Time: the present
Place: A Home for Elderly Thespians, Among Them Sir Sebastian Wylie Fox
Few excuses are needed for a party for the residents of The Home for the Terminally Overdressed, a retirement facility tucked away on the Slough Trading Estate. This is a 1930’s development on the edge of the town poet laureate John Benjamin was once so very rude about. On the other hand it may well be considered to have had the last laugh as it produced the Mars bar as well as “Lady Penelope” and other Thunderbirds characters. They say location is everything and this unique experiment in themed ageing is conveniently located for access to Pinewood Film Studios and the West End of London via the M4.
Household Names and Incomprehensible Afternoon Quizzes
This is important because the residents who are living out their twilight years here are largely drawn from stage and screen. Many are, or have been, household names that have helped to shape the identity of our cultural lives although, because of data protection, no one is at liberty to go into too much detail. It is a forward looking organisation, at least according to the brochure, where it illustrates this by reference to “Pilates and Mindfulness” for those that have one (“bless” as Matron says frequently and annoyingly) and a recent decision to allow day time television personalities to be admitted to their number.
This has not been without controversy. For some of the residents regard themselves as the aristocracy of British culture now witnessing the arrival of the barbarians at the gate. As Polly Pallet, BAFTA winning make-up artiste on The Brothers, (responsible for that unique lorry drivers’ pallor as well as Kate O’Mara’s surprised look), said “this could set diction back a decade”.
Residents have also complained that corridors have become littered with “so-called antiques”, “re-purposed items” formerly known as rubbish and people wandering around in confused states asking for directions to the nearest “brocante”. So there have been some rather interesting improvisation sessions with the new people trying to ingratiate themselves by introducing a quiz where the least likely answer is the winning one. This is not understood at all by the old hands who simply mutter to one another that this sort of thing never happened with Double Your Money or Take Your Pick .
The Queen Agrees
Today is, however, a day of nostalgia as the residents especially those who are “very theatrical” celebrate one of the great turning points of their lives, which took place in 1967. This is often known as the “summer of love”, because of the hippies in America, but in Britain or at least in part of Britain, a forbidden love was finally recognised. On 27th July 1967 The Queen gave the Royal assent to an Act permitting homosexual acts in private between 2 men over the age of twenty one. This anniversary has not escaped the media who devour material especially anniversaries with an appetite that is both bewildering and transitory.
As the decade has rolled on we have given almost moments to slavery, the Holocaust, slaying one another in World War 1 and now it’s the turn of sex, which as any child of the 1950swas told didn’t really happen much before 1939. The rapidity with which we revisit our past, exploit it and move on rarely gives one the opportunity to smell the roses or in this case the lavender bush.
The journalist, Hilary-Dee Range and museum curator, Vivenne Valhalla, have always been good at spotting a bandwagon when they see one. Together they have formed a production company to make the most of these opportunities.
They have already had a preliminary discussion about new media possibilities over a parsnip and ginger gin and a lunch of halloumi and edible flowers and have hot footed it to Slough where they believe they have a source as yet untapped by the BBC or Channel 4. Sebastian Wylie-Fox has been on their radar for some time, but to their chagrin they have always been out foxed by the Fox.
A Versatile Actor
Sebastian Wylie Fox is loved throughout the land. He took up where Olivier and Gielgud left off. He is the luvvie’s luvvie who has never looked back since he first performed Shakespeare’s King Richard in Richard III which is a well known play by Elizabethan/Jacobean playwright William Shakespeare – a popular choice for English Literature examinations. Although come to think of it, not as popular as under age love story Romeo and Juliet with musical options or the widely fanciful Scottish play about moving trees.
Sir Sebastian, as he now is, has played with the great stars of British theatre – Dame Peggy Ashcroft, Dame Sybil Thorndike and the wife of the Spanish chef in Crossroads, when in a lean period he was a salesman for a Midlands modular shelving company who had a puncture outside King’s Oak, Birmingham and for a brief moment between a cancelled booking, and a cream sherry he became the Motel’s love interest. It was said that when he dropped ice from a pair of silver tongs into Noel Gordon’s Cinzano, the faux niche in Mrs Richardson’s drawing room shook more than usual, and a nation sighed and developed a thirst for the herby drink. Some even poached chicken in it.
