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Kenny Everett: Camp crusader

A brilliant biopic of Kenny Everett reveals the form’s richness.

Best Possible Taste

I didn’t think I had it in me to enjoy yet another BBC4 biopic. But it turns out that they saved the best till last (one gathers that the BBC4 budget is, post-cuts, deemed too slender to extend to the necessary wigs). Oh my, the genius of Oliver Lansley! Think of an actor doing an impersonation you’ve liked and admired: Michael Sheen as Tony Blair in The Queen, perhaps, or Andrea Riseborough as Mrs Thatcher in The Long Walk to Finchley. Well, Lansley’s turn as the entertainer Kenny Everett in Best Possible Taste (3 October, 9pm) was five times better, at least, than either of those.

As I write, it’s still weirdly hard to picture the real Everett. In my mind’s eye Lansley, more Everett-like even than Everett himself, has somehow replaced him, with the curious result that I like him a lot more than I ever did when he was alive. That was the thing, you see. In addition to everything else he gave us – the disembodied voices, the Fotherington-Thomas walk, the craven smile – Lansley managed to make Everett, who could be so very rebarbative, sympathetic. You saw the fear in his eyes, even as the mayhem flew from his mouth.

If you want to be picky about it, the film did have its flaws. It relied massively, as all these biopics do, on its audience; anyone who doesn’t remember The Kenny Everett Television Show (which ran on BBC1 from 1981 until 1988) would perhaps have been mildly baffled by the inclusion of a Greek chorus, comprising Everett’s most famous characters: Sid Snot, the 1970s biker; Marcel Wave, the lecherous Frenchman; and Cupid Stunt, the Hollywood B-movie actress with the unfeasibly large breasts. And there was, too, something strange going on with Everett’s beard. Sometimes, it was Lansley’s own and sometimes we were clearly staring at the best efforts of the BBC costume department.

But it was in every other way captivating, and I never found Everett funny or even interesting (I used to watch the Television Show religiously but this was a peer-pressure thing; it hardly ever made me laugh). It’s strange how you can know the bare facts of a life – in this case that Everett, who was gay, was married for almost two decades before he finally came out – and yet never make the imaginative leap t wonder what this must have meant.

The best thing about Tim Whitnall’s clever script was that it did make such a leap, revealing his marriage to Lee – a former girlfriend of Billy Fury’s and a wannabe medium – to be the opposite of a lavender sop to the tabloids. I don’t believe either one of them was into what the shrinks call sublimation. Lee was played brilliantly by Katherine Kelly, late of Coronation Street: a tart with a heart to the power of ten. “I’m Sheffield steel,” she said, tapping her chest as if it might clang like metal. When she spoke to her husband about the things he might want to look for outside the sanctuary of their marriage, you believed in her straightforward generosity for the simple reason that it was clear that it came with a price: her own needs. She wasn’t a sexless woman who loved camp men. She was a sexy woman who loved one particular man who happened to be camp.

The film moved smoothly through Everett’s career: the radio shows he recorded as a teenager at home in Seaforth; the 1962 interview at the BBC that these recordings helped to win him (“Ah, the land of June Whitfield,” he said, arriving at Broadcasting House); the years on pirate radio, at Radio 1, and the move into television. But its eye was always on the painful compromise of his private life.

In the end, it was Lee – in cahoots with Everett’s friend Freddie Mercury (a delightful performance by James Floyd) – who helped him both to bag his first boyfriend and, in the mid-1980s, to come out. The scene in which he announced to the tabloids that he was living with “two husbands” was astonishing, the body language so immaculately intimate, it made you shiver. Truly, I doubt I’ll see a better piece of acting this year. Oliver Lansley deserves to be a star. As for the BBC4 biopic, it surely deserves a last minute reprieve. Done right, such films are excellent and relatively inexpensive, repositories of the creativity the new director general has spoken about so longingly.

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 08 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Conservative conference special