I was sad to hear the news yesterday, about the death of David Croft, co-creator and writer of classic (1970s) British TV comedies such as It Aint Half Hot Mum, Are you Being Served? and Dad’s Army.
As a child in the 1970s I adored all those shows, particularly their irreverent approach to, well, I didn’t have the word for it then, but masculinity. From Windsor Davies’ sergeant major, to John Inman’s Mister Humphries, men were presented as funny, warm, varied, and usually very camp. You knew, even then, there was something naughty about these programmes. I doubt I knew what Mrs Slocombe’s pussy was, but I knew it was something ‘grown up’ and risque.
Homosexuality was only made legal in 1967, and Dads Army and It Aint Half Hot Mum represented an age even before that, when men’s love and desire for each other was illicit and unspoken. There was another word I didn’t know in the 1970s – ‘gay’. The lack of a strongly developed ‘gay’ identity and all the crap TV that seems to have emerged with it (Graham Norton, Queer As Folk, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Alan Carr etc etc), meant that comedy could play on homo-erotics and homosexual subtext in a subtle way back then.
As Mark Simpson has recently observed, even the ‘camp’ homoerotics of Top Gun, a 1980s classic, have been ‘outed’ and it is now seen as a ‘gay’ movie in many ways.
‘Perhaps we’re all more knowing now. Perhaps more people are clued-up about homoerotics. Perhaps it’s down to the Interweb making all the ‘incriminating’ clips always available. Perhaps it’s all my fault. Though I suspect it’s more a case of the past being a foreign country — so ‘gayness’ can be safely projected onto something in the past, even if it was once what hundreds of millions of straight young men saw as the very epitome of aspirational heterosexuality.’
I wonder where this leaves us. As Simpson suggested, homo-erotics are still brought to us via the back door of ‘heterosexual’ Hollywood films such as Captain America, Warrior and Thor. But as audiences are so much more ‘knowing’ now than they were in the 1970s, these films lose a lot of their charge. Contemporary culture is now ‘metrosexual’ in its presentation of men. We see buff boys displaying their bodies on the screen and men and women in the audience feel free, on one level, to openly desire them. On another, men continue to be repressed. But they don’t have such a fun and therapeutic outlet for their repression as they might have had in the form of Dads Army and It Aint Half Hot Mum.
Gay sexualities are very much out of the closet in 2011, and prancing round all over our TV screens. But this means we don’t get half as many laughs as we used to.
RIP – British homosexuals, and the brilliant comedy you brought us. Now where’s my box set of Hi De Hi?!