“Infamy! Infamy! They’ve all got it in for me!” So shrieked the much-loved camp English comic Kenneth Williams, in his role as Julius Caesar fleeing dagger-wielding assassins in the 1964 British comedy classic film “Carry On Cleo.” Given the alleged camp carryings-on at Buckingham Palace, the heir to the throne of England, Prince Charles, probably knows how Kenneth felt. Oo-er! I mean, what it felt like to be in his position … Er, that’s to say … Oh, flippin’ ‘ell, just gag me with a court order, somebody.
You can’t understand anything about the British psyche until you’ve seen a “Carry On” movie. No less than 30 of these cheap but insistently cheerful films, which made a dirty joke out of every human vanity (and need), were made between 1958 and 1978, with such saucy, sodomy-fixated titles as “Carry On Cruising” (1962), “Carry On up the Khyber” (1968), “Carry On Camping” (1969), “Carry On at Your Convenience” (1971) and “Carry On Behind” (1975). These hymns to the single entendre — for the British there is only one hole, and it’s the wrong one — and orgies of cross-dressing are still played in constant rotation on TV (the cult 1970s BBC TV series “Are You Being Served?” is one example of an unofficial spinoff, and Mike Myers’ “Austin Powers” is another, more lucrative one). Every now and again there is a disastrous attempt to resurrect the series — the latest, “Carry On London,” is due to start filming soon. The British are intimately attached to their sexual repression, especially now that they are officially liberated. Like a famously constipated Kenneth Williams — whose favored catchphrases included “‘Ere! Stop messin’ abaht!,” “Ooh! Matron!” and “Trouble with the bum, you know” — they can’t quite let it go.
Of course, a new “Carry On” movie has already been made. By the British media. And it has been a smash hit. “Carry On up the Valet,” starring Prince Charles, is a sodomy-saturated royal sex farce to end all sodomy-saturated sex farces. Front-page newspaper innuendo lines have talked excitedly about “smears” and “gags” imposed by a royal valet with the name of Fawcett and a judge with the name of Tugendhat. Fnarr! Fnarr! There’s even a “now you see it, now you don’t” guest appearance by the late Princess Diana and her “crown jewels” (kept, of course, in her locked “box”). The plot, as most of the world now knows, revolves around a “shocking sexual act” between Charles and his valet, allegedly witnessed by a nosey “under-valet.” The popular press gleefully publishes pictures that are pure “Carry On” publicity posters: Charles with an apparently limp wrist, or trusty Fawcett standing close behind while Charles discharges his shotgun. Blimey!
Due to various injunctions, we in the United Kingdom still don’t know the precise nature of the alleged “shocking act.” But we are told by the fourth estate, with a heavy-handed archness that even Kenneth Williams would have found difficult to execute, how Charles’ valet, Mr. Fawcett, used to “squeeze out Charles’ toothpaste for him.” In the original “Carry On” films this kind of line would have been followed by a trombone wah-wah-wah noise.
But please, don’t feel sorry for our enforced ignorance or rush to tell us what the precise details of this incident were. Thing is, we Brits don’t really want to know. We don’t want our feverish speculation and titillation spoiled by prosaic facts. We’re perfectly well aware there is this thing called the Internet, that it is peculiarly disrespectful of English injunctions or the royalty, and that probably somewhere by now there is a Web site offering a hardcore 3-D computer-generated simulation of the act, but we’d rather not log on. We’d rather leave it to our overactive imaginations and wagging tongues, thank you very much. British libel laws, much stricter than those in the United States, are not so much the cause of our love of tittle-tattle and innuendo as the function of it. Free speech is all very well, but it isn’t a patch on the pleasure of gossiping over your garden fence, or reading tabloid newspapers.
Besides, we’d hate it if we discovered that the allegation turned out to merely involve polite heavy petting rather than full-on rear-entry conjugation. We Brits love our buggery jokes and won’t let anyone take them away from us. There’s nothing for the British quite so satisfying as talking, gossiping and sniggering about buggery. Except possibly buggery itself. No, actually, thinking about it, even buggery itself has to “come behind” buggery jokes. Buggery jokes are as British as Marmite, Bovril, Bisto … and “Carry On” movies.
