I’ve snobbishly held out against the sun-damaged charms of ITV’s package holiday sitcom Benidorm, set in the ‘all inclusive’ Hotel Solana, for several series. But the sixth one – which sadly this week pours the sand out of its shoes and packs its bags for another year – had me surrendering to it more legs akimbo than the Solanas’ Mrs Slocombe-esque manageress Joyce Temple-Savage for Matthew Kelly.
Created and written by Derren Litten (co-writer for The Catherine Tate Show), Benidorm is Carry On meets St Trinians meets Are You Being Served? meets Lady Windermere’s Suntan – and gets an ‘all-inclusive’ hangover and runny tummy. A proper character actor ensemble, rather than a vehicle for some jumped-up stand-up’s overweening ego, and with some lines that glisten like an obese Brit’s back in the Costa Del Sol noon-day sun, it’s very old-fashioned comedy – which is to say, actually funny instead of just sneery-cringey.
No wonder the critics hate it. (See also that other recent ITV comedy triumph Vicious.) Benidorm is tacky and trashy and stuck in the past but doesn’t mind who knows it, thank you very much.
Kenneth Du Beke (Tony Maudsley)
Everyone is a caricature but instantly recognisable. Well, everyone is a caricature except for Kenneth Du Beke (Tony Maudsley) the overweight chain-smoking gay manager of the Solana’s salubrious hairdressing salon Blow ‘n’ Go who, with his rather ‘young’ and ‘cheery’ styling, was mistaken by Philip Olivier (aka ‘Tinhead’ from Brookside) for a children’s entertainer. He’s just documentary.
Tacky and trashy and trapped in the past it may be, but Benidorm is also often well-written and sharply observed. The whole of episode three (below) is quite brilliant and takes on a very contemporary subject – judgey gay assumptions about the relationship between masculinity and sexuality – that most ‘serious’ dramas wouldn’t dare.
The scene at 21:38 between loveable Liam Conroy (Adam Gillen), the swishy Tenko and Dynasty fan and hairdresser who has fallen in love with a girl, and his narrow-minded tight-clothed gay boss who knows better and insists Liam is ‘really gay’ and is going to end up ‘living a lie’ deserves an Oscar:
Liam: “You need to learn to accept people for who they are! Just because I don’t fit into YOUR stereotype of how a man should be doesn’t give you permission to call me names! I am what I am and what I am [swings arm and pirouettes, badly] needs no excuses!!”
Likewise Benidorm is what it is and needs no excuses either. And as Liam’s cross-dressing dad Les/Lesley from Wearside would say: “Thank fook for that!”
I’ve always been a big fan of Judy Garland, Joan Crawford, and Doris Day. But it was a secret, shameful love – until, that is, David Halperin’s new book, How to Be Gay (Harvard University Press), finally gave me the strength to come out about it. Talking about gay culture can make people of all persuasions very angry indeed. When Halperin began teaching a course on it at the University of Michigan called “How to Be Gay: Male Homosexuality and Initiation” back in 2000, it caused a national scandal. He was inundated with outraged, abusive emails, politicians tried to axe funding for his university, and his course was denounced on Fox News, as well as in some corners of the gay press.
SIMPSON: How on earth did your charming—entirely chaste—course on gay initiation manage to upset so many people, straight and gay?
HALPERIN:It was the title. Conservatives in the United States had long suspected that college professors aim to convert straight teenagers to homosexuality; now they had the proof. And gay people in the United States get very upset at the slightest implication that any aspect of homosexuality might not be inborn. Of course, I was neither trying to convert straight students nor suggest that people become gay because they are recruited into the homosexual lifestyle. But in order to understand that, you would have had to read the entire course description, not just the title. It’s interesting, though, that gay culture should be more scandalous nowadays than gay sex.
If you’re doing it right… Do you expect your book to cause a similar outcry? Do you want it to?
I never like to upset people, and I don’t aspire to be polemical, but I have a point of view to defend and I think the book is going to be controversial because it celebrates the fact that gay men are not exactly like everybody else. In an era of gay assimilation, the notion of gay difference arouses a lot of doubt and suspicion.
Is it true to say that the gay culture you are writing about is mostly the “gay sensibility” – the subcultural appropriation and subversion of mainstream straight culture that characterized pre-Stonewall gay life? Judy! Joan! Oklahoma!
