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.
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!”
Sometimes I worry that I’m too difficult to please these days.
At first glance I thought this latest example of ‘soldiers acting gay on video’, in this instance Swedish Marines in Afghanistan, was, despite the lashings of good humour on display, not to mention the military precision that has been put into the choreography, a little dissatisfying.
And it wasn’t just the beards. Too many levels of irony here, I huffed. Macho mechanic Marines pretending to be chorus boys in Grease pretending to be macho mechanics. Please. You should have stuck to Abba, darlings.
And then I watched it again, so as to identify exactly why it didn’t hit the spot – for the benefit of military chaps making these important videos in future. And this time I noticed a couple of hidden-in-plain-view Hitchcockian ‘master strokes’ that entirely transformed my opinion of it:
The ‘rearguard’ action at 0.48 with one Marine bent over, combat trousers pulled down, while a tall bearded comrade standing behind him gives him an oil change.
The touching tableau at 1.01, stage left, over the rear of the impossibly butch reconnaissance vehicle, where a Marine on his back has his legs held in the air by a chum driving home his greased lightning.
So clearly I’m not very difficult to please after all.
Trying to justify myself, I might say that it’s a wonderful deconstruction of Grease, Marines, masculinity and camp military videos. Or maybe just quote the old joke US sailors like to tell against Marines:
Q: What’s the difference between a butch Marine and a nelly Marine?
A: A butch Marine HOLDS HIS OWN GODDAMN LEGS IN THE AIR!!
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.
The first sentence in Susan Sontag’s latest collection of essays is eight lines long, mentions Camus and Pasternak and ends with the word “impinging”. But would we have it any other way? Sontag dares to look serious in a way that is somehow enhanced rather than undermined by that Bride of Frankenstein stripe of grey she sports these days.
To hold on to your seriousness is quite an achievement in an age of silliness such as ours, and you’ll be relieved to hear that Where the Stress Falls contains no pieces on Madonna or PlayStation 2, and definitely no recipes.
Instead you’ll find pieces with titles such as “A Note on Bunraku” and “Homage to Halliburton”, written in that learned, didactic and apparently effortless style which is not always quite so effortless to read. Serious Susan is not here to entertain you. Though cynics – i.e. me – might dub this collection: Does My Brain Look Big in This?
Susan Sontag is a living legend, even though we might be forgiven for thinking that she was left behind with the 20th century, rueful amidst the ruins of the modernism that we have abandoned for the gleeful barbarism of contemporary life. She’s definitely still here, though she might be feeling rather lonely. Sontag is, after all, the Last Intellectual in the Anglo-American world: Gore Vidal has turned into Truman Capote, Norman Mailer has turned into Moses, while Harold Bloom’s canon has turned out to be his winding sheet. On this side of the philistine pond, Jonathan Miller would be holding up the banner of seriousness and intellect, but alas, that injunction banning him from appearing in public is still in force.
Sontag knows this – in fact, this is her “brand” which she exploits adroitly – but seems charmingly determined to pretend there are other intellectuals left in the world: it’s just that they’re shirking their duties. In “Answers to a Questionnaire”, her response to a survey of intellectuals and their role, she complains magisterially how many times she’s heard intellectuals “pronounce on the inadequacy, credulity, disgrace, treason, irrelevance, obsolescence, and imminent or already perfected disappearance of the caste to which… they belong”. All the same, she’s careful to mention that she was “the sole American” to whom the French (they would be French) compilers sent their questionnaire.
Sontag even had her own “Spanish Civil War” in the 1990s, when she travelled to a besieged, ruined Sarajevo to direct by candlelight a production of Waiting For Godot. It was a dramatic gesture that was much larger than the drama itself: the Last Intellectual nursing the flame of modernism in a European city catapulted back into the Dark Ages. It was also a brave and inspiring – and sincere – thing to do, and it pointed up the ineptitude of most who toil by brain rather than hand these days when faced with embarrassing reality. (One visiting horrified New Yorker asked her son, also a writer, how he could “spend so much time in a country where people smoke so much”).
But is it merely the tainted cynicism of our selfish, rationalising age that inclines some of us to doubt Sontag when she complains about the enormous press attention she received and that she “forgot” that she was going to be billeted in a hotel full of journalists? Or causes us to chortle when she dismisses as “condescending” those back home who wondered whether the bleakness of Waiting for Godot was what the citizens of Sarajevo really wanted, but then sees no irony in later explaining she only staged Act I because she had decided that the distressed citizens of Sarajevo might not be able to bear the downbeat ending.
And then there is another question which keeps insistently suggesting itself like a barely suppressed snigger: is there something faintly camp about Susan Sontag? It dates back to the early 1960s when she tried to define what lives and swishes to avoid definition – to pin down that wiggly, ticklish thing in her by far most famous essay “Notes on Camp”.
If camp really is “failed seriousness”, as she suggested, just how successful is Sontag’s seriousness in an age like ours where seriousness itself is judged to have failed? Her impressive, swan-like prose always inclines me at least to wonder how much furious peddling is going on beneath the water line. This is why the naked boast of Serious Susan’s street-brawling 1990s nemesis, Camille Paglia, after the publication of Sexual Personae, was so funny: “I’ve been chasing that bitch for years and now I’ve finally overtaken her!”
But, just like the ‘vulgar’ Paglia, Sontag made her reputation in part by lending cultural capital to things which were not at the time considered worth it, such as camp, cinema and Roland Barthes, in her now classic 1966 collection Against Interpretation. In fact, it was Sontag’s interest in that silly Frenchy which arguably set her up, giving her the edge on her (long forgotten) rivals. She was one of the main conduits by which Barthes’ obsession with taking superficiality seriously reached Anglo academe and became intensely fashionable in the 1970s and 1980s, and in many ways prepared the way for the post-modernism and irony which is such anathema to Sontag today.
As Oscar Wilde once put it: “A moralist is someone who lectures on the vices of which he has grown bored.” In a preface to a new edition of Against Interpretation, included here, she makes a moving public confession:
“What I didn’t understand… was that seriousness itself was in the early stages of losing credibility in the culture at large, and that some of the more transgressive art I was enjoying would reinforce frivolous, merely consumerist transgressions. Thirty years later, the undermining of standards of seriousness is almost complete.”
True, but perhaps it’s also the case that 30 years on the frontline of culture has moved to other, less Sontagian regions.
But old and new cultural capital always find a need for one another. It is well known that Sontag is in a relationship with Annie Leibovitz, the famous photographer. The famous celebrity photographer. Despite no official acknowledgement by the couple, their union is splashed across the broadsheets as a “glamorous” affair. Serious Susan, whether she wants to be or not, is a celebrity involved in a celebrity marriage. No wonder she doesn’t want to talk about it.
All this can’t help but lend a special resonance to “Certain Mapplethorpes”, one of the most interesting and personal essays in this collection. Explaining why she hates being photographed, she writes:
“The photograph comes as a kind of reproof to the grandiosity of consciousness. Oh. So there `I’ am.”
After all, aren’t girlfriends an affront to the grandiosity of consciousness too?
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.