‘So you sit there. There’s the nail, and there’s the piece of wood. And you wait.’
Probably for the Great Dark Man to bang it in.
Broadcast on UK television in 1975, the day after The Naked Civil Servant aired, thrilling and shocking the nation, this fine interview by the great Mavis Nicholson is one that I don’t recall seeing before.
Though of course, Crisp didn’t really do interviews – he declaimed. Gloriously. Crisp was forever in the dock, making a final, impassioned appeal to the judge.
After my dad had a health scare in the 1970s butter was banished from the Simpson household and replaced with Flora, probably partly as a result of this ad, which ran in heavy rotation for what seemed like most of my childhood. I continued eating it myself for years after leaving home.
Back then we – or rather, our mothers – were told that butter with its saturated fats was bad for you. Flora margarine which was ‘high in polyunsaturated fats’ and made from sunflower oil in an industrial process by the giant conglomerate Unilever, was massively marketed as Good For You. It was an extraordinarily successful campaign, encouraging a real shift in social habits.
But that was the 20th Century. Turns out of course that like other margarines Flora contained trans-fats and hydrogenated oils (though Unilever claims that today’s Flora doesn’t) which are now officially Bad For You. Badder in fact than saturated fats. Butter is no longer evil – but still tastes better.
Likewise, the thinking behind the ‘Flora for men’ ad itself seems hilariously outdated now, presenting a vanished world divided into ‘wives’ and ‘men’ – where ‘wives’ spend their time shopping (and cooking) for their ‘men’.
But even here the datedness/sexism is not as one-way as it might first appear: note how the men are separated from the world of consumption by the glass window. They’re left outside the supermarket, like tied dogs – and about as articulate. The ad, despite the ‘Flora for men’ tagline, is after all targeted at women.
The concept of ‘Flora for men’ seems to have been about giving permission to women worried about their man dropping dead before his time to buy Flora – don’t worry, your husband will like it because it’s ‘for men’. Despite its new-fangledness, the flower on the packet and the sissy name (apparently ‘Flora’ was the name of the wife of the head of one of Unilever’s marketing directors at the time).
And despite, above all, its ‘healthful’ qualities. Men weren’t supposed to care about their health back then. The notion that hundreds of thousands of them would eventually buy a glossy monthly magazine full of – constantly changing – hypochondriacal advice with the word ‘men’ and ‘health’ in the title would have been laughed at.
I suppose though that a secondary effect of the ‘Flora for men’ advertising was to ‘de-sissify’ Flora and to some extent health concerns for men, generally. Though today ‘Flora for men’ would probably be targeted at men directly as a separate line, in khaki-coloured, chunky tubs shaped like hand-grenades – with exactly the same gloop inside.
In the early 1980s Unilever ran another ad, voiced by housewives favourite Terry Wogan, which seems to be distancing itself slightly from the happy servitude of the earlier ad by jokily nodding to feminism, with a more assertive woman: ‘Some time ago Sarah Drake decided to change her husband. More and more women are coming to the same decision. They’re changing their husbands to Flora men’.
I recently chanced upon this clip of Rod Stewart performing ‘The Killing of Georgie Parts I & II’ on a late-night BBC4 re-run of a Top of the Pops from 1976. I was completely transfixed. Not by nostalgia though, for a change. Bizarrely, scandalously I don’t recall seeing or even hearing this well-known classic before.
I have a bit of a blind spot about Rod Stewart. As a kid I hated ballads. They were bor-ing. Like the kissy-wissy bits in films. And by the time I got into pop music in a big way Stewart was the Bawling Balladeer. I did go to see the Stewart musical Tonight’s the Night with a friend when it opened in 2003. Alas, it was written by Ben Elton and so we had to leave at the first interval.
But I found myself utterly mesmerised by Rod’s achievement here. It’s undoubtedly one of the best to-camera performances I’ve ever seen by any artist. Literally breathtaking. And although the song perhaps owes a debt to ‘Walk on the Wild Side’, produced by David Bowie four years earlier in 1972 (the gay/outsider journey to New York on a Greyhound bus, the doop-doop backing…), I think David would give his non-dilated eye to have done this.
The song tells the story – remember when songs did that? – of a gay friend of Stewart’s who, rejected by his family after explaining that ‘he needed love like all the rest’, moved to New York where he ‘soon became the toast of the Great White Way’. But was cut down in his prime during a random mugging.
It’s not so much the subject-matter (a true story, apparently) that got me. It’s the astonishing performance itself, which in its fearless extravagance and beauty seems the perfect tribute to his fallen friend. It’s as if Stewart, the working class footballing lad and lady-killer, is showing you with his drag queen gestures and shining androgyny what Georgie the show queen liberated in him. (Stewart has said that he Georgie wasn’t a close friend of his personally, but that he was ‘surrounded by gay men’ at the time.)
It’s there in the lyrics, of course:
He said “Never wait or hesitate
Get in kid, before it’s too late
You may never get another chance
‘Cos youth a mask but it don’t last
live it long and live it fast”
But it’s much more ‘there’ in Rod’s ‘gay abandon’ in front of the camera – and Marlene Dietrich eyes. And that wink he does when he sings: ‘he needed love like all the rest’.
I’ve watched the clip several times now and the final line to ‘Part I’ – ‘Georgie was a friend of mine’ – delivered with arms stretched out, open-palmed towards the audience, towards the world, and that unswerving, heavy-lidded gaze gets me every time.