Yes, I’m interested in the persistence of that subcultural appropriation at a time when gay people have now created their own culture. I love that new, post-Stonewall gay culture, but it has trouble competing with the appeal of those traditional icons or their contemporary descendants, like Lady Gaga, and I wanted to find out why. I wanted to know why gay men in particular still thrill to divas and train wrecks when they have original works of gay fiction, movies, and pop culture that feature gay men instead.
Why has the out-and-proud gay identity failed to kill off the self-loathing, closeted gay sensibility?
Because gay identity can’t contain the full play of gay desire. I discovered this when I taught a class on contemporary gay male literature a dozen years ago — I expected gay male students to like such a class. But they got bored with the reading and amused themselves instead by drawing cartoons on the attendance sheet, portraying the members of the class — including me — as characters from The Golden Girls or Steel Magnolias. That’s when I realized I was doing something wrong and decided to teach “How to Be Gay.”
Does the fact that you’re in many ways an outsider on gay culture make you the right or the wrong person to write this book?
Both. I spend a lot of time reconstructing laboriously and imprecisely what many gay men already know. I’m sure they could do it better, but they aren’t talking, except in one-liners. It takes someone who doesn’t get it on the first take to work out the logic. I wish someone else would do the explaining, but it looks like I have to.
How bad at being gay are you? Embarrassing examples, please.
Terrible, truly terrible. I’m not a very camp person; I’m very serious. I spent the first several decades of my life absorbing high culture — studying Greek tragedy, German music, American politics. I thought the appeal of Judy Garland to gay men was a profound enigma. I hated disco and loved rock music. I was a junkie for meaning.
Tell me about your “mother” — or rather, the fact that you didn’t have one. Do you wish you’d had an older gay male confidante who taught you about gay culture?
Well, from time to time in my youth I would meet a wise old queen — that is, someone in their early thirties — who would explain to me why my idiotic notions about gay romance were wrong. But in some respects, my “mother” turns out to have been an Australian boyfriend half my age who made me watchThe Women about 20 years after I came out.
To my undying shame, I only saw that film myself a year ago. So many great, instructive lines: “Cheer up Mary, living alone has its compensations. Heaven knows it’s marvelous being able to spread out in bed like a swastika.”
Golly, I’d forgotten those. How about “Pride’s a luxury a woman in love can’t afford”?
Back in the ’70s, when I came out, I saw no need for a mother. Like many gay people of my generation, I thought homosexuality was just a sexual orientation — I resisted being initiated into a separate culture. I just wanted to know how to find guys who would sleep with me, how to be sexually fulfilled, how to have a successful love affair.
Of course, it turns out that gay culture was full of information about that topic, but the information it offered seemed mostly useless or homophobic; it implied that the object of gay desire did not exist. Now, after decades of disillusionment, we may be coming round to some of those radical insights. But that will be the subject of my next book!
What will it be called? There Is No Great Dark Man?
Perhaps After Sexuality, Love.
A cherished line of mine in your book is ‘Sometimes I think homosexuality is wasted on gay people.’ Why are gays these days so keen to out-straight the straights?
They’ve been bought off with promises of normality, and their social worlds have been destroyed, so they lack the context and the courage to claim their cultural heritage, to the genius of being queer. They still produce cultural breakthroughs of brilliance, but they aren’t comfortable taking credit for them.
Is it a paradox that the resurgence of biological explanations of homosexuality has coincided with the dominance of the line “gays are just like everyone else,” except even more boring?
It’s kind of weird that so much of the gay movement embraces that bogus gay science, because that’s the one area in which claims of gay difference are triumphing in a kind of return to Victorian notions about congenital abnormality. You would think gay people would prefer to think of themselves as culturally different rather than biologically different. But here you can measure the effect in the United States of religiously inspired homophobia: In order to dodge the implication that homosexuality is a sinful choice, gay people are willing to accept biological determinism.
Believing that you only suck cock because God made you do it is kinda kinky, though. Are you a bit of a gay chauvinist. Do you believe that being gay is better than being straight?
Yes, I am and I do. At least, I can’t imagine living any other way, or wanting to. I certainly think being gay is better than being a straight man. But then nobody really likes straight men, except for some misguided gay guys.
I know I’m hopelessly misguided, but I do think straight men make the best bottoms. Sometimes I wonder, though, whether you might not have too much faith in heterosexuality. After all, howstraightis straight these days?
Straight people these days may often be highly perverse, but that doesn’t make them gay. They would like to think they’re queer — the category “queer” is the greatest gift gay people ever gave straight people, because it allows straight people to claim an edgy, transgressive identity without having to do anything icky — but that’s just their usual insistence on being the everyman.
