Posts Tagged ‘Simon Callow’

Simon Callow on the Press’ Perverse Attitude to Gay Celebrities

July 21, 2016

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’.

Charles Dickens on the Brutality and Rapacity of the Tories

September 29, 2013

Charles_Dickens_1858

Charles Dickens is one of the great titans of modern English literature. His works have been prized, celebrated and imitated since the publication of The Pickwick Papers . The book’s appearance prompted a horde of copies lower down the press hierarchy in the penny journals. The copyright laws were much less rigorous then, and so these, lesser novels all had titles similar, but not identical to those of Dickens himself. His book, Sketches by Boz, was taken and copied by one of the 19th century popular journalists, as ‘Sketchbook by’, followed by a name very similar to Dickens’ ‘Boz’. His books have been adapted into stage plays, films and musicals, most famously A Christmas Carol, which has twice been filmed as a cartoon, and Oliver Twist, which became Lionel Bart’s musical, Oliver! His novels have also been frequently adapted for television. In the 1970s, for example, many of the Beeb’s period costume dramas broadcast on Sunday evening were adaptations of Dickens. I particularly remember Nicholas Nickleby and David Copperfield.

Despite his deserved popularity and immense respect, I suspect Dickens’ status as one of the Great Men of English Literature has probably done much to put people off him. People have a tendency to distrust automatically anything that becomes official, established art. One way to guarantee that people refuse to read a particular willingly is to put it on the school syllabus. Moreover, modern audiences are also likely to be left alienated by some of the characteristics of much 19th century writing, such as verbosity and their sentimentality. Boys in particular are likely to be put off him because of his novels’ period character, which associates them with the great 19th century lady novelists Jane Austen and the Brontes. In Superman II, for example, Clarke Kent’s identity as a wimpish square is firmly established, when Superman’s alter ego announces he wasn’t around to cover one incident as he was at home that evening reading Dickens. One suspects that its the kind of literature that such narrow-minded upholders of bourgeois respectability as Mary Whitehouse liked. For those younger readers suspicious of Dickens, I strongly recommend his short story, The Railwayman. It’s one of the classic British ghost stories, and completely amazed me when I read it as a teenager with its complete absence of all the dullness, verbosity and sentimentality I’d expected to come across in his works. Today one of Dickens’ great champions is the thesp Simon Cowell, who has toured in a one man play about the great writer and his life, and even appeared as his hero in a episode of Dr. Who, with Christopher Ecclestone playing the Time Lord. The video below comes from the Guardian, and is on Youtube. In it, Simon Callow takes the viewer around Dickens’ London.

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Dickens is partly celebrated for his work defending the poor and describing the hardship and poverty of the lives of ordinary people in 19th century Britain. Indeed, his surname has become a byword for conditions of grinding poverty and squalor in the word ‘Dickensian’. Dickens himself consciously wrote some of his novels both as works of social criticism, but also actively to improve the conditions of the poor. Horrified at the respectable middle classes’ indifference to the suffering of the labouring poor, he wrote A Christmas Carol. This transformed Christmas from a relatively minor holy day into the massive festival that it is today. As a socially engaged writer, Dickens could and did write bitter pieces sharply attacking the Conservatives. In 1841 the Liberal magazine, The Examiner, published his ballad, The Fine Old English Gentleman: New Version. It was a parody of a traditional ballad celebrating the virtues of the gentry. The hero of the traditional ballad shared his good fortune with his social inferiors, in the line ‘while he feasted all the great, he never forgot the small’.

Dickens wrote his satirical versions after the reforming Whigs had lost office and been replaced by Peel’s Conservatives, and the country was in the middle of a depression. The poem attacks the Tories for their corruption, brutal and oppressive laws, and their savage oppression of the poor to enrich themselves and the other members of the aristocracy. Cheekily, Dickens states as a direction for the poem’s performance that it should be said or sung at all Conservative dinners. It shows that what could be described as agit-prop literature long preceded the Communist party. The blackly humorous suggestion of performance venue and the bitter satire of the poem itself very much reminds me of the same mixture of humour and bitter social criticism in much contemporary radical, popular protests following 1960’s Situationism. This leads to the question of whether Dickens, if he were alive today, would be marching with the demonstrators, neatly attired in top hat and tail coat, and wearing a Guy Fawkes mask. Here’s the poem:

‘I’ll sing you a new ballad, and I’ll warrant it first rate,
Of the days of that old gentleman who had that old estate;
When they spent the public money at a bountiful old rate
On ev’ry mistress, pimp and scamp, at ev’ry noble gate,
In the fine old English Tory times;
Soon may they come again!

The good old laws were garnished well with gibbets, whips, and
chains,
With fine old English penalties, and fine old English pains,
With rebel heads, and seas of blood once in hot in rebel veins;
For all these things were requisite to guard the rich old gains
Of the fine old English Tory timnes;
Soon may the come again!

The brave old code, like Argus, had a hundred watchful eyes,
And ev’ry English peasant had his good old English spies,
To tempt his starving discontent with fine old English lies,
Then call the good old Yeomany to stop his peevish cries,
In the fine old English Tory times;
Soon may they come again!

The good old times for cutting throats that cried out in their need,
The good old times for hunting men who held their fathers’ creed.
The good old times when William Pitt, as all good men agreed,
Came down direct from Paradise at more than railroad speed …
Oh the fine old English Tory times;
When will they come again!

In those rare days, the press was seldom known to snarl or bark,
But sweetly sang of men in pow’r, like any tuneful lark;
Grave judges, too, to all their evil deeds were in the dark;
And not a man in twenty score knew how to make his mark.
Oh the fine old English Tory times;
Soon may they come again!

Those were the days for taxes, and for war’s infernal din;
For scarcity of bread, that fine old dowagers might win;
For shutting men of letters up, through iron bars to grin,
because they didn’t think the Prince was altogether thin,
In the fine old English Tory times;
Soon may they come again!

But Tolerance, though slow in flight, is strong-wing’d in the main;
That night must come on these fine days, in course of time was
plain;
The pure old spirit struggled, but its struggles were in vain;
A nation’s grip was on it, and it died in choking pain,
With the fine old English Tory days,
All of the olden time.

The bright old day now dawns again; the cry runs through the
land,
In England there shall be deear breat – in Ireland, sword and brand;
And poverty, and ignorance, shall swell the rich and grand,
So, raly round the rulers with the gentle iron hand,
Of the fine old English ~Tory days; Hail to the coming time!

Great literature transcends the ages, and speaks eternal truths about human nature, politics and society. What is shocking reading this is just how much is true today. The line about the silence of the press in the face of horrific oppression and abuse just about sums up much of the modern press under Murdoch, Dacre, the Barclay twins and the rest.

Source
Colin Firth and Anthony Arnove with David Horspool, The People Speak: Democracy Is Not A Spectator Sport (Edinburgh: Canongate 2013).