The Past is Different – It was Not Always the Best
Despite the fact that Sebastian is one of the world’s most obviously “very theatrical” people, he has never admitted to overacting. He comes from another time and place, suffered ridicule and torment and has lived a lie for so long it is difficult to do otherwise. Behind the scenes, Sebastian’s family particularly his Aunt Muriel and Uncle Jasper did much to improve the lives of the “very theatrical”.
His Aunt Muriel, the late great Baroness Wylie of Waterside, was secretly an advisor to the Wolfenden Committee in the mid 1950s. Muriel Wylie had always enjoyed the company of theatricals as they appreciated her sense of the dramatic in clothes and always knew exactly how much gin to put in her glass .
Despite the fact that his Uncle Jasper lived in his own little world, mainly his shed, and knew little of what went on, he had a sense of justice and fair play and this influenced his wife.
A Lot of Leaning
It is said that in the 1960s his Uncle Jasper, who leaned to the left, had a considerable influence on Labour MP Leo Abse and that Aunt Muriel, who leaned to the right, had the same effect on the Conservative peer Lord Arran with whom she shared an oat cake or two.
Against a background of rising prosecutions encouraged by the fervent Home Secretary, Maxwell Fyfe and public confusion and ignorance about same sex activity (always referred to as gross indecency although no one knew what that was), the Sexual Offences Bill was introduced. There was stiff opposition. The Earl of Dudley said “I cannot stand homosexuals. They are the most disgusting people in the world – I loathe them. Prison is too good a place for them.” Viscount Montgomery suggested it was tantamount to “promoting the work of the Devil”.
Lord Arran pushed on motivated in part by having inherited his title from his gay brother who had committed suicide. He did not refer to the Bill by name, calling it “William”. As Aunt Muriel said he was “related to everyone, which was useful”.
A Matter of Legality Not Love
There came to be a gradual realisation that legislating in matters of personal morality was, at best, tricky. It opened the way for ridiculous prosecutions involving smiling at one another in public parks and those whose names were found in the address books of ringleaders being taken to court en mass. The law as it stood provided an opportunity for blackmailers and over-zealous policemen. As to the relationships between two women, this had never been a matter for law as few believed it actually happened. Queen Victoria for example refused to believe in the existence of lesbians.
The Act passed, but only referred to England and Wales and not the merchant navy or armed services. Scotland much to Muriel Wylie’s disappointment would have to wait until 1980 and Northern Ireland until 1982. “Sadly, and I feel a little responsible” as Muriel wrote in her diary, “there was a noticeable increase in prosecutions after the legislation”.
It would be another 38 years before being “simply marvellous” was an opportunity open to all. 30,000 people would be prosecuted between 1967 and 2003. As Muriel wrote “it was a start but it was really a matter of law and technicalities, no one mentioned love at all and that in the end,that is all that matters.”
She thought it was telling that during the parliamentary debate Roy Jenkins referred to those “who suffer from this disability” and that even Lord Arran asked that people would show their thanks by “comporting themselves quietly with dignity” and that any form of ostentatious behaviour now or in the future – would be utterly distasteful”. Muriel Wylie was also disappointed to see the situation remain the same in Scotland, this she put down to the Church and to the presence of James Adair on the Wolfenden Committee, a Scot. “Unless” she said “one was there one cannot realise how conservative a nation Scotland was in the 1950s and 60s”. “Indeed” she would later say “we did not have the 1960s until the 1970s.”
Below the Parapet
Understandably perhaps, Sebastian is reluctant to “come out” in a way that would make good television for the determined couple who pursue him for his memories and sensational sound bites. He is in any case aware that his memory is not what it was and is scared of tying himself in knots with Hilary Dee and the Uber Curator whom he regards as unpleasantly “thrusting women” of the type produced by their emancipation, instead of producing nicer men which would have been a bonus. In any case the Scots do not generally wear their hearts on their sleeves. Heads are generally kept below the parapet.
