As a young person, I always imagined what it would be like to share a secret language with people that I liked. I had a set of girlfriends in elementary school who devised and used their own language but I was never included in these secretive linguistic friendship games. Had I only known then that eventually I would grow up to be gay and that gay men, in Britain and other parts of the world had developed and used their own secret languages at various points in history, I might not have felt so alone. After reading a new article about Polari, a secret gay language in Britain, I reached out to filmmakers Brian Fairbrain and Karl Eccleston for an interview discussing their short film, Putting on the Dish, in which the entire dialogue happens in Polari. These guys are smart as fuck. Watch the film and enjoy the interview.
BSD: When did you each first discover Polari?
BRIAN & KARL: Brian stumbled across Polari a few years back while reading about Nadsat, the invented language that the characters speak in Anthony Burgess's 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange (if you look closely, you'll see that this is the book that one of the characters is reading in our film). Nadsat features some examples of Cockney Rhyming slang, and so does Polari, but while Nadsat is entirely invented, Polari was actually used and spoken by gay communities in Britain up until the 1960s. Neither of us had heard anything about Polari before, and when we began to look into it we were surprised that no-one had ever made a film about it. Polari was first introduced to mainstream audiences via a BBC radio program called Round the Horne which aired in the 60s, but it was mostly puns and jokes and double entendres - there was nothing like a full blown conversation to show how it might actually have been spoken. There's been smatterings of Polari in songs by Morrissey (there's also a track partly in Polari on David Bowie's last album Blackstar) and there's also a few lines of Polari dialogue in Todd Haynes' film Velvet Goldmine. But there were no extended dramatisations, so we decided to have a go.
Q: What elements of Polari do you notice that still commonly in use in the queer communities of Great Britain?
BRIAN & KARL: Polari quickly fell out of usage once homosexuality began to be decriminalised in Britain from 1967 onwards. The surprising thing is that while Polari fell out of use with the gay community, a few words crept into mainstream English and stayed there - words like naff, camp and zhoosh. So younger members of the gay community don't really know anything about it.
BRIAN & KARL: The script kind of wrote itself, because the Polari lexicon is actually quite limited in a way. Polari words mostly refer to body parts and sexual practices and words for describing visual appearance and there's also a lot of words that conjure up the world of cottaging (sex in public toilets) and oppression by the law. So the story that Polari tells is of the clash between the public and the private, of the need to be covert but also inventive and resilient. If you only had Polari to go off and no other records from the time, you'd still get a pretty comprehensive picture of what it would be like to be gay in Britain up until the 1960s. In terms of getting the usage right it was all a bit of a gamble really. We actually speak a few languages between us and back in 2011 we made a short film in fake English called 'Skwerl' that went viral so we've made films in other languages before. But mainly we read online glossaries and forums about how Polari was used and there's also a fairly definitive dictionary of Polari by Paul Baker that we both read cover to cover before taking turns writing down lines and snatches of conversation. Like we say the script kind of wrote itself, because once you use all the funny stuff, the world that Polari describes is actually quite dark.
BRIAN & KARL: Not really. We think we're done with language-based films for now. Swardspeak is a cant slang used by some parts of the gay community in the Philippines and if anything we think there's scope for filmmakers out there who actually speak or use Swardspeak to make films or other creative representations about their own experience with the language. Neither of us are British (we're Australian and Irish-Kiwi) but the humour and tone of Polari is distinctively British and something we as Anglophones we could relate to so it didn't feel too presumptuous to tackle it.
BRIAN & KARL: We've been working on music videos in the UK for the past two years now, but the truth is the industry is both exhausting and exploitative so we've decided to focus on short films for now. They're definitely more creatively rewarding. At the moment we're working on a few projects including a short film that taps into some of our own creative frustrations and the frustrations of our generation more generally. It's probably also going to be a bit of a portrait of London too and the way it is shaping us both as people and filmmakers.