A Tart My Dears, A Tart
July 8, 2015 8:22 AM   Subscribe

How British Gay Men Used To Talk: A short film featuring Polari, the cult language of UK homosexuals derived from theatre and circus slang, popularized in the 1960s by the camp radio characters Julian and Sandy. Need a dictionary? Or a translated Polari scene from Velvet Goldmine?
posted by The Whelk (48 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
 
'Khazi' is WWII army slang, from the Indian Raj originally.

Quite a lot of Yiddish in there. Quite a lot of these still used in the UK in general parlance.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 8:25 AM on July 8, 2015


Full disclosure: I included a bit of Polari in my first book despite it being the 1900s and in NYC cause how could you not?
posted by The Whelk at 8:28 AM on July 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


The first time I'd heard this word was in Morrissey's 1990 Piccadilly Palare. It was well over a decade before I knew what it meant though. Thanks internet.
posted by adept256 at 8:31 AM on July 8, 2015 [4 favorites]


Wow! I had thought about making a Julian and Sandy post, but couldn't find enough to fill it out. I looked at the chris-d site ("Need a dictionary") and would've included that as well! So it is strange to see a post that you were thinking of making appear on the blue, but nice one for introducing Mefi to Polari. It's not too naff, dolly.

Julian and Sandy were first broadcast in 1965 on Round the Horne, with Ken Horne, at a time when being gay was still illegal, and always got a big cheer when then came on. If you can access the BBC radio site, you can listen to "Round the Horne" on BBC Radio Seven Four Extra.
posted by marienbad at 8:38 AM on July 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


Possibly related: Do I Sound Gay?
posted by chavenet at 8:39 AM on July 8, 2015


Polari is one of my secret voracious research subjects.
posted by Kitteh at 8:39 AM on July 8, 2015


A lot of the words weren't in the dictionary but I found three drags and a spit. Also, nice touch having him read A Clockwork Orange.
posted by exogenous at 8:40 AM on July 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


not a complaint, but there's much more to read here if you're interested.
posted by andrewcooke at 8:41 AM on July 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


A lot of the words weren't in the dictionary

I was just thinking about the difference in the spelling of polari and palare. Morrissey couldn't find it in the dictionary of course.
posted by adept256 at 8:46 AM on July 8, 2015


Varda the omi-palone...
A tart, my dear, a tart in gilded clobber!

Due to my obsessive watching of Velvet Goldmine, I didn't need to look that up or rewatch that clip, they were automatically in my head.
posted by Katemonkey at 8:48 AM on July 8, 2015 [5 favorites]


the screenplay
posted by griphus at 8:48 AM on July 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


Julian and Sandy were an absolute masterpiece of under-the-radar communication. Under the radar of high-ups at the BBC, presumably, as well as of the majority of its very large audience, since gay content on the radio would have been flat-out unacceptable at that time.
posted by emilyw at 8:51 AM on July 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


There was also backslang, like "ecaf" for "face".
posted by w0mbat at 8:55 AM on July 8, 2015


cf. andrewcooke, first polari post from 2003 http://www.metafilter.com/25330/Polari
posted by asok at 8:59 AM on July 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


emilyw: I think it likely a lot of people at BBC were quite aware of what was going on with Julian and Sandy. As well as their listeners. Gay people have had socially accepted prescribed roles as entertainers for the entire 20th century (and before). Julian and Sandy weren't some anomaly, in their time they were part of the British culture that BBC is tasked with producing and broadcasting.
posted by Nelson at 9:13 AM on July 8, 2015 [6 favorites]


Full disclosure: I included a bit of Polari in my first book despite it being the 1900s and in NYC cause how could you not?

My musical Mad About the Boy also had a scene written in Polari, even though it was set in California in the 1960s, because Polari is awesome.
posted by maxsparber at 9:14 AM on July 8, 2015 [1 favorite]




i wish Danny the Street were real
posted by Kitteh at 9:27 AM on July 8, 2015 [7 favorites]


Some years back there was great documentary about Polari on I think the BBC (or possibly C4), that sparked my interest, showing it's origins, growth - it changed a lot of over time - and it's eventual partial main-streaming.