This is not to say he is not going to make the most of the celebrations as like his Aunt before him and her coterie of fabulous friends including Lady Pentland-Firth, the Handsome Stranger, Professor Sir Boozy-Hawkes, the ladies from the right side of
Carlisle and Patty in the Blue Ridge Mountains to name but a few, he likes a party. It is also something which will distract his two media pursuers, who will find plenty of filming opportunities to fulfil their stereotypical agenda of life before and after 1967.
A Night to Remember, if Only They Could
In the Hi De Hi reproduction Hawaiian Ballroom, a selection of afternoon chefs from television are presenting a cookery session How Gay is Our Food? which seems to consist of sushi and fruit kebabs which has Vivienne screaming at her cameraman to get in as close a possible as the Kebabs are “so rainbow nation,” which prompts her to turn to her colleague and ask, “we are still doing the Rainbow thing aren’t we?” “Oh yes absolutely darling, we are always chasing rainbows –anyone here with ruby red slippers?”
In the music room there is a Dame Ethel Smyth extravaganza, “tweed suits optional”, but prizes for the dreariest. The Lecture theatre has a well known art historian taking about “Art Deco – the camp choice?” This will be followed by “Hidden Signs, Symbols and Songs” which examines the real meaning of Any old Iron, Daddy wouldn’t buy me a bow-wow and the intended audience of Pale hands I loved thee.
Sebastian, as this is a fundraising event, has agreed to compère the evening’s main attraction in which he will present some of the recordings of Rae Bourbon, a friend of the colourful Lady Pentland-Firth who worked with him the clubs and cabaret circuit of the 1930s. These include Boys will be Girls, Don’t Call me Madame, Sisters of Charity and many more. It is rumoured they did time together but Sebastian will gloss over that.
This will be followed by him that was in The Good Old Days doing a Hermione Gingold tribute act with such memorable lines as “Dame Fashion is a fairy and the fairies will get you if you don’t watch out”, which comes from The 1939 Gate Review with Walter Grisham and Michael Wilding. This infuriated the Lord Chamberlain who noted on the script “this was sung by two effeminates and a lesbian”. The day will end with the usual Diana Ross and Village People stuff and the Lord’s Prayer in polari, with cake.
Almost There – It Would be Such a Coup
The media pair are thrilled, but still want some useful lines from Sir Sebastian who has successfully given them the slip until they corner him enjoying a quiet moment with his paper, a pink champagne and a selection of food nibbles served on one of those awful bits of roofing tile. His Aunt Muriel would have had kittens or at least the offending item covered in a doily. If only they could get him to say what the nation has been waiting to hear.
“Sir Sebastian is there anything that you would like to say about your sudden trip to New York in 1957 to live in Greenwich Village, with a spotted hankie in your back pocket?”
“I always had terrible hay fever.”
“Again Sir, if I could ask for a comment on 1957?”
“I believe it was the happiest year on record, recent studies have proved it.”
“Would you say” pressed the ace reporter thinking of the “Daily Wail” headline “that for you it was your gayest year?”
“It was pretty jolly, my aunt was mixed up in one or two strange deaths in the lead up to Britain joining the EEC.”
“Oh no, cut stop filming… Sir Sebastian, please if you don’t mind, not the EU. So boring, so last election, so Theresa… Brexit kills any magazine edition or results in reaching for the remote.”
“I was not talking about Brexit. I was talking about the skulduggery that took place trying to get into it, with the comrades and the tricky French and the strange death of a medium.”
“If you are talking Macron, we’ll be back, what a dish… Vivienne don’t you agree avec moi. Meanwhile, how about just telling our readers and viewers, that you are prepared on this important anniversary – to come out, after all it is 2017”.
“Tell them that in Moscow or the Middle East, that I may make an important announcement.”
“Marvellous, simply marvellous”.
“Please don’t say that. Only one person can say that; I mean could say that.”
“Sorry – well Sebastian, are you proud to be……. you know are you…?”
“A Scotsman – I certainly am. Now can I tempt you to a wee willie-winkie on a stick? Then I must go to bed. I am feeling rather queer, it’s been a long day.”
P.S. Remembering fondly my dear Uncle Jasper and Aunt Muriel today on their anniversary, for whom love was everything.