Thursday 15 October 2015

Around the World in 80 Gays : Part 20 - A Forum

Last Time : 58) Martina Navratilova (b.1956) competed in a Battle of the Sexes tennis match against Bobby Riggs who most famously played against 59) Billie Jean King (b.1943), who coached 60) Tam O’Shaughnessy (b.1952), the life partner of the first American woman in space, 61) Sally Ride (1951-2012).
61) Sally Ride’s space career began as a result of a newspaper ad which called for applicants to the space programme. Sally had a PhD in physics from Stamford University and was accepted by NASA in 1978. She worked on some of the early space shuttle missions as a command centre capsule communication. She also helped to develop the shuttle’s robot arm, a device she was to use herself on her own missions into space.

In 1983 Sally became the first American woman in space as a member of the Challenger shuttle crew. I gave a little biography of Sally in one of my astronomy pieces where more information is given.

In 2013 Sally Ride was posthumously awarded the US Presidential Medal of Freedom. This is the highest award the USA can give to civilians and was established 50 years previously be President Kennedy. Sally’s partner 60) Tam O’Shaughnessy received the award from President Obama. Tam’s old tennis coach, 59) Billie Jean King, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom herself in 2009.

The next member of the lgbt community to receive the Medal after Sally Ride was 62) Stephen Sondheim (b.1930), who received it in 2014. Sondheim is responsible for writing some of the most iconic musicals of our time, beginning with his collaboration with Leonard Bernstein on “West Side Story”.

For me, though, my favourite Sondheim musical has to be “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”, which I mentioned back in May. “Forum”, as it is often called, was the first musical Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics for. It’s a classic farce based on those written by the ancient Roman writer Plautus. As such I believe that it works best when the characters are played by actors steeped in variety, vaudeville or music hall. It’s also a very popular musical among amateur companies.

The original production starred Zero Mostel in the lead role of Pseudolus the slave. It wasn’t long before the UK saw the first production of “Forum” a year after its Broadway debut. The London lead (suggested by Sir John Gielgud) was a well-known entertainer and comedian of the 1950s whose star status was beginning to wane. “Forum” was to give his an incredible boost to his career and helped to create one of the most popular characters in UK television comedy. But I’m getting slightly ahead of myself.

Stephen Sondheim himself came to the UK to see this man in action in a traditional British pantomime. In a way “Forum” is very much like a pantomime, with Pseudolus speaking directly to the audience as panto characters do. Sondheim knew straight away that he had found the London Pseudolus – 63) Frankie Howerd (1917-1992).

63) Frankie Howerd began his entertainment career in war-time troop shows and found fame in the BBC radio series “Variety Bandbox” from 1946. His distinctive stand-up comedy delivery made him a household name. The 1960s saw a new type of comedy emerging which didn’t suit Frankie’s style. But his career was saved by going on holiday. Not by Frankie going on holiday, but a BBC executive.

The executive was on holiday in Italy, and he was suddenly inspired to create a new comedy series with Frankie Howerd in the lead. The international success of “Forum” made Ancient Roman comedy fashionable. A visit to some ancient ruins provided both the title and the location for the new comedy – “Up Pompeii”.

All the stock characters of “Forum” were transferred to Pompeii in one of the most famous and bawdy BBC comedies ever produced. Not surprisingly, a lot of the actors who appeared in the London and 1966 film productions of “Forum” appeared at least once in the 14 episodes that were produced in 1969 and 1970. “Up Pompeii” is now synonymous with 63) Frankie Howerd and it invigorated his career as well as spawn several television and movie spin-offs.

Its only in the past few years that people have come to realise that the bawdiness of “Up Pompeii” and “Forum” is based on fact. In Pompeii there is a lot of ancient graffiti of a sexual nature, a lot of it homosexual in nature.

There are many names of men who either say they had sex with another man on that spot, or that they know of someone else who had. 64) Auctus and 65) Quintius, for example, are immortalised in a graffito saying (in translation, of course) “Auctus shagged Quintius here”. We don’t know anything else about these men, but the fact that we know anything at all is because they were rescued from looting or destruction by the writings of an art historian called 66) Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768).

The way Pompeii takes us from the birth of modern archaeology to the court of “Queen” James I of Great Britain is told next time.

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