By John Mercer, Professor of Gender and Sexuality, Birmingham City University.

On Saturday 2 December 2017, a new autobiography about comedian and TV presenter Larry Grayson will be launched at Birmingham City University. Ahead of the event, Professor John Mercer, from the institution’s Birmingham School of Media, looks back at Grayson’s career and how his legacy paved the way for LGBTQ acceptance within British society.

During the 1970s and 1980s Larry Grayson was one of the most popular and successful comedians and TV presenters of his generation. Grayson belonged to a long and enduring lineage of British comedians who trade in camp humour and innuendo that dates back easily as far as the music hall era and figures such as Old Mother and Riley Marie Lloyd, and continues with contemporary personalities such as Graham Norton and Alan Carr. Indeed, Grayson’s first big break was as a variety act leading to a run at the Theatre Royal Stratford East.

His risqué humour and catchphrases – ‘what a gay day!’, ‘shut that door!’ and ‘seems like a nice boy’ – remind us of a post-gay liberation moment in popular culture during the 1970s and 1980s, where gay humour could have mainstream appeal and a visibly gay man could succeed at the highest level in the world of light entertainment – he replaced Bruce Forsyth as the host of ‘The Generation Game’ in 1978 – as long as he was prepared to perform his sexual identity ‘for laughs’.

Much loved by the general public, Grayson, alongside contemporary ‘gay comedians’ –though they were never explicitly described as such – like Frankie Howard and John Inman, were not always held in high regard by the gay liberation movement. In 1974 students from University of Westminster protested outside of a broadcast of ‘Shut That Door!’ and human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell observed in 2016 that during the 1970s and 1980s he despised the stereotypical – and therefore negative – image of homosexuality that figures like Grayson offered.

In many ways Grayson’s popularity and the ambivalence of his reception illustrates the uneasy and uneven way in which British popular culture has struggled to finally accept and assimilate gay identities as part of the fabric of a rich and varied society.

John Mercer, Professor of Gender and Sexuality, Birmingham City University. View our Social Sciences courses.

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