Polari is a voice from another era, and is remembered best through the characters Julian and Sandy, voiced by Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick, from the 1960s BBC Radio series Round the Horne. Who better to explain the phenomenon than Paul Baker, the author of Fantabulosa: A Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang.
“All the world’s a stage, and all the omees and palones merely players,” according to the Julian and Sandy rewrite of Shakespeare in “up-to-date Polari”. The Polari Bible, translated from the King James Version by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, opens with the words, “In the beginning Gloria created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was nanti form, and void; and munge was upon the eke of the deep”. In these familiar contexts it is possible to identify and translate the words in Polari. But what about the sentence “Lau your luppers on the strillers bona”? Surely one would need a dictionary to make sense of that.
What, then, is Polari? Polari is a slang vocabulary, or what lexicographers call a ‘language variety’, that reached the height of its usage in repressive 1950s Britain. In what was known as ‘the purge’, the prosecution of homosexual acts in that era increased dramatically. From 1938 to 1955 indictments for attempted sodomy & indecent assault rose by 850 percent and could lead to such quack ‘remedies’ as electrotherapy and hormone treatment.
Polari can be traced to the seventeenth century Thieves Cant and the nineteenth century fairground & circus slang Parlyaree. This talk allowed a particular group to communicate in the knowledge that only those who had been initiated would understand them. The lexicon then underwent a metamorphosis as it made its way to London through music halls & theatre and from there onto the gay scene.
In the introduction to his dictionary of Polari, Fantabulosa, Paul Baker writes that this “secret gay vocabulary” had “enabled gay men of the time to indulge in high-octane gossip, bitchiness and cruising”. It also meant that, true to its origins, Polari was “a language that protected gay men, and at the same time acted as a kind of ‘gaydar’ by allowing them to recognise others”.
Paul Baker’s research into Polari has resulted in the books Polari: The Lost Language of Gay Men; Hello Sailor! Seafaring life for gay men: 1945-1990 (with Jo Stanley); and Fantabulosa: A Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang. What was previously sustained as an oral tradition, and in danger of being forgotten through lack of use, is now enshrined as an important aspect of gay cultural heritage.
I talked to Dr Baker about the significance of Polari, both when it was being used and now, as well as the out-and-out fun of its camp high jinx.
The revival of Polari in the 1990s
The use of Polari flourished from the 1930s through to the 1970s before it fell into obsolescence. The decriminalization of homosexuality in England and Wales in 1967 meant that the need for a secret form of communication was not so pressing. The advent of gay liberation moreover, and the reconstruction of the idea of what it meant to be gay, led to the casting off of such pre-liberation stratagems.
What’s more, the use of Polari on the BBC Radio serial Round the Horne by the characters Julian and Sandy let the proverbial cat out of the bag. This “swan-song of sorts,” Baker concluded, “gave Polari a doomed kind of respectability”. Nevertheless, it was Round the Horne that led to his interest in Polari.
“I had a friend called Julian, coincidentally, and he had a tape of the Julian and Sandy sketches from Round the Horne. The BBC had just released it. We were wondering where the words came from, and perhaps just as important, where they went. We were just coming out onto the gay scene ourselves, and we didn’t know anyone who used those words, or even knew about them.”
“So that was a bit of mystery. Was it the case that the writers of these sketches had just made the words up? Or had they been in regular use in the 1960s? And if so, what happened in the British gay scene to make them go away so quickly?”
Polari was not much documented, and the sparse material on it was to be found in old magazine articles and slang dictionaries. The real history of Polari was unwritten, and in the heads of those who had used it.
“I got in touch with Barry Took who was one of the two surviving writers of the Round The Horne sketches and I interviewed him. He told me that these words were much more common in the 1960s and that they were fairly well known to people who worked in the theatre. And he also explained to me that Kenneth Williams, who played Sandy, knew many of the Polari words and phrases that were used. He would sometimes adlib the sketches to include more Polari.”