But you admit that some of your best “How to Be Gay” students were straight…
Yes, they were. There are lots of straight people who understand gay male culture better and who enjoy it more than gay men. There are numbers of straight people who are culturally gay, but gayness also involves that extra little sexual thing… It’s not a lot, but it adds something.
After teaching this course for a while and writing this book, are you any campier? Do you watchGlee?Desperate Housewives? Even Joan Crawford movies, when you’re not using them in class?
No, I still hate popular culture. I did love Desperate Housewives, even if it declined after the first season. But then, its producer was a great comic gay writer. I loved it for the same reason I loved Serial Mom: It produced such a demented version of normal life. I do think working on this book made me a lot gayer; I’m much more willing to claim my cultural birthright as a gay man in everything, from the kind of music I like to the kind of food I eat. But I’m still a desperate case, and I have a long way to go to catch up with the rest of you.
As camp comic Kenneth Williams might say: ‘ark at ‘er!
An entertaining, often incisive, if rather, er, campy, Huffington Post article ‘The Diva’s Camp’ about Hillary’s diva power (and why this turns off ‘Obama-colytes’) compares Hillary Clinton to Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest:
‘Hillary Clinton is possessed by the spirit of Joan Crawford. Like that notorious über-bitch immortalized by Faye Dunaway in the camp classic Mommie Dearest, Hillary bulldozed into a Democratic primary dominated by men and brazenly declared, as any self-respecting diva would: Don’t fuck with me fellas! This ain’t my first time at the rodeo!’
Now, that’s funny, but where did I hear that before?
Oh, yes, that was me a month ago talking about the “3am” ad in a piece after her Ohio comeback called ‘The Bitch is Back’ on Guardian Unlimited:
‘…Hillary answering the White House phone in scarlet lipstick, has both a touch of 1990s nostalgia, and also one of timeless thrilling glamour – a hint of Joan Crawford talking to the board of Pepsi in Mommie Dearest: “Don’t fuck with me, fellas – this ain’t my first time at the rodeo!“‘
Even though I hear that Guardian Unlimited is quite popular in the American blogosphere, I’m sure it was just a case of diva-revering minds thinking alike. And I very much doubt I’m the first person to compare Hills to Joan.
Actually, though, we weren’t really thinking alike. Despite my comparison when discussing the ad, I don’t think that Hillary is possessed by the spirit of Joan Crawford, or is camp as a row of tents full of impossible divas on the blob. Apart from anything else, camp isn’t really possible in a world like the all-singing, all-dancing shameless one that cavorts and disports itself before our jaded eyes these days.
Everything and nothing is camp. Including the Huffington Post. More to the point, to talk about Hillary as being ‘so camp!’ seems to argue, whether intended or not, that the notion of a woman as the most powerful person in the world is merely ‘failed seriousness’. Or a joke.
And this is a very serious business. Medically serious. Sometimes it looks as if the Democratic Party is having a gigantic nervous breakdown over the idea of Hills as their ‘man’, or, rather, over the ‘arrogant’, ‘hopeless’, ‘divisive’, ‘ugly’ idea that she thinks she could be rather than Mr Obama. It’s tangibly Oedipal.
Despite that, I do believe that America is slowly, slowly, very, very tortuously, negotiating the five-alarm idea of having a ‘bitch’ and ‘cow’ and ‘whore’ and ‘c**t’ – to use the progressive, uplifting, non-partisan vernacular of righteous Obama fans – as Commander in Chief. America will learn not to cross its legs and whimper when Hillary is on TV, even if MSNBC’s Tucker Carlson doesn’t.
After all, Hillary has almost all of the crucial big states, and if the Democrats used the same first-past-the-post electoral system used during the Presidential contest itself, she would be well ahead of Obama. Contrary to what the media likes to tell us, she’s anything but Box Office Poison.
Perhaps because it attracts insecure men keen to big themselves up, it seems to be mostly the US media that’s having the nervous breakdown. The more than slightly deranged and hysterical – certainly much more deranged and hysterical than she is accused of being – nature of the press bias against Hillary and the extreme, frequently all-but murderous personal abuse casually levelled at her,compared with the loving, swooning indulgence bestowed on her stripling rival, does rather suggest that anxiety about a female Big Boss, thus far at least, looms and lurks much larger in their minds, than a black (or, rather, half-white) male one. This isn’t to say that ‘sexism is worse than racism’, it’s just to point out that sexism – no, sorry, untrammelled, uninhibited, shuddering, shivering, gut-wrenching misogyny – unlike racism, is considered perfectly acceptable prime time fare.
