When journalists become desperate for news — as they often do in August — then gays had better watch out. This year’s silly season victim was Michael Barrymore.
The tabloids had been knocking on Michael’s closet door for weeks, examining every aspect of his private life. Then came the tales of clandestine visits to gay clubs and conversations with Ian McKellen and finally the male “friend” who told the Sunday Mirror about his “sex romps” with the star.
Joan Smith in The Independent described the pursuit this way: “Newspapers are increasingly taking on the role formerly occupied in Roman Catholic countries by the Inquisition. Tabloid hacks confront sinners, put them on trial, refuse to listen to their tearful denials, extract admission (torture by publicity) and finally administer absolution.”
Having thus prised the reluctant Barrymore out, the tabloids immediately started criticising him for “flaunting” his sexuality. “I’m sick to the back teeth of Michael Bloody Barrymore,” wrote Carol Sarler in The People (August 27th). “I’m sick of the sight of him. I’m sick of him coming out all over the shop… but most of all I’m sick and tired of being told how courageous and how brave he has been in announcing to the world that he happens to be gay.”
Richard Ingrams was soon on the bandwagon (Observer, September 3rd): “The trouble with men, or women for that matter, coming out is that they cannot resist referring to it thereafter at every opportunity… You do not mind the fact that they are gay. What you mind is that they are tremendous bores.”
That’s the new angle: homosexuals are bores. In fact, Mrs Angela Vigus of Chislehurst wrote to the Daily Telegraph (August 17th): “I would like to change the word referring to homosexuals from ‘gays’ to ‘bores’… It seems to me that these days much so-called homosexuality is little more than what used to be called exhibitionism.”
Paul Callan (The Daily Express, August 26th) agreed and under the heading “More Bore from Barrymore” wrote: “Am I the lone voice in finding all this baring of the sexual soul by Michael Barrymore tedious, unnecessary, vulgar and even a touch repulsive?”
Lone voice? You must be joking! “Don’t be an out and out bore, Barrymore” said Andrew Neil in The Daily Mail (August 31st); while Geoffrey Wheatcroft in The Sunday Express (September 3rd) said: “Was I the only one who wanted to chuck a heavy object at the screen when he came out [on a TV awards programme]?” And just to prove that great minds think alike, Alex Renton in The London Evening Standard wrote: “Is there anyone out there with anything to say about the Michael Barrymore news beyond ‘so what?’… sexual identity is fast becoming boring.”
But never mind the press gobshites — what about Barrymore? What has the hounding done to him? Will his career survive? Can his natural audience — the blue rinse brigade as he calls them — continue to love him now that they know? Next time the grannies tune into his show, and see Michael flapping his wrists, kicking his legs up with the chorus girls, embracing his male guests and dandling children on his lap, will they be seeing him through the same pair of glasses? Or will his camp behaviour — previously regarded as just a bit of innocent fun (after all, he has got a wife, hasn’t he?) — now make them shudder with revulsion?
And what approach are the tabloids planning for him? Will they leave him alone to get on with it, or are they going to hunt him into obscurity? Their initial reaction, after they’d pushed him over the brink, was reassuring: “It took a lot of honesty for troubled Michael Barrymore to admit he’s gay,” editorialised The Daily Mirror (August 21st). “We hope his honesty will make him a happier person.” Even The Sun said: “Now you can honestly say you’re awight, Michael.”
But that initially sympathetic response didn’t last long and soon The Sun was warning: “Britain’s most popular entertainer seems to have pressed the self-destruct button. He is flaunting his homosexuality in the worst possible way. He camps it up in bizarre gay clubs with young friends, shouts four-letter abuse and is involved in an unseemly punch-up. Michael you are risking the special affection in which you are held by the public. Come to your senses before you throw everything away.”
This is the danger for Barrymore: around every corner someone will be watching. Wherever he goes and whatever he does, someone will know that they can make a quick buck by telling the tabloids about it. All the stories written about his new life from now on will be decorated by the adjectives that low-life newspapers cannot leave out of gay stories: seedy, sordid, bizarre, disgusting.
It has begun already. “Barrymore pinched our bums in pub — brickies in fury at gay star’s chat up,” was the headline in the News of the World (August 27th).
They claimed that Barrymore had made lewd suggestions to two innocent young men in a pub (Paul Wise, aged 43 and Mark Gibbs, aged 30, actually). They were so traumatised that Barrymore fancied them that only a Murdoch pay-out could help them. You have to read to the very last sentence to discover that the reported events took place FIVE YEARS AGO.