The ‘Part II’ coda is a frank, almost embarrassing expression of love and loss, mourning and melancholia. Rod weeps for his lost friend:
Oh Georgie stay, don’t go away
Georgie please stay, you take our breath away
But by taking our breath away too, at the height of his youth, his beauty and his talent, Rod ensures Georgie – and the glamorous gayness of the pre Aids 1970s – also lives forever and never goes away.
No matter what Rod himself was to turn into, as the mask of youth slipped – as it does for all of us who don’t die untimely deaths.
So bellowed an ageing transsexual Terence Stamp in Priscilla Queen of the Desert, driven to distraction by his fey fellow bus passengers’ obsession with the silly Swedish 1970s super group.
Some hope. We’re all trapped on a Day-Glo bus full of drag queens squawking along to a loop tape of Abba Gold playing on the stereo. And that’s just watching the Sydney Olympics. The Abba revival in the 1990s turned out to be not so much a rediscovery of a critically overlooked band, as an ascension to pop cultural Heaven and eternal airplay.
Bjorn, Benny, Frida and Agnetha are all our angelic friends now – and we believe in them, something good in everything they do. We hear their sweetly harmonious voices almost every day, though they stopped making records 20 years ago. And we still see their warm, smiling, never-ageing, non-aligned Nordic faces, the epitome of benignity. They just want us to be happy. In fact, Bjorn, Benny, Frida and Agnetha are not just our friends – they’re our parents. Not our unconvincing, biological ones, but our shiny, postmodern ones who will never let us down, except perhaps in their dress-sense. After all, the cute acronym of their names Abba means “Our father” in Aramaic (though in Sweden it’s also the name of a tinned fish company).
Abba were a fiendishly clever and catastrophically successful Scandinavian plan for total world domination. Deploying pop singles instead of longboats, aspirations instead of horned helmets, they kidnapped pre-teen children everywhere, ultimately making the world safe for that other Swedish four- letter word: Ikea. Abba were the ultimate suburban aspirational group and the two crooning couples the ultimate aspirational parents. Now that we’re grown up, we’re all Abba now. We’ve all bought the dream of Swedish bourgeois classlessness, excellence and niceness, the soft furnishings and cool green frosted glass kitchen cabinets that scratch surprisingly easily if you’re not really careful.
It’s significant that nowhere was Abba’s strategy more successful than in Australia, where not just pre-teens, but pretty much the whole country was abducted overnight. When they performed on TV there, more than half the population tuned in. Abba: The Movie was set in Australia. The Abba tribute band Bjorn Again is Australian. Australian films are obsessed with Abba (eg Priscilla and Muriel’s Wedding).
Why did Australia go “ABBAustralian” as one paper put it at the time? Unkind Poms might say it was because the Aussies identified with the Swedes’ problems with the English language, but the truth was that Australia, the former penal colony, was a “bastard” country looking to be adopted by well-mannered parents with nice teeth who weren’t sheep farmers or uranium miners.
The Abba makeover to which Australia surrendered worked perfectly: nowadays Australia is a country of nice, friendly middle-class people, dental hygienists, publicists, models, personal trainers, lawyers and cheery soap operas. In other words, once assimilated, Australia was able to go about the business of running the AbbaWorld. Hence that triumphal climax of last year’s closing ceremony at the Sydney Olympics, broadcast around the world to billions, featured AbbaChild Kylie Minogue on a Priscilla float singing “Dancing Queen”, the national anthem of AbbaWorld. (And a literally irresistible pop song – which is to say, it wrestles your better judgement to the floor, sits on its face, and leaves you free to make a complete fool of yourself.)
Britain was the first non-Scandinavian country to succumb to Abba, that Eurovision night with Katie Boyle back in 1974 at the Brighton Dome was when we met our Waterloo. It’s probably why that nice Mr Sven has had so much success with his makeover of the English football team, most of whom were born post Abbassimilation and have no trouble recognising their masters.
Scandinavian design, with its clean lines, high quality, what-you-see-is-what-you-get lack of hierarchy, is the only kind of bourgeoisdom we Brits seem willing to recognise nowadays. Those satanically clever and clean Abba hook-lines and impressive arrangements (praised now by everyone from Pete Townsend to Bono) were the product of craftsmanship and professionalism. The very things that made them deeply unhip in the 1970s and led to them being described as “cynical” and “icy” are what makes them the soundtrack to a careerist, managerial age. Those tunes may have sounded innocent to kids back then, but now that they have grown up they’re glad to discover that they weren’t – that like everything else these days, they were very, very calculated.
I’m not sure how much of this fellow Swede and uber AbbaChild Carl Magnus Palm, author of Bright Lights Dark Shadows: The Real Story of Abba would agree to. The flyleaf describes him as “the world’s foremost Abba historian”, but really his book isn’t as bad as that would lead you to believe. It’s all clearly and soberly written, painstakingly detailed and incontrovertibly definitive. Very professional. Well crafted. The prose slides in and out smoothly like a fitted kitchen drawer. But there are not enough clean lines. Some of this detail and definitiveness is not likely to appeal, unless you’re the world’s No 2 Abba historian. Thankfully, his main thesis about “the Nordic angst being there all along, just beneath the surface” isn’t really borne out. So the band members turn out to be actual human beings who have rows and bust ups? Big deal. There are fewer “dark shadows” here than in an Ikea showroom. And, being an AbbaChild, the author can’t contemplate the possibility that Abba itself may have been the “dark shadow”.
As a pal of mine, a blonde male-to-female transsexual Abba fan (“Abba made me what I am today!”) pronounced after devouring the book: “There’s no dirt. No one’s ever been able to find any.”
She didn’t sound disappointed. Which is, perhaps, the scariest thing of all about Abba.
Originally appeared in the Independent on Sunday October 2001
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.