miss fred

Whatever Happened To Camp?

Christopher Fowler

 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'. 

Audio file

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.


Jo W (not verified) Fri, 24/10/2014 - 14:31

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Thanks for the laugh,Admin. I needed that.😀

Vivienne (not verified) Fri, 24/10/2014 - 15:04

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Great. They brightened up those dreary Sundays. Can almost taste the roast beef!

Brian Evans (not verified) Fri, 24/10/2014 - 18:18

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

It's worth remembering that creative originality and artistic talent was not confined to London in the 1960's. With the Beatles and their knock-on effect, Liverpool became not just the centre of Britain, but the centre of the world, even conquering USA. It took London a couple of years to catch up.
I saw "Our Miss Fred" when it came out at the now demolished ABC Edgware Road. I saw it again 2 years ago, and given the fact that Danny la Rue must have been the only drag act who looked more like a woman when he was dressed as a man rather than when he was dressed as a woman, I found the film strangely affecting and rather charming.
"Round the Horne" was brilliant, but never forget that to get to it we had to sit through the ghastly "Billy Cotton Band Show" first.

snowy (not verified) Fri, 24/10/2014 - 18:22

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

That post provoked much chaffing of the hat-rack, [in a positive fashion].

I was tempted to launch into a counter, but I swiftly realised it would doubtless become of 'epic' length, so I went for a mull [and a walk; I mull best when in motion.]

I'd like to posit this:

There is 'camp' and there is 'Camp', J&S were definitely 'Camp', [as a row of tents]. 'The Avengers' and by extension things like 'The Italian Job' are 'campy'. The first is rooted in sexuality, the latter in frivolity and disdain for the settled order. But I could be wrong!

[Before I slip on my batts and troll off to varda some fantabulosa jarry, the latty having nanti mangarie, absolutely nishta.]

The comedy of 'men in frocks' is different thing from 'Camp', centuries old, even older than the works of Willy Wigglestick. The credit/blame for that should be placed at the feet of whoever decreed that women should not appear on the stage. Stick a juvenile male into a dress and they will go for cheap laughs and so a 'form' is born.