Of course, buggery jokes that manage to involve royalty are the nearest thing to sexual satisfaction the British can experience. The British attitude toward sex is much the same as their attitude toward class: So long as you are seen to suffer for it, and consider it some kind of duty, then you’ll be left unmolested. But woe betide you if you get caught actually enjoying yourself. Enjoying yourself is vulgar enough, but enjoying sodomy is as vulgar as you can go. Hence erstwhile pop royalty George Michael’s Beverly Hills arrest for cottaging (as we Brits like, in our “Carry On” way, to call cruising public lavatories) was the last time the British press had so much fun carrying on behind — it was literally the perfect “outing.”
Kenneth Williams was someone whose comic persona depended on his ability to lurch between high and low, posh and common, refined and sodomitical in one gossipy breath — though we always knew he was “really” a poof. Obvious gays who so clearly know their place — or should that be their “position” — have always been very popular in the U.K. Ironically, because they know their place they get ahead: They are all over TV — Graham Norton, a sweaty, reanimated, more explicit but much less funny Irish version of the sadly long-deceased Williams, is probably the most popular TV presenter in the country (and is apparently headed to the United States).
But why do the British love buggery jokes so much? Partly because in their Rabelaisian, excremental way they bring the high low and make a joke of all human sexuality. After all, sodomy is a great prank to play on the body, this alien, rather ridiculous veil of rebellious flesh we all inhabit — and which the British have always, rightly, been rather suspicious of (“Trouble with the bum, you know”). And partly because we’ve never been entirely comfortable with female sexuality — Mrs. Slocombe’s pussy (a running gag on “Are You Being Served?”) is as terrifying a prospect as it is amusing. But mostly, and this is something that seems to have been forgotten, because the English are a martial race. The original Angles/Anglos were rough foreign mercenaries who were hired cash-in-hand to scare off the beastly Vikings but who then decided they quite liked fog, roast beef and “Eastenders” and stayed after their working visas expired. The Normans who arrived later were even more warlike, and fond of their young male pages. Masculine warrior homosexuality, as exemplified by Richard the Lion-Hearted and Gordon of Khartoum, is even more a part of our history than camp followers like Williams and Norton.
It’s only a slight, tasteless exaggeration to say that the British empire itself was built on buggery. Buggery, or at least the ticklish thought of it, permeates barracks, messes and boarding schools, the latter of which were self-consciously modeled on the warrior homosexuality of ancient Sparta. Waterloo was won not just on the playing fields of England but also in her dormitories. In the 18th and 19th centuries, “effeminacy” in England — the “fop,” for example — was a function of being too interested in the ladies. Or just of being French. Winston Churchill, a former First Sea Lord (so he should know), famously described the Royal Navy’s traditions as being nothing more than “rum, sodomy and the lash”; the first leading of course to the second and thence to the third tradition. One of the largest Imperial possessions, the continent of Australia, was literally founded on sodomy: It began life as a “penal” colony, and as late as 1821 men outnumbered women 15 to 1 in New South Wales. The records are full of lashings handed out to men caught carrying on behind, a futile attempt to discourage the unnatural vice. Australia, you see, really was the arsehole of the world.
The transportation of convicts to Australia was eventually ended in large part because of the loud and bitter complaints from clerics and respectable Australians — there were some, apparently — about how widespread the sin of sodomy was among prisoners and how this was lowering the tone of the continent. Perhaps because of an Australian guilty conscience, or ancestral sore arse, today it is a well-known Australian-born media magnate who is most keen to use the “Carry On up the Valet” scandal to ridicule the British in general and bring down the monarchy in particular by lashing them in his newspapers around the world. The New York Post recently ran the puerile headline “PRINCESS CHARLES.” I’d like to see him tell those Outback sheep shearers there’s something essentially effeminate about a spot of situational sodomy.
