No laughing matter

Great acting aside, this series on the lives of comedians has been a let-down

<strong>Frankie How

It's not often that I don't know what I think - it's an exhausting fault of mine that I have so many strong opinions - but in the case of BBC4's Curse of Comedy season of films about dead and, in some cases, almost forgotten comedians, I am genuinely in two minds.

I wouldn't have missed them for anything; I'm excessively sentimental about the recent past, and love all these interiors stuffed with G Plan furniture and Midwinter pottery. Plus, it's undeniably fascinating to consider what celebrity was like before the existence of OK! magazine (answer: not as different as you might imagine). But another part of me wonders whether they should have been made at all. What's the point of them? Hancock was a comedy genius, and thus arguably a fit subject. But who cares now about Wilfrid Brambell, the star of Steptoe and Son, or about Hughie Green, the priapic presenter of Opportunity Knocks? Thanks to the essential thinness of their material, all four of the films have been too long and underpowered, the mild tedium relieved only by some wonderful central performances.

It was the same with Rather You Than Me, the last in the series (9 April, 9pm), which starred David Walliams as Frankie Howerd and Rafe Spall as Dennis Heymer, his boyfriend of 35 years. At times, it was plodding and repetitive: too many shots of Howerd's wig, too many framing shots of him sitting alone on his sofa, staring into space. But Walliams and Spall were so good, especially Walliams. The tendency when playing a real person is for an actor to turn in an impersonation, but while Walliams had the voice and mannerisms just right - especially the way that Howerd used to force his chest out and his arms back in the manner of a particularly camp chicken - and in profile was a dead ringer for him, he brought something else to the role, too: a palpable sadness.

It was there not just in the scenes where Howerd was recovering from his nervous breakdown, or visiting a psychiatrist in an attempt to "cure" himself of homosexuality, but even when he was in front of a laughing audience. With every double entendre and "titter ye not", your sense grew that between Frankie and a burst dam of emotion, there was only his desperate finger plugging the hole - and, of course, poor Dennis, always on hand with a pep talk and a TV supper.

All of the films have tried, somewhat creakily, to be "relevant". Hughie Green, it was implied, was an early proponent of reality television, what with his insistence that "ordinary" people be allowed to appear on screen. In Howerd's story, the message was that fame was ever the enemy of trust and the mother of anxiety, a drumbeat that sounded all the more loudly given Walliams's own unhappy appearances in the tabloids. "That is the problem with being well known," said Howerd to Heymer. "People say they want to look after you. But they're only after hanging on, or a job."

Howerd's sexuality, which he kept secret both through necessity - he was 50 when gay sex finally became legal - and because it made him so deeply miserable (abused by his father, he was unable to separate his homosexuality from the "dirty" experiences of his childhood), made him horribly vulnerable to blackmail. Well, plus ça change. Not so long ago, someone gave or sold CCTV pictures of Walliams to a Sunday newspaper.

Fame is a murky pond, and you must hold your nose as you dive into it. The trouble is, it seems to me, that so many of those who are drawn to what used to be called show business are so peculiarly ill-equipped to deal with it - and I think it must be this irony, even more than those brown and sage postwar interiors, that has kept me glued to these films. I don't doubt that some writer or academic is scribbling away on this very subject as I write. But, if not, someone should jump to it.

Meanwhile, the cycle goes on. Thirty years from now, BBC4 viewers will be settling down to watch the Michael Barrymore story. For all I know, that one has already been commissioned.

Pick of the week

Pushing Daisies
12 April, 9pm, ITV1
Hot(ish) from the US, a pie maker who can raise the dead.

Age of Terror: Terror International
15 April, 9pm, BBC2
Gripping story of the 1976 Israeli raid on the airport at Entebbe.

Inside the Medieval Mind
17 April, 9pm, BBC4
No, not Simon Heffer's: the historian Robert Bartlett travels back in time.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Belief is back

Photo: Getty Images/AFP
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Why is the government charging more women for selling sex but turning a blind eye to buyers?

Since 2013, the number of women charged for selling sex gone up while the number of men charged for buying it has gone down.

It’s no surprise that prostitution policy is an area rarely visited by our legislators. It’s politically charged - a place where the need to prevent exploitation seemingly clashes head on with notions of liberal freedom; where there are few simple answers, a disputed evidence base, and no votes.

There’s also little evidence to suggest that MPs are different from the rest of the population - where one-in-ten men have purchased sex. It is little wonder therefore that our report on how the law should change, published in 2014, was the first major cross-party intervention on the subject in twenty years.

Some take the view that by removing all legal constraints, it will make the inherently exploitative trade of prostitution, safer. It’s not just me that questions this approach, though I accept that - equally - there’s no consensus that my preferred measure of criminalising the purchase of sex, while decriminalising the sale, would fundamentally change the scale of the problem.

Where all sides come together, however, is in the desire to see women diverted from the law courts. It is still possible for women (and it still is women; prostitution remains highly genderised) to go to prison for offences related to prostitution. Today, in 2015.

The total number of prosecutions for all prostitution offences in England and Wales has been decreasing since 2010, but not in a uniform fashion. This does not reflect a reduction in the size of the trade, or the violent nature of it.

There were once consistently more prosecutions for kerb crawling, profiting, and control of prostitution. But since 2013, there have been more prosecutions for soliciting or loitering than for profit from prostitution and kerb crawling each year.

In simple terms, offences committed by men with choice, freedom and money in their pocket are having a blind eye turned to them, while women are being targeted - and this trend is accelerating. In the law courts, and in prosecutions, it is the most vulnerable party in the transaction, who is taking the burden of criminality.

Take on-street sex buying as an example. In 2013-14 just 237 prosecutions were brought for kerb crawling, but there were 553 - more than twice as many - for loitering and soliciting.

There is a similar pattern in the 2014/15 figures: 227 charges for kerb crawling reached court, while 456 prosecutions were initiated against those who were selling sex. Just 83 prosecutions for control of prostitution, or ‘pimping’, were brought in that same year.

These are men and women on the same street. It takes a high level of liberal delusion to be convinced that prostitution is caused by a surge of women wishing to sell sex, rather than men who wish to buy it. And yet women who sell sex are the ones being targeted in our law courts, not the men that create the demand in the first place.

This situation even goes against the Crown Prosecution Service’s (CPS) own guidance. They say:

“Prostitution is addressed as sexual exploitation within the overall CPS Violence Against Women strategy because of its gendered nature… At the same time, those who abuse and exploit those involved in prostitution should be rigorously investigated and prosecuted, and enforcement activity focused on those who create the demand for on-street sex, such as kerb crawlers.”

Why then, is this happening? For the same reason it always does - in our criminal justice system stigmatised, poor women are valued less than moneyed, professional men.

My debate in Parliament today raises these issues directly with the government ministers responsible. But to be honest, the prosecution-bias against women in the courts isn’t the problem; merely a symptom of it. This bias will only be tackled when the law reflects the inherent harm of the trade to women, rather than sending the mixed signals of today.

That’s why I welcome the work of the End Demand Alliance, composed of over 40 organisations working to end the demand that fuels sex trafficking and prostitution, advocating the adoption of the Sex Buyer Law throughout the UK.

This would criminalise paying for sex, while decriminalising its sale and providing support and exiting services for those exploited by prostitution. Regardless of these big changes in the law, I don’t see how anyone can support the current state of affairs where there are more prosecutions brought against women than men involved in prostitution.

The authorities are targeting women because they're easier to arrest and prosecute. It goes against their own guidance, common sense and natural justice.
And it needs to stop.

Gavin Shuker is MP for Luton South and chair of the All Party Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade.