Tuesday, 4 March 2008

92: "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In" and Alan Sues

Alan Sues was a regular performer on the comedy series "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" from 1968 until 1972, where Sues played a number of characters as well as “himself”. Alan Sues’s most famous character was "Big Al", a fey and clueless sports anchor who loved ringing his bell which he called his "tinkle." Sues had been in the original 1953 production of “Tea and Sympathy”. He also performed on the cabaret circuit where he was spotted for “Laugh-In”. Big Al was a character from his own nightclub act. In 1969 critic Richard Warren Lewis described Sues as “‘Laugh-In’’s resident pansy”. While never explicitly saying he was gay, Sues employed exaggerated gestures and was known for acting in an intentionally "over the top" effeminate way. Other than “Big Al”, Sues would appear in a number of rather hamfisted mini-sketches where he would ask to hold a male celebrity’s hand, including Ringo Starr and James Garner, and then this being shocking enough to win a laugh, would then disavow it. Other black-out sketches would include the likes of:

A cowboy asking for a dacquiri.
A cop asking a girl if those were his hotpants
Saying to camera: “You know. I think God save the Queen was written for Oscar Wilde”.

(A police officer approaches Sues who is behind the wheels of a convertible)
POLICEMAN: "Okay, okay, buddy, where's the fire?"
ALAN SUES: "In your eyes, officer."

Since I’ve only seen a few brief clips on youtube, I can’t really say much about his performance. He was a surprisingly large man, which sets up an immediate contrast, but from the clips I’ve seen, his seems a rather toned-down sort of nelly or camp. Although on mainstream TV at this time it probably stood out on its own. Really, it’s a rather dull performance and has little lively comparison to real screamers like Kenneth Williams. Or to use an American reference, he’s no Paul Lynde (and apparently Paul Lynde loathed being mistaken for Alan Sues).

In 1970, one year after the Stonewall riots in New York City, the show created the stereotypically effeminate character named Bruce, who was subjected to long strings of anti-gay jokes about gay men and gay liberation. (this from: www.glbtq.com/arts/am_tv_sitcoms,2.html)

In 1979 CBS attempted an unsuccessful American adaptation of “Are You Being Served?”. Sues played the role of Mr Humphries in the 1979 pilot, “Beane's of Boston”.

It’s possible the deliberately over-the top gay stereotype of “Big Gay Al” on “Southpark” may be some sort of tribute to Alan Sues’s Big Al.

Sunday, 2 March 2008

91: "The Burkiss Way" - 'Are You Being Served?' parody

The Burkiss Way, Radio 4, 1976 -80
Written by Andrew Marshall and David Renwick
From an unidentified episode, reprinted in “Bestseller! The Life and Death of Eric Pode of Croydon”, 1981

#1: Good mroning.
#2: Good mroning, can I help you?
#1: Yes, I’d like to see a male assistant please.
#2: I AM a male assistant, sir.
#1: Yes I know, but I want to see a MALE assistant – get the drift?
#2: Oh I see! Mr Different-person!
#3: Yes, Mr Same-person?
#2: Serve this gentleman would you?
#3: Certainly. Now sir, what is it you wish to purchase?
#1: A pair of socks please.
#3: I see, sir. And what size are you?
#1: To the right.
#3: I beg your pardon, sir?
#1: To the right.
#3: I . . . don’t think I’m quite with you yet, sir?
#1: Well put it this way, I incline towards the EASTERN hemisphere.
#3: What?
#1: I put all my eggs in the OFFSIDE basket
#3: ? ? ? Sir, how long did you want these socks?
#1: Well, until they wear out.
#3: I see. In that case I think we’ll put you on the this foot-measurer. Just give me your foot please.
#3: I beg your pardon
#3: What did you do that for?
#1: I’m sorry, I thought you wanted me to cough.
#3: Sir, can we please confine this conversation to your feet.
#1: Very well.
#3: Now then, what colour?
#1: Pale blue.
#1: I was TALKING about the socks.
#3: Oh, sorry. The central heating’s not working. Now if you’d just slip them on, see how they feel . . .
#1: Hmm. They feel a bit LOOSE for a sock.
#3: (SIGH) They’re supposed to go on your feet, sir.
#1: Are they?
#3: Yes, sir.
#1: In that case why have they got elasticated tops on them?
#3: Because you don’t want them to fall down when it gets cold, do you?
#1: I should say not. All right, I’ll take them.
#3: Thank you, sir, there’s your receipt.
#1: Just a second. These are for gentlemen who . . . well . . to the LEFT, not the right at all.
#3: What on earth are you talking about?
#1: Look – that little sumbol there!
#3: That’s a percentage sign now will you get out of here you nasty, smutty little man and stop wasting my time!
#1: Oh all right then. Good mroning.
#3: Good mroning!

90: “Are You Being Served?” - Mr Humphries

Writers: Jeremy Lloyd, David Croft
1972 - 1985

(Just go to youtube and type in "John Inman" to see almost any of the 69 episodes)

If you’ve lived in Britain, Canada, Australia, even America, or who knows where else, you’ve probably seen an episode of “Are You Being Served?”. “Are You Being Served?”’s sheer ubiquity, immense one-time popularity, and the broad innuendoes and energetic comic acting means that the camp shop assistant Mr Humphries has been a representation too-far for many gay men for over three decades.

The pilot of the Grace Brothers Department Store-set sitcom ran in 1972. The first series followed in 1973, and 10 series with 69 episodes had been produced by 1985. The series never seemed to be off the telly with constant repeats. And with audiences of up to 22 million, why shouldn’t it have been repeated? Of course, this was in a country and time when there were only three television channels.

Mr Humphries was the most noticeable and flamboyant of the store’s staff. As portrayed by John Inman, he became one of TV's best known characters. In 1976 Inman was voted funniest man on television by TV Times readers and also declared BBC TV's personality of the year. But it was his being so energetically feyly inoffensive to the public at large which made him so irritating to many gay men. Mr Humphries was the gay stereotype of the men’s shop assistant in excelsis: a jaunty manner, a high voice, a staccato sashaying mining walk, hands either on hips or pressed to his cheek, often dressed in silly revealing costumes, and a piercing catchphrase of “I’m free!”. Mr Humphries was the picture dictionary definition of “camp”. Compared to the squalid moaning miseries who were the rest of the shopfloor staff, this also made him a lot more fun. As a character he enjoyed wearing the costumes, throwing himself with gusto into whatever that week’s setpiece happened to be, and so the public found Inman and Humphries funny and appealing. Mr Humphries was originally only going to be a minor character, a fairly shabby, glum senior shop assistant with only a few lines in the pilot episode. Since the writers didn’t quite know what to do with the character they gave Inman a lot of latitude to devise his character and performance. Inman had worked as a shop assistant, and so he turned Humphries into the chirpy little parody. Even the “I’m free” catchphrase was apparently Inman’s addition, since it was something the assistants themselves said.

There is a small amount of bad faith in all this. Mr Humphries was played camp, but the writers and Inman always denied that he was gay, just a “mother’s boy”. Inman, for most of his career, also publicly denied being gay himself. Of course, to say in the sitcom that Mr Humphries was gay would have put him in the same ghastly world of relationships as practised by all the other characters and probably have opened the character to real prejudice from the critics. This tacit disavowal allowed Mr Humphries to remain in a childish world of dressing up and strange acquaintances, while only ever eliciting a raised eyebrow from Captain Peacock for tardy timekeeping. Inman had spent most of his adult life during the period when homosexuality was either illegal or heavily stigmatised, and now he found he was working busily, playing a character who seemed much beloved by the public at the large. That in retrospect we should demand he possibly forfeit his career and social status for a moment’s forthrightness may be a bit much.

That there should be such heavy expectation from what is really only a light comic actor in a farcical role, is because of the media power that Inman’s performance had. From past examples, the public had an idea as to what gay man was, and now on prime time tv here was a broad comic confirmation. At exactly the same time, a new generation of gay men were expressing themselves through Gay Lib, a burgeoning gay scene and new more macho sexual ethos. With so few representations of gay men in the public eye, the old-fashioned stereotype of Mr Humphries was not the trivial image they wanted to see. There were grumbles in the gay press. Inman reported that four or five members of the group Campaign for Homosexual Equality picketed one of his shows in protest. Campaigners and charity workers on phone-lines said Mr Humphries was a serious stumbling block for people who were discovering their sexuality. The prevalent assumption that gay equaled Mr Humphries, so if they were gay they would have to behave like Mr Humphries, and could they be gay if they weren’t like Mr Humphries.

Of course, this is to pretend that “Are You Being Served?” is an in-depth fly-on-the-wall documentary about the state of the service sector in mid-70s Britain, where every character has to be a shining paragon of some particular social subset, rather than a slightly broad, coarse and hackneyed sitcom. Mr Humphries’s crime is to be slightly shrill, effeminate but innocuous at the very time gay men thought they were gaining ground for being taken more seriously. He is not truly offensive, but he does wound our adolescent amour-propre. He is slightly shy-making, to use an old-fashioned expression. I would argue that Winston in the sitcom “In Sickness and in Health” in the mid-80s is a lot more stereotypical and offensive. “Are You Being Served?” and Mr Humphries are a slightly embarrassing and belaboured comedy legacy of the 70s, like some blinkered and clueless but largely harmless family relation we will never quite shrug off.

One could probably make an entire documentary about the debate over Mr Humphries. Various opinions worth considering are:

Mark Simpson's at http://www.marksimpson.com/blog/2007/03/11/we-have-been-served-mr-humphries-hangs-up-his-earthly-tape-measure/

Stuart Jeffries at http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2007/mar/09/broadcasting.tvandradio

Matthew Parris's at http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/matthew_parris/article1494961.ece

Saturday, 1 March 2008

89: The Pied Piper of Burbank

The “Pied Piper of Burbank” by Sean Kelly and Michel Choquette in “National Lampoon” March 1971
Illustrations by Gahan Wilson

Well first, I must admit it’s an excellent parody of Browning’s poem, which you can read at http://www.indiana.edu/~librcsd/etext/piper/text.html

Secondly, it’s not just a parody but also a very well-executed piece of satire. The governor in question is of course Ronald Reagan, who was attempting to spearhead a conservative moral revolution in free-living California. The piece also exposes conservative hatred and political machinations throughout, as homosexuals, whose influence is limited to fashion and the media, are made scapegoats for the decay in society’s morality. An unknowing foreshadowing there of the later 70s and Anita Bryant. The poem manages to work in a broad array of gay stereotypes and representations of what a gay lifestyle might have been at the time. But while lightly mocking of homosexuals, the real satire is aimed at the bigotry of the conservatives.

88: Ralph Steadman

From “Still Life with Raspberry”, 1969

Judging from the hair and the fashion I suspect this is from the mid 60s – 65/66 maybe.
Not flattering but then Steadman’s art never is. That’s the point. Usually his faces are either geometric shapes or else asymmetrical chancred, drooping, rotting masses of flesh. This style of simpering lustful ugliness is a bit different. The slightly parodied conventionally handsome men are also a bit off Steadman’s usual line. So the two set each other off. I’m not sure whether this is all supposed to depict:
1 – gay men desirous of handsome men
2 – the conventionally handsome men are in fact male fashion models attracting the fawning homosexuals
3 – the conventionally/deceptively handsome men’s men are in fact also gay