Friday, 29 April 2016

A lovely way of earning the pennies

And so, farewell Mr Barry Howard - most famous for his portrayal of the waspish Barry Stuart-Hargreaves in BAFTA-award-winning 80s telly series Hi-De-Hi.

His was a long career in entertainment, mainly on the stage. For it was his panto partnership with another legendary TV camp character actor John Inman (in the days before Are You Being Served? was ever a twinkle in the eyes of Messrs Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft) that brought the two queens their first taste of success. Renowned for their fabulous costumes and wigs - created by “Modreno”, nowadays Wig Art - the pair were the most sought-after “Ugly Sisters” of their day, as well as having solo spots as various "Dames".

Barry made his West End debut as Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, toured in Salad Days and Oliver. He portrayed "Emory" in a stage version of Boys In The Band, Herr Schultz in Cabaret, Arthur Askey’s silly son in What A Racket, Hylda Baker’s boyfriend in Nearest and Dearest, "The Narrator" in The Rocky Horror Show, and more recently was "Marley's Ghost" in in Scrooge with Tommy Steele. On TV he appeared in The Two Ronnies, The Good Old Days, Terry and June, two Seaside Specials with John Inman, and even Doctor Who.

As the Telegraph's Ben Lawrence said:
"However, it was as the imperious ballroom dancer Barry Stuart-Hargreaves in Hi-de-Hi! that Howard came into his own. He excelled at showing what we would now call status anxiety as he and dance partner Yvonne (played by [the late] Diane Holland) foxtrotted round the ballroom of an Essex holiday camp, quietly despairing at the thought that they had reached the acme of their professional careers.

"Barry's snootiness was a perfect contrast to Paul Shane's coarse Northern comic Ted Bovis, with Howard often stealing the show with a displeased sideways glance or the flare of a nostril that hinted at an unpleasant smell in the vicinity."

The last word goes to Mr Howard himself: "[It was] a lovely way of earning the pennies".

RIP Barry Frederick Howard (9th July 1937 – 28th April 2016)

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Counting no old thing old, thou mine, I thine

Four hundred years on from the Bard of Avon's untimely death at the age of 52, the debate continues about the Great Man's true nature - and the mystery of to whom he dedicated his greatest works - not least the subject of whether he was "one of us".

From Don Paterson's analysis of Shakespeare's Sonnets in The Guardian:
...the question: "was Shakespeare gay?" strikes me as so daft as to be barely worth answering. Of course he was. Arguably he was bisexual, of sorts, but his heart was never on his straight side. Now is not the time to rehearse them all, but the arguments against his homosexuality are complex and sophistical, and often take convenient and homophobic advantage of the sonnets' built-in interpretative slippage – which Shakespeare himself would have needed for what we would now call "plausible deniability", should anyone have felt inclined to cry sodomy.

The argument in favour is simple. First, falling in love with other men is often a good indication of homosexuality; and second, as much as I love some of my male friends, I'm never going to write 126 poems for them, even the dead ones. Third, read the poems, then tell me these are "pure expressions of love for a male friend" and keep a straight face. This is a crazy, all-consuming, feverish and sweaty love; love, in all its uncut, full-strength intensity; an adolescent love. The reader's thrill lies in hearing this adolescent love articulated by a hyper-literate thirty-something. Usually these kids can't speak.

The effect is extraordinary...
Indeed it is, as these three, from a collection that by Will's death amounted to 154 poems, attest.

Sonnet 108:
What’s in the brain that ink may character
Which hath not figured to thee my true spirit?
What’s new to speak, what now to register,
That may express my love or my dear merit?
Nothing, sweet boy; but yet like prayers divine
I must each day say o’er the very same,
Counting no old thing old, thou mine, I thine,
Even as when first I hallowed thy fair name.
So that eternal love in love’s fresh case
Weighs not the dust and injury of age,
Nor gives to necessary wrinkles place,
But makes antiquity for aye his page,
Finding the first conceit of love there bred
Where time and outward form would show it dead.
Sonnet 20:
A woman’s face with Nature’s own hand painted
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion;
A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women’s fashion;
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue, all “hues” in his controlling,
Which steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created;
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she prick’d thee out for women’s pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love’s use their treasure.
...and one of my absolute favourites - Sonnet 116:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
No-one knows for certain who the Young Man, the object of these sonnets, really was - but academic conjecture has focused upon one of two individuals, both Shakespeare's patrons; either Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton:

...or William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke:

Lusty fellows, both, you will agree...

Whoever the recipient of these outpourings of passion may have been, he certainly was a lucky man. I can only dream of anyone writing 126 love-poems in praise of my beauty.

Happy birthday William Shakespeare (26th April 1564 (baptised) – 23rd April 1616)

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Mood Indigo

Where he led, others followed.

