Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Ooooh, you are awful: British drag

This post touches on a topic that many British transsexual people would regard as anathema: men pretending to be women - for laughs. I look at three such men, all now dead, who dressed up and assumed a female persona in the name of Entertainment. Their assumed personas were each different, but all of them were based firmly on British sterotypes.

So Americans might like to look away now: this isn't for you. It isn't drag as done in Las Vegas, or on Broadway. It's stuff for the British sitting room.

The three people I'm looking at were all big names on stage and TV during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. We've long moved on from that era, and surely wouldn't want to return to it, but that doesn't mean that the humour of the time has completely passed from popular culture. I'd say this kind of humour, from this sort of performer, is now enshrined in British Nostalgic Memory, which is a powerful thing, greater than the Crown, greater than Parliament, and not to be dismissed.

My first selection is Dick Emery (1915-1983). His life and career, surprisingly varied, is at I knew him primarily from his TV appearances in the 1960s, and I watched him because Mum and Dad watched him. There was no choice about it. They monopolised the only TV in the house. If I was tired of sitting in my bedroom, and wanted to watch something on the box, I had to fall in with what Mum and Dad wanted to see. In those days kids had to negotiate - or plead - with their parents, usually unsuccessfully, for TV time. It was very difficult to watch a particular programme if your parents wanted to see something else, and of course parents never went out anywhere in the evening. Well, mine didn't. My greatest personal triumph of negotiation or pleading was to persuade my parents to watch The Beatles' 1968 Christmas Special, Magical Mystery Tour. You can imagine how it was for me, with shock-horror vibes and negative comments coming from my parents as the admittedly baffling film unfolded. Why was it so full of incomprehensible drug-induced sequences? What was the plot? Wasn't it sad that the Four Lads From Liverpool had sunk to this state? The Beatles' film rendition of  I Am The Walrus, in strange costumes, at a forbidding concrete location, and its mockery of policemen, was almost the last straw. To my parents' credit, we did watch it to the end, but their verdict was not favourable, and I never got away with so much at home again. And yet I was expected to put up with Dick Emery.

Mum loved his programmes, but he made me cringe. Here he is:

Clearly a cheerful and swinging-sixties person. I'm not saying that Dick Emery's humour lacked cleverness, but he had a variety of strange characters such as a rather odd vicar. His clear favourites were female characters, one of them a playful sex-starved creature in a shiny blonde wig:

The catchphrase Ooooh, you are awful! is his, and was the title of a film that Wikipedia refers to, in which nude girls' bottoms are a key part of the plot:

This type of humour was not a million miles away from the sniggering innuendos of Leslie Phillips on the classic 1960s radio comedy The Navy Lark, but was at least lighter and defter in execution than Benny Hill's indescriminate gropings of female flesh on contemporary TV. Dick Emery helped to maintain a prevailing view, also exemplified by comedy series such as On The Buses, that normal men could treat women's body parts as nice plump areas to ogle and fondle at will. Something told me it was profoundly disrespectful and demeaning for men to portray women as ridiculous bimbos, especially by dressing up as one and pretending to be sexy and coy in a blonde wig. Don't think me a teenage prig. I was just empathetic towards girls, secretly on their side, but socially separate from them, and unable to openly protest. I was ashamed to be a party to all the ogling, and very unhappy when it was assumed that I eagerly wanted to do the same.  

Although empathetic, I did not idolise girls. They clearly weren't perfect beings beyond tarnish or corruption. After all, I'd seen plenty of petulant and selfish girls about. Plenty of ignorant and loud-mouthed and devious girls too. And I knew from casual observation on beaches that pretty girls turned first into pudgy mums, and then into over-tanned fatties with stretch marks, cellulite and scrawny necks. That seemed to be the reality that awaited any teenage girl, no matter how cute.

