THE QUESTION of Michael Barrymore’s coming out has once more been exercising the tiny minds of our media. What they want to know now is whether “revelations” about his sexuality have destroyed his career.
The moralising end of the media, the Dally Mail and Express are in no doubt – if he’d stayed in the closet none of this would have happened. And their conclusion from this? Let it be a warning to the rest of you “militant homosexuals” who insist on telling the truth.
The speculation was prompted by news that Barrymore’s Saturday night TV show had lost two million viewers, and had, as a consequence, been downgraded by “TV bosses” to a less desirable teatime slot at 6.15. “A year ago Barrymore regularly attracted 11.5 million viewers,” reported the Daily Mail (March 18th). “But figures have plummeted by 18 per cent – more than any other show in TVs Top 50 – since the star came out of the closet.”
The conclusion to be drawn from this, as far as the Mail was concerned, seemed obvious. “Has the moral backlash finally sunk Barrymore?” it asked in a feature on March 25th. It quoted Bill Cotton, former controller of Light Entertainment at the BBC, as saying “I’ve been through all of this before with Frankie Howerd and Kenneth Williams. For a lot of the time that those two were performing, homosexuality was actually illegal and a constant nightmare of mine that either of them might be found out at any moment.
“I never lost sight of the fact that even if, in the world of television, most people accepted homosexuality, for the bulk of the viewers the idea was not a particularly nice one. I think it’s just the same now and that’s why I think it would have been better if Michael had kept his counsel. I believe he has been under pressure for some time from people in the gay community to come out into the open, but they had a lot less to lose than he did – as all of this shows.”
Not to be outdone in the moralising stakes, the Dally Express came up with its own version “Barrymore and a question of modern morality” (April 1st) – subtitled “Why flaunting his sexuality has cost TV star dear”. The article, by David Thomas, said: “To many people, the decline in his popularity will be a simple proof that the British are prejudiced against gays”. After this bit of earth- shattering insight, Mr Thomas makes the case for hypocrisy: “Many gay people will say that it is unfair that they still have to live by rules imposed by straights. But hypocrisy – or, to put it another way, espousing standards that one doesn’t always live up to – has its role to play in a civilised society.”
Read that sentence again. David Thomas seems to be saying that it’s OK for heterosexuals to condemn their homosexual fellow citizens for behaving “immorally’, while indulging in very similar behaviours themselves. If that’s the way the Dally Express defines civilisation, then gawd help us.
A more thoughtful exploration of Barrymore’s apparent plummeting popularity, written by Paul Vallely, appeared in the Independent (March 21st). Vallely challenged the tabloids’ gloating interpretation of the ratings figures: “It is true that his audience is now averaging around 9.3 million, but his share is only down to an average 41 per cent compared with the 42 per cent for BBC1 which screens the very similar Noel Edmunds House Party at the same time. ‘It is not regarded as much of a drop,” said one industry observer, “especially as Barrymore has a very poor lead-in from the previous programme The Shane Ritchie Experience, which is the real dud of the evening, pulling an audience of only 7.5 million. Barrymore boosts that by 1 5m. Yet for some reason people talk about Ritchie as the blue-eyed boy and Barrymore as being on his last legs,” Indeed, since that piece was written, The Shane Ritchie Experience has been “axed.” Mr Ritchie has not come out of the closet and appears, in fact, to be heterosexual. Was his heterosexuality anything to do with his show being dropped? Would the Daily Mail please commission an article from Paul Johnson to explain this to us?
But beyond the ratings, other commentators have different explanations for Barrymore’s fading light. They think he has had a personality change. Marcus Berkmann in the Sunday Express (March 24th) thinks Michael has “exhausted his charm reserve” and is being nasty to his guests. “This was a brand new Barrymore we were seeing, an aggressive, prickly Barrymore, and we have seen a lot more of him since the series has progressed – the balance of the show has altered.”
Mr Berkmann thinks that viewers are turned off less by news of Barrymore’s sexuality, more by his “irritability”. “He doesn’t seem to enjoy what he Is doing any more. Viewers are not fooled. They turn over and watch something else.”