And as somebody who isn’t entirely free of misogyny myself, I think it terribly unfair that they should be able to get away with it.
Sometimes, watching the American Primaries coverage has been like watching an especially horrifying episode of 60s retrosexist drama Mad Men, but without the irony or the smoking.
In her bitter battle to win this unconscious – and therefore by definition unfair – struggle, Hillary is using every powerful American feminine archetype she can lay her hands on. Unfortunately for her, there aren’t too many. Unlike our first female leaderene Mrs T (whom America loved, partly because she was, like Churchill, and Tony Blair, great at giving America head, but mostly because she wasn’t their leader), she doesn’t have chariot-driving Boudicca or Armada-vanquishing Elizabeth I or globe-ruling Victoria to call on as legitimising ancestral memories.
Because of the vital symbolic importance of these women in our national mythology, or maybe just because of Coronation Street, the UK is sometimes rather more matriarchal than the US. Elton John, who admittedly is not perhaps the best argument for matriarchy, recently announced himself shocked by the misogyny America has displayed during these Primaries.
Republics and their ‘Founding Fathers’ favour women even less than monarchies. Monarchies, which are after all based on reproduction and families, occasionally cut them a break, when no worthy male heir turns up – which is what happened with the Tory Party in the 1970s when it anointed Maggie. Though if she had used the famous line of Elizabeth, “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too,” everyone would have scoffed at the idea that her body was ‘weak and feeble’. Even her famous handbag was seen as a fearsome weapon.
Powerful women in American history, save perhaps Eleanor Roosevelt, don’t really exist – except as kindling in Arthur Miller plays. So they had to be imagined in 1940s Hollywood melodrama, aimed, of course, at powerless women: producing, literally, ‘divas’ such as Joan, Bette and Katherine. So if Hillary sometimes channels a little bit of Joan, Bette and Katherine it’s because she needs to imagine herself as a powerful woman in a man’s world, and American history doesn’t offer her much else to work with.
OK, she might possibly be a psychotic bitch too, but the media has yet to make that case – though it keeps trying. Hillary isn’t possessed by the spirit of Joan Crawford, as the Huffington Post has it – rather, Joan Crawford is possessed by the spirit of Hillary.
Handsome half white/half black but entirely male (if very eager to please) Obama can and does draw on both Martin Luther King and Jack Kennedy, and in fact American political history at least as far back as Lincoln for his legitimation – and invites us, with that sexy smile, to a ‘more perfect union’. It’s an invitation that, oddly, seems to turn men on more than women. Hillary hating MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, for instance, talks openly about how how listening to Obama gives him ‘a thrill up my leg’ (a very different kind of feeling, I’m guessing, to that experienced by Tucker Carlson listening to Hillary). Lots of guys are gay for Obama – and out and proud it seems.
And as for Hillary being a ‘gay icon’, despite gay parade marching Hills being closer in many ways to the gay community than Obama, and despite (English) Elton John’s support, most American homos I know can’t bear her, while the main gay blogs practically dance on her head daily. Preposterously bearded MTM transsexual and recovering Republican Andrew Sullivan is completely obsessed, practically screaming ‘DIE, BITCH! DIE!’ at her, calling her a ‘horror movie without end’ and comparing her to Glenn Close’s insane stalker character in the infamous 80s career-woman hating flick Fatal Attraction. Get a grip, Mary. And a shave.
Despite Mr O’s reluctance to be interviewed by the gay press or attend gay parades, his Christian church base, and his gay platform vagueness, he is much the ‘gayer’ candidate simply because he is younger, better-looking, better-dressed, cooler – and male. He is, in fact, metrosexual.
If we are going to talk about camp, and if camp is a form of style over substance, mediagenic Obama is much camper than Hillary – and more of a diva too. Doesn’t he roll his eyes during debates with Hillary? Doesn’t he fill stadiums with his performances? Didn’t he flounce out of a press conference in which he was actually grilled instead of applauded in a huff, protesting ‘You’ve asked me like, eight questions already!’‘.
It’s the male divas you have to watch out for in politics. Over here in the UK we are still getting over our own Christian pop star politician, that nice Mr Blair who took us, smiling his drag queen smile, into a disastrous American war.
The Sun’s TV critic Ally Ross is an unhappy camper. You see, he’s always bitching about TV being ‘too gay’. Which is a rather peculiar thing for a TV critic to complain about. Perhaps his dad wanted him to be a (much less well paid) sports writer.