There's a lot of different slang in the film including some Cockney Rhyming Slang that would have been pretty well known to all locals eg plates = plates of meat = feet.

Just finished reading a London crime novel written with a lot of slang and some of it is pretty much impenetrable even with the help of google.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 9:29 AM on July 8, 2015


"Julian and Sandy were first broadcast in 1965 on Round the Horne, with Ken Horne, at a time when being gay was still illegal, and always got a big cheer when then came on."

"Under the radar of high-ups at the BBC, presumably, as well as of the majority of its very large audience, since gay content on the radio would have been flat-out unacceptable at that time."

It was perfectly obvious from the context of every sketch that Julian and Sandy were gay partners, as witness my favourite line from them. The premise that week was that they'd set up in business as lawyers, but when Mr 'Orne came to consult them they were forced to turn him away. "We've a criminal practice that takes up most of our time", Sandy explained. This got a huge, affectionate laugh from the show's studio audience, showing just how much people liked those two characters.

The Julian and Sandy scripts were written by Barry Took and Marty Feldman, two straight men, whose connections in the world of 1960s showbiz probably made them rather more familiar with (and comfortable with) gay culture than many Britons would then have been. Nothing they had Julian and Sandy say was remotely explicit (even when translated out of the Polari), and it may have been that which convinced the BBC it was all good innocent fun.
posted by Paul Slade at 9:34 AM on July 8, 2015 [6 favorites]


"Omies and palones of the jury, vada well at the eek of the poor ome who stands before you, his lallies trembling."

emilyw: I think it likely a lot of people at BBC were quite aware of what was going on with Julian and Sandy. As well as their listeners.

I wouldn't be too sure about that. It came as quite a shock to a lot of people that the Village People were supposed to be gay archetypes too and that was a decade and a half later.

And anecdatically, I was introduced to Round the Horne by Sandra, who'd been old enough to have heard those when they were first broadcast, Sunday afternoon listening to the radio and from her memories it was clear a lot of it went over people's heads.

If anything the associations might've been more with showbusiness than gay people, without realising that a lot of showbusiness lingo came from gay people.
posted by MartinWisse at 9:55 AM on July 8, 2015


The entire of Radio 4 is barely coded filth. The so-called shipping forecast is so obscene that I have to listen to it at least half a dozen times to grasp the sheer depths of depravity being broadcast.
posted by fallingbadgers at 10:11 AM on July 8, 2015 [29 favorites]


so-called shipping forecast is so obscene

Dogger
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 10:13 AM on July 8, 2015 [10 favorites]


MartinWisse, I also listened to them at the time, it was quite clear they were a pair of poofs (gays hadn't been invented then in the UK), I would be astonished if anyone of consequence at the BBC did not also realise this. Listen to a Julian and Sandy compilation, only the most terminally stupid (which is admittedly a 'lot' of people would have remained oblivious.
posted by epo at 10:15 AM on July 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


One thing a thieves' cant, or subcultural slang like Polari, allows is the expression of obscenity that would otherwise be censored. Look at the front cover of the first edition again: is there any other mass-market book published in the 1960s that has the word 'testicles' right there, on the front like this? -A Clockwork Orange (1962). 2: The Nadcat Nadsat on the Nadmat
posted by a lungful of dragon at 10:31 AM on July 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


The Tardis' Translation circuits were unable to translate Polari [though some have argued that it is instead Parlare] when the Third Doctor encountered it in a far off galaxy.
posted by Ashwagandha at 10:59 AM on July 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


"Nothing they had Julian and Sandy say was remotely explicit (even when translated out of the Polari),"

There is one that is a bit rude, in their their first appearance (was it 'Bona 'omes'?):

Julian: "We can't wash up in here! All the dishes are dirty!"
Sandy: "[sputtering] Speak for yourself!"

This merely funny when you know that 'dish' is slang for an attractive man, but it becomes downright lewd when you find out that 'dish' is also slang for 'arse'.

