The British Guide To Showing Off

“Being natural is merely a pose, and the most irritating one I know” – Oscar Wilde

The notion of camp has been an integral, if much misunderstood, part of British cultural life for more than a century, from the humour of the music halls, through the innuendo of Round the Horne and the Carry On series, to the dressing-up-box excess of ‘70s glam rock and the ‘80s New Romantic scene. Jes Benstock’s 2011 documentary The British Guide to Showing Off, released on DVD this week, profiles a man who perhaps more than any other figure exemplifies this country’s love of camp. Encompassing all of the contradictions that this suggests Benstock weaves together its disparate elements in regal style.

Artist, sculptor and performer Andrew Logan first staged the Alternative Miss World competition in 1972 and the film follows his preparations for the twelfth event, staged in 2009, while looking back on the competition’s history and the eccentric menagerie of people who have been involved along the way.

The Alternative Miss World is a pageant of the outsider, featuring an array of contestants (including several members of Logan’s family) dolled up in a series of extravagantly outrageous outfits, from drag queens to theatrical performers and grotesques. As in the non-alternative version, the lovelies must model a range of costumes – day wear, evening wear and swim wear – though in Logan’s version, shallow beauty is replaced by creativity, self-expression and a celebration of the different. The result is a very British creation, yet clearly reminiscent of Studio 54, Warhol and the spectrum of New York oddities that moved in his creative orbit and appeared in his work.

The cast of characters who have been involved in the contest over the years, many of whom appear in the film, is a virtual who’s who of British pop and even high culture; David Hockney (who judged the first contest), David Bowie (who failed to gain entry to the second), Zandra Rhodes (who designs all of co-host Logan’s outfits), Derek Jarman, Sir Norman Rosenthal, Brian Eno, Ruby Wax, Nick Rhodes and Julian Clary have all been part of it, either as judges, guests, co-hosts or even contestants. The spirit of creative otherness and freedom that Logan has engendered brings to mind Jean Cocteau’s declaration that “I am a lie that always speaks the truth”; beneath the makeup and costume lies a fundamental truth about British culture, to the extent that the contest has reflected and influenced the look and attitude of almost every major pop musical movement of the past thirty five years, from glam to punk to the Blitz Kids, taking in Rocky Horror along the way.

The film mirrors Logan’s sense of playfulness, including Python-esque animation, collages of photographic images and some wonderful footage of the contest down the years, as well as revealing interviews with former contestants and some intriguing talking heads. Despite some problems including budgetary concerns (incredibly, Logan’s team manage to entice major companies including Swatch to sponsor the event) and a desperate hunt for venues, Logan comes across as perennially cheerful, open and likeable. Far from being a specifically ‘gay’ event, the Alternative Miss World challenges perceptions of sexuality and encourages us all to embrace the myriad layers of our personalities. As Logan himself says, “this whole thing is about realism”.

In an age in which ‘alternative’ has come to mean the creative cul-de-sac of Coldplay, while the depressing factory line of X-Factor defines performance, Andrew Logan and his pageant are a key reminder of our culture’s camp heritage, individualism and tradition of reacting against the norm. The British Guide to Showing Off is nothing less than a journey through the alternative history of Britain.

The British Guide To Showing Off is available on DVD now, released by Verve Pictures.

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