Simon Callow on the Press’ Perverse Attitude to Gay Celebrities

Simon Callow was on the BBC’s One Show last night. He, and his co-stars Anita Dobson and Bill Paterson were on, talking about a forthcoming TV series in which they play a group of pensioners, who throw dignity to the winds and decided to grow old disgracefully. Callow’s character is a man, who finds that having reached 70 and done his duty of working for a living and raising children, he feels robbed of his life, and wishes to return to the time when he was 18, and dreamed of a world of poetry, booze and drugs. A kind of anti-Victor Meldrew, if you like. This led into an interesting little discussion about when people decide you’re too old to do various ‘young’ activities, like going to nightclubs, wearing skinny jeans and sneakers. All accompanied with a picture of Keith Richards in full Rock axeman mode, who is 72 and doing all of the above.

Apart from this little insight into changing attitudes to aging and the elderly, Callow also gave a very interesting little window into the bizarre and contrary attitude of Fleet Street in the 1980s. Callow’s gay, but his sexuality has always been something of an open secret. Indeed, he himself did not try to hide it at all, despite the advice of his friends. He tried to come out several times in the 1980s, but the press ignored it every time he did. This was thirty years ago when attitudes towards homosexuality were harsher than they are now. There were gay celebrities, like Jimmy Somerville and Mark Almond, but attitudes generally were so hostile that many stars were very firmly in the closet. I can remember Elton John and Freddie Mercury both suing the press for printing that they were gay, before they finally came out.

Callow believed that honesty was the best policy, and so described how he gave several interviews to the press, in which he admitted his sexuality. What is strange and interesting, is that the press didn’t want to know. They never printed these stories, according to the great man. He said that they wanted to find people out.

This, it seems to me, indicates a kind of cynical, calculating cruelty in the press’ attitude to dealing with same-sex attraction. Clearly, what matter to them was the scoop, the revelation of an aspect of a celebrity’s life that they’d otherwise like to keep quiet. A prurient, salacious attitude, cynically exploited to boost sales by intruding on other people’s private lives. it seemed to me to be little more than a nasty delight in publicly humiliating someone, who was vulnerable to abuse because of their sexuality.

They couldn’t get Callow, however, because unlike many of his contemporaries, he believed and still believes that gay people are better off being open about their sexuality. He specifically mentioned the T-shirt slogan produced by the gay activist group, Stonewall, ‘Some people are gay. Get over it’. Clearly, the press at the time were mightily upset that Callow wasn’t tormented by the idea of people knowing about his sexual orientation. If I recall correctly, I think it was known at the time that he was gay, but that nobody was bother. I can remember hearing about how he was gay when I was at school, when he was in a family serial on ITV. It didn’t stop any of the kids I knew, who watched the programme from doing so. Callow now is one of Britain’s best-loved thesps. He’s toured the country presenting a one man show on Dickens, and appeared in an early episode of the revived Dr Who as his hero. So his sexuality clearly hasn’t set him back there. Nor should it.

But the anecdote does show the weird, persecutory and exploitative attitude of the press towards homosexuality and other’s privacy. It’s another example of why Private Eye’s column about the newspapers is called ‘Street of Shame’.

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