Fabulously Flamboyant Fridays – Polari

Welcome back my friends, to the flamboyance that never ends. Tonight, it’s bona to vada your dolly old eeks, as this week’s Fabulously Flamboyant Friday proudly presents yet another march of the muscle Marys up the salubrious passage of contemporary culture (well, to be brutally honest, not at all contemporary in this case).

Tonight’s missive, as we proudly mark the middle of pride month, will take a nostalgic look back at a right old cant – a now largely forgotten lingo that was probably given it’s widest and most popular exposure by the fondly remembered Julian and Sandy, the fabulously flamboyant stars of the 1960’s BBC radio show, Round the Horne.

And so, without further ado, Laydees and Gentlebodies, Fabulously Flamboyant Fridays proudly present – Polari.

So what exactly is Polari? It’s a form of slang or cant that seems to have evolved from the historically used slang of puppeteers (particularly Punch & Judy shows), circus and fairground workers, merchant seamen, professional criminals, sex workers and – apparently and quite appropriately for a Friday evening – professional wrestlers.

The name was almost certainly derived from “parlare”, the Italian word for talk, and there is considerable debate (and indeed much dispute) as to its etymology and origins. However, there does seem to be enough evidence to suggest its roots can be traced back to the 16th century. It’s hard to be entirely certain about these things, because only one thing is entirely certain – Polari has a long and fiendishly complex provenance.

Additionally, a lot of its history has been forgotten, a lot of key facts are unknown, and unfortunately – at least for those cunning linguists who obsess about this sort of thing – most of these unknowns (both the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns – as Donald Rumsfeld might say) are quite likely to remain unknown.

This lack of knowledge about what was once a very widely spoken lingo is perhaps unsurprising. Polari evolved primarily as a slang spoken by marginalised groups, groups on the edge of polite society, and those who were often semi or even fully nomadic. As a result, users of Polari didn’t usually have their stories recorded or their language documented in any formal or systematic way.

However, it’s seems clear to those who have studied this subject (and it appears a surprising number of academics have) that Polari evolved from a mixture of various Mediterranean languages (particularly Italian), Yiddish, Romani, rhyming slang, back slang, sailors’ slang, thieves’ cant, with a little bit of Shakespearean lingo thrown in for good measure. It also seems to have been a constantly evolving slang, with an apparently endless number of regional, professional and trade variations developing over time.

However, what we can be sure about is that from the 19th century, Polari was extensively used within London’s theatres and fish markets, as well as the UK’s fairgrounds and travelling circuses. It was also used extensively in the British Merchant Navy, where a significant number of fabulously flamboyant gentlemen plied their trade, often working as stewards or entertainers.

Even within a single city – in this case, London – the various geographical and professional versions could apparently be quite marked. For example, the east-end and west-end versions of Polari were apparently quite distinct and readily discernable: with west end Polari seen as posh and theatrical, whereas the east end version was seen as coarse, somewhat uncouth and thoroughly contaminated by the vulgarities of cockney rhyming slang.

After the second world war, Polari became common within the UK’s rapidly expanding radio, film and TV industries. Many fabulously flamboyant gentlemen worked in these areas, and it is unsurprising that, by this time, Polari had expanded well beyond it’s theatrical stronghold and had become fully embedded in the UK’s gay subculture – and once established, it proved to be a very useful tool indeed.

Quite simply, Polari was used to identify kindred spirits, shield homosexuals from hostile outsiders, exclude those not-in-the-know and, of course, side step the unwanted attentions of undercover policemen by using what was, in effect, a coded gay language. And it was this aspect of Polari that made it so powerful – it was simultaneously about disguise and identification. In the years when homosexuality was still very much illegal in the UK, it was a way of communicating in public, without the risk of getting your collar fingered by plod, but it was also a means of signalling your membership of the UK’s gay subculture.

And Polari might very well have retained this status as a niche slang, if it wasn’t for the advent of Messrs Julian and Sandy: two characters on the BBC radio comedy programme, Round the Horne. The show was broadcast from 1965 to 1968 and the fabulously flamboyant characters of Julian and Sandy were played by Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams.

The scripts for the show were written by the lavishly talented duo of Barry Took and Marty Feldman, with Took describing the original characters as a couple of over-the-hill theatrical luvvies, sadly reduced to carrying out paid housework, whilst waiting for their next acting job to turn up. Apparently, the BBC producers thought this a little too sad and suggested transforming the duo into brighter, younger, chorus boy types, with a carefree and devil-may-care attitude. Clearly this proved to be a shrewd move, as Julian and Sandy were an instant hit with the public and quickly became the most successful and popular part of the show.

