Television culture accepted gay performers by denying the fact that they were gay

Opinion: Viewers persuaded themselves that camp behaviour was ‘just an act’

A little less than 20 years ago, when visiting Las Vegas, I took time out to walk through the Liberace museum. A paid-up smart Alec with permanently crooked upper lip, I fully expected to be surrounded by members of my own cynical tribe. Where better to wallow in irony than at a museum dedicated to the Shakespeare of camp?

The truth was very different. Everyone in the building seemed to find the vulgar decorations genuinely delightful. There was only one other European wiseacre in attendance and he’d driven your current correspondent to the museum.

Two ladies perused a photograph of Liberace standing beside a much younger man dressed in a spangled costume. “I think this was his nephew,” one of the fans said. “He was just so kind to younger folk. It’s terrible what people said about him.”

But . . . I mean, just listen to the man speak! You can’t seriously believe . . .


This disinterment of this memory is, of course, triggered by the release of Steven Soderbergh's Behind the Candelabra. Starring Michael Douglas as Liberace and Matt Damon as Scott Thorson – the star's chauffeur, lover and plaything – the film is set in the not-too-distant past. Thorson hooked up with Liberace in 1976 and, following a tempestuous falling-out, took a palimony suit against him 10 years later.

Yet certain aspects of the picture suggest life in the dark ages. It is hard to overestimate the extent to which attitudes to gay people have changed over the past 20 years. Nothing illustrates this more explicitly than a consideration of camp in the post-war years. It shouldn’t need to be said that most gay men aren’t camp and that many camp men aren’t gay. But some sort of association is often at work. Right? Not if the official 1970s line is to be taken seriously.

British television in that era welcomed a great many performers who were both camp and homosexual. Larry Grayson actually incorporated the word "gay" into his act. Frankie Howerd dealt in facial spasms that make Graham Norton seem like Charles Bronson at his most stoic. Our own, much-missed Danny La Rue – born Danny Carroll in Cork – perfected the art of elegant drag.

Semi-conscious evasion
Yet a deeply peculiar class of semi-conscious evasion was at work among the viewers. Homosexual acts had remained illegal in the UK until 1967. That situation would, of course, not be changed in this country until 1993. Were Grayson, Howerd and La Rue – only recently alleviated of outlaw status – launching a class of cultural revolution in suburban living rooms? Not a bit of it. An astonishing number of viewers allowed themselves to think that the camp flamboyance was "just an act". After all, they wouldn't be allowed to do that on TV if they were actually "gay". When, in the playground, lines from Grayson's act were directed towards boys who were suspiciously uninterested in rugby, the bully probably felt Larry was somehow complicit in the assault. Why not? Wasn't the comic making fun of "pansies" on the Generation Game?

If this sounds far-fetched then consider comments made by David Croft, writer of Are You Being Served?, on the outrageously camp (and unquestionably homosexual) Mr Humphries. Croft argued that the sexual orientation of John Inman's character was never clarified and that he "was just a mother's boy". Yeah, right. These were strange, strange times. Do not forget that, broadcast in primetime, the series featured copious allusions to the discontents of Mrs Slocombe's "pussy". We were addicted to creative avoidance.

Liberace case
In 1956, Liberace successfully sued the Daily Mirror for implying he was gay. A decade later, in the radio series Round the Horne, Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick, playing "Julian and Sandy", delivered a stream of hugely inventive – and still gut-wrenchingly hilarious – duologues in the underground gay patois known as "palare". Many listeners just thought them odd. "We've got a criminal practice that takes up most of our time," Julian said when working as a lawyer.

In my review of Behind the Candelabra, I made allusion to Edgar Allen Poe's The Purloined Letter. In that story, the titular document is famously hidden in plain sight. Something similar was going on with Liberace (and, to an extent, with the less litigious British and Irish stars). Much of the public, still uneasy about homosexuality, happily acquiesced. Somehow or other, an enormous, apparently transparent falsehood was kept perilously aloft.

Then, when nobody was looking, it all fell apart. There are few recent developments more welcome than the sudden, largely unanticipated relaxation in attitudes towards homosexuality. Straight people have also been granted a degree of liberation. No longer must they behave like morons and tell themselves ludicrous lies about public figures. However did we manage it?