“Fantabulosa!”and other ‘Gay Codes’

“His appearance, mannerisms and speech were saturated with elements or camp and queerness”. Andy Medhurst

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“How bona to vada yer eek!” shrieked Jason. “O00aaawwwh!” replied the butch omi in the brown leather jacket, “She’s got all the Palare, ain’t she!”
 
This is a story of impressions and interpretations. My impression of an author’s ‘interpretation’ of the viewers and critics of the ‘Jason King’ TV series… oh, and the impression it’s left on all of us!
 
I’ve been reliably informed that the author whose work is under scrutiny here, namely Andy Medhurst – a lecturer on modern culture at Sussex University, is not being judgemental at all, but is actually bestowing upon us an experts understanding of Seventies culture and fashion in the person of a television icon.
 
Whilst I can read the section in question on that level, I can also able to view it from a different standpoint. You see, Medhurst throws various hypotheses into the mix from a third person perspective; i.e. the unseen person or persons who suggests that “for heterosexual woman watching the original broadcasts, King’s obsessive interest in his own finery marked him out as a daring individual” or who refers to fans today as “The kitch and irony lobby who venerate King”.
 
This kind of approach puts me in mind of a friend of mine who, whenever I’d remark or complain about something, would always wheel out the ubiquitous ‘SOME. For instance, when on one occasion I whinged at getting accosted by the Jehovah Witness’ twice in a week, she said: “Well, SOME might say that’s the Lord trying to get your attention!” There was no “SOME” about it. These were her words, no one else’s!
 
That’s the ‘impression’ I get from this chapter’; that really, underneath it all, Andy Medhurst is just trying impose on the reader his own particular understanding of the series, the character of King, and the actor who played hi. Like Admiral Lord Nelson sticking a telescope to his bad eye, people see what they want to see. This is my ‘interpretation’… 

 I was recently shown a copy of a book called ‘Action TV: Tough-Guys, Smooth Operators and Foxy Chicks‘, which is basically a collection of academic essays on classic British and American television from the 1960’s and 70’s.
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The chapter of interest here is entitled ‘King and Queen: Interpreting Sexual Identity in Jason King’ which, as already stated, was penned by university lecturer, Andy Medhurst. According to his personal ‘interpretation’, ‘Jason King’ is veritably littered with coded messages of the gay variety. Apparently, at the time the series was first broadcast in 1971 “Homosexual coding in popular culture were only just beginning to become decipherable to mainstream heterosexual audiences”. Well I never! 

“King’s style, then, clearly has queer credentials”. Andy Medhurst

If this alleged “Homosexual coding” is taken at face value, then there must’ve been more than PETER WYNGARDE involved in the conspiracy. Indeed, the entire cast and crew of the series must surly have been complicit in concealing those missives and signals so that only those of a certain persuasion would recognise them. Those same cast and crew would also have had to remained steadfast in their silence which, at the time of writing, has lasted almost 50 years.
 
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“Vogue me up ducky” Jason asked the polone across the table.
 
Over the course of several paragraphs, scorn is seemingly poured upon both the viewers of the original broadcasts who failed to spot these “codes” (that would be all of ‘em then!), and the present-day fans of the series, who are referred to as “The kitch and irony lobby who venerate King”. But the most scathing derision is reserved for the “mainly heterosexual female” admirers of PETER WYNGARDE, of whom we’re asked: “How can these women, some laughter asks, be so gullible? How could they have not seen that king was a queen?”
 
It should be remembered that PETER was considered a “heartthrob” WAY before Jason King threw on his first pair of flairs. In 1957, after playing Sidney Carton in the BBC serialisation of ‘A Tale of Two Cities”, he received over 3,500 letters from adoring female fans – the highest number ever sent to the Beeb for a single actor in a play, before or since.
 
In an article entitled ‘PETER WYNGARDE Plays Down His Heart-Throb Label’ (21.02.59). Picturegoer magazine stated that they received more letters from women about PETER than any other TV star. Similarly, TV Mirror and Disc News in their article of 12 December, 1957, maintained “The letters poured into the TV Mirror post-box. Who is he? When are we going to see him again? How old is he? Is he married? and so on. Inevitable the signature was Mrs or Miss… A new idol has been born PETER WYNGARDE’.
 
