Monday, February 1, 2021

Karl Eccleston and Brian Fairbain | Putting on the Dish

speaking freely

by Douglas Messerli

Karl Eccleston and Brian Fairbain (writers and directors) Putting on the Dish / 2015

Polari, or alternate versions of that word, “Parlare, Parlary, Palare, Palarie, and Palari,” was a cant slang used by those who worked in the “underground” of British and Irish culture that can traced by to the 16th century and was used extensively throughout the 19th century by circus performers, professional wrestlers, merchant navy sailors, criminals, and sex workers. It was even appropriated by street puppet performers connecting it with the Punch and Judy puppet tradition.

     Polari’s linguistic roots come from the Romani, the gypsy culture, mixed with London slang that embedded backslang, rhyming words, sailor phrases, and thieves’ argot, later expanding to include words from Yiddish, quickly transforming itself from a rather small lexicon of about twenty or so words, to develop a much larger vocabulary by embracing mainstream British English words spoken backwards, rhymed or twisted inside out such as cod for “bad” and riah for “hair,” or by using associative words such as lattie for “room, house, flat or a ‘room to let’” or nanti for “not” or “no,” etc.

     When in the 20th century it was picked up of homosexuals to protect themselves from police surveillance it extended its vocabulary to include numerous gay terms—some of which have been assimilated back into normative language and even embraced by US speakers—such as “camp,” “mince,” “butch,” “fruit,” “chicken,” and “cottaging.”

     Since homosexuality was illegal in Britain until 1967 it became a necessary tool to communicate in public without most individuals being able to comprehend what was being said or “dished.”  In nearly all cases it was a way to avoid the ears and eyes of the sharpy, charpering omis or Lilly law”—the police. But just as often it clearly allowed gay men to quickly recognize one another in an otherwise hostile environment.

     When homosexuality was legalized in 1967, most gay men dropped Polari and by 1980 the argot had basically disappeared except as a remnant of the past. Like US men abandoning their gay camp chatter (in which men often referred to one another with female monikers and spent long evenings attempting to be witty in an Oscar Wilde-like manner), British gay men saw Polari as a now unnecessary affectation that delimited their acceptance into the society and equality to their heterosexual counterparts.

     To many gays the kind of language journalist Peter Burton evoked in his memoirs Parallel Lives

As feely ommes...we would zhoosh our riah, powder our eeks, climb into our bona new drag, don our batts and troll off to some bona bijou bar. In the bar we would stand around with our sisters, vada the bona cartes on the butch omme ajax who, if we fluttered our ogle riahs at him sweetly, might just troll over to offer a light for the unlit vogue clenched between our teeth.

translation: "As young men...we would style our hair, powder our faces, climb into our great new clothes, don our shoes and wander/walk off to some great little bar. In the bar we would stand around with our gay companions, look at the great genitals on the butch man nearby who, if we fluttered our eyelashes at him sweetly, might just wander/walk over to offer a light for the unlit cigarette clenched between our teeth."—

represented something they were only too glad to be rid of.

     Yet for a few today there is a kind of charm, an aura of the past, and a great deal of fantabulosa (“wonderment”) of a language now nearly lost.

     Between 1965 and 1969 Kenneth Horne hosted the popular BBC Radio program that featured Kenneth Williams, Hugh Paddick, and Betty Marsden, with scripts by Marty Feldman and Barry Took that used numerous elements of wordplay, including Polari and other campy verbal gymnastics.  

     In 1990, moreover, musician Morrissey released his album Bona Drag with songs in Polari and his hit single “Picadilly Palare,” whose lyrics included the Polari phrase So bona to vada, with your lovely eek and your lovely riah.

     In 1998 Todd Haynes used Polari in his 1998 film Velvet Goldmine in a flashback to 1970 in which a group of characters converse in Polari, their words being subtitled.

     If nothing else, Polari is important to archivists as a treasure of British and even World War II military gay life (in the 1994 documentary Coming Out Under Fire one soldier speaks of using rhyming words and phrases by Dorothy Parker in a gay underground military newspaper originally titled The Myrtle Beach Bitch).    