Will his constituency of grannies still love him after a few more doses of this?
The only gay column in a national newspaper — written by John Lyttle — appears every Friday in The Independent.
And it’s starting to get on my nerves.
Mr Lyttle is rapidly turning into the Percy Sugden of gay journalism. Moan, moan, moan. There doesn’t seem to be any aspect of gay life that pleases him. He hates discos, he hates muscle boys, he hates the drug culture, he hates the gay press (“the new PC thought police”) and he’s decided that there is definitely no such thing as a gay community. He is miffed that he hasn’t had children. He cracks on endlessly that gay life — as promoted by gay organisations and pub-owners — is like some kind of prison from which there is no escape. He thinks that we are all living in a fantasy world, victims of irresistible commercial forces on the one hand and political correctness on the other.
On August 18th it all came to a head when he reported an encounter he’d had with one of his critics in a gay pub. “You’re John Lyttle,” says the critic.
“What I am is off-duty,” bites back John, in best Bette Davis style. The critic (who naturally has bad breath) persists: “About your bloody column… “
During this exchange the gay man who dares to disagree with John is, of course, portrayed as an arsehole, while John is full of good sense, witty ripostes and the kind of condescension that befits a star who has been forced to mingle with ordinary persons.
Actually, I happen to agree with most of John’s gripes about the scene. Like John, quite a lot of my friends have also moved on from the club scene, they couldn’t give a toss whether Old Compton Street is gay, straight or redeveloped into a car park, and they feel that Bournevita is infinitely superior to Ecstasy.
But just because they’ve grown weary of the gay scene does not mean that they consider it intrinsically disordered, and that all those who do want to be part of it are pathetic inadequates. (“Toeing the party, party line where getting pissed, ingesting industrial strength drugs and dancing all night with all your might is deemed a political act”, as Mr Lyttle puts it.) He says there is a danger of getting stuck in fun-mode and making do with a lifestyle instead of a life.
You’re reading too much into it, John. What it means is that you are getting older. Believe me, there is now a whole generation of middle-aged gay men who have been out for the best part of their adult lives and who nightly give thanks that they will never have to go to Heaven or The Fridge, or any other late-night venue ever again. Like just about every other gay man of their age, they’ve had the lifestyle. Now they’ve got the life.
But they don’t want to stand in the way of the next generation having a go. They recognise other people’s right to sow their oats and make their own discoveries just like they did. Pity you can’t extend the same tolerance.
But, John, you’ll be pleased to know that you have a supporter for your views. Polly Toynbee, writing in The Radio Times (August 19th), also thinks that being gay isn’t really as much fun as we like to imagine. Writing about Gaytime TV she said: “My main criticism is that it suggested gay means non-stop partying — an enviable hedonism. My objection to that is not a moral one, nor the danger that they may subvert our youth, but simply that it isn’t true.”
Oh dear. I’d been planning to throw a party next weekend, but I think I’ll cancel. I might get John and Polly knocking on the door complaining that the music’s too loud.
On May 17th, 1987, on the weekend before the general election, The News of the World ran a two-page expose entitled “My love for the gay Labour boss”. It concerned Peter Mandelson, who was at the time a “spin doctor” and adviser to Neil Kinnock. Mr Mandelson rode the storm, survived, and eventually became MP for Hartlepool and a senior adviser to Tony Blair.
Now Bryan Gould, the ex-Labour MP who returned to New Zealand a disillusioned man, has published a book of memoirs in which he briefly refers to the unfortunate News of the World incident.
This was enough for The Sun to claim that Mr Gould had “sensationally exposed” Mr Mandelson’s homosexuality — reporting that “it will be seen at Westminster as Mr Gould’s revenge on the man he blames for wrecking his leadership bid in 1992.”
Speaking about the affair in The Sunday Telegraph (August 27th), Mr Gould said: “I had no concept at all of ‘outing’ him. He was ‘outed’, if that’s the right word, and has very happily lived with that for the last eight years. The Sun knows that very well.”
So, there we have it. Mr Mandelson is Britain’s third bona fide gay MP, although he’s not exactly shouting about it. Perhaps we can now claim that our representation in the House stands at two-and-a-half.
Mr Mandelson is, of course, a well-known press manipulator. Journalists are not fond of him, nor he of them. I don’t know how he intends to play this, but I hope he is not going to let the tabloids have a second bite at the Labour-bashing cherry by allowing them to out him yet again just before the next election.