celeb in the house. This in the teeth of a vicious hate campaign against him in the press.

It was a rather reckless move – it could easily have ended very differently, especially given his erratic behaviour – but perhaps it was entirely of a piece with our times that the victim of a (press) media show-trial should have volunteered to appear in another (TV) media show-trial as a way of rehabilitating himself. Particularly a man who had once been the nation’s favourite TV entertainer.

Almost everyone loves a winner, it seems. Especially The Sun, which didn’t spare him anything when he was in the House, making endless ‘jokes’ about ‘swimming pools’ and stirring up ‘outrage’, but then performed an impressively shameless volte face after his victory. The week after the series ended they finally printed the facts of the case instead of the fantasies, and presented Barrymore as a man wrongly blamed by the press for Lubbock’s death and injuries – cleverly stealing a march on its rivals, who were still peddling the tired old story of Barrymore the anal-rapist-murderer, or, sorry, ‘morally responsible’ anal-rapist-murderer.

All this was of course presented as a ‘scoop’ and the result of The Sun’s own ‘special investigation’ but, as was pointed out by at least one media commentator, much of what they ‘revealed’ as ‘new evidence’ was to be found in a three-year-old Independent On Sunday article by yours truly (posted below) – which I had based on the fiendishly clever stratagem of simply reading the transcripts of the public inquest into Lubbock’s death. The same inquest at which all the major newspapers – including The Sun – had staff reporters.

I predicted at the end of the piece that this scandal could turn out to be Barrymore’s last and biggest hit show and that the British public would never be able to forgive him or themselves for the crimes he committed in their minds, rather than real life. CBB seems to have proved me wrong about the first part and Barrymore seems to be doing his best to prove me wrong about the second.

Why Doesn’t America Love Robbie Williams? When He Love-Hates Himself So?

by Mark Simpson

(Originally appeared on Salon.com, April 2003)

It’s tough growing up British. Not just for all the obvious Austin Powers-esque reasons, such as our medieval dentistry, endemic mold problems and epidemic dandruff, but for something much more existential. The British are great and enthusiastic believers in Original Sin. In Britain, would you Adam and Eve it, we devoutly accept that we are all Fallen, all doomed before we are born, that no child however lovely and chuckly and pink-skinned is born innocent.

Of course, since we liberated the monasteries, Coalition-style, back in Henry VIII’s time, and became nominally Protestant for tax reasons, we don’t call it Original Sin anymore. We call it the class system (though in New Labor Britain you will be reported to the police if you mention it). And we don’t talk about sinners any more, just wankers.

You see, whichever class you happen to be born into in Britain, it will be the wrong one. Granted, some are wronger than others, but even the most privileged classes are the wrong ones – to everyone else. Moreover, whatever class you are born into, your destiny, your happiness, your salvation, is not your property and certainly not your right. If you try to escape your British birthright by becoming something you’re not, then you will be Found Out, and everyone will point and laugh and call you a wanker.

Probably the biggest wanker in Britain today is cheeky chappie popster Robbie Williams, or simply “Robbie,” as we like to call him here in that affectionate, familiar way we handle tossers (another word for wanker; we have as many as the Inuits have for snow – and “Robbie” is fast becoming another). Robbie is the biggest onanist in Britain, mostly because he’s one of the biggest success stories. Since going solo in 1996 after leaving Brit boy-band Take That, Robbie, who was expected at best to become a kids’ TV presenter, has had 15 solo U.K. top-10 singles, 13 Brit Awards – more than anyone else in the award’s history – and has sold 15 million albums worldwide. Robbie is British pop today. He is also the bragging, self-publicizing, self-flagellating, self-loathing symbol of the lifestyle every young person in Britain is supposed to aspire to and despise at the same time. As he puts it with characteristic modesty on his new album, he’s “the one who put the Brit in celebrity.”