Of course, being British we don’t need Australians to whip us — we like to punish ourselves for our favorite pleasures. Not only with lashes; the occasional hanging was also handed out for carrying on behind. Oscar Wilde, of course, was famously given two years’ hard labor for “gross indecency” with a member of the lower orders (though arguably his real crime was giving sodomy a good, well-mannered, literate name). When male homosexuality in England and Wales was finally decriminalized by Parliament in 1967 — against the loud protests in the House of Lords of Field Marshal Montgomery, the famous empire homo of El Alamein — the armed forces and merchant navy were exempted. In other words, much of the sodomy going on in the United Kingdom remained completely illegal and therefore still rather enjoyable.
These days Britain no longer has an empire. Its army and navy have shriveled, and in recent years it has become more civilianized and coed. Consequently, in place of the noble lash we now mix our pleasure in buggery jokes with hypocrisy, phony moralism and faux-seriousness. Hence this recent carry-on at the palace has been widely depicted, by liberal and conservative, republican and monarchist, tabloid and broadsheet newspapers alike, as “the worst crisis since the death of Diana” and one that seriously “threatens to bring down the House of Windsor.” So the uncorroborated allegation, by an alcoholic ex-servant with a documented penchant for uncorroborated sightings of homosexual acts — rather like the British media and public, in other words — that he saw Charles being intimate with a male valet is going to end hundreds of years of British monarchy? As Kenneth Williams would put it: “‘Ere! Stop messin’ abaht!”
Regardless of the truth or falsehood of the allegations (which no one has gone on record as saying they believe) the truly shocking thing would be if a member of the royal family, former public schoolboy, and former serving officer in the British Army had never had sexual encounters of any kind with other males. What kind of bloody pansy would that be? A life of pristine heterosexuality might be suitable for the delicate sons of the suburban middle classes — and contemporary Australians — but hardly for a future king of England.
But the press in England today, even the popular press, is irredeemably suburban and middle-class, or owned by Australians, and the alleged act, which even if it did happen would be utterly inconsequential, consensual and legal, has been widely described as “ghastly” and “shocking.” Even the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, a professionally politically correct figure, saw fit to talk about this “revolting and sordid gossip,” although if the gossip revolved around an allegation of royal naughtiness with, say, a willing black female servant instead of a white male one, he would be admonishing himself for his own rash choice of words.
Some have prissily suggested that if there is any truth to the rumor it means that a) Charles is gay or at least bisexual and b) this will cause major constitutional problems for the heir to the throne, as the English monarch is also the head of the Church of England.
As you may have heard, the Church of England has been pulling its hair out lately — and scratching its eyes out — over the issue of homosexuality and the consecration of the openly gay Episcopal bishop in New Hampshire. Until Charles helped us out, most of our buggery jokes lately have revolved around the “split,” “rupture” and “schism” that the “big issue” of homosexuality is threatening to cause in the Anglican “base.”
Leaving aside the issue that a spot of male-male sodomy does not necessarily make you “gay” or even particularly “bisexual,” but perhaps nothing more than slightly hung-over and embarrassed the next morning, the Anglican Church should get down on its knees and thank the Lord for buggery, since without it half the church would have nothing to do on Saturday night — and nothing churchy would ever get on TV or in the newspapers. In the largely secular United Kingdom, hardly anyone gives a toss of holy water anymore what the Anglican Church thinks about anything — except homosexuality. Divorce, abortion, adultery, drugs, underage sex — forget it. Who cares what the god-bothers’ opinion is? But buggery? Oh, yes, let’s get the dean of Big Bottomly Cathedral in the studio now, quoting from Leviticus.
This isn’t because we’re impressed by their theological arguments or their serious, pallid faces, but rather because, as you know, we find men in frocks on telly talking about sodomy a real hoot. As the blessed Mr. K. Williams, archbishop of Carrying On Behind, would put it: “Ooh! Matron! Take them away!”