In this centenary year of Scottish writer Muriel Spark there has been a welter of comment and reappraisal. A wide set of steps at Edinburgh’s Grassmarket (which appeared in a scene in the movie) have been named after the deluded, hooting teacher of Spark’s famous book The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. The camp nature of Maggie Smith’s majestically over the top and Oscar-winning performance in the 1969 film is one of the few early examples of Scottish camp; a dearth doubtless due to 400 years of chilly Calvinism.
Camp is defined as something that provides sophisticated, knowing amusement, by virtue of its being artlessly mannered or stylized, self-consciously artificial, or teasingly ingenuous and sentimental. Writer Philip Core called camp “the lie that tells the truth”. It was also once defined: “camp is to gay what soul is to black”. Susan Sontag in her seminal Notes on Camp wrote “camp taste has an affinity for certain arts rather than others. The camp art is often decorative art, emphasising style at the expense of content.” For academic Camille Paglia camp is “an Apollonian mode of comedy and connoisseurship” whose essence “is manner, not decor”.
It’s not the sort of thing that found a natural home in Scotland – land of hard-drinking ‘MacHismo’ and general chippiness. From Wellington’s statue in Glasgow with its parking cone to Dolly the Sheep, Alan Cumming to Anita Manning, from the airport-art status of the Kelpies to the painting of the skating minister at the National Gallery of Scotland… it seems to be everywhere. Blame Outlander the TV bodice ripper with its heaving bosoms and kitsch candlelit interiors. Blame the nation’s Rainbow Parliament and growing Scottish confidence. Whatever the reason, Scotch Camp has blossomed.
The Fringe might be said to be always been camp – the month when Edinburgh lets her hair down.
Twentieth-century Scottish hard-man culture did much to freeze out camp in many aspects of life, despising what camp stood for. It’s no surprise that drag acts have had much less of a tradition in the gay bars of Scotland while in England they were almost a standard feature. Also, English camp has a marked class flavour. Part of its appeal lies in the pathetic pretensions to gentility that is very much part of the English class system. Scottish culture is not as class conscious.
Thrifty working-class Scottish traditions long discouraged the frivolity that’s a major constituent of camp. For decades life in Scotland was seen as being too grim, serious and too cold for frivolity. Kenneth Clarke wrote in Civilisation that the Scots were an odd mixture of “reckless sentiment and native realism”. Not the ideal earth in which camp could flourish.
Yet, like a wildflower, camp survived in Scotland almost as an act of rebellion against the very mean-spiritedness that tried to keep it at bay. The deluded Miss Brodie’s combination of wit and outlandish behaviour found an echo in Alan Cumming and Forbes Masson’s Victor and Barry comedy double act of the late 1980s, replacing Morningside with Kelvinside, double entendres, tinkling teacups and silk dressing gowns poked gentle fun at both social climbing and camp.
In theatre, many a production at Glasgow Citizens bore the hallmarks of camp. The staging, sets and costumes enlivened plays that might otherwise have been worthy but dull. In his book on the Citz (he also wrote a biography of Dame Maggie Smith) Michael Coveney wrote “much of the Citizens’ work [in the 1970s] may be defined as camp, and this explains the reluctance of perfectly intelligent but straitlaced critics to discuss it.”
John Byrne’s works for TV often flirted with camp. Think of Tutti Frutti. In Byrne’s play The Two Roberts about the gay Scottish artists Colquhoun and MacBryde there a line: “he may be a Friend of Dorothy but at this precise moment he ain’t no pal of mine…”
It was often the case that Scots could only admit to camp when they were at a safe remove from Caledonia’s chill embrace. Perhaps that’s where the true answer is to the riddle of Scottish camp. Annie Lennox, who has had more camp personas than haggis suppers, notoriously distanced herself from her Aberdonian roots over the years. She told one Sunday newspaper in 1989: “I left when I was 17. I’m not the kind of person who meets another Scot on a plane and instantly feels she’s found a blood brother or -sister. Scotland must be very deeply ingrained in my character for me to have reacted against it so violently”.
For decades the only sign of camp many Scots people saw was the cringe-worthy variety singing duo Fran and Anna, the tittersome novels of Ronald Frame or Stanley Baxter’s Christmas TV specials… and the madcap goings-on at the Edinburgh Fringe. The success of the Fringe in what was once the country’s most straitlaced city has been replicated, to an extent, at Edinburgh’s winter festival, indeed the capital – once said to have invented the pursed lip – has reconceived itself as Festival City.
The world has moved on in so many ways. Hipsters and burlesque helped reinvent aspects of camp for the mainstream. In the last 30 years Scottish self-determination has played a huge part in loosening up the culture. With a new-found confidence the nation has freshly discovered an ability to laugh at itself. Now it seems that Scotch Camp is everywhere. From insistent “mockintosh” to the witty asides in Pete Irvine’s Scotland the Best; from the dramatic textile designs of Timorous Beasties and the output of the 21st Century Kilts company; from Edinburgh Zoo’s nonbreeding pandas to that glorious painting the Monarch of the Glen. We have Alexander McCall Smith’s too twee oeuvre so at odds with the hardcore Ian Rankin. St Andrew Square, once notorious urban dead zone in the heart of Edinburgh, is now cornerstoned with the Ivy and Harvey Nichols department store famed for flamboyant window displays.
Scotch Camp lives.
Here’s a random sampling of this year’s crop of Fringe camp (jazz hands, everyone!):
Dietrich: Natural Duty is @ Pleasance Courtyard, Wed 1 – Mon 27 Aug (not 13) @ 3.30pm
The Drowsy Chaperone is @ Paradise in Augustine’s, Fri 3 – Sat 11 Aug @ 9.35pm
Earnest and Wilde: Let’s Face The Music (and Franz) is @ C royale, Wed 1 – Mon 27 Aug (not 14) @ 7.55pm
Highland Serenade is @ Paradise in Augustine’s, Mon 13 – Sun 26 Aug (not 19) @ 4.55pm
Honey’s Happening is @ Greenside @ Infirmary Street, Fri 3 – Sat 25 Aug (not 12, 19) @ 5.15pm
The Importance of Being Earnest as Performed by Three Fucking Queens and a Duck is @ theSpace on the Mile, Fri 3 – Sat 25 Aug (not 5, 12, 19) @ 9.30pm
Liz: the Musical is @ theSpace on North Bridge, Mon 13 – Sat 25 Aug (not 19) @ 9.05pm
The Moira Monologues and More Moira Monologues is @ Scottish Storytelling Centre, Wed 1 – Sat 11 Aug @ 6.30pm & 8pm
A Virgin’s Guide to Rocky Horror is @ Hill Street Theatre, Fri 3 – Sun 26 Aug @ 9.10pm