Unfortunately for the British pop industry as a whole, Robbie is also a symbol of its pathetic failure, in the post-Spice Girls era, to export much more than Kylie’s bottom and Coldplay’s runny noses across the Atlantic. EMI, the ailing British record giant famously swindled by the Sex Pistols (and probably looking back fondly now to those halcyon days), recently paid a sweaty-palmed sum reported to be as high as $120 million for Williams’ next six albums – at approximately the same time as the company was laying off 1,200 employees. A sum that could only be earned out by Yank-side success. Oh dear. Best string out those final installments on that advance: Robbie’s new album, “Escapology,” debuted in mid-April at number 43 on the Billboard charts, selling an anaemic 21,000 copies in its first week. (By the end of the month, Amazon was already selling the album at a “Super Saver” price of $9.98.). For a record industry wallowing in deep water after its worst year in memory, this was nothing short of a Titanic disaster. Robbie could be the cheeky iceberg that finally sinks the British record business.

Now that’s quite a wanker.

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One reason why Robbie is such a popular wanker over here is that he was born chuckly and lovely and pink-skinned in Stoke-on-Trent, an ugly post-industrial nowhere place in the Midlands, a part of the country that everyone in the north and south of Britain can safely look down on. A place that might be described as the arse-end of the U.K. except that this would suggest (a) that there was a point or at least some kind of function to Stoke and (b) that you might if you were that way inclined, or just very drunk and confused, have some fun there.

Then there’s the fact that in Take That Robbie used to wear leather chaps and slap his arse end while singing covers of disco hits such as “Relight My Fire” for the amusement of early teenage girls, 40-year-old gay men and Lulu. There are no more humble origins than that.

As for his performance style today, I could say that he thinks he’s David Bowie and Iggy Pop but just ends up being Norman Wisdom (a 1950s British equivalent of Jerry Lewis, though more pathetic). Or, if I wanted to be crueller, I could say that his stage performance and chatter are like Tourette’s syndrome with pantomime movements. Or simply that he’s a selfish, self-pitying, self-seeking fool who has no opinions on anything other than himself – and they’re all terrible. But if I did, I’d merely be repeating what Robbie has already said about himself on national TV, beating me, the British tabloids, and Man in Pub to the punch. Robbie has told us many times that he’s “bored” with Robbie Williams and wants to “kill him off.” But Robbie’s eagerness to beat himself up for his public, although it is appreciated, is just another reason why he’s a – you guessed it – wanker.

You can probably understand, then, why our Robbie is so keen to make it in America. Why, in fact, he already spends most of his time and his European royalties in America, relaxing American-style in his big American house in L.A., sunbathing by his big American pool pulling fuck-off/come-to-bed faces at the British tabloid helicopters ceaselessly hovering over him. Why the U.S. and L.A. are mentioned – nay, incanted – often in a charming faux-American drawl, on several tracks on his new, American-targeted album, and several times in one song in the case of “Hot Fudge”: “I’m moving to L.A.! L.A.! L.A.! L.A.! L.A.! L.A.! L.A.! L.A.! L.A.!” – a place where success really can save you and where no one is ever Found Out, just found overdosed and badly decomposed at the bottom of their pool.

All this might also help you understand why his album is called “Escapology,” why the artwork for the album features disturbing-absurd pictures of our Robbie trapped at the bottom of giant tubes of water or suspended upside down hundreds of feet in the air, and why the lyrics talk rather a lot about self-loathing, especially when they’re bragging and crowing about his fame.

While Robbie clearly needs the U.S., it’s by no means clear why the U.S. needs Robbie. In the U.K. Robbie is the king of karaoke pop, when the charts full of karaoke pop acts, but in his adopted home of L.A. every schmuck waiting their turn in a karaoke bar on a Tuesday evening is a better singer. In Britain his lack of great talent is seen as democratic and reassuring; in America it’s probably just uninspiring. It’s a shame, because as Robbie tells us on the AOR power-ballad “Feel,” probably the best track on this album, “There’s a hole in my soul/ You can see it in my face/ It’s a real big place.” Well, we know America’s a real big place, and since Britain is apparently no longer touching the sides, maybe the Big Country will oblige and fill Robbie’s aching chasm?

The problem for us Brits is that as Anglican lapsed Catholics we still believe we’re all Fallen, but we no longer believe that we can be redeemed. Oh yes, now we have to pay lip service to the American religion of success — thanks very much for that, by the way — but we don’t really believe in it. We may, like much of the rest of the world, be crap-Americans now, but we’re agnostic crap-Americans; we still have hundreds of years of feudalism to negotiate. It’s why our tabloids, which exist solely to torment our celebrities, frequently with flattery, sell millions every day. It’s why our boy Robbie is so “ironic,” why he goes on and on and on about His Fame Hell.