Long-time fan, Tania Arnold, explains what that attraction of PETER and Jason King is:
“Having read through Andy Medhurst’s article, I don’t feel that the author himself is saying that he thinks women are silly to be attracted to Jason King/PETER WYNGARDE, in fact he states at one point “King’s magnetism to heterosexual women seems wholly understandable.” He does highlight what he sees as some snarky hipster commentators who have taken the view that women are silly for loving Jason (because of what they perceive as his “campness”) and then examines this attitude.
 
“That being said, I feel that the author’s basic premise of the associations of campness encoded in things like Jason King’s wardrobe is really drawing a long bow. And I think that anyone who reads Jason King’s non-conformity and individual flair as “camp” because he is not compliant with prevailing cultural ideals of what masculinity is, is missing the point entirely. It is precisely Jason King’s uniqueness and individuality that makes him so appealing. He is different – i.e., not like the average slob down the street, or god forbid, sitting next to you on the couch at home.
 
“Jason is an individualist, and a dandy: a man of taste, style and means. Also, and I think this is an important point that Medhurst’s article misses, Jason is a man who understands – as so few other men do – that women really enjoy seeing a well-dressed man who actually takes care and pride in his appearance and enjoys showing off his looks and style to his best advantage.
 
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The sight of Jason King stroking a pussy resulted in legions of hysterical gay fans accusing ITC of placing ‘Heterosexual Codes’ in the series

 

“Women respond to the fact that Jason King is making an effort to look good ‘for them’. The only thing “effeminate” (I dislike this word) about this is that so few men bother to do it (or understand its powerful impact), while women routinely dress to appeal to men. Jason King/PETER WYNGARDE ‘gets’ this in a way no other actor I can think of does.

“Some pop stars get it, and artists such as Prince (also hugely desired by women) had the same ability to present himself as an object of desire for women, but really, this insight – and having the daring and panache to pull it off – is very uncommon. Sadly a lot of ‘conservatively-minded heterosexual’ men still view the act of making an effort with their appearance as “gay.” Maybe because of out-dated notions that women are supposed to make themselves look pretty in hopes of being chosen by the man. They see making an effort as some kind of sign of weakness (the one who chooses has the power) whereas Jason King and pop stars and other who embody this rare peacock quality are in fact seizing a kind of power (the power to attract) that few other men are able to achieve in this way. This is born out in the huge number of female admirers they attract.

“The premise of the show is that Jason is a ladies’ man – he is so successful with them because he understands what women like and want, and I think that PETER’S phenomenal popularity in the role is a testament to the fact that he was so beautifully able to embody this fantasy ideal.  

“PETER as Jason is a brilliant, handsome, exceptionally stylish, unusually attentive, witty, kind and capable character. Played so expertly, and by an actor of PETER’S accomplishments and personal magnetism – and let us not underestimate the devastating power of that voice! – it’s not surprising at all that women in their hordes would swoon over him. I suspect that PETER as Jason is so potent as a fantasy figure for women because he embodies the sort of refinement, charm and romantic intensity that is rather less easy to find in real life!

PETER, as the artist behind the marvellous creation that is Jason King, is of course going to be the subject of female adulation. His personal life (or more precisely, what people “think” they know about it), is irrelevant to the way his fans admire him as a romantic figure. We don’t know him in real life, any more than we know any performer, but we love what he presents to us on the screen: a wonderful captivating fantasy figure. Mocking his fans for admiring him as an attractive man is always going to smack of jealousy, to me. And it only shows that these men just don’t understand the dynamics at play here”.

Alley Sillers – another life-long fan of PETER and Jason King added: “I think the character was ‘of the times’, looking back on it now it does seem a bit ‘campy’ but at the time ( I was a young teenager and well aware of gay men) I had a HUGE crush on Jason/PETER! He was so fashionable at the time and a trendsetter.
I was recently looking at some episodes of The Persuaders and giggling at the wardrobe for Tony Curtis and Roger Moore! They would totally be considered “gay” nowadays. Liza Minelli is considered a “gay icon”, I am sure she doesn’t mind this. If Jason King would be one, then more power to the character!”
When I worked in a video store in the 1990’s, a lady came to the counter with a tape she wished to purchase and noticed a picture I had of PETER pinned up behind the counter. Her legs almost buckle under her when she spotted the photo’, and falling into an almost dreamlike state she gasped: “Oh, my God! PETER WYNGARDE! You know, whenever I read a book now, I always imagine the hero looking like him”.
  
