In 1965, Julian and Sandy (played by Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams) began to make their weekly appearance on the BBC radio comedy show Round the Horne. In whatever role they were inserted into the narrative, they always announced themselves with the same mincing line: "Ooh ‘ello! I'm Julian and this is my friend Sandy!"
The brilliance of the script (by Barry Took and Marty Feldman) was its ability to smuggle outrageous references past the BBC censors and into the consciousness of those who had ears to hear. When the pair turned up as lawyers, Julian said, "We've got a criminal practice that takes up most of our time". On another occasion, Sandy spoke of Julian’s piano-playing as “a miracle of dexterity at the cottage upright".
These were subversive jokes. Private homosexual acts were still punishable by imprisonment. Most gay men had no choice but to stay in the closet. Did Julian and Sandy promote a stereotype? Of course. But a camp manner and a language of sexually charged double-entendres was the only style in which a gay identity could be made visible, or (for the radio audience) audible. Portrayals of gay life were either outrageously comic or suicidally grim. Normal was not yet an option.
Now a crack team of writers and actors are, for some reason, recycling a dismal version of the same old stuff – gay with all the gaiety knocked out of it. In Vicious, a new ITV sitcom, revered classical actors Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi play a couple who have been living together for 48 years, which means they must have met the year Julian and Sandy made their first appearance. Coincidence? Probably. But if we imagine them as Julian and Sandy grown old, they’ve also grown mean. Judging from the first episode, they’ve sunk into a state of mutual loathing and are reduced to addressing each other in carping put-downs.
In this case, context is all. Julian and Sandy were a force for progress. They were part of the cultural climate that made it possible for the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 to decriminalise homosexual acts in private. Who was offended by Round the Horne? Daily Mail readers, perhaps. Half a century later, I find myself harrumphing at the telly – screaming queen jokes just aren’t that amusing any more – while the Daily Mail declares the new show “an instant classic”.
I don't blame the actors. Actors have to work and must make the most of the script they're given. The writers are Mark Ravenshill, a respected playwright, and Gary Janetti, who was executive producer of Will and Grace. Both of them are gay, so I have to assume they know what they’re doing. I don’t.