For all his transatlantic suckface on this album, I suspect that tabloid-fodder Robbie, who is very crap-American (and also Catholic: “I’ve slept with girls on the game/ I’ve got my Catholic shame”), doesn’t really believe America can redeem him, either. He’s paying lip service, too, though it’s not the kind of lip service you might enjoy. (Note: “On the game” is British slang for being a prostitute.)

One of the reasons “Feel” is the best track here is that Robbie doesn’t deliberately sabotage the professional song writing of his (now former) musical collaborator Guy Chambers as he does in practically all the other tracks, penning glib, flip lyrics which would be inoffensive and meaningless in a pop-Muzak kind of way except that they are also teeth-gnashingly, eye-gougingly crass. Robbie’s lyrics are hyperactive doggerel that won’t lie down, doing anything and everything to draw attention to themselves, including licking their balls and chewing off their own head. “Come Undone,” a big James-ish anthemic number, is utterly undone by the vain, self-obsessing lyrics full of mirrors and razor blades: “Such a saint but such a whore/ So self aware, so full of shit …/ Do another interview/ Sing a bunch of lies/ Tell about celebrities that I despise …/ I am scum.”

This perverted narcissism would be almost admirable in such a crowd-pleasing entertainer if it weren’t for the fact that Robbie is apparently singing to his drugs and rape counselor mom (yes, really) again: “Pray that when I’m coming down you’ll be asleep …/ I am scum/ Love, your son.” Robbie gives matriarchy a bad name. Another track, “Nan’s Song,” is dedicated to his deceased grandmother. This is the first song he’s penned entirely himself and he has said, “It’s only appropriate that my first song should be about someone I love.” In fact, the song is all about how much his Nan loved him.

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Once again, the problem with selling this shtick in the U.S. is that few people apart from some aging gay men in San Francisco have heard of Robbie Williams. So how are Americans expected to relate to his problems with his “massive” fame, which is all his songs are about these days? Robbie is Eminem without the hip-hop, without the wit, and without, finally, the (global) success. Robbie tried and failed to crack the American market a few years ago with a compilation album called “The Ego Has Landed” – which once again appears to be putting the apologetic cart before the career horse, “wittily” referencing a mediocre 1960s British film, “The Eagle Has Landed,” that his target teen audience has never heard of. As one American critic’s daughter said when Robbie Williams’ face popped up on MTV: “Daddy, why is that guy being so goofy?”

In truth, “Escapology” is a kind of 21st century Brit Band Aid album, a “Do They Know It’s Christmas in Stoke-on-Trent?” where the needy continent is Robbie’s self-esteem (and EMI’s bank balance), but where Robbie is impersonating almost every Brit artist who has made it to drive-time radio in the U.S. In “Something Beautiful” he’s Marty Pellow of Wet, Wet, Wet, pre-heroin; in “Monsoon” he’s post-mustache, pre-AIDS Freddie Mercury (even the tune owes more than a little to “Radio Ga Ga”); “Love Somebody” is pre-wig Elton; “Revolution” is post-Wham, pre-men’s-room George Michael (Robbie’s first solo single was a cover version of “Freedom”). “Sexed Up” could be Oasis, post-talent. There’s some Rod Stewart in here as well, but I can’t be bothered to find out where. For good measure, and to show how versatile and deserving of a green card he is, Robbie also throws in some Steve Tyler, some retro-soul and some college radio rawk.

No, I lied. “Escapology” isn’t Band Aid. It’s an entire season of “American Idol,” where Robbie is the only contestant and also plays the part of Simon Cowell. Somehow, though, he manages not to win.

Robbie may be a wanker, and he may be doomed, but he’s not an original sinner. Not only is he a karaoke pop performer (his last album, “Swing When You’re Winning,” was a bunch of covers of Frank Sinatra songs), he’s a karaoke human being. After leaving Take That he thought he was Oliver Reed for a while. Then he thought he was Liam Gallagher. Dressed as Frank Sinatra on the cover of “Swing When You’re Winning” (which includes a duet with Nicole Kidman on “Somethin’ Stupid”), or as James Bond in the video for “Millennium,” he looks like an unconvincing if alarmingly hirsute drag king. By the same token, persistent rumors that secretly he’s “really gay” miss the point that Robbie isn’t really anything.

