OK boys and girls, fasten your seat belts. This Sunday sees another Boy George media event… and it’s gonna be a bumpy ride. The Beeb has turned the pop star’s teens ’n’ twenties into a TV bio-drama titled Worried About the Boy (BBC2, 9pm Sunday May 16). We get 90 minutes of foot-stamping, chair-throwing, cry-baby tantrums over his self-confessed “dysfunctional romances”, all of which were documented in his eye-wateringly frank 1995 autobiography Take It Like a Man, which has inevitably inspired Tony Basgallop’s script . . .
◼ NOBODY, NEITHER FRIEND NOR VIEWER, ESCAPES from Worried About the Boy without their heart and mind being put through the kitchen blender, though this biographical TV drama has been heavily sugared to make it palatable even for BBC2 audiences. Amusing acto-r-r-r chappies play George and his courtiers and, as a result of advertising for lookalikes to flesh out the cast – some lucky extra even plays The Hand of David Bowie – we see every one of you too who came within a gnat’s whisker of the Blitz club in 1980. Three decades may have added a few pounds to those skinny Blitz Kids preserved in your Facebook albums, but nobody forgets how this London club proved to be the nightlife crucible where the decade’s new pop scene was forged, and where George was almost the last among the dozens who put bands together.
In this Red Production for the BBC we see Mathew (Gavin & Stacey) Horne playing Culture Club drummer Jon Moss, Marc Warren from Hustle playing Blitz host Steve Strange like some Cruella de Vil (George likens him to Caligula), but the one who’ll steal all the Bafta awards is Royston Vasey’s Mark Gatiss as a dead-ringer for Malcolm McLaren. Gifted. A far-too-pretty newcomer called Douglas Booth plays George himself (but then G. O’Dowd is down in the credits as a programme consultant, so there’s the prettiness explained).
We enjoy plenty of comedic moments, yet the crucial line is delivered wearily by Jon Moss: “You’re a needy bastard, aren’t you!” The heroes in the sentimental plotline – petulant boy can’t get his life into gear – are not only his long-suffering boyfriend and colleague in the band, Jon, but as depicted onscreen George’s infinitely patient Dad, Jerry O’Dowd.
The early scenes make a visual Who’s Who to the New Romantics and the director jollies things along with a comic-strip approach, using captioned freeze-frames to make sure we tick off the celebs from 30 years ago. The essential dinginess of Covent Garden’s infamous Blitz club, with its ambience of a steam-age railway station buffet, has been captured in Salford’s Racecourse Hotel in Greater Manchester. For anybody who lived through the real thing, this recreation of the 80s and the sheer electricity of the Blitz itself look hyper-realistic onscreen in HD, yet much of it feels somehow only half-realised, short on pizazz. “Dressing for the Blitz was real theatre,” the St Martin’s designer Fiona Dealey once observed about the New Romantic credo. “It wasn’t just another uniform”. At full-throttle the 24/7 Blitz Kids became living works of art and crackled with charisma you could have toasted crumpets on.
◼ OF COURSE THIS PLAY TELLS only one Blitz Kid’s tale. Your immediate reaction is: ah, well, this is a TV drama about, let’s face it, a very odd boy who dressed as a girl then called himself Boy and today still lives life as the Man in the L’Oréal Mask. In his book Take It Like a Man (TILAM for short), co-authored with journalist Spencer Bright, George wrote that as a teen “I felt like a freak… I was so paranoid, I never let anyone see me without my clothes or face on”. Yet on another page he claimed: “I craved normality.”
Before Culture Club finally saved his bacon at the age of 21, his mum said of working in the Blitz’s cloakroom “That’s not real work”, to which he complained that “Mum didn’t understand the disco celebrity concept”.
What is George’s problem? You don’t have to be Freud to guess. His book depicts his life as an epic shagathon and the TV play gives us a quick glimpse of one love story. And another. And a third. “I chased after those boys with trouble in their eyes,” George himself wrote, elaborating his sexual deeds in far more detail than we need. After publication, one of those boys, Theatre of Hate singer Kirk Brandon, took a “malicious falsehood” charge against George to the High Court where it failed, and Brandon was ordered to pay costs which subsequently meant declaring himself bankrupt. This Sunday, sorry Kirk, but you’re going to have to brace yourself for some perfectly respectable snogging scenes which your actor performs on nationwide TV, not to mention being captioned to make sure we’ve checked your full name.
Both book and play parade basketsful of dirty washing in public and some of George’s former pals will be grateful for having been air-brushed out of history. In this TV drama some names have been changed. The puzzle is that others have not. Kirk is Kirk, Jon is Jon… but Wilf becomes “Vernon”.
The past decade has produced a clutch of TV docs that reckoned the Blitz scene was full of “gender-benders” (the tabloids’ sanitised euphemism for gays and, worse, transvestites). In reality you’d be hardpressed to find any 100% trannies at the Blitz, not even George or his bitter-sweet sidekick Marilyn (a handsome boy called Peter Robinson who lived daily life as a Monroe doppelganger). Yes, the fashion was for New Romantic lads to wear mascara and frilly shirts and flouncy pants and even Big Tone Hadley makes jokes about wearing his grannie’s blouse onstage but most Blitz boys didn’t actually wear girls’ clothes, at least not underneath. (Don’t ask me how I know; there are some things a man has ways of knowing.) Even the brief “men in skirts” era revolved round plaid kilts, not your actual skirts.