Last Friday, he proved what a pugilist he is by laying into the recently launched ITV Anthony Cotton daytime chat show, and by attacking all things poovey on telly. He concluded with his 0ver-familiar refrain: ‘TV is way too camp, i.e. gay and rubbish, for its own good’. At the end of a column simply chocka with catty clawings and rubbish campery.
In fact, so keen is big butch Ross (who likes to pose as the Test Card Girl above his byline) to straighten out telly and get rid of gays and gayness, in an unrelated piece about Big Brother on the same page, recounting how one male contestant was lovingly describing women as ‘tits, baps, breasts, erm, womb people’, he interrupts this red-blooded reverie with: ‘cuts to Gerry (the gay Greek contestant) fantasising about the Greek Army.’ Thanks for that straight thought, Ally.
Actually, I agree. TV is too ‘gay’ and camp and rubbish. But so are you, Ally dearie. And so, these days, is the Sun. Though, like its TV critic, it seems rather confused and conflicted.
In the same issue, readers were treated to another gratuitous ‘gay’ fantasy titled ‘Brokeback Putin’ – a spread of shirtless snaps of Russian President Vladimir Putin and (fully clothed) Prince Albert of Monaco on a blokey fishing holiday, complete with ‘camp’ captions that try to portray him as homo (and therefore ridiculous and impotent): ‘Oooh Vlad, I’ve got a tiddler’ ‘Here let me hold it Albert’. Er, calm down will you? They’re just fishing.
The Sun’s breathless, squealing addiction to rubbish, dated campery – and its campaign to convince us all that ‘camp’ is exactly the same thing as ‘gay’ and that of course male homosexuality is a form of emasculation – is literally perverse. Even more than most papers, the Sun is desperate to attract young readers – readers who don’t share that early 1970s worldview, not least because they weren’t even born in the 1970s. Headlines like “Hello Sailor!”, the mocking front page that greeted the Navy’s recent decision to actively recruit gays and lesbians, are limp Dick Emery imitations that no one under forty-five is going to get. In the same pink and fluffy Sun-speak vein, any out gay male celebrity, regardless of their demeanour, is instantly given a new first name – ‘Camp’.
Then there’s Sun gossip columnist Victoria Newton’s creepy endless ‘Gay-O-Meter’ obsession with comedian David Walliams. Every time he’s photographed socialising with a woman the meter reads STRAIGHT (coloured blue). Every time he’s photographed with a bloke it goes into GAY (coloured pink). I thought that the whole point of gossip columnists was that they got out more.
But hang on a minute. Isn’t socialising with women girly and ‘gay’? Isn’t drinking with your male mates (or, for that matter, going fishing) something that a proper bloke is supposed to do? Isn’t the Sun actually queering things rather than straightening them out?
In fact, at the risk of it exploding in your face, that Gay-O-Meter should be turned on the Sun itself – a newspaper that is nowadays just a daily edition of girly gossip rag Heat magazine with some news about especially vain celebrities who happen to play sport at the back. A recent Sun item revealed how Man United were remodelling their player’s changing rooms and lockers to ‘accomodate their manbags’ which apparently are full of ‘more cosmetics than their WAGs’.
There is though a difference between Heat magazine and the Sun: there’s much more queer sex in the Sun. Point the Gay-O-Meter, if you dare, at the Sun’s agony aunt section with its daily ‘lesbian lust’ confessions and ‘am I gay?’ letters (not written, I hasten to add, by their TV critic). Illustrated with photo-porn novel strips of naked women and men with equally desirable, equally undressed bodies getting into messy love triangles and even messier threesomes of every possible permutation. Or all those ‘Footie Studs in Sordid Roasting Vid Scandal!’ (see centre pages for full colour spread) news stories.
The Sun is obsessed with ‘camp’ and ‘gayness’ for the same reason telly is – because popular culture is. The reason it’s so conflicted and confused is partly because of its own very recent past as an out-and-out queerbashing daily, and partly because the expensively educated people who now edit the Sun, most of whom I’m sure have lots of gay friends and even more camp straight friends, are worried about being sussed by the ‘chav’ readers they condescend to (‘chav’ is a favourite Sun word). It doesn’t appear to occur to them that their readers’ attitudes might have changed more than their own.
Then again, perhaps the Sun is so confused because it’s being doing too much spinning around in sequins. I can reveal that according to ‘sources close to the Sun’ they recently all went on a ‘team-building’ weekend in some camp seaside resort. The team-building task? Ballroom dancing.
I wonder if their TV critic’s team won?
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