Where Sinatra was radio, Robbie is a radio. Robbie’s voice, although versatile, is strangely constricted, nasal and distant – as if he has a cheap transistor radio stuck somewhere up his nose. Frankie had a voice that, if radio didn’t exist, would have willed it into existence. Robbie has a voice that is merely an echo of broadcasts that dissipated into the ether long before he was born.

On “Escapology,” Robbie desperately wants us to believe that he has problems. Perhaps because he thinks this will make him likable. Or interesting. Or human. And perhaps because it will make people forgive or forget the fact that he’s a wanker. Actually, Robbie’s problem is much more serious than his wankerdom, more serious even than being British. Robbie’s problem is that he’s a ghost. A ghost that has no story of his own, no life to commemorate or haunt, and no point – other than drawing attention to himself and the pantomime of life that he has become. We’re supposed to listen to the clanking chains because they’re “really professionally put together” and harken to the moaning because it’s “so ironic.”

Mind you, Robbie’s insubstantiality may be the most modern, most sympathetic thing about him. As he sings on “Feel”:

Come hold my hand
I wanna contact the living
Not sure I understand
The role I’ve been given

Is there an exorcist in the house?

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The North Rises Again: interview with Mark E Smith

Mark Simpson meets The Fall’s legendary front-man who has some deep-fried career advice for the Arctic Monkeys and the Kaiser Chiefs

(Arena Hommes Plus, Summer 2006)

“’Avin’ been around the world I reckon we’re very lucky,” says Mark E Smith, pop genius and (usually) loveable curmudgeon in a moment of uncharacteristic optimism. “They don’t realise what they’ve got, English people.” And what have we got? “Well,” he stalls, eyeing me and sensing a trap, “you don’t know until it’s gone do you, Mark!”

Mark E Smith, is 49 years old this year. It’s part of the mythology of the man who put ‘front’ in ‘frontman’, the lead-ranter for the longest-serving pre-post-punk band The Fall, that he looks much older than his years.  Maybe it’s because those heady days when pop and art and literature and, well, everything worth caring about seemed to intersect, and everything seemed possible, especially after a line of dodgy speed and a can of Special Brew, now seem much further away than they actually are.

Due to an odd trick of the 21st Century light, the late Seventies, when The Fall was founded after Mark E Smith and most of the English working class was laid off at Salford Docks, is now much, much further away than, say, the early Sixties.

Or maybe it’s just because he’s generally reckoned to have consumed enough sulphate and Special Brew to give ICI indigestion. “A tooth fell out this morning, at 2am,” he tells me with a grin, “I thought that’s fookin’ typical! Just before I’m due to meet the press!”. He orders a pint of lager and a whiskey and lights up, eyes narrowing in the smoke.

It’s clear that Mr Smith has had, ahem, a few late nights, and isn’t going to make the cover of Mens Health any time soon but to me he looks younger than his years. No, honestly. Maybe it’s a trick of the iconic light on this Sunday afternoon in this postmodern Manchester hotel, or maybe it’s because he doesn’t care about his looks in the way you’re required by EU edict these days, but the man behind 25 studio albums and 24 live albums looks as scampish and defiant as ever. A slightly shop-worn Kes with a merciless Mancunian motor-mouth.

How does he feel being an icon? “It don’t bother me” he says with a shrug. “Though, being a Smith I prefer not to be noticed and to just get on with it.”

Smith’s style is anything but anonymous. Lyrically, he’s a cross between William Burroughs, Philip Larkin and Ena Sharples. Above all else, he is distinctively, eccentrically English. In the true sense of the word. That’s to say northern.

“London’s sealing itself off with its prices and its attitudes,” he moans.  “London is fookin’ surreal. It’s like: ‘You can’t come in here!’ And what is London, that collection of villages, for? Fook all. Compare it to cities like Newcastle, Leeds and Manchester, great cities which changed the world. I don’t wanna get too northern here…”

Please do….

“After 11 o’clock you still can’t get a pint!” He grins. “But we can’t say this Mark coz this is going in a London-based magazine!”

Albert Camus, who penned the novel Smith named his band after, described a rebel as: ‘A man who says “no”’. Smith has turned ‘no’ literally into an art-form – always placing himself apart from the latest trend, the latest bleating herd-instinct; it’s made him a lot poorer and a lot less celebrated. But it has also made him a hero. One of the last.