The truth is that for all the media-bending, the Blitz divided down the middle into a club of at least four or five halves where the screaming queens comprised but one of them. By mid-1980 when the Blitz standouts were clocking column inches as hot media celebs and record contracts began to look possible, at the earliest opportunity the straight factions broke away to establish distinctly less gay clubnights at Hell, Le Kilt and ultimately the legendary and exceedingly hetero Beat Route.
Inevitably there was always overlap. What certainly caused confusion among both the gay boys and the envious girls was the nonchalant gender-bending by some straight boys, either just for the sake of adopting a trendy stance before the cameras in this burgeoning Pose Age, or to bait the girls (campness can present a very effective challenge to the fair sex), or simply because being what today’s dating websites dub “bi-curious” was, you know, “a phase they were going through”. So feistier females became fighting termagants in order to stake their claims on the goodlooking males. Never doubt, however, that hell hath no fury like a jealous queen.
❚ THIS IS WHERE GEORGE O’DOWD’S TRACK RECORD landed him in the poo. By his own account in TILAM, life was a shagathon, he was always “eager” for one-night stands and landed “a long line of boys who couldn’t make their minds up until they’d had a few beers”. The BBC drama dwells on three nice straight lads who fell for him – “Vernon”, Kirk and then Jon (pictured here on their first date). Today IRL (such a neat online term) they are all family men whose pasts seem fated to guarantee them no chance of a private life.
Other onscreen characters have had their names changed possibly for fears of legal action, though probably out of sheer expedience and economy of casting. Actors play Rusty Egan and Marilyn under those names, but George’s immediate circle of friends has been creatively down-sized around the 1980 squat at No 19 Great Titchfield Street (an onscreen amalgamation of the four Soho squats the Blitz Kids liked to call homes).
An early version of the Worried script included Christos Tolera (expunged), Andy Polaris (expunged), and it had even changed Barry Brien’s pet rat to a guinea pig (both expunged)! The broadcast version sees Slag Sue and Myra seemingly merged into a punkette called Mo (guesswork, this), while Hilda is renamed Sarah and the tragic Mitsu becomes Dawn. The real offence against humanity is to have dispensed with two Blitz superstars, sarky Philip Sallon and witty Stephen Linard – the beacon of his year on the St Martin’s fashion course – and to see them combined into one sharp queen called Christopher. Both were (*are*) very possessive about their distinctive lines in banter which now tumble from one boy’s lips, even though he is dressed head to toe in one of Linard’s unique silhouettes, his renowned tartan Culloden outfit.
In fact, the script is mighty short on the acid oneliners that ricocheted between George’s bitchy friends, despite the talent assembled by Red Productions. The person who comes out worst is club host Steve Strange, depicted as a thoroughly nasty piece of work (which he wasn’t IRL, not remotely), seated on a throne beckoning to his minions within the Blitz (pure fiction). This is naked point-scoring by George who was famously sacked by Strange for pilfering in the cloakroom. George used to rage with envy over Strange’s media appeal. “We resented his self-appointment as king of the weird,” George explained. His envy was impotent, however. At this stage George was, as Malcolm McLaren says in Worried, “notorious for doing nothing”.
Sunday’s play ends in 1986, with George an international superstar, millionaire and recovering heroin junkie, sacked by his band, bravely facing the future. Yet within a decade he’d returned to point-scoring, writing the book, TILAM, as payback for his downfall, in which he tears to shreds virtually all his friends, outing straight lovers and settling scores with venom.
Only last month in Midge Ure’s radio documentary, Rocking the Blitz, onetime i-D editor Dylan Jones reminded us that along with the energy and the fun, many young people became casualties of that decadent decade, as some perceive the 80s. “The New Romantic period for a lot of people was just extreme hedonism,” he says. “And as we know extreme hedonism only leads to one conclusion. A lot of people got off the track. I know at least five people who died of serious drug problems during that period.”
Sudden fame, fabulous wealth and tragic fates are not unique to 80s popstars, as the long saga of rock ’n’ roll testifies.
George O’Dowd did indeed sail a flagship for hedonism yet today at the age of 48 he is alive and kicking and back on the road singing, despite his jailbird past. After watching Worried About the Boy, any viewers looking for the secret to his survival, could give the book a glance. Take It Like a Man is an I-don’t-believe-it horror story and runs to 500 pages. It is also a page-turner, so do plough on. Examine his life because amid the histrionics George has quite a few lessons to teach us.
Text © Shapersofthe80s.com
➢ VIEW Mathew Horne interviewed on GMTV, May 14: “George helped out by providing clothes and [coughs] rectifying any inaccuracies.”
➢ VIEW ♫ The real Culture Club’s first appearance on Top of the Pops, which is recreated for the play, Worried About the Boy