I even knew what they really looked like with their clothes off. I had one seedy, late-teens experience, never to be repeated, in the company of friends from work. This was to watch a pair of real-life strippers at a pub in Eastleigh. It was sagging boobs in a smoke-filled bar, tired flesh exposed for the delight of raucus, beery, cheering men who nudged and winked and told very dirty jokes. It was sad and exploitative for both performers and voyeurs. It was a timely reality check, so offputting that it quenched my forlorn aspirations to be female for some time. But not forever - even though I knew that I might, if ever magically transformed into a woman, look blousy and flabby, with poor skin; a mere plaything to be leered at, and pinched, by belching men. I long pondered which was the better (or worse) fate: to be male or female?  

Strangely, my Mum did not seem purturbed about Dick Emery's blonde impersonations, and she didn't see what was so bad about women's second-class status in society either. She laughed. How could she do that?

My second choice is Danny La Rue (1927-2009). His life and career are at He represents the classic British Female Impersonator, and I think his stage and TV persona, gorgeously attired in gowns and feathered hairdresses, remains the iconic depiction of a drag queen, in British eyes anyway. Here he is:

Another performer that Mum went out of her way to watch on TV. She always told me it was the flamboyant, over-the-top costumes that especially appealed. Yes, I can see why. But Danny La Rue's repartee with his audience was just as well-known. In fact he came up in discussion only yesterday evening, over a drink with friends. How he had dealt with a sulky Princess Margaret at a London nightclub. I have no idea whether this is really true in every respect, but the story goes that one night the princess was there, and not in a good mood. Danny La Rue came up to her table and said something sharp and witty and coquettish to her that made her slap him in the face. He immediately slapped her back, hard. She departed haughtily, clearly outraged. But nothing else happened. Well, the story goes on that later that week she came back to the nightclub, but instead of vilifying Danny La Rue, she asked him to forgive her. Make what you can of that! We thought that it was something to do with being larger than life, with playing a part, and feeling beyond normal rules and constraints. Something that might have applied to both performer and princess.

Danny La Rue made me cringe even more, and I rarely watched him. The problem was that although he made no secret that he was impersonating a woman, and was really a man all the time, in his prime he looked too convincing to be comfortable. There was an ambiguity there that went much deeper. Possibly his gayness was adding something that straight man Dick Emery couldn't put in. Maybe, maybe not. I'm sure than ordinary blokes found him extremely embarrassing, a non-subject. My Dad certainly felt lke that. In fact I never, ever heard any man refer to Danny La Rue in any context. This made me think that if ever I could be a girl, I'd have to contend with the mental image that Danny La Rue had created in the nation's psyche. People would automatically assume that all men who felt they were really girls wanted to be Danny La Rue, and would parade around dressed up, and made up, like that. A notion perpetuated by films such as Priscilla Queen of the Desert: 

And, I dare say, by the stage version too. With this kept in the mind of the public, it's still hard to educate people that most trans women are rather different.

My third and last selection is Les Dawson (1931-1993), whose life and career are at Les Dawson was essentially a multi-talented Northern Comedian who got typecast as a lugubrious but lovable comedy act and game show host, such as his appearances on the highly successful Blankety-Blank. He also did panto. And he was fond of putting on women's clothes, an ugly male mug in old-fashioned outfits, complete with hat and handbag, a version of the sort of overdressed woman seen at the seaside in the 1950s. Here he is. He often did smile, and he could look (almost) dapper in men's formal wear:


I had more time for Les Dawson. He was funny, and his female characters did not threaten. But they were grotesque to watch. He wasn't trying to do 'female' properly: there was no illusion intended. He wanted you to laugh at Les Dawson dressed ridiculously, and saying (or mouthing) things no woman ever would. It was anti-drag if you like.

Did it help or hinder the cause of womanhood? The characters he played were certainly not sexy bimbos or glamour queens. They shouldn't have been a threat to any young woman's dignity. But it was certainly a parodying of older women. And as an older woman I would now object.

And what of drag now, in 2013? I haven't a clue. It's not my thing, and although you can regularly see drag acts in Brighton, I've not been to see them, nor would I want to. Not even for a laugh.

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