Very near where I work is a house that was once inhabited by the late, great Kenneth Williams. It’s on Marchmont Street, if you’re interested. Just a couple of doors down from Charles Fort’s old place. Stop in at the School of Life if you’ve got time.
Kenneth Williams is, undoubtedly, most famous for his appearance in the Carry On films. From his point of view, this is probably ironic, as he always wanted to be a serious actor. Unfortunately, he happened to be very good at OTT comedy, which doesn’t exactly suggest “subtlety” to casting directors. And given the choice between Art and paying the rent, most actors will go with paying the rent. When Yr. Humble Chronicler was treading the boards back in the day, his fellow actors would glory in arthouse film and prestigious stage productions, but what they really wanted was a long-term soap.
For all Williams’ comic persona paid the rent, it didn’t pay it too well – the Carry On films paid very poorly. Fellow star Sid James would supplement his income with product placement on the sly. Producer Peter Rogers considered Williams very good value for money, as the films were very profitable and cost peanuts to make. For all that, Williams never openly hated the series, and indeed, appeared in more of them than any other actor. Carry On Screaming was my favourite, for the record.
Before the Carry Ons, Williams’ distinctive style actually managed to lose him the gig for which he had hitherto been best known, as a regular in Hancock’s Half Hour. He would play various supporting characters whom Tony Hancock would encounter in the course of his adventures (much as the same handful of characters may appear in several different roles in The Simpsons, say). Sadly, Hancock, like Williams, believed that silly comedy was a bit beneath him. In a drive for more highbrow humour, he eliminated anything he considered unrealistic – and that included Williams’ smarmy characters.
While the Carry On films were taking off in the 1960s, though, Williams appeared in what might have been his best work (in my not-at-all-humble opinion, at least). I speak of Beyond Our Ken and, better yet, Round the Horne. These were innuendo-laden sketch shows starring Ken Horne. Horne would play the straight-man role while Williams, along with Hugh Paddick, Bill Pertwee, Douglas Smith and Betty Marsden, would play an array of bizarre characters he would meet along his way.
The best-remembered of these were undoubtedly Julian and Sandy, a couple of characters played by Paddick and Williams. A typical sketch would involve Horne requiring a service of some sort and entering a Chelsea business, only to find that it was staffed by the screamingly camp Julian and Sandy. Basically, the whole thing was an excuse for lots and lots of gay innuendo. For instance, there was the time when Horne discovered that the pair had started a political party (“Shake hands with yer prospective member!”), the occasion when he required legal services (“We’ve got a criminal practice that takes up most of our time.”) or when he tried to get a book published (“Trade’s been a bit rough lately…”)
What’s quite astonishing is how much they get away with. Bear in mind this was the BBC, Auntie Beeb, one of the Moral Guardians of the Nation. Yet here were two actors (both of whom were openly gay) basically making lots and lots of jokes about sexing up other men. Granted, it’s never openly spoken of, but even so, you have to wonder how they got it past the censors.
Julian and Sandy’s other great legacy was the popularisation of Polari. Polari was a form of slang dialect made up of elements of criminal cant, cockney rhyming slang, backslang, Romany and tinker dialect and bastardised Italian (the name means, in pseudo-Italian, “talk”). It was commonly used as gay slang, enabling homosexuals to talk openly without anyone having a damn clue what they were on about. It also served as a sort of cultural signifier. A few words of the argot have become more widely known, e.g. “naff,” “troll” (as in “to troll around,” a possible origin for the Internet slang term), “zhoozh,” “bevvy,” “bimbo,” “drag” (as in clothing), “bijou.” Julian and Sandy would pepper their dialogue with bits of Polari as appropriate, in one sketch translating Shakespeare’s “Seven ages of Man” speech into the dialect.
Not everyone welcomed the attention Paddick and Williams brought to the cant, and there are plenty who believe they were directly responsible for Polari’s decline, which coincided with the era when Round the Horne was broadcast. After all, with these characters using it every week on national radio, how could it be used to keep secrets?
If I might offer an alternative theory, the decline of Polari also coincided with the legalisation of homosexuality in Britain. Even before legalisation, it was perfectly possible to be openly gay, just so long as you didn’t get caught. It’s true that in the 1950s there was a wave of arrests, but the police themselves seemed to largely view it as a bit of a waste of time (one somewhat miserably described spending so much time in public lavatories that his cigarettes tasted of bleach). When homosexuality became broadly legal in 1967, in the middle of Round the Horne’s run, there was no real need for any kind of secret language.
Like Polari, though, Julian and Sandy were very much of their time. The idea that you could build a series of sketches around a couple of men going on about the fact that they were gay while reciting gay slang in shrill, effeminate voices would, I think, be loudly shouted down today. Not out of intolerance, you understand, but quite the opposite. As a straight, white, middle-class male I never know what the line is between spreading offensive stereotypes and reclaiming offensive stereotypes. Oh well, I’m off to oppress some minorities.