Essays: Liberated Sisters |
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Liberated Sisters

HALF a century of women’s suffrage was celebrated by Golden Gala (ATV), a blockbusting, ball-breaking variety show that left at least one male viewer clutching his groin with fright. They’re out to get us, chaps.

With the participation of more than a hundred female stars, what TV Times called ‘the all-woman super-show’ was staged at the London Palladium in the presence of Princess Margaret, a dedicated lady well accustomed to displaying a gracious smile of appreciation when people in the world of the arts line up to bore her. But by this event even she must have had her patience taxed beyond endurance. Even if they do nothing but call out their name, rank and serial number, it takes a certain amount of time for more than a hundred female stars to file past a given point. If each of them is deputed to sing a song, read a speech or take part in a sketch, it follows inevitably that the procession will last all night.

In a uniformly dire compilation of acts, the sketches stood out by being even more dreadful than the songs. Actresses from ‘The Rag Trade’, with Miriam Karlin to the fore, did a turn wherein the position of women in politics was supposedly illuminated. ‘You can always trust a politician who smokes a pipe,’ somebody said — or it could have been, ‘You can never trust a politician who smokes a pipe,’ it doesn’t matter. The remark was greeted with a hurricane of laughter.

‘Mrs Thatcher doesn’t smoke a pipe,’ somebody else said. This remark was greeted with an uproar of enthusiasm and prolonged applause, as if Pericles had just concluded an address to the Athenians by performing the Hammerklavier Sonata. ‘She would if she thought it would get her a few more votes,’ said whoever had been entrusted with the punchline. This remark was overwhelmed by a mass paroxysm of hysterical delight which if it had been elicited by Hitler would have scared him off the podium.

The deeper significance of such material consisted in the satisfaction being taken from the fact that women were now free to be as cynical as men. The same line of thought kept surfacing throughout the show. Female liberty kept being defined in male terms. The paradox, if it is one, was especially apparent in the musical items, starting off with a production number of ‘There is Nothing Like a Dame’. The song had been updated with some limply apposite lyrics, but it defiantly remained a male chauvinist pig’s snorting hymn to the intuitive, cute and tender unpredictability of the sow.

As a logical extension of the same idea, women dressed themselves up to look as sexy as possible and then presumed to despise men for lusting after them. A squad of angry black girls ran on stage in order to gyrate arousingly while pouring scorn on any male who might be foolish enough to classify them as sex objects. ‘You’d better stop your fantasisin’ they instructed us shrilly. For those of us who hadn’t been doin’ any fantasisin’, the advice was supererogatory at best.

Up at the other end of the market, where long gowns are worn, distinguished ladies introduced each other’s numbers with fulsome accolades. If the lady had no number of her own to perform, she made a performance out of introducing somebody else’s number. ‘We all serve in different ways,’ said Noele Gordon. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, here is someone very special.’ As Ms Gordon serenely tackled the job of getting herself and her gown off stage, the curtains opened to reveal Mary O’Hara, who once again favoured the world with that song in which two cuckoos discuss their respective life-styles (‘Will there be danger to us from the hawk?’) before embarking on a course of self-fulfilment. I like Mary, but she overdoes the dirndls.

Petula Clark, billed above everybody else, climaxed the evening with majestic inappropriateness by singing ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him’ from ‘Jesus Christ, Superstar.’ As always with Petula, the technique was as perfect as the emotions were suspect. She pretended to have a little cry at the end. Some of us out in the audience were crying for real. Like many men of my generation I am grateful to the feminist movement for helping to release us from the burden of male supremacy: whatever the purported revolution in women’s consciousness might have led to, the change in men’s minds has surely been a blessing.

It is good to see women being independent, since it means that men are freed from some of the more tiresome obligations of being dominant. But it is not good to see our newly liberated sisters making idiots of themselves. ‘Golden Gala’ was the bummer of the century. It put the feminist movement back 50 years at least. After this, they’ll have to start chaining themselves to railings again and committing suicide at Ascot.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chauvinisme. Was it Voltaire who said that? Satie? Beerbohm? Whistler? Wilde? Shucks, then I suppose it must have been me. Anyway, as if to bear this thesis out, Wonder Woman (BBC1) has arrived from America. The best junk television is done from deep conviction. ‘Wonder Woman,’ like the TV ‘Batman’ series (and unlike the wonderful old ‘Batman’ serial that Sam Katisman produced for the cinema of long ago) is tricked out with captions and musical jokes in order to tell us that the people who are making the programme know it’s a hoax.

In other words, they are camping it up. The results are nowhere near as entertaining as, and a lot more meretricious than, what would have been turned out by a bunch of dumber people playing it straight. The heroine has a sensational figure but apart from that consideration — not a negligible one — there is little to engage the viewer’s loyalty. The plot comes equipped with innernational criminals bent on stealing the military secrets of the United States and giving them to a forn Power. Wonder Woman defeats them by super speed and super strength. Bionic Woman minus the transistors and plus magic.

‘Ladies and Gentlemen,’ said the hero of The Kenny Everett Video Show (LWT **), ‘I’ve been talking to Kate Bush, and she’s been talking to somebody else.’ Thus was the beautiful lady’s slightly weirdo mentality defined in a flash. Everett used all the same special effects in an earlier series for the same company. Nor is the ‘Captain Kremmen’ feature really all that hot. But this is still the most inventive pop series on television. To some extent Everett is too good, or at any rate too mature, for what is happening in current pop. A Brian Ferry number featured a lot of para-military prancing. Everett should need no reminding of the fact that flirting with fascism is fascism. But some of the other numbers have been wonderfully well staged, and there is a disco-dancing outfit called Hot Gossip whose female members will get you fantasisin’ like mad.

Compliments to Palestine (Thames), which has now come to an end. For those willing to be educated, it was an education. Last week’s deliberate grammatical mistake was as follows. I wrote ‘Nastase’s behaviour can’t be called disingenuous’ when I should have written that it can’t be called ingenuous. Watch out for similar tests in future columns.

The Observer, 16th July 1978

[ ** Thames ]

[ A shorter, edited version of this piece appears in The Crystal Bucket ]