     In 2015 writers and directors Karl Eccleston and Brian Fairbain released their 7-minute short, which seems more like an hour long given its linguistic demands, in which two men are seated on a bench, bearing the camp names of Roberta (Neil Chinneck) and Maureen (Steve Wickenden), Roberta reading from Anthony Burgess’ The Clockwork Orange, published in the same year in which their encounter is set. Maureen who has already read the book shows his disdain for it, at the end of their encounter giving away the entire plot with his quite nasty final words: “They cure him in the end.” After all, Roberta has just spit upon his face in response to what Maureen has just told him.     

     But in between these two rather everyday occurrences lies a whole world of mysterious events for the outsider since the two, recognizing one another as gay (Roberta responding early on, “I've got your number ducky.”) set out on a gossipy adventure in Polari as they describe the life of a mutual friend Pauline Marsh (perhaps in everyday life named Paul Marsh since camp names were often feminine versions of their original male ones).

     Because this film depends almost entirely upon the language instead of any action other than their occasional ogling of passersby and Roberta’s final expression of his disgust, I think it is necessary to provide the viewer with the entire script. I should tell you that I first attempted to capture what I orally heard by toggling back and forth between the movie and the empty computer page, but it was nearly impossible, given the actor’s Barnet North London accents and my own lack of acquaintance, except for a handful of quickly-acquired words, of Polari. Fortunately, I eventually found the entire script printed out on the internet.

putting on the dish

MAUREEN

I've read that.

It's all gobbledygook. Ending's naff too.

Got three drags and a spit, doll?

You from round here then?

ROBERTA

More or less.

MAUREEN

Eine's the place to be. (A beat) Ooh bona batts. What size are your plates then?

ROBERTA

Ten I think.

MAUREEN

(cheeky)

What about your luppers? They size ten too?

ROBERTA snorts.

MAUREEN

Bet you'd play the strillers real bona.

ROBERTA

This your usual spot then?

MAUREEN

How do you mean?

ROBERTA

I've got your number ducky.

MAUREEN

Where's your flowery then?

ROBERTA

Clitterhouse Road.

MAUREEN

Oh I've a bencove up that way. Pauline.

ROBERTA

Pauline Marsh?

MAUREEN

That's the one. Can't swing a cat but hit a cove.

ROBERTA

How is Pauline?

MAUREEN

She's had nanti bully fake. Dyed her riah, her ends are a real mess.

ROBERTA

Nanti bona. I hope she vaggeried straight to the crimper.

MAUREEN

Well that's where she'd just been. The palone tried to give her an Irish. Moultee palaver. Pauline told her to shove her shyckle up her khyber.

ROBERTA

Oh she didn't say that.

MAUREEN

Mais oui ducky, oui. In your actual English.

ROBERTA

She's all wind and piss Pauline. Is she still with Phyllis then?

MAUREEN

Oh no. Haven't you heard?

(slides over)

She's been a real bonaroba. Blowing the groundsels, ling grappling dilly boys, trolling the backslums. She had to be Battersea'd twice last month.

ROBERTA (shocked)

She didn't.

MAUREEN

Pauline's a stretcher case. Trolled in one nochy to varda Phyllis plating some schinwars she'd blagged in the brandy latch.

ROBERTA

(deadpan)

Dish the dirt!

MAUREEN

Oh it's all over grumble for Pauline. Nanti dinarlee, up to her elbow in the national handbag and she'd only just gone in for a remould. They had to refake her entire basket.

ROBERTA

(distracted)

Speaking of baskets.

MAUREEN

Oh Gloria. That'd stretch your corybungus.

ROBERTA

Fortuni.

MAUREEN

Mind you it's the dolly ones that disappoint.

ROBERTA

Mmm.

MAUREEN

I was seeing this HP from Sheffield once. Plates the size of bowling pins, I thought I was in for a real bona charvering.

ROBERTA

Nada to varda in the larder?

MAUREEN

Oh, bijou. 'You needn't put the brandy on for that,' I said when I saw it. Mind you, she was heavy on the letch water. I had to use the Daz to get her Maria out my libbage.