RIP Prince (Prince Rogers Nelson, 7th June 1958 – 21st April 2016)

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Don't dream it

"Contrary to popular belief, I don't just play dreadful old villains."
- Tim Curry (70 years old today)

"Don't dream it, be it!"
- Frank N. Furter

Timothy James "Tim" Curry (born 19th April 1946)

Friday, 15 April 2016

A table for four, sir?

"Table Des Joyes"

"Trone Salon Secret" armchair

"Trone Salon Secret" armchair detail





From an article by Michael Reynolds in Wallpaper magazine, October 2013:
As the Wehrmacht steamrolled in every conceivable direction throughout Europe during the Second World War, bringing death, destruction and misery with it wherever it went, somehow, miraculously, it found time to shop. Shopping, in this case, being a relative term - the German army feverishly plundered Europe from East to West, snatching up as many masterpieces of fine art and antiques as it could get its greedy little hands on.

One great vanishing act to emerge from this sordid tale of wartime looting involves the disappearance of a fabled suite of erotic furniture belonging to its famously libidinous 18th-century daughter, Catherine the Great. The same Catherine whose lustful life was an open secret and whose reign was populated with as many as 13 lovers (her final paramour Platon Zubov being a positively geriatric 22 years of age, while she was a youthful 60).

Shortly after the siege of Leningrad in 1941, German officers raided the Czarina's summer palace, best known as the Catherine Palace, and upon entry into her private chambers stumbled across what one can only imagine would have been any healthy teenage Nazi's wet dream. Her boudoir was adorned with erotically carved wooden panels and pieces of furniture, all embellished with sexually graphic motifs. When the German forces finally retreated from Russia in 1944, they deliberately destroyed the historic palace, leaving behind only its hollow shell and no clue as to the whereabouts of its contents. The secret erotic furnishings of Russia's most renowned Empress had disappeared without trace.

Fast-forward seven decades to the present and a discovery was made, but not one that solved the mystery of the missing furniture. Instead, it was a discovery that would stimulate the imagination of illustrious French furniture factory Henryot & Cie and its manager Dominique Roitel. After procuring a copy of Bernard Gip's book The Passions and Lechery of Catherine the Great, Roitel had a brilliant idea - to create flawless, quality, hand-carved reproductions of the late Empress's missing erotic furniture. After closely referencing images from the book, as well as archival drawings and photos taken by the German military during the war (the latter made accessible to them by filmmaker Peter Woditsch, best known for his documentary The Lost Secret of Catherine the Great), Henryot embarked full throttle on its mission. The first two pieces to be reproduced are a round, phallic-based table and a coitally-encrusted armchair.

...And what of the fate of the originals? We may never know. One can only imagine that they are hidden away in some Bavarian castle, routinely oiled by some octogenarian military crow. Because old wood - as I am sure Catherine would attest, were she alive today - needs plenty of oil.
The pieces are available through Cote France, New York [or at least they were at the time of this article in 2013] - $269,000 for the chair; $159,000 for the table.

Fit for a Queen!

Eight things you didn't know about Catherine the Great.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

I think today should be...

...a "Say Something Hat" day, don't you?

"Mr John" hat, 1950s

Ann Sothern

Loretta Young

Claudette Colbert on the set of Zaza

The munters at Aintree Grand National Ladies' Day had nothing on these.

Monday, 4 April 2016

"Look at the muck on here!"

"I can't sing, I can't dance, I can't play an instrument. But I've done everything from school nativity plays to the London Palladium."

From the h2g2 site:
Larry Grayson dominated a niche of British comedy in the 1970s by utilising his highly successful personality and natural comic timing, honed by years of practising his craft around endless theatres and clubs. His act became synonymous with English music hall humour, and was the personification of high camp. Through television shows, most notably The Generation Game, Larry found a mass outlet where he could expose his whims and strut his unique personality.

His manner, style and charisma endeared him to several generations, and influenced many of today's performers. He could get a laugh merely by flicking a wrist and saying "Look at the muck on here!" - or by touching his head and saying "Must wash my hair, it's gone all limp!" ...

Larry's comedy was gossipy, slightly bitchy and served up with generous helpings of innuendo and eyebrow-raising remarks... Hypochondria was Larry's forte too, and was primarily used in his act to gain sympathy from the audience. Thus he was constantly feeling "As limp as a vicar's handshake," and "coming over all queer." On one or two occasions he complained of stiffness, and getting it "all down this side." Glancing at the audience, he would say, "You suffer from it too, don't you, sir? I can tell the way you're sitting!" Then he would let us know he has to use "this ointment"; he would normally use Fiery Jack but "I've lost his number!"