Ad-libs were a prominent part of the Julian and Sandy sketches, particularly as both Paddick and Williams were very familiar with Polari in real life conversation. Barry Took later claimed that many of the lines audiences assumed were ad-libbed were in fact carefully scripted to feel spontaneous, with the four contributors working and re-working the lines until they felt natural, sardonic and off-the-cuff. Took also noted that using Polari allowed them to get some of their ruder sketches (some of which, for the broadcast standards of the time, were very rude indeed) past the notoriously vigilant and straight-laced censors at the BBC.

The characters of Julian and Sandy were notable, even groundbreaking, because there was absolutely no attempt to disguise their nature. It was abundantly clear they were two stereotypical camp homosexual characters in mainstream entertainment, at a time when being a practising homosexual in the UK was still illegal, could still get you “banged up and sent down for a stretch”, and could of course still bring complete and utter professional ruin.

Julian and Sandy’s extensive use of Polari in the Took/Feldman sketches clearly identified the characters as gay men to those listeners in the know. But it is also widely credited with introducing Polari to a mass audience for the very first time, effectively dragging the lingo out of the shadows and into the full glare of public scrutiny. Suddenly, the cat was out of the bag and the secret language was not so secret any more.

By the late 1960s, partly as a result of this exposure, Polari was beginning to fall into disuse. The great success and popularity of Round the Horne ensured a range of Polari terms had gone mainstream and become common public knowledge – and a secret language that is no longer secret is really not much use to anyone. Additionally, the need for a secret means of communication in the UK’s gay subculture had substantially declined with the partial decriminalisation of adult homosexual acts in England and Wales under the Sexual Offences Act 1967.

Additionally, by the 1970s, many in the gay community viewed Polari as a rather old-fashioned affectation, and one that was helping to perpetuate a range of harmful and outdated stereotypes that were still frequently associated with the UK’s gay community. As a result, by the early ’70s, Polari was very much out of favour and quickly faded away. So much so, in fact, that according to an extensive UK survey carried out in 2000, around half of the gay men questioned had never even heard of Polari.

Nevertheless, despite falling from favour, a number of terms (are claimed to have) escaped from Polari to survive and enter the mainstream of English language usage. This list includes (but is definitely not limited to) naff, ac/dc, barney, blag, butch, camp, khazi (carsey), cottaging, hoofer, mince, slap (facial cosmetics), ogle, scarper, glossies (as in magazines) and rough trade, as frequently cited examples.

And Polari can still occasionally cause controversy. Back in 2017, a Church of England theological college celebrated LGBT history month by holding a complete service in Polari. This caused quite a fuss at the time and the college principal was eventually forced to apologise. He expressed regret for the incident and admitted the translated liturgy had not been authorised for use.

Additionally, a group of activists, originally from San Francisco, who call themselves The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (described as a charitable protest and street performance movement – sounds like fun) went further and created a complete Polari Bible. I’m not sure if they’re planning anything similar for other religious texts, but their finished Polari bible was beautifully printed, leather bound and went on display at the John Rylands Library in Manchester. It is occasionally used for Polari bible readings and has also been used in various world record attempts associated with preaching marathons.

And that’s pretty much where we are with Polari: a largely forgotten slang that is still occasionally used to drum up a little publicity, with perhaps a side order of controversy (quite deliberately I suspect) on the side. It’s still with us, it’s largely moribund, but it still enjoys the occasional modest revival.

Anyway, that’s yer lot for this week’s Fabulously Flamboyant Friday, so we’ll wrap up our musical selection for the evening with not one, but two fabulously flamboyant gentlemen. I know Elton John is a figure of fun these days. Oft’ ridiculed as the lavishly bespectacled and ludicrously be-syruped pantomime dame of pop. But I’ll always defend early 70’s Reg, when Elton John and Bernie Taupin churned out an astonishing run of superb hit singles and a magnificent roster of top-notch multi-platinum albums.

It seems unlikely now, but such was the chart-rodgering dominance of Reg during this period, that even 70’s superstars such as Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones couldn’t hold a candle to his wind. So we’ll finish tonight with one of my favourite Elton John tracks from that period and a performance which, in terms of fabulous flamboyance, might very well have registered on the Richter scale.

May all your pillows be tasty, your gardens inclined and your puddles well jumped.

Goodnight, and may your frog go with you – Not ‘arf!

Featured Image: See page for author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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