“I put adverts in magazines and newspapers like Gay Times and the Pink Paper asking for Polari speakers to get in touch with me, and as result I was able to get hold of more people, mainly men in their 60s and 70s, who remembered using or hearing Polari when they were younger. And according to them, it was quite popular. One of the people who contacted me was a female impersonator called David Raven, who went by the stage name of Maisie Trollette.”
“I went down to Brighton and interviewed him, which was quite fun as he was getting ready for one of his stage acts. He had this big beehive wig on his head and they were teasing it up and up and up whilst he was being interviewed, which was quite a surreal experience. At the same time he was ordering about his staff, who were these predatory, camp, bitchy queens, and were fighting over each other and him.”
“Other sources of information I used involved looking through old dictionaries of slang – the etymologist Eric Partridge had written lots of these books in the early part of the 20th century, so I spent a lot of time in libraries trying to find Polari words in them.”
“A guy contacted me who was quite old and had all these magazines and newspapers going right back to the early ‘70s. He was afraid of dying and his family discovering them. They had articles about Polari at the tail end of it when it was dying out. There were people in there complaining about it, how sexist and how horrible it was.”
“I also looked for citations of Polari words in the newspaper Gay News, which eventually became Gay Times, or GT as it’s now called, and other early gay magazines like Jeffrey and Lunch. I also got quite a lot from transcribing all of the Julian and Sandy sketches and analysing them.”
Julian and Sandy
The Julian and Sandy sketches were a feature of the BBC Radio comedy Round the Horne, which ran from 1965 to 1968. Julian and Sandy were two camp, out-of-work actors, who were always at work in a franchise that featured the word bona, which as an adjective means good. They could be found working at such ventures as Bona Promotions, the Ballet Bona, Bona TV Ltd, and Polari Vous Francais: the Bona School of Languages.
“Each sketch had the same format – Kenneth Horne would encounter Julian and Sandy in some new business that they’d just set themselves up in. What made the sketches so distinctive was that the characters would use Polari. So for example, every sketch would start with Kenneth Horne knocking on the door and Sandy saying “Oh hello Mr Horne, how bona to vada your dolly old eke again!” Normally it was Julian and Sandy who used the Polari words, although sometimes Mr Horne would say something in Polari causing Julian and Sandy to make some sort of insinuation about his sexuality.”
The Polari words were used in such a way that the sketches were layered with meaning, and the resulting broadcasts were far more risqué than the BBC censors would normally allow. “Kenneth Williams would use them in real life,” Baker was informed by Took, “and he would often and lib and add more Polari words that made the sketches quite a bit ruder than they actually were.”
A good illustration of this is the word ‘dish’. “Dish means backside. However, dish can also mean an attractive man – and this is another case where Julian and Sandy exploited the ambiguity in Polari words to have two levels of meaning. So in one sketch Julian and Sandy have set up a cleaning company and Mr Horne has got them round to clean his kitchen. They come in and look round, and then Julian says “Oh we can’t wash up in here, all the dishes are dirty.” And Sandy replies with “Speak for yourself!” On one level it looks like Sandy is referring to himself as a dish, or as an attractive man. But if you take the Polari meaning of dish, then Sandy’s comment takes on a different, and again, much ruder meaning altogether. When I told Barry Took about that meaning he was a bit surprised.”
At the end of one episode of Round the Horne, the usual time when a Julian and Sandy outing would be aired, Kenneth Horne is wrapping up the show only to be accosted by the eponymous pair. “What about our parts? Haven’t we got parts?” Sandy asks. When the two suggest various scenarios they could appear in Horne responds, “I don’t think so, the audience may have seen a secondary meaning,” to which Sandy responds, “Them? Secondary meaning? They don’t even see the first meaning! They just laugh at anything that might be dirty”.
