The Sexual Offences Act 1967 legalised homosexuality in England and Wales for consenting men over the age of 21. The legislation was not extended to Scotland until 1980, and Northern Ireland 1982. These changes in law did not extend to the bedroom, however, and and gay men could still be convicted for “buggary and gross indecency” (aka ‘the best bits of sex’) for a number of years thereafter. Not many were convicted, but the sentiment stood.
Our great world of British comedy and its history are demonstrative of the awfulness those draconian laws had on people, forcing them to live in shame for their nature, in fear for the longevity of their careers, and often driven to depression and addiction. But, as with many breakthroughs in social progression, comedy provided an outlet for these oppressed comedians to express themselves.
So, on that note, here are 6 Comedy Legends Who Were Gay Before Safe Spaces.
- Larry Grayson – “Shut that door!”. Best known for hosting The Generation Game.
Grayson took over hosting of The Generation Game from the departing Bruce Forsyth in 1978. In his tenure, Grayson became a household name and the show garnered, at its peak, 25 million viewers per episode. The uniqueness of Grayson in this context is that he was one of the first television personalities in Britain to use an openly gay persona and find massive popularity with the public – that isn’t to say he was openly gay off camera, but on it he was a pioneer in high-campness.
Away from the camera, Grayson was ferociously guarded about his personal life, believing that peoples’ sexuality belonged in the realm of privacy. But a discovery of an unfinished autobiography revealed that the love of his life was his school friend, Tom Proctor. They did everything together throughout their formative years, until they were separated at the outbreak of World War II, both being called up for National Service. Grayson failed his medical and stayed at home, Proctor, however, went to war died at the Battle of Monte Cassino in 1944. Grayson never recovered from the loss of his most intimate friend.
Grayson never did publicly admit to being gay, mainly for fear of being left open to scandal. But in 1974, “without hesitation”, he professed his sexuality to Paul Patrick Burnley of the Lewisham Campaign for Homosexual Equality upon being picketted to support the campaign.
- Frankie Howerd – “Ooh-err Missus!”. Best known for Up Pompeii!, 2 Carry Ons, and generally being a British comedy genius.
Howerd was a true pioneer of the saucy humour that has become synonymous with British comedy of the moving picture era; the side-glancing, tongue-in-cheek, postcard naughtiness that is unique to our nation’s humour. Traditionally stiff-upper-lipped, British people found a way of laughing at sex without having to actually think about the revolting, unmentionable act itself: the sexual innuendo, the double entendre – Howerd was the master.
But it is this closedness to sexuality that led Howerd down a dark path of self-loathing in his personal life; the traditional British disgust at sex between two straight married people was one thing, but gay sex was a thing to be silenced. As a gay man in the public eye in a time before gay liberation, being open about his sexuality was a risk that could end with your career being flushed down the loo. Instead, Howerd hated his sexuality, once stating to Cilla Black, “I wish to god I wasn’t gay!” This oppression of his nature could have been reason enough for his deep depression. Howerd’s long-term partner, Dennis Heymer, told the Mail Online: “I was a handsome young man and he would hide me away. At the beginning I was hidden when anyone of note came here. I was even hidden away from his sister, and his mother for a time.”
- Charles Hawtrey – “Oh, hellooooo”. Best known for playing a multitude of characters in the Carry On franchise
A star of no less than 24 of the 29 Carry On films made, and owner of one of the most iconic faces in the history of British comedy, Charles Hawtrey’s light burns eternal. Somewhat contrary to the other entries in this list, Hawtrey was a gay man who did not give a shit about other people’s opinions. The Irish Times described him as “a feisty and courageous little actor who was always defiantly his own man and couldn’t care less about what people thought of him. As a flamboyant gay man he attracted the kind of attention that was fraught with danger in the 1950s.” Perhaps Hawtrey was incredibly brave in his openness about his sexuality in the face of those dangers, or perhaps it was the enormous quantities of alcohol he drank on a daily basis that instilled that bravery: whatever the case may be, he lived his truth to the fullest and we can only admire that from our age of liberation. At one particular photoshoot, the photographer insisted Hawtrey pose with typical 1950s eye-candy (probably those ones with the pointy boobs), to which he replied “No, bring me a nice gentleman.” Fuck the system, bring it down Hawtrey style!