ROBERTA

Oh, vile.

(beat)

What about her? Do you think she's so?

MAUREEN

What, her? Oh she's in the life.

ROBERTA

You think so?

MAUREEN

Ooh yeah. Just vada her mish. Mauve. Moultee mauve. Not to mention her farting crackers.

ROBERTA

I'd clean his kitchen, I would. Has she always been that way then, Phyllis?

MAUREEN

She's a walking meat rack. Real fantabulosa bit of hard. We used to act dicky together at the croaker's chovey. Noshed me off once while I was giving a fungus his drabs.

ROBERTA

That's skill, that.

MAUREEN

Oh she used to do it all the time. When we were at the exchange together she'd one lill on my colin and the other on the switch. She didn't even get off the palare pipe.

(Beat)

Sad to think of her in the queer ken really.

ROBERTA

What do you mean?

MAUREEN

Well she'd a run in with the lily law, didn't she?

ROBERTA

Oh dear.

MAUREEN

Sharpie flashed his cartso in the carsey.

ROBERTA

(Finding it increasingly amusing)

I hope she kept her ogles front.

MAUREEN

Well she's got amblyopia, hasn't she? She can practically only vada sideways.

ROBERTA

What did the beak say?

MAUREEN

He was ever so harsh. Asked if she was sorry.

ROBERTA

Was she?

MAUREEN

Only that it wasn't worth the look she got.

I suppose we'll all end up in the charpering carsey soon.

Nearly got nabbed myself the other week. I'd just finished plating a chicken in that cottage ajax Clackett Lane, you know the one. Meesest eek I've ever seen but what a cartso. I'm mincing outside wiping my screech when who do I bump into but one of your orderly daughters. "There's a pouf" in there I said. Nabbed her with her kaffies down I spose. She'd have never vardered it coming. Must have been a right fericadooza. Sharda.

ROBERTA

You're disgusting.

MAUREEN

What?

Oh go on. Put your fakements in your little shush bag. Off you scarper.

ROBERTA leaves.

MAUREEN

(holding up his book)

You forgot your glossy.

ROBERTA stops, turns, looks. After a beat he storms back. He snatches his book but MAUREEN holds on to it. Their eyes are locked.

MAUREEN

They cure him in the end.   [Roberta spits on Maureen’s face.] 

    Even with just a few words of the private gay argot one can perceive, after Maureen breaks the ice by asking for a cigarette and light, that the two men’s conversation concerns their friend who has evidently dyed her hair badly and been told by a hairdresser to wear a wig. Pauline, who has evidently broken up with his lover Phyllis, has been trolling for boys in the slums and gotten arrested, causing the end of her previous relationship.

    After a brief conversation about the size of the penis of a passing boy and Maureen’s belief that it’s the pretty ones who disappoint, he recounts his own affair with an effeminate man from Sheffield with feet the size of bowling pins—suggesting he might also have a large penis—with which was highly disappointed (Oh, bijou. 'You needn't put the brandy on for that,' I said when I saw it.), it being so small (bijou).

      When they return to their discussion of Pauline having landed up in prison, he suggests they all might get caught one day and describes how after having fellated a young man (a chicken, often suggesting someone underage) with a most gentle face but with a large penis (Meesest eek I've ever seen but what a cartso.) in a public toilet, the police suddenly showed up as he was wiping off his mouth. He escaped them, so he recounts, by telling them there was a poof inside, running off as the cops entered the cottage to arrest the boy who had not yet rolled up his pants.

     It is this revelation that so angers Roberta, who calls Maureen disgusting, rising, leaving, and returning only for his book (in which the gangs speak their own version of argot), before expectorating on his former Polari conversationalist.

     The title of this film, Putting on the Dish, means in Polari the act of applying lubricant to one’s bum, but here the lubricant is also the substance that allows their words to easily flow from their lips, in this case a language that frees them from outsider friction. But in this case the dominant talker has perhaps spoken too freely, demonstrating that he has little concern for those who share his plight.

Los Angeles, February 1, 2021

Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (February 2021).

     

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