My family will still call out 'OOOH 'e's BOLD, inneee BOLD!' when something outrageous happens.
posted by NoiselessPenguin at 11:10 AM on July 8, 2015


The funny thing about growing up with an expat mum from East London is how much Polari (and to a lesser extent rhyming slang, but that's more my great-uncle Pete really) I just passively absorbed as a kid.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 11:15 AM on July 8, 2015


so-called shipping forecast is so obscene

Dogger


I live just a short walk away from the Coastal Weather Station at Liverpool, Crosby. If you show up after dark, you'll find no shortage of doggers in the car park there.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 11:38 AM on July 8, 2015


Wow, that short film is pretty powerful. Quite a turn at the end. Sobering.

And should you need to find me on reddit, just look for omi_palone.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 12:16 PM on July 8, 2015


Good lord! Andrew Cooke! Least tricky sockpuppet name ever. Good to see you back on the blue.
posted by biffa at 1:33 PM on July 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


A lot of BBC radio comedy relied on double entendre and seeming innocuous on the page (no so much in the delivery), so that it went over the heads of the censors and those in the audience of a pure and simple nature. But the pure and simple weren’t the target audience of Julian and Sandy, and the majority of the audience found them funny because they were, at least somewhat, in on the joke.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 1:46 PM on July 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


Yes - a lot of British humour is about being as filthy as possible while maintaining a veneer of innocence. It's the opposite of innuendo, in a way, because the pretense is that the speaker doesn't understand the double import of the message, or doesn't understand that it's taboo. In either case, though, good manners demands that the hearer give the impression that nothing inappropriate has been said. So it's excruciatingly embarrassing, which is what makes it funny.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:30 PM on July 8, 2015


The BBC censors and management were absolutely in on the joke, as memos of the time frequently allude. I can't lau my luppers on the right wireless history book right now, but there was one line from, I think, ITMA, about "Ah, Mr Farquar! How are you? And Mrs Farquar? And all the little Farquars?" about which one BBC high-up said "If you think we weren't aware of what was going on, you must think us extremely stupid." I think the general unspoken consensus was that people who would be wont to complain about such things didn't, because it would have shown them to have been aware of the filthy aspects of the joke. There were professional moralists who railed against the show - Mary Whitehouse and Cecil Smith - but the DG of the time, Hugh Greene, would have none of it and defended it staunchly.

The Julian and Sandy Bona Law line about "we have a criminal practise that takes up most of our time" - the audience reaction is fascinating. There's a beat or two of silence before the laugh builds, I think because it is so bold a double entendre people were unsure whether it was safe to laugh. But it is so well constructed, you can't resist. Whereas Sandy being called a "miracle of dexterity at the cottage upright" - how many would know what a cottage was slang for?
posted by Devonian at 3:50 PM on July 8, 2015 [8 favorites]


I think the general unspoken consensus was that people who would be wont to complain about such things didn't, because it would have shown them to have been aware of the filthy aspects of the joke.
There was a similar recent thread topic where I really wanted to emphasise the power of this point and being stuck on mobile is frustrating me terribly in identifying it.
posted by comealongpole at 7:52 PM on July 8, 2015


So, Conan had mighty thews, according to Howard.

Makes you think.
posted by clvrmnky at 9:25 PM on July 8, 2015


RE: BBC - there is a radio documentary (which I cannot find now) and someone in it says they spoke to the guy in charge of radio (or radio comedy, I can't remember, I heard it about 10 years ago) and he was told they are supposed to be gay and the guy said (paraphrasing) "I don't care because it's funny." So, yes, the BBC knew.

Also, one of my favourite bits of dialogue:

Julian: "We went on a cruise."
Ken: "Did you get dragged up on deck?"
Sandy: "No, we just went casual."
posted by marienbad at 1:55 AM on July 9, 2015 [4 favorites]


It's easier to understand from the screenplay exactly what Maureen is describing and why Roberta leaves in disgust. The Clockwork Orange reference is well played.
posted by Elizabeth the Thirteenth at 3:27 AM on July 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'm glad I read the dictionary limks before watching the film. I still missed a bit (why is Phyllis in hospital?) but the turn from friendly chatting to disgust at his betrayal was clear as crystal and really well acted.

