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Mikeharvey

"Bawdy But British" (The Life of Douglas Byng)

I read this short book by Patrick Newley very quickly and enjoyed it.  Douglas Byng (1893-1987) was a very famous - in his day - comedian, actor, revue and cabaret performer, songwriter and pantomine dame. He was principally famous for his outrageously near-the-knuckle, comical and camp musical monologues written by himself and performed in semi-drag.  I have known his work for years via an old LP.  Numbers like "I'm A Mummy" (Oh, the nights in the oases when I toyed with Pharoah's braces!), "I'm A Tree", "Flora McDonald" (Heavy with haggis and dripping with dew), and many others.  You couldn't have an performer like Byng nowadays, because nothing is taboo. Innuendo isn't so funny when everything is permitted. Byng was also one of the greatest pantomime dames. He was responsible for starting the tradition that each succeeding dress should be more outrageous than the one preceeding. But his greatest fame is as a cabaret performer in the thirties when he was the darling of the cafe set.  (See him perform on UTube with Roy Fox and his band).  There is much interesting stuff in the book about the homosexual sub-culture of the 20th century, especially the twenties and thirties, when Byng counted Noel Coward, Terence Rattigan, the Duke of Kent, Frederick Ashton among his many lovers.  In the 1980s he did a sell-out performance at the National Theatre.
I was lucky enough to see Byng three times but never in cabaret. I saw him as dame in the pantomime Dick Whittington, in the Feydeau farce "Hotel Paradiso" (in a cast which also included Alec Guinness; Martita Hunt, Kenneth Williams, Irene Worth and Billie Whitelaw), and in a musical "The Love Doctor" with Ian Carmichael (A musical version of Molieres "Le Malade Imaginaire")  My late partner remembered him in the war years as a character called Blackout Bella, dressed entirely in black (with three luminous arrows pointing to his bosom and crotch).  
There's a line referring to Douglas Byng in Noel Coward's one-act play "Hands Across The Sea".  How's that for fame?

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