In a 1972 edition of the magazine Lunch, political commentator Mary McIntosh dismissed camp as “a form of minstrellisation.” Her case against Polari was that it “is a product of a culture that is deeply ambivalent and even while it celebrates effeminacy, ‘obviousness’ and casual promiscuous sexuality (precisely the elements that the straight world most abhors), can never really accept that these are good.”
Jonathan Raban wrote in 1973 that “the obvious trap facing any member of a recognisable minority is that his symbols will consume him; that his identity will disappear into the narrow funnel of his clothes and slang. He will become a shrill mouthpiece for a sectarian lobby, determined, in the case of the homosexual, by a language of body parts and fucking. Isn’t it time for everybody to tidy their toys away, to take a few of the bricks out of the walls of the ghetto?”
Polari was simply no longer relevant to the 1970s. The case against it led to its decline and to a mixed attitude toward it amongst those who did remember it. This is something that Baker encountered in his research.
“In the year 2000, I conducted a poll on the gay website outintheuk.com. I had over 800 responses and the results were quite interesting. Exactly half of the respondents had never heard of it. 10% had the views of the 1970s gay liberationists: that it was old fashioned and camp, another 10% thought it was harmless nonsense, while 8% wanted a revival of it. However, almost a quarter thought it was an interesting piece of gay heritage.”
“I think there is always going to be this difference of opinion about it. I sometimes feel that myself. Sometimes I think it’s really funny when I hear it, and sometimes I think it’s so stereotyped. And sometimes it can be quite offensive, to women, to racial groups. I can see why the early gay liberationists want to just distance themselves from it altogether and move on.”
The Case for Polari
In the 1990s the BBC released the recordings of Round the Horne, and the UK Order of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence introduced Polari into their blessings.
“The Sisters’ reason for using Polari,” Baker found out, “was that they were concerned it was being lost. And they viewed Polari as a gay version of Latin, in that it’s a dead language, which is why they’ve used it in their ceremonies.” In Polari: The Lost Language of Gay Men, Baker wrote that the Sisters “can be viewed on several levels – as drag queens, as spiritualists, or as political activists who wish to parody, question or reclaim traditional notions of ‘virtue’.” He added that they demonstrate “a potentially creative way of using Polari, which combines aspects of camp with a political purpose.”
It is this approach, and the reclaiming of camp, that underlines why Polari is important to understanding the gay subculture.
“Another way that Polari was used,” Baker points out, “was to initiate younger gay men into the gay subculture of the time. So Polari was a way in which its traditions were passed down to new members. And importantly, you didn’t just learn the words but you learnt a way of looking at the world, and in a way this was a very powerful coping strategy. One thing about Polari is that it’s not just a language. It’s an attitude, a worldview. If we say that something is bona, we’re not just saying it’s good, we’re saying it’s good by the standards of the gay subculture.”
“And another aspect of Polari is to do with the values of the speakers and the way that they dealt with what were often pretty adverse conditions. So in using camp, they were often able to make light of bad things that happened to them. So in this way Polari, and camp for that matter, helped to subvert mainstream values. They let you play down important things and play up the trivial, which, considering the context of the 1950s, was quite helpful.”
The very idea of community, a word that is now used rather lazily to describe any grouping outside the mainstream, was fundamental to Polari.
“I think it’s important to remember what Polari was and the role it played in the lives of gay men and lesbians of that time. In a way, it’s a testament to the creativity, humour and tenacity of those people, that they found a way of coping with their situation through language.”
“We have a debt to these people. If they’d caved in and said, ok, we’re not going to be gay, we’ll just get married and have children and live this miserable closeted life there would have been no decriminalization.”
“So gay men and lesbians of today have a debt to those people, and it’s important to recognise that and remember it. If we don’t remember how homophobic society once was we’re less likely to be able to stop it from ever happening again. And as we’ve seen quite recently with the case of Proposition 8 in California, rights can be given, but they can also be taken away again.”
And that leaves an explanation of the phrase “Lau your luppers on the strillers bona!” It literally translates as “place your fingers on the piano keys well”. In other words, “Play something nice on the piano”.