How to Irritate People (1968)
Written by John Cleese and Graham Chapman, with Marty Feldman and Tim Brooke-Taylor
starts at 2:00
Here, to greater or lesser degrees, just before the arrival of the behemoth that is “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”, you get Graham Chapman and Michael Palin camping it up. Suits you? Suits me. Palin is blithely boyish, with a grin locked into his features. Chapman, yer actual homosexual, gives a bravura performance, over-the top and chewing the scenery, flouncy hands, with a pop-eyed and strained-face not dissimilar to Kenneth Williams or others of his ilk. Chapman starts off bouncily emphatic, then determinedly coy, with the punchline delivered as a sudden vertical ascent into a shriek of Annapurnan offense. In real life Chapman was fairly butch (pipe-smoking, mountain-climbing) and apparently didn’t have much time for snidey queens.
If only to show what the contemporary popular impression of theatrical homosexuality was that this parodies, here’s a lengthy quotation from Ken Tynan’s 1961 review of Kenneth Williams in “One Over the Eight”. Barely a month or so after this review, “Beyond the Fringe” opened, heralding a new sort of humour. Although “Beyond the Fringe” wasn’t averse to including comedy its homosexuals
As long ago as 1929 George Jean Nathan was complaining about the influence on the American theatre of the pixie mannerisms imported by English actors. 'What we need,' he said 'are (sic) more actors like Jack Dempsey, who tried the stage a little while ago. Jack may not be much at am actor, but his worst enemy certainly cannot accuse him of belonging too the court of Titania.'
Nathan took pains to define exactly what he was attacking: 'It isn't that the actors are biologically queer. It's that they possess or have acquired an air of effeminacy that, however hard or adroitly they try to conceal it, shows itself sooner or later during the course of a dramatic performance. . . .'
He was referring, of course, to the phenomenon we know as 'camp', In the province of comedy, with which I am presently concerned, its distinguishing feature is a marked inclination towards the dainty, the coy and the exuberantly fussy. The ability to camp (let us drop those misleadingly inverted commas) is a useful, even a vital, part of comic technique, but it is not the whole of it; and in recent years, I disrespectfully submit, we have had excess of it, our appetite has sickened, and English high comedy has very nearly died.
Consider One Over the Eight, which exemplifies the atrophy of latterday English revue.
The expressions most frequently seen on the faces of the cast are two in number. The men register: 'How naughty I am!'; and the women: 'How naughty you are!' The atmosphere of arrested adolescence is over-powering. The dance routines are at once inventive and dull; boys in tight trousers smile and spin, sometimes accompanied by spinning girls, who might smile more convincingly if their clothes were more attractive. The star, Kenneth Williams, has a matchless repertory of squirms, leers, ogles and severe, reproving glares, and must be accounted the petit-maitre of contemporary camp. As such, I salute him; but I wish there were more to English comedy than this.