Medhurst, as have other scribes before him, attempts to justify his philosophy by referencing the fact that PETER played homosexuals in three plays prior to taking the role of King – those being Charles Granillo in ‘Rope’; Jan Wicziesky in ‘South’; and Sir Roger Casement in ‘On Trial’[1]. What is not mentioned (and not for the first time, I might add), is that by the time the first episode of ‘Department S’ was broadcast in March 1969, PETER had already appeared in almost 200 film, TV and stage plays. In only the three productions named above did he play a homosexual character. The other 197+ sorts were as straight as the proverbial die![2]
  
Mention is also made of PETER’s two “camp” pre-‘Jason King’ appearances in ‘The Avengers’. Whilst most classic British TV fans would likely concede that ‘The Avengers’ is indeed as ‘camp’ as a row of pink frilly tents, if we’re to follow Mehurst’s line of thought then certainly the regular cast, and each of the turns who crossed swords with John Steed and Co. over the years, must therefore also be considered as “camp”. Whilst I appreciate that this chapter isn’t the focus of these other guest stars, it does rather smack of desperation to use PETER’s portrayals of John Cleverly Cartney and Stewart Kirby in particular as fodder to bolster the argument.
  
Just to put Mr Medhurst’s hypothesis to the test, I tasked not one, not two, but THREE of my gay friends who’s ages range from 27 and 63, to watch the entire series of ‘Jason King’, and to highlight anything in the dialogue or acting styles that might be interpreted as, well, queer. Disappointingly, not one of them could identify anything that could remotely be described as “gay” (coded or otherwise), or which referred to homosexuality or homosexual activities in any kind of clandestine way.
 
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All the boys love a ‘Bear’.
 
Since this theory was beginning to quickly unravel, I decided to contact my long-time friend, Mrs Anne Frost, who just so happens to be the sister of scriptwriter and producer, Dennis Spooner. Ann told me that she’d met and spoken to PETER many times over the years, and that she and her brother had huge respect for him, both as an actor and a person. Indeed Spooner had gone on record as saying that he regarded PETER as the most gifted actor he’s ever worked with. No one is more acquainted with Spooner’s work with ITC than Anne.
 
I duly sent her a copy of the aforementioned chapter, and asked her what she thought of it. When she finally stopped laughing, she told me that ITC had a stringent process through which every screenplay would pass before it appeared on our television screens. To begin with, a script would be read by Dennis, who was the series Executive Story Consultant, and then it would be passed to Monty Berman for his approval. That was way before it ever landed in the hands of the actors or directors involved. Any proposed changes to a script would again require Spooner and Berman’s endorsement. So, unless they, Senior Director Cyril Frankel, and all the actors and above-named directors/writers were colluding, Anne says that the whole “Gay Code” nonsense is clearly a figment of someone’s over active imagination! 

“His appearance, mannerisms and speech were saturated with elements or camp and queerness”. Andy Medhurt

In order to be absolutely certain that Medhurst’s ‘interpretation’ was away with the, a-herm – fairies, I then asked members of the Hellfire Club (The Official Peter Wyngarde Appreciation Society) if they’d ever noticed anything overtly “gay” about ‘Jason King’. The general consensus appeared to be ‘No’!
 
These are some of the comments left on our Website:

“I would say no, but now I come to think of it, I’m not even sure what constitutes a ‘gay code word’”. James Gaden

“There’s always a pattern to anything if you look hard enough. Doesn’t make it true though. The only gay reference that ever stuck out for me was when Jason called Quirley ‘Queerly’ which to me was just good comedy”. Duncan Campbell

“A load of nonsense. On a par with the urban myth that ‘Captain Pugwash’ had characters with rude names (it didn’t)”. Stephen Tanith Nightshade

“Rubbish. There were eight different writers and four different directors credited on Jason King. Are we to assume they were all party to this subversive code-word conspiracy? It’s a case of someone imposing his own personal interpretation on the show”. Clive Davidson

“Most of the writers of Jason King were hard-drinking ITC stalwarts with betting slips tucked under their hats”. Michael Coldwell.