It's been a while since I read A Clockwork Orange - I assume it's a deliberate choice to have the second man reading it but I don't get the reference? Is it just that it's about reform, or...?
posted by harriet vane at 2:03 AM on July 10, 2015


why is Phyllis in hospital?

Where do you get this?

I assume it's a deliberate choice to have the second man reading it but I don't get the reference? Is it just that it's about reform, or...?

Nadsat
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 7:12 AM on July 10, 2015


Re: Phyllis in hospital, looking at the screenplay it was Pauline who was a stretcher-case (which I took as hospitalised) and had just had her basket refaked. I think I got the two P characters mixed up due to the speed of the dialogue.
posted by harriet vane at 2:04 AM on July 11, 2015


I first assumed stretcher-case was hospital or something similar (used to coming in war films / army slang for badly wounded) but it didn't seem to work in context and googling it and polari and in that context is just means 'tired'. Though that don't kinda work either... and I wondering if the mean's stretched here to mean severely depressed / taken to their bed. (given that he caught his partner having sex with someone else). Basket refaked means, if you didn't find it googling, gender assignment surgery (or back then 'a sex change')
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 6:30 AM on July 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


I think that being "Battersea'd" means being treated for a venereal disease. Battersea was once known for its herbs, which were used for medical purposes. If this is what it means (and in context it's appropriate) that's quite remarkable: it's a piece of early 18th century slang. I'd translate the section:


MAUREEN
Pauline's out of her mind! She walked in one night to see Phyllis fellating some Asians (? Schinwars = Chinois?) she had picked up in a lavatory.
ROBERTA
(deadpan)

Tell me what happened!
MAUREEN

Well, Pauline's in a bad situation. No money, on welfare (? in debt?) and she had just gone in for a sex change. They had to operate on her genitals all over again.

posted by Joe in Australia at 7:12 AM on July 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


Asians (? Schinwars = Chinois?)

Suddenly realized Schinwars is real close to Chinoiserie phonetically... so I'd go for Chinese or other Asian

welfare (? in debt?) National Handbag = Dole money, which was the money you got off the state when you were out of work. (So yeah, welfare... but calling it that is pretty recent thing in the UK)
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 8:13 AM on July 11, 2015


I remember in the 90s when I started to hear/read teenage girls on British programmes decrying things as "naff". So I finally asked on some appropriate soc.culture Usenet group what "naff" meant and where it came from.

The best answer I got back was that it meant "heterosexual". It was the antithesis of sneering "that's so gay".

I still don't trust most of what anybody says about Polari, but I cling to the belief that this answer is True even if it was incorrect.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 4:14 PM on July 11, 2015


My OED finds the northern dialect words naffhead, naffin, naffy ‘a simpleton; a blockhead; an idiot’, but its examples of "naff" in its current meaning are from 1969 and later.

My opinion is that three things are going on here. Firstly, (like much of Polari) the word may have originated in or been influenced by backslang. The syllable "fan" isn't very common, but it's the first syllable of both "fancy" and "fanny", a slang word for female genitals. There's a slang expression "naff off!", meaning "go away!" deriving from the latter.

Secondly, the acronym NAAFI (Navy, Army, and Air Force Institutes) ran "canteens, stores, etc., for service personnel". It was pronounced "naffy" and I can see it being used as an adjective to describe goods of fair average quality for people who are not in a position to demand anything better: i.e., clothing supplied by NAAFI becomes "naffy clothing", which becomes the sort of thing worn by someone "naff".

Thirdly, it's a plausible mispronunciation of "naïf", someone who is naïve, simple, artless. I think that's the most likely source, but it could well be influenced by one of the other two suggestions.
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:30 PM on July 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I think a lot of this stuff was a general mixing of other sources. In particular, the video pointedly uses the term "beak" for a magistrate, which I first learned about in Oliver Twist.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 3:17 AM on July 12, 2015


Yes - a lot of British humour is about being as filthy as possible while maintaining a veneer of innocence.

I miss Humphrey Lyttelton too.
posted by Diablevert at 11:53 AM on July 31, 2015 [2 favorites]


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