gall and gumption

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

"I'm a Tits-and-Feathers Man, Really."

Goodbye, John Inman.

Some critics...described Inman and Mr Humphries as two of the best
friends of gay liberation on television. But the
gratitude was not universal. In 1977, the Campaign for
Homosexual Equality targeted Inman in Brighton, where
he was appearing in a seaside show. They handed out
leaflets blaming him for depicting homosexuals as
sexually obsessed, too extravagant in manner and too
eager to drag up. They argued that most homosexuals
did not behave like Mr Humphries, and that Inman was
contributing to television's distortion of their
image. Poor Inman, not a strong swimmer in the
fast-flowing river of controversy, argued that he was
not campaigning in any way, merely trying to make
people laugh.

There were compensations for him, too. Are You Being
Served? made Inman famous not only in Britain but also
in the US, where the series was sold. He was
recognised in Los Angeles as much as in London. Once,
in San Francisco, a young man fell off his bicycle
because he was so surprised to see Inman, and lay in
the road shouting "I love you, Mr
Humphries."


The controversy continues. Stuart Jeffries sees Are You Being Served as a snake pit of homophobia and misogyny.


Simon Fanshawe's
feelings about the Mr. Humphries character
are more complicated.

What neither of these writers mentions is that 1)Inman got all the killer lines and the breathless set-up to them, and the biggest laughs were divided between him and Mrs. Slocombe. 2) Of course everyone else at Grace Brothers understood his double-entendres; the amazing thing was that they gave no sign of thinking there was anything strange or improper about them -- that is, he wasn't any more peculiar than any of the others. They didn't seem to think it strange that Mr. Humphries was gay. 3) He was never punished for being gay. Mrs. Slocum and Captain Peacock get themselves into all sorts of embarrassments for a sort of low-grade hubris from time to time, but Mr. Humphries always triumphed.

Caribbean people love Are You Being Served? It is familiar, because the characterizations in that show come straight out of the pantomime and music-hall
tradition, which was a big influence on our own theatrical traditions. So broad-brush, stock characters, (there's always a Captain somewhere about the place, isn't there?) implausible plot lines, and all the rest of it are comfortably familiar. And not only that, but the formality of their relationships -- always addressing each other as "Mrs. Slocum, Captain Peacock," etc., for instance, and the formalities of the jobs themselves, were familiar to us. It was a feature of our world too. My first job was at a department store in Kingston. It was during the Christmas rush. The woman in charge of the evening gown section, where they placed me, was devoutly worshipful of the management and owners. She was addressed by everyone as "Mrs. B--" I've now forgotten what her last name was. (She was very kind, I do remember that, and I remember that one day she came to work and was chattering away as she usually did and I was listening but unable to concentrate because there was something wrong with her face and I couldn't figure out what it was. All of a sudden she clapped her hand over her mouth and exclaimed, "Oh my God! I forgot my teeth!" So she had to jump into a taxi and rush home to get them.) But in this formality at work we were following the same standard, it was what we were brought up to, and it has only abated under the influence of American culture. Our "official" culture, into the mid-1970s, was British culture.

Jamaica used to put on a big pantomime every year at the Ward Theater; it was one of the major arts events of the year. And even in plays that aren't pantomimes you see the influence of the pantomime style of writing. Like in the stock figures. There are all these farces and the same things tend to happen. The evil landlord or the unpleasant suitor of the female lead, or the genial con man, will very likely have to escape from somebody's house dressed in women's clothes. Or the pretentious higgler lady ("Miss Gatta") who has made a lot of money importing goods and selling them to her friends, and has returned from the US sporting very flashy clothes and a fake American accent, she will undergo some form of humiliation involving possibly a donkey, or donkey poop, or basically anything that reminds her of the humble origins that she has forgotten. When these moments happen in a Jamaican farce the audience goes totally mad. My own personal favorite stock character in Jamaican farce is the Chinese grocery store owner who I love, not as a stereotype, but because he has an accent like nothing else on this earth, having learned to speak English from his patois-speaking customers. No, it's no use asking me to do the accent. I know my limits.

On one hand you have all this total unreality, magic, wishes, cardboard villains and so forth, and the weird thing is that whenever some bit of current reality is introduced it is absorbed and turns out to be the zaniest thing in there. I think that's what Inman did, and I think it's pretty cool. You never knew if he was actually getting any sexual action. There was often something wistful about his little self-exposures, as if he were describing his wishes or his fantasies but lacked the courage to fulfill them. He was a timid gay man, with good reason, after all. But he wasn't necessarily timid because he was gay. And the broadness of his mannerisms -- well, what do you expect of a man who before he became Mr. Humphries was best known as a pantomime dame?

Are You Being Served, and Inman's whole acting style, belong to a humor
tradition that at the high end has Gilbert & Sullivan, and includes, as you descend, Benny Hill and those naughty postcards you find in English seaside towns.

It's working class entertainment, it's naff. Orwell, a self-made expert on the habits and tastes of the working class in England, wrote a great essay about these postcards:

Your first impression is of overpowering vulgarity. This is quite apart
from the ever-present obscenity, and apart also from the hideousness of the colours. They have an utter low-ness of mental atmosphere which comes out not only in the nature of the jokes but, even more, in the grotesque, staring, blatant quality of the drawings. The designs, like those of a child, are full of heavy lines and empty spaces, and all the figures in them, every gesture and attitude, are deliberately ugly, the faces grinning and vacuous, the women monstrously paradied, with bottoms like Hottentots. Your second impression, however, is of indefinable familiarity. What do these things remind you of? What are they'so like? In the first place, of course, they remind you of the barely different post cards which you probably gazed at in your childhood. But more than this, what you are really looking at is something as traditional as Greek tragedy, a sort of sub-world of smacked bottoms and scrawny mothers-in-law which is a part of Western European consciousness.


This isthe world of Victorian outings where the young man and his lady friend would go to Blackpool or Eastbourne for a day's holiday and consume an ungodly number of shrimps.

"Lady Jingly! Lady Jingly!
Sitting where the pumpkins grow,
Will you come and be my wife?"
Said the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo.
"I am tired of living singly,
On this coast so wild and shingly,
I'm a-weary of my life;
If you'll come and be my wife,
Quite serene would be my life!"
Said the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo.
Said the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo.

"On this Coast of Coromandel,
Shrimps and watercresses grow,
Prawns are plentiful and cheap,"
Said the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo.
"You shall have my chairs and candle,
And my jug without a handle! -
Gaze upon the rolling deep
(Fish is plentiful and cheap) -
As the sea, my love is deep!"
Said the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo.
Said the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo.


It's easy to forget, from here, what a difference there has been culturally, between the upper and lower classes in England. There are shared connections (the pantomime is one) but they really inhabit two different worlds. Over here, we notice that other one a lot less because when we go to England we'll all be hanging out with our cousins the Nobs, who can't wait for us to call.

1 Comments:

At 12:59 PM, Blogger L7 said...

O my goodness, you said, "Tits." Watch that traffic soar! I'm going to do a keyword search for "tits," "shrimps" and "feathers."

 

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