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From the archive

14th January 2006: What makes George Galloway strut and fret his stuff?

30 March 2012

6:02 PM

30 March 2012

6:02 PM

In light of George Galloway returning to Parliament as the member for Bradford West, we’ve dug out Matthew Parris’s account of his infamous appearance on Celebrity Big Brother. And if you can’t remember his feline hijinks, the video’s above for your pleasure.

We each of us remember where we were when news reached us that George Galloway MP was to enter the Celebrity Big Brother house. I was on BBC Radio 5 Live. The time was 10.25 on the evening of Thursday 5 January 2006 and I was part of a panel discussing the shipwreck of Charles Kennedy, when all at once the interviewer astonished us with the Galloway bombshell.

There was no time to reach a considered judgment. We all floundered. But now I have reflected on Mr Galloway’s strange decision; and the longer I think about it the more insistent in my imagination become the awful echoes of the dying screams of the Rector of Stiffkey as a lion sank its teeth into him in July 1937 in a cage in an amusement park in Skegness: the last Christian to be killed by a lion in the course of a programme of public entertainment.

Many readers will know the story, which I recount in my book on Church scandal, The Great Unfrocked . And indeed Harold Davidson, Rector of Stiffkey, was unfrocked. A popular churchman and lively orator who had begun adult life as an actor, he had set about rescuing fallen actresses in the West End of London (‘I like to get them from 14 to 20’) with a zeal which had earned him suspicion and finally disgrace. ‘I believe with all my soul,’ he wrote, ‘that if He were born again in London … he would be found constantly walking in Piccadilly.’ Davidson certainly was. Banned from all the tea-rooms on Oxford Street, ‘Uncle Harold’ — who at 5ft 3in cut a lovable if unmessianic figure — had by his own estimation assisted a thousand girls.

But it was a longer-term mistress called Rose Ellis (‘she was rather my despair,’ he wrote) who proved his undoing. Over eight glasses of port in the Charing Cross Hotel she spilled the beans to detectives. It all ended in a consistory court called by the diocese of Norwich, Davidson protesting his innocence throughout. ‘I do not know what a buttock is,’ was his answer to one question. Judgment went against him, but before being formally unfrocked he dashed back to Stiffkey in Norfolk and preached an emotional sermon before a vast congregation in the one church in his parish which had not bolted its doors against him.

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Many hopeless appeals, finally to the Privy Council, followed. Denied a pulpit from which to protest his innocence, he took to a barrel. On Blackpool promenade between the hours of 10 a.m. and midnight, holidaymakers could pay tuppence to hear Davidson denouncing injustice, the diocese of Norwich and the Archbishop of Canterbury — from a barrel. ‘When I am in the barrel I shall be preparing my case,’ he told the press. ‘Desperate ills require desperate remedies.’ The Times noted that his barrel was situated beside a circus of performing fleas. Such were the crowds which gathered to hear him that he was prosecuted for obstruction. So he took to music hall, winning five curtain calls at the Prince’s Cinema in Wimbledon in 1932. Barred from the nudist Harrogate SunBathing Society, he returned to his barrel, attempted a hunger strike, then exhibited himself on Hampstead Heath on Easter Sunday, next to a dead whale. Elsewhere he entered a glass oven and was slowly warmed while an automated demon prodded him in the behind with a three-pronged fork. Emerging from a short spell in jail in Liverpool, he toured the city in an
open carriage, flanked by ‘two young negresses’ who threw flowers into the crowd. And who says it was a dumbed-down late-20th-century television industry which invented celebrity-humiliation as a means of entertainment?

It ended in Skegness. Davidson was declaring his innocence from a lion’s cage when the lion, Freddie, normally docile but perhaps enraged by Davidson’s loquacity, turned on him and mauled him fatally.

What a way to go! What an Everest of exhibitionism! George Galloway MP is only in the foothills. But I cannot help thinking that in some ways Galloway and Davidson are in the same case. Parliament without party is a kind of unfrocking: a lonely affair. And what is the Big Brother house but a sort of televisual barrel, a glass oven or lion’s cage? Has the shunned politician not been impelled thither by some motives similar to those of the unfrocked priest? A craving to perform, and for attention; a panic-stricken fear of the loss of audience; a sense of being storm-tossed,
beleaguered by an unkind world; an urge to find a platform, any platform, from which to prove that he is not what we thought him; and a desperate, almost hysterical carelessness as to the humiliation he will accept in order to make the world take notice.

And so, eventually, the scream for attention overtakes the rest of the man, and becomes the man. The performance validates the individual — becomes inseparable from him, all that is left of him, our way of recognising him, his way of recognising himself. Or herself. Are you listening, Christine and Neil Hamilton?

Ernest Becker’s concept of cosmic heroism is useful here: it was the term the 20th-century writer used to describe the superstructure in people’s lives that give them a sense of dramatic purpose, that gives their lives meaning. When this structure is removed, identity is removed and we may face a kind of trauma. Perhaps Alastair Campbell’s one-man-show tour of Britain not long after leaving Downing Street sprang from this.

To a showman — and politicians, actors, Barrymores, to some extent columnists, clergymen … these are often showmen — the superstructure is performance. Snatch from them the pulpit or stage, game show or Downing Street spokesman’s press conference, remove the party whip and send the parliamentary colleague to Coventry, and you confiscate more than a job. You take away a means of self-affirmation. Identity is rooted in applause, but the mechanism for getting it has been forcibly removed and the shock is terrible. Now just the instinct remains hence the barrel, hence Big Brother.

Becker linked the yearning for cosmic heroism (it is comparable to Ibsen’s ‘life lie’, well set out in a wonderful West End production of The Wild Duck now playing at the Donmar Warehouse) to the terror of death. ‘This is the terror: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self-expression and with all this to die. It seems like a hoax.’ For those whose careers in performance have suffered a small death long before their bodies are ready for the big one, Celebrity Big Brother may be the only means to cosmic heroism still available. There but for the grace of God go I. Don’t do it, Charlie.

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