Saturday, 2 January 2010

349: Up the Chastity Belt

Up the Chastity Belt, 1971

Directed by Bob Kellett
Written by Sid Colin, Ray Galton, Alan Simpson

Frankie Howerd as Lurkalot
Hugh Paddick as Robin Hood
Rita Webb as Maid Marion

This is the Middle Ages based spin-off film from the TV series Up Pompeii!, the vehicle for Frankie Howerd. The script is co-written by Galton and Simpson, but is hardly typical of their best work, sharp and character-based, as seen in their gay-themed 1970 episode of Steptoe and Son. Here, whatever they actually contribute is to the model already established by the TV series – a barrage of fairly obvious predictable, low-grade corny gags about sex with mild sarcasm from Frankie Howerd. It’s not terrible, it’s just slow and only middlingly written. But this really is what people wanted in the 1970s, all in the same vein as the Carry On films, Benny Hill, “Are You Being Served?”, and cheap sex-comedies which are a category by themselves but reaped enormous financial rewards.

Indeed how much is original and how much was written to order is a thought that occurs to me, since many of the characters and gags seem written in mind with the familiar actor or actress who performs them. Anyway, so we get a camp Robin Hood and his Merry (read gay) Men.
There are about 6 recognised comic actors in the UK who could possibly play gay in the early 1970s. Although Kenneth Williams was one of Julian and Sandy in the mid-60s, his comic film roles are more repressed oddballs. The effete Charles Hawtrey had become a very minor character actor and was too often drunk. And they were both caught on the Carry On treadmill. Graham Chapman and Tim Brooke-Taylor who in the late 60s had often played camp were now tied to their successful TV series, and were rarely quite this end of the pier. John Clive, Hugh Walters (who was then playing what is possibly the first regular gay character in a sitcom ever) and Michael Ward are all possibilities with their respective takes on camp, effete and mimsy, but are only minor supporting part players. But luckily, for a sense of historical continuity (and that may be the very reason he was chosen) Hugh Paddick plays this gay Robin Hood. Hugh Paddick had been the other half of the popular camp radio duo Julian and Sandy, so he’s here as a slightly familiar type. He’s not just playing the same character though, since he is not as flamboyant or having as much obvious jolly fun.

The costume and physical mannerisms convey the sense of camp, but Robin himself is more in the theatrical bitch mode (and since the film was produced by Ned Sherrin, probably the preferred interpretation). Since Paddick’s first line features the word “Ducky” the audience doesn’t have to think hard about what he is. Limp wrists are unconfined (particularly in the second clip, when you just know that Howerd’s miming out of delicacy was intended to get an enormous laugh). He’s preening and vain about his aging appearance, obsessed with fashion, and coy about the touches of SM (black leather). We know what he and his men are, but there’s not much about what they do, no sexual double entendres which might be a bit much at this relatively early date for a mass audience. When Hood is gossiping about his men, there’s a little insinuation, and suggesting Will Scarlet is looking for solider action. But he’s more of a dryly camp old maid, even down to the winding his wool.

Aside from all the characterisation and explication of stereotypes above, the dialogue also works by offering various obvious key words which the audience would be expected to recognise, and which from a distance of forty years are clonkingly unsubtle:

“What do you think of our CAMP” (when barely five years earlier Alan Bennett’s sketch emphasises the novelty of camp as a known quantity)
“The Boys in the Band?”
“I’m BENT on joining them”
and a “bona drag” Polari reference, familiar from Julian and Sandy

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