I always used to wonder when watching gay porn in the 1990s how the deuce the models managed to get their pants over their chunky butch boots without removing them.
Now of course every straight male from South London learns how to do this before they can legally drink in pubs – as ‘Forbidden Nights’, an act auditioning on Britain’s Got More Talent recently demonstrated.
Note how the camp judge (David Walliams) is contractually bound to be ‘gay’ – regardless of the fact he’s straight. And twice the size of the rather lovely pocket-sized stripper he hugs (no doubt he had to have his suit dry-cleaned of orange body make-up).
Note also how ‘sexualised images’ of the male body – and extreme close-ups of cotton-lycra mix bulges – are now an entirely acceptable, and enthusiastically applauded, part of British prime-time family entertainment.
Something the American Phalliban successfully sabotaged in the BBC’s recent Wolf’s Hall costume drama series – spoilsport American TV execs insisted the Tudor codpieces be toned down.
Hooray for Hollywood however – they recently gave ‘Sexiest Man Alive’ Chris Hemsworth one the size of, well, the hammer of a Norse god of thunder, in the just-released ‘red band’ trailer for the forthcoming remake of National Lampoon’s (R-rated) Vacation.
That’s probably way more phallus in a few seconds than you’ll get in ninety minutes of Magic Mike XXL.
Maybe I suffer from what Freud described as man’s tendency to devalue what he desires, but I find anything touched by TV survivalist Bear Grylls’ calloused-but-manicured hands difficult to take too seriously.
But taken seriously he most certainly has been by the UK media with his currently airing C4 reality show The Island, in which thirteen ‘ordinary men’ are marooned on a tropical island for a month to find out whether today’s softies can cut it as ‘hunter gatherer’ butch Bear Grylls types. Nothing very much happens – the Gryllsettes grow beards, lose some pounds, drink a lot of boiled stagnant water, get bitten by sand-flies, and fall out with one another and then back in again. Like Big Brother but more boring.
Though given the column inches devoted to this show you’d think Grylls was some kind of sociologist, anthropologist and cultural seer. Rather than an outdoor cabaret artist with properly hydrated skin and really nice eyes.
So I hesitate to add to C4’s already bulging folder of press cuttings about Grylls’ sweaty island, but the Channel’s Chief Creative Officer Jay Hunt’s defence of the show’s decision not to include women last week was such a wonderfully serious and altogether inadvertent admission of where the actual ‘sexism’ of the show lies that it’s impossible to resist.
Hunt defended her reality show from the straw woman argument, aired widely in the media recently by female survival experts, that it was sexist because it excluded women from the island by reiterating the comically prejudiced premise of the reality show: that it was intended as a ‘real test of modern masculinity’. She went on:
‘Let’s be honest, what better way of finding out what British men were REALLY made of than leaving them to fend for themselves in a frighteningly tropical environment.’
Yes, let’s be honest. Real men don’t eat quiche, but creepy crawlies. Real masculinity is about being deprived of all culture and civilization and potable water. Real masculinity is all about tropical skid marks.
Women are excluded from the delights of the island not because Ms Hunt didn’t think women would be able to cope, but because doing so would have got in the way of the stereotype that men are ‘really’ savages. Or ‘hunter gatherers’ as she likes to describe them. The show is not about finding out what people are REALLY made of – but today’s men. Because we already know what men should be made of. It’s not sexist, in other words, because its sexism is directed towards chaps. Any sexism towards ladies is just unintended blowback.
In fact this kind of brutish reductiveness about men applied to women by C4 would have brought a much bigger backlash than the one prompted by disgruntled female survival experts. It would have cost Hunt her job. Can you imagine the outcry, for instance, over a reality TV show which announced that it aimed to find out what British women, as a sex, were REALLY made of – by locking them in the kitchen? Or Mothercare?
Any attempt to talk about REAL and ESSENTIAL femininity – let alone applying some contrived ‘test’ of it – is generally held up to fierce criticism these days, now that women are, rather wonderfully, encouraged to believe they can be anything they want to be. Including Chief Creative Officers at C4 – commissioning shows about REAL and ESSENTIAL masculinity. ‘Women are every bit as cut out for this survivalist stuff as men,’ says Ms Hunt. ‘Women are stronger, more independent and more self-reliant than they have ever been.’
Quite so. But while women can be much more than submissive Janes nowadays, men are apparently still supposed to be forever anxiously comparing themselves to some mythical Tarzan that never existed. And if you doubt it never really existed, take a look at Mr Grylls, who is the most absurd and unbelievable confection of a human being imaginable. A survival porn star.
In an introduction to the series, in which Bare Thrills has, very unusually, kept most of his clothes on, he opined: “I want to find out what happens if you strip man of all the luxuries and conveniences of modern living and then force him to fight for his existence.” By ‘man’ here Grylls means, as Ms Hunt has explained, not humans, but ‘men’.
The presentation of the series as some ‘real test of modern masculinity’ is, ‘naturally’, completely bogus even by the cranky standards of reality TV ‘experiments’. You could have taken any group of unprepared British men of the last hundred years or so and dropped them in a tropical mangrove swamp equipped with nothing but some garden string, Elastoplasts and hand-held TV cameras with much the same results. (Though it turns out that some of the contestants, and indeed the island itself, weren’t so unprepared after all. But hey, that’s show business.)
But the underlying premise that masculinity has to be ‘tested’, to be proved ‘real’, is what shows up the, ahem, rigid expectations we can still have of men compared to women, even on groovy C4. This is why Grylls, picking up on media chatter of the last year, has talked repeatedly about his show being about today’s ‘crisis of masculinity’.
That phrase is, like Grylls’ show, now much more of a problem than the one it purports to describe. As I’ve written elsewhere, when people talk about a ‘crisis of masculinity’ these days they’re usually talking about their own – in dealing with the fact that modern masculinity isn’t what they want or expect it to be. Particularly when working class chaps aren’t what middle class chaps like Chief Scout Grylls (educated at Eton ) want them to be.
And has anyone noticed how no one ever seems to talk about a ‘crisis of femininity’?
Older men may miss some of the masculine certainties of their youth, but most of today’s ‘soft’ young men seem very glad indeed that they’re not banished to the desert island of ascetic old skool masculinity their fathers and grandfathers were. Unless of course it gets them on telly.
Whatever people’s intentions in invoking it, and whatever value it may have had back in the 80s and 90s when male roles really began to change, post Thatcherite-Reaganite crash consumerism and de-industrialization, the concept of a ‘crisis of masculinity’ all these years of change later merely perpetuates the notion that masculinity is one phallic thing only, and that thing needs to be kept up, and ‘hard’. Otherwise we’ll all have a nervous breakdown. And not catch any fish.
In the end, for all the pretentious and possibly sexist claims made for it, everyone knows that The Island is really just entertainment and voyeurism. But it’s cheering to think that the use of the ‘crisis of masculinity’ to sell Bare Thrills’ latest instalment of survival porn may finally do for the phrase.
Let’s leave its meagre carcass on the island, picked clean of what little, stringy meat it ever had on it.
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.
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.