Mark Lawson in the Guardian agreed. “Viewers on Saturday night have concluded that the show’s real problem is that the star has gone in on himself. Long before he was gay in the new sense, he was gay in the old way, but now he seems burned and nervy on screen. These days Barrymore’s manner is less camp than prisoner-of-war camp.”
John Smith in the People thought it was the show’s format that was wrong. “The harsh truth is that Barrymore’s producers believed that ordinary people can be hugely entertaining if you stick them in a studio. A dreary procession of geriatric singers, ‘cuts’ youngsters and unfunny interviews proved them disastrously wrong.”
But surely every entertainer needs to ring the changes from time to time. Nobody on television, however talented, can do the same thing over and over again without eventually boring his audience. Barrymore needs to abandon this stale format and return with something new and fresh, something that will take into account his new approach.
Like so many gay men, he has tried desperately to be loved by everyone. Like the rest of us. he was afraid that if people knew the truth. they would reject him totally, and so he over-compensated in the niceness department.
Now that he’s out of the closet, there’s less need for that cloying eagerness to please. Now that his audience knows who he really is. he doesn’t have to beg quite so manically for their approval. And despite the tabloids wishful thinking that Michael Barrymore has “turned straight again” by apparently returning to his wife, the man himself has assured Jeremy Joseph, the gay disc jockey, that he isn’t going back into the closet. In the gay paper QX, Joseph says that Barrymore told him: “I have no regrets about coming out. As I said at the beginning, if that means losing it all. then so be it.” Barrymore should be given a medal for courage in the face of the perverted “moralising” that is rapidly becoming the staple fare of our tabloid press.
ANOTHER show biz personality, Michael French, who plays David Wicks in EastEnders, was recently outed by the Sunday Mirror. The story was sold to the paper by Michael’s ex-lover Bryan Lawrence, who was sympathetically presented throughout.
For a newspaper that condemned Outrage’s outing activities so vehemently – “bitchy and scabrous” they called them – the Sunday Mirror s prurient and titillating story had no purpose other than to out the star. Not satisfied with that, the Sunday Mirror then began to suggest that Mr French could no longer keep his job as the “Albert Square Romeo”. They quoted an unnamed BBC “insider” as saying: “He has no option but to leave because his credibility as the show’s heart throb has been destroyed.”
No doubt, as with Barrymore, they were hoping that the more they repeated the idea that an openly gay person is unemployable on mainstream television, the more likely it would be accepted as “fact”.
A dissenting voice in the witch hunt was Carol Sarler in the People (March 31st). She says she can’t understand why French’s gayness should damage his career. “He’s an actor,” she says. “Acting is all about pretending to be something you are not. And the more convincingly you do that, the more you deserve the top roles and the top money that goes with them. If French can continue to make us believe that he fancies Michelle Collins – most especially if he really doesn’t – then I don’t care if the man snogs goats.”
Despite tabloid efforts to create the impression that here was another gay man being brought low by his sexuality, the BBC stuck by Mr French and he will continue to appear in the programme. Meanwhile, Pam St Clements – who plays French’s mum in the serial – should be able to give him all the advice he needs on dealing with a press that apparently can’t tell fiction from reality. After all, she’s already been through this and survived.
A GENERAL ELECTION creeps ever closer, and despite Tory boasts that they are going to see their term in office through to the bitter (and twisted) end, there are signs that they won’t make the finishing post. One such sign is the fact that after a brief period of criticising the government, the loyal Tory newspapers have returned to the fold. The Mail, Express, Torygraph and the rest are now resuming their usual uncritical pro-Tory stances.
What this means for gay people is that there will soon be a large increase in antigay reporting. The papers will use any means at their disposal to link homosexuality negatively with Labour or the Liberal Democrats. Labour local authorities will come once more under scrutiny (we’ve had one loony left story already this month about a London authority apparently proposing a housing estate exclusively for lesbians. Ha!), and any suggestion of pro-gay policy from any opposition party will be presented as the end of civilisation as we know it. And all of those closets on the Labour benches had better man the barricades.
Stand by your bunkers chaps, it’s going to be a dirty fight.