Taking his stage surname from the Hollywood star Kathryn Grayson, the former William Sulley White was a stalwart of British post-Music Hall/Variety light entertainment, a master of the style of picture-postcard-innuendo camp comedy that dominated television from the early 1970s onward - in the company of the likes of Kenneth Williams, Frankie Howard, Dick Emery and John Inman, his was a mincing and effeminate act that the public loved.

Yet (as with all of his ilk) the audience of the day still refused to accept that their favourite "family entertainers" were anything but celibate actors, with nothing going on in their bedrooms. The penny never even dropped when - in a camper-than-camp move - he and (lady lesbian) Noele "Nolly" Gordon (matriarch of top soap Crossroads at that time) announced their "engagement" as a joke...

Even by the mid 1970s, despite his ostensible "closet", more militant elements had him (or rather, his position as "token gay" on the BBC) in their sights. However, he managed to disarm them, as this rather touching tribute from one of the protestors against him at the time makes clear:
It was 1974 and Lewisham Campaign for Homosexual Equality were picketing his show at the local theatre. We had already written to him pointing out he was not the object of our complaint, it was rather that the media only allowed one image of a gay man - his - to appear on screen, therefore distorting the reality of our lives. Please remember this was long before gay characters in soaps or openly gay entertainers of any sort. When we arrived at the theatre we were met by his manager who invited us to meet with the man himself after the show.

He was a kind, gentle man with a fine intelligence and sharp wit. It was the days of Gay Liberation and the first thing I needed him to affirm was in fact that he was gay. This he did with no hesitation – a point that many who knew him well still refuse to believe. He was thoughtful in the discussion that ensued, saying he was, after all, only an entertainer, what after all could he do?

Well actually, had we only seen it then, he had already been doing it for many years. In the late fifties and early sixties he performed a highly controversial and, to many, difficult act through the theatres and workingmen’s clubs of Britain. When Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick created their Julian & Sandy duo in the safety of a radio studio in London, Grayson had already taken stronger characters to the people years before. And it wasn’t always a happy meeting of minds! Yet he continued, honed his many comedic skills in a very testing forum and eventually achieved a glimmer of fame...

The prejudice of the time took its toll and he never had a gay relationship, remained unsure of his place and lacked confidence and self-esteem. This left him open to exploitation and abuse. Yet through it all his kindness and warmth shone...

I never thought I would have become one of Grayson’s champions. But I am, and proud to be so!

With such conflicting memories of the man in our minds, so it was that John-John and I ventured to the unknown territory that is Kentish Town last Friday (before I broke my foot) to see a brand new play about him by Chris Mellor at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre (which is also run by Mr Mellor).

We were so glad we did!

The play "tells the events of the three days leading up to what would be Larry’s final finale, when the ageing camp comedian befriended a spiritual healer to help him get his three minute act together" [that particular "three minute finale" being the Royal Variety Performance in 1994, a mere three months before his death]. A very clever premise - and very revealing, for not many people (us included) knew anything about his crippling lack of confidence nor his strong belief in fortune-telling, psychics and the spirit world.

Larry was brilliantly portrayed by founding member of "Four Poofs and a Piano" Ian Parkin, managing to capture the great man's facial tics and his faux-"offended" fastidious mannerisms to a tee. Played entirely as a two-hander on a very minimal set, he had an excellent "foil" for the expositions necessary for the story in Lee Peart (erstwhile host of Manchester Gay Pride and stand-up comic) as his spiritualist and mentor "Mark", brimming with confidence yet with hidden secrets of his own.

Between them they managed to capture the essence of Mr Grayson - his rise from being a fostered child largely brought up by his "sisters" May and Fan, to touring as a drag queen, to his meteoric rise to fame when he was in his 40s - together with some clever attempts to introduce his favourite (and always invisible) characters including "Everard", "Slack Alice", "Pop it in Pete" the postman, "Self Raising Fred" the baker, "Apricot Lil" from the jam factory, "Non-Stick Nell" and "Once a week Nora".

Despite all his self-doubts, Larry Grayson's appearance at the Royal Variety Performance - which he did without the agreement or the involvement of his manager, as the plot revealed - was a genuine crowd-pleaser, and a suitable epitaph for a genuinely wonderful entertainer:

...and Mr Parkin recreated this whole routine, word for word, and action by action.

It was a sight to behold - and an excellent evening!

The play Three Days and Three Minutes With Larry is currently on tour, hitting such salubrious venues as Rotherham, Rhyl and Chesterfield, before returning to London (briefly at the Bloomsbury Museum of Comedy) and then jetting off again around the provinces. A bit like the man himself, really.

Larry Grayson (31st August 1923 – 7th January 1995)

More Larry over at my other blog Give 'em the old Razzle Dazzle