In Praise of
Nish the chat, pin back your aunt nells, it’s time to have a vada at this ‘ere bona polari…
Growing up in the 1960s, it’s likely that you (and 15 million other people) tuned into Radio 2 on Sunday lunchtimes to enjoy the latest edition of the hugely influential comedy series, ‘Round the Horne’. Starring amongst others, Kenneth Williams, Betty Marsden and Hugh Paddick, ‘Round the Horne’ was a delirious mix of satire, parody and innuendo and is now perhaps chiefly remembered for introducing the world to the fantabulosa Julian and Sandy and their extraordinary entrepreneurial endeavours.
Julian and Sandy were unapologetically camp, exuding double-entendre and insinuation and delighting in the fact they were getting away with it at a time when not only was everything broadcast on the BBC subject to the most intense scrutiny by a censorious Director General, until 1968 and the passing of the Sexual Offences Act, it was still illegal to be gay in the UK.
This form of language, a type of ill-defined complicated slang was used mainly by gay men for communicating amongst one another in public during the first two-thirds of the 20th Century. Julian and Sandy were the first to bring it high-stepping complete with feather boas and jazz hands into mainstream culture – even if, at the time, hardly any of the audience tuning into ‘Round the Horne’ would have had the least idea what they were talking about…
Polari stretches back to the thieves’ cant of Elizabethan England which over time became over-laid with words from Molly House culture in the 18th Century and Parlyaree,, the Italian-derived language used by travelling entertainers, fairground people and beggars. It also began to incorporate Cockney rhyming slang, Yiddish, Lingua Franca and American air force slang.
It all slightly went out of fashion, but Balans Soho Society likes to try and keep these important elements of underground culture alive and it’s good to know it can still be transgressive. In 2017, a Church of England service was conducted in Polari to commemorate LGBT History Month. The theological college of Westcott House in Cambridge, where the service was held expressed its ‘regret’.
A quick dictionary:
Vada: to look, or this case see: “Bona to vada your dolly old eek”