He isn’t impressed by the current renaissance of Northern English pop, even those bands which owe rather a lot to The Fall. “I think that the Kaiser Chiefs and Artic Monkeys should open a chain of chip shops in North Yorkshire”, he says, only half joking. “I think the East Germans had it right, actually. Every group used to have to have a permit. Until they came up with anything culturally relevant, like a classical composition. I think they should bring them in here. I should start a musical Stasi. If you can’t play in fookin time, then fook off back to the factory.”

What have the English got? Mark E Smith, that’s what.

Let’s hope this is one thing they appreciate before it’s gone.

© Mark Simpson 2006

I Want Your Sex: Why the Press Can’t Leave George Michael’s Manhood Alone

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Why are the gentlemen of the popular press so interested in George Michael’s manhood?  Why won’t they leave it alone?

In 1998, after stalking him for years, in a painful pincer movement with Beverly Hills Police Department’s finest, they finally succeeded in catching him short in a men’s toilet. Now they despatch a flash photographer to follow him up to Hampstead Heath’s cruising area at 2am and then plaster the results all over the front page.

No wonder Michael angrily turned to the snapper and snapped: ‘Are you gay?  No?  Well f**K off then!’

Personally, I’ve never been that interested in George Michael’s toilet parts. I used to live a mile or so away from Hampstead Heath and cruised it myself many times (before the internet spoilt everything), and have seen Mr Michael down there – but we never bumped uglies.

The tabs appear most shocked by the fact that Mr Michael ‘who could have anyone’ allegedly chose to have fun in the dark, in the bushes with an unemployed 58-year-old pot-bellied man who lives ‘in a squalid flat in Brighton’. Yes, how awful. What a terrible crime. Perhaps he should have shagged the straight flash photographer instead? We know he has a much better paid job.

Of course, there’s more hypocrisy wafting across this story than poppers on a warm Saturday night on the Heath. Michael is lambasted for his ‘sick’ and ‘sordid’ ‘crazy’ and ‘addicted’ behaviour and advised to ‘seek counselling’ (plus rather a lot of barely-disguised queer-bashing incitement in the form of ‘warnings’ that he ‘could get his throat cut’).

But part of reason why the tabs are so interested in this story – and why they can’t leave George’s penis alone – is precisely because many if not most men can perfectly understand the appeal of anonymous, no-strings, no-romance sex.

It is this freely-available aspect of the homo demi-monde which most fascinates many straight men. Because they usually have to pay for it. Unless they’re very lucky.

In the same issue of the NOTW that exposed George Michael’s ‘sick’ behaviour one of the stars of reality TV show Bad Lads’ Army (someone whom I would like to bump uglies with) bragged that he had had sex with nearly 500 women before he reached the age of 21 and would often pick up three women a day on holiday.

Now, I’m guessing that with those stats their age, looks, employment status and the tidiness of their homes weren’t exactly major considerations for these chaps. Naturally, The Sun was as admiring and envious of this laddish behaviour as it was condemning of Michael’s. What’s sauce for the straight goose should be sauce for the gay gander.

This is something that Michael successfully argued himself after he was caught in that Beverly Hills lavatory in 1998. His single ‘Outside’ sang the praises of public sex. It was probably precisely his success in turning around this humiliation that embittered the tabs against him. The tabs hate it when they’re out-tabbed by their victims.

Inevitably, Michael’s long-term partner was mentioned in the Hampstead Heath expose to give a veneer of journalistic value to the story, but in fact Michael has been very frank about the ‘open’ nature of his relationship.  This is a degree of honesty with the world that few celeb gay couples show – even though many of them are in relationships more open than 7-Eleven.

Michael’s visit to Hampstead Heath just before a major comeback tour, wasn’t very clever, wasn’t terribly grown-up, and it may or may not be a sign of ‘compulsive’ behaviour, but it is certainly not a matter of national importance. Or even terribly interesting.

Male sexuality, gay or straight, is not very easily domesticated. If it were, then the tabloids would be the first to go out of business.

And Hampstead Heath wouldn’t be so busy at 2am. Even if nowadays newspaper photographers compulsively cruising for a story outnumber the punters.

Copyright © 1994 - 2017 Mark Simpson All Rights Reserved.