Polari is a type of slang used by the male homosexual community in England – at least, that is what your encyclopædia will tell you. But the full story is fascinating.
Slang is NOT a language – rather a collection of verbs, nouns and adjectives, which can be slotted into conventional English, to enable those in the know to talk freely on subjects where discretion is judicious.
And since, until mid-1967, male homosexuality was ILLEGAL in England – discretion was certainly advisory when conversing in public.
Enter Polari. Originally corrupted from Romance (Italian) words, it was absorbed into Romany and spread by travelling fairs and street entertainers, whereafter it was picked up by performers in the British theatre.
And given homosexuality and the British theatre had always been synonymous, it was not long before it entered England’s gay community.
Indeed, theatrical cant had ALWAYS been favoured by gay men – like the word “resting”. In the theatre, this meant “between engagements” – in the gay World, it was used as a polite rebuff to an unwanted sexual advance.
In the Forties and Fifties, gay pride was entering its first stumbling steps. During WW2, sexual freedom had become rampant as a reaction to the knowledge that every day was likely to be one’s last.
Thus, men returning from the conflict to a gray Britain, where one could still be imprisoned for being gay (i.e., locked up with five hundred blokes – had they really thought that through?) were becoming militant.
Bolstered by their peers – but still shunned by “decent people” – the time was ripe for the “secret” method of communication known as Polari.
And it would have REMAINED secret, had it not been for Kenneth Horne.
Ken had been a top radio comedy figure since the end of the war – first, with “Much-Binding-In-The-Marsh” – then “Beyond Our Ken”. However, these shows were conventional fare. It was his next (and last) series that turned the tide – “Round The Horne”.
Beyond Our Ken had first brought together his “company”, which included Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick, both of whom were GAY – but it was Round The Horne that finally gave them full reign to incorporate this.
It began in ’65 – two years BEFORE homosexuality was (sort of) legalised – and what made it different was that a ruling had just been handed down from the Powers That Were at the BBC, which said that ANY joke was acceptable – provided it had a “straight” interpretation.
We are talking about innuendo – and its brother, the double entendre!
And the writers of Round The Horne – Barry Took and Marty Feldman – took that very LITERALLY.
Today, it is amazing to think about what they got away with. Remember, this show was not late night fare – it went out SUNDAY LUNCHTIMES, on the most popular radio station in Britain. MILLIONS of families tuned in as they sat eating their Sunday roasts!
And it was not just STRAIGHT sexual innuendo that came wafting out of the nation’s speaker grills every week, on “God’s Day” – the show ended with a “Julian And Sandy” sketch, featuring Kenneth Horne as the ingénue, with Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick as two out-of-work chorus boys.
This was the moment which half the audience – including THOUSANDS of gays – were waiting for. Not only did the writers pepper the script with Polari – which Williams and Paddick were MORE than familiar with – but the guys were given room for IMPROVISATION.
It must be remembered that while much of the show might have SOUNDED improvised – the very clever writers had slaved over every WORD. Even Williams’ occasional rants, where he went off-script, complaining about the quality of the material – were tightly scripted.
The show was a double-edged sword for the BBC. On the one hand – the most IMPORTANT one – it was highly popular. Even though a lot of the jokes went right over most of the audience’s heads – they instinctively KNEW it was naughty.
But on the other hand, it outraged others – who wrote constantly, to complain. Of course, Auntie always had that STRAIGHT meaning of everything to fall back on – indeed, no BBC bigwig would dare to admit they UNDERSTOOD the “other” meaning!
And Julian And Sandie were a double-edged sword for Polari. On the one hand, they paved the way for gradual public acceptance of gays – it was in the MIDDLE of Round The Horne’s run, that the Act of Parliament sort-of legalizing male homosexuality in England, was passed.
But on the other hand, it almost KILLED Polari – now that everyone knew a slew of its most widely-used terms. No longer could someone in a pub remark to his friend on “the butch omi’s lallies and thews” – without attracting an unwelcome response.
Round The Horne died when Kenneth Horne did. He had suffered with a dodgy ticker for years and although Auntie (who to this day is famed for flogging dead horses) tried to keep it going without him, with a new title – “Stop Messing About” – and with Kenneth Williams headlining, it was like Eric Morecombe without Ernie Wise. It failed dismally.
With the occasional revival of the format – and plays and programmes trying to re-create the magic – plus CDs of the series being reissued every few years – Polari is still around.
But with everyone now knowing many of its terms, its value as a code has vanished – and with British society’s almost full acceptance of the gay community, the original reason for its use has vanished too.
Now it stands only as a curio of a bygone age…