Whatever Happened To Camp?
The 1960s were by all accounts a schizophrenic time – on the one hand London was blooming with creative originality and artistic talent, while the rest of the country was stuck in a postwar past that had hardly shifted since the days of Clement Atlee. While Northern comics continued to tell racist jokes, a very different sensibility took hold in the capital. True, it had been there since the 1920s, but now it flowered as never before.
English humour had been born in repression and thrived through suggestion. Camp came in via the music-halls and theatreland, and came to represent a form of knowing irony, a type of surreal, often scurrilous humour that existed below the surface level of what you saw and heard. It could be found in the fiction TV shows and films of the time. This was how drag artiste Danny La Rue (who only ever looked like a drag queen) could end up in double-entendre-riddled family comedy film about Nazis called ‘Our Miss Fred’.
Suddenly camp was everywhere. It especially presided in shows like ‘The Avengers’, where primary colours and acidic dialogue were matched by outrageous plots and a knowing, irreverent attitude, especially to death and sex. TV’s ‘At Last The 1948 Show’ episodes have just been unearthed after fifty years, and will remind everyone of Monty Python’s origins when they shortly air on ‘Missing Believed Wiped’.
And on the radio there was ‘Beyond Our Ken’, which metamorphosed into ‘Round The Horne’. While everyone remembers Julian and Sandy, it’s worth recalling that the same camp sensibility was taken for granted in the rest of the show, a sort of meta-comedy in which the performers constantly stepped out of character to argue with each other. Listen to this snippet from their version of ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’.
But if the humour was created by repression, it flourished and became loved by British audiences, who revelled in camp. With the new sexual frankness that was ushered in at the start of the new century, camp was largely killed off – there was no need to be knowing anymore, now that anyone could say anything as bluntly as they liked. Although it’s worth noting that the British love of drag and gender-bending exists just as much as it ever did, albeit in less subtle forms that those practiced by Kenneth Williams, Hugh Paddock and Betty Marsden.