Saturday, 9 June 2012

414: The Fenn Street Gang

The Fenn Street Gang

Hugh Walters – Mr Winters

“The Start of Something Big” (24 September 1971, writers: Geoff Rowley and Andy Baker)
“Distant Horizons” (22 October 1971, writer: Tony Bilbow)
“Who Was That Lady?” (3 December 1971, writer: John Esmonde and Bob Larbey)
“The Great Frock Robbers” (11 February 1972, writer: John Esmonde and Bob Larbey)

Everybody remembers that 1970s British sitcom with a gay character, you know, the one who works in a fashion shop. No, I don’t mean Mr Humphries in “Are You Being Served”. I mean Mr Winters who in “The Fenn Street Gang”.

Unfortunately I’ve lost my notes for “The Fenn Street Gang” so this will all be from memory as life is too short to acquire the episodes and watch them again.

“The Fenn Street Gang” was the spin off from “Please, Sir”, a sitcom in which a bunch of actors in their late twenties pretended to be students at a comprehensive school. Eventually, they all began to look pensionable and so that particular part of the programme’s premise got a touch ridiculous. However as the series and the characters were popular, “The Fenn Street Gang” was created to follow their further adventures into the real world after leaving school.

As there were quite a few characters in “Please, Sir”, each of the episodes of “The Fenn Street Gang” only followed a couple of characters at a time. Sharon who was the “dolly bird” type character got a job in a boutique in the first season. Her boss at the boutique was Mr Winters, and as per the rest of this blog, is the only reason why I’m interested in watching this barrel-scraper from the archives. Mr Winters is gay, and is a recurring character in the first season. Therefore Mr Winters is the first recurring gay character in a sitcom and therefore makes this sitcom slightly worthy of a little historical notice. He is only a supporting character though.

A gay manager in a boutique is not too far a stretch as a reasonable character. If I remember correctly, the other girl helping in the shop was black, so it’s some attempt to look at a slightly more modern Britain. From a distance of 40 years you could say he dresses somewhat colourfully but not really any more flamboyant than you might realistically expect in 1971. Nor is he overly camp. He is a sympathetic character, largely friendly and understanding towards the girls he works with. Most of the time it’s more a matter of accepted gay mannerisms by the actor, than any explicit camp declarations. There aren’t really any jokes at his expense, nor is he a screaming caricature. He’s more realistic than Mr Humphries, say, and as this is only 1971 he isn’t a “poof” stereotype either. By poof , I mean: flamboyantly dressed in an over-the-top costume, mincing about, and camping it up. Poofs were de rigeur circa 1972 – 1974, and compare also to Dick Emery and Robin Hood in “Carry On Up the Chastity Belt” (1971). In one of the episodes, Sharon’s boyfriend gets possessive about Sharon’s friendship with Mr Winters and wants to be sure that he’s “a poof”, but it’s not meant in an unpleasant derogatory way. It’s 1971, this is an ITV sitcom, her boyfriend is a Jack-the-Lad character, and let’s be honest, in the very early 70s everyone called gay men poofs.

So if someone were to do a documentary, Mr Winters is definitely one to dig up and include for a 30-45 second inclusion but nothing more. As with the first ever gay character in a sitcom in “Steptoe and Son” so Britain gets in with the first recurring gay sitcom character . And as with “Steptoe and Son” it’s not a blazing offence either – even if it is only for 4 episodes. Hugh Walters crops up a lot in British television, where he sometimes employed slightly fey or fussy characterisations. He even went on to play Charles Hawtrey in the Carry-On biopic “Cor Blimey”. So whether Hugh Walters is gay or not, this is not a performance to be embarrassed by either.

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