“What’s a ‘gay’ code? not been gay I wouldn’t know and neither would the writers on ‘Jason King’ – another urban myth?” Bernard Dunn

“Most of the writers of Jason King were hard-drinking ITC stalwarts with betting slips tucked under their hats”. Michael Coldwell

“Tripe!” Fitzcarraldo Fannen

“Intriguing! What are some examples of words he suggests are gay code words?” Andrew Humphrey

“Dennis Spooner would have take anyone messing about with the scripts outside and chinned them. Is “Fancy!” a gay code word?” Michael Coldwell

“I guess you can see what you want to see. The show is a bit camp but no more”. Patrick Nash

“What a load of bunkum!” Jo Nathan

“Even my yo yo has gone limp!” This is delightful British humour…nothing more nothing less! (From JK episode “If it’s got to go…” Dave Asher

“Maybe the wish is mother to the thought. In other words you see what you want to see. It was light. It was fun. Does it matter?” Linda Rushing

“It’s the sign of a good programme if different folks get different things out of it”. Andrew Humphrey

“I would not dismiss it but would welcome a complete rerun (rerun reel!) on TV just to tune into this thesis. I am convinced that Peter used the medium to add to the acting genre”. Deepinder Singh Cheema 

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As Jason trolled across the soundstage, his bonaro new kaffies showed just enough basket to grab the attention of the fruit under the black capello.
 
Mr Al Samujha, who is a life-long fan of ‘Jason King’ and an expert on all things ITC, had this to say about Mr Medhurst’s ‘Interpretation’:

“I’d love to see a sample of this ‘Code’! It’s certainly not ‘Julian and Sandy’. Sounds like a trite bit of ‘post-modern’ revisionist claptrap to me. It’s a ridiculous proposition that this wide selection of writers conspired as a ‘pink mafia’ to lace all of their scripts with what must qualify as the most obscure Polari ever. So obscure that the broad audience had not a single clue; mostly because it is imaginary nonsense”.

 He continues: “The piece is a particularly personal point of view- if you’ll pardon the expression (and for wont of a more appropriate phrase), ‘Queerness is in the eye of the beholder’. I use ‘queerness’ in particular as this seems to be the author’s personal bent, rather than just plain campness.

“People fling themselves into over analysis with gay abandon and see whatever they will see in a particular piece. I find this happens quite a lot in analysis of ITC stable-mate, ‘The Prisoner’. As Barry Norman once famously said (according to Spitting image at least!) you pays your money and you takes your choice.

“Being an innocent abroad ‘Department S’ and ‘Jason King’ never delivered to me the arcane communications of Masonic Polari – I never thought about it on that level. It was just good all-round fun! It wasn’t meant to provide a particular life stance or philosophy; it’s just entertainment. As for people placing sexualised key words or messages in their writing- well…!”

Of course, everyone’s entitled to interpret any TV show, work of art or piece of music et al in any way they wish, and Andrew Medhurst is no exception. However, it might’ve strengthened his case if he’s given us at least one well-defined example of these so-called “Homosexual codes” and where others might be found. Clearly, we’re expected just to take his word for it.

“Jason King is not a person but an image; a conglomeration of signs” Andy Medhurst

The interesting thing about Medhurst’s Chapter is that the character of Jason King is referred to as a “fop”: “and foppery,” it’s claimed, “is never far away from effeminacy and effeminacy is never far away from homosexuality”. So whilst Jason is a “fop”, John Steed, for instance, is merely “dapper”. And what about the cravat-wearing, close-buddy relationship of Danny Wilde and Brett Sinclair in ‘The Persuaders!’? According to Medhurst: “For a man in the early 1970’s to be deeply interested in fashion was an indication that he was keen to chafe away at traditional demarcations of masculinity”.
 
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“Do you prefer oysters or snails, Danny?” Sinclair enquires. “Oh, no!”, Wilde laments. “Not this again!”
As has been pointed out many times, if you look hard enough you will find cyphers and symbols in just about anything. I recall that when a supposed apocalyptic code was uncovered in the King James Version of The Bible, a mathematician in the US picked up a copy of the 1972 San Francisco phone directory and asked a passerby on the street to select a page at random. From that page and the numbers contained on it, he produced a code which would’ve predicted the first Gulf War and the attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001. If you can do that with a phone directory, I’m sure you can do it with a Seventies television series!

[1]. On Trial, which was broadcast on July 8th, 1960, focused on the trial of Sir Roger Casement for treason. The programme had nothing to do with the individual’s homosexuality.
 
[2]. Medhurst stretches the point by trying to include PETER playing Garry Essendine in ‘Present Laughter’ in this list…. because it was written by Noel Coward. (Oh, pur-leez! ).

 Article Details:

• Author: Andrew Medhurst
• Book: Action TV: Tough-Guys, Smooth Operators and Foxy Chicks by (9780415226219)
• Chapter: ‘King and Queen: Interpreting Sexual Identity in Jason King’ (pages 169-188)

The Hellfire Club: The OFFICIAL PETER WYNGARDE Appreciation Society: https://www.facebook.com/groups/813997125389790
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