- Stanley Baxter – Known for ‘Parliamo Glasgow’ (Inventor of Glaswegian-to-English translation).
One of the best friends of the apparently celibate, a-sexual, Kenneth Williams, Stanley Baxter’s story is really really very sad. As a comedian, Baxter had a blessed career which saw him awarded a number of eponymous shows through the 1960s, 70s and 80s, including The Stanley Baxter Show, as well as being an excellent standup, actor, sketch writer and legendary pantomime dame. But his career may not have enjoyed the same success had he been open about his sexuality. Baxter only came out as gay in 2020, aged 94, in his official biography, The Real Stanley Baxter by Brian Beacom.
During almost a century of repressed sexuality, Baxter was married to fellow actor Moira Robertson for 46 years. Robertson was well aware of Baxter’s true identity as a gay man, but when Baxter tried to break of the relationship, Robertson threatened to jump out of a window to kill herself. In 1962, Baxter himself considered suicide after he was arrested for soliciting in a public toilet. He feared what the scandal would do to his career if it surfaced to the conservative British public. Thankfully, the charges were dropped after the arresting officer admitted Baxter was alone at the time of his arrest – so anti-gay was the establishment back then, that simply going into a public toilet was enough for the feds to think you were cottaging!
- Wilfred Brambell – “Harolddddd!”. Best known for playing Albert Steptoe in Steptoe and Son.
Brambell was another closseted gay man who was married to a woman in an age when being gay was illegal, and any sniff of actual gayness in your personal life could have ended your comedy career. He too was arrested in a public toilet for cottaging in 1962 – ‘62 was a big year for clamping down on men seeking other men for sex. Brambell was arrested in Shepherd’s Bush, the real life West London area which formed the basis for Steptoe and Son’s fictional Oildrum Lane, and he too was set free with a conditional discharge – the condition being that he stop it.
Like others in this list, Brambell was a heavy drinker which could have been a strategy for coping with his repressed sexuality, but this was also the cause of major troubles elsewhere in his life. Famously, he and Steptoe co-star Harry H. Corbett hated each other, not least because of Brambell’s unprofessionalism brought about by his drinking between takes. He was unpredictable and outlandish, once exposing himself to a woman at a party while intoxicated, and once urinating in the captain’s cockpit of a plane having mistaken it for the toilet. Who’s to say Brambell wouldn’t have been the consummate professional were it not for the draconian laws which forced him to deny his sexuality at a public level?
- John Inman – “I’m free!” Best known for playing Mr Humphries in Are You Being Served?
On screen, Inman was famed for playing one of the campest characters in comedy history, but off it he was incredibly secretive about his sexuality, most likely for the aforementioned reasons. However, he married his long-term partner, Ron Lynch, in 2005 after parliament oh so kindly passed the Civil Partnership Act 2004 – awww how lovely of them. There is a strange phenomenon that is demonstrable through the history of British comedy whereby camp characters on screen find huge success – at its height, Are You Being Served? reached 22 million viewers – but off screen campness was a sign of gayness, and gayness was a punishable sin.
Could this phenomenon be a case of the powers that be meddling with legislation to determine what is and isn’t acceptable in a person? Which is then contradicted by peoples’ real life experiences of gay people? Surely if you begin life at nothing with all natural inclinations – gay, trans, mechanophilia, etc – being present from the outset, there is only normal sexual inclinations. Only when human rhetoric and ideas of ‘sin’ and ‘unnatural behaviour’ slither their way into the fold does anything become ‘abnormal’. I wonder what joys of comedy those people in Westminster or the Vatican have denied us over the years, because they forced excellent comedy talent to fear the light of their true selves?
All in all, I have long since despised the British establishment for their treatment of gay people and many other inhuman activities. As a student and lover of literature, I have never and will never forgive the British government and their disgusting laws that essentially sentenced my literary hero, Oscar Wilde, to death. I squarely blame them for denying me potentially another 20 or 30 years of Wildean output. And they did that because he was gay! This list demonstrates that we as a nation have also been denied the full spectrum of talent from these great comedians, so now – in our free-ish world – is time to celebrate Pride more than ever!