Film review: The British Guide to Showing Off
The glamour, the imagination, the fabulous frocks - as Will Brooker says, we can all be queens for a day
The British Guide to Showing Off
Directed by Jes Benstock
Starring Andrew Logan, Ruby Wax, Zandra Rhodes and Brian Eno
Released in the UK on 11 November
The British have never been much good at superheroes. While 1970s America had a multicoloured dream cast of vigilantes and warriors, from Green Lantern and the Scarlet Witch to Blue Beetle and the Purple Man, the UK made do with small-town, suburban kids in home-made outfits, like Billy the Cat, General Jumbo and the Leopard from Lime Street. Something in our culture prevented our comic-book characters from showing off in public, dressing up in spandex and proudly parading. Now Jes Benstock's documentary confirms what David Bowie hinted at all through the 1970s: the British aliens, freaks and costumed champions were busy underground, emerging only occasionally into the worlds of fashion and music. Our heroes were here all along, at the Alternative Miss World Show masterminded by artist Andrew Logan.
Or, on the face of it, our heroines: a gala of girls with glorious names. Miss Parallel Universe, Miss Jarman Blue, Miss Una Voidable. As the years roll on, they take the stage like living sculptures, easily outdoing Lady Gaga in their baroque masks and frocks the size of carnival floats, or stripped to body-paint. "It's like coming across the fertility rituals of a lost tribe," declares the actor Simon Callow, while Michael Cashman simply enthuses: "It's a bit like being in a superstore of sweets and sex."
Of course, this isn't strictly speaking a female-only event. Andrew Logan is introduced each year as "your host and hostess", his left side in a suit and his right in a ball gown, like a transvestite spin on Batman villain Two-Face. Miss National Geographic, winner in 1986, may have been born a biological woman, and Miss Leigh Bowery may not, but the competition transcends gender, and even challenges conventional notions of humanity: the winner in 1985 was a robot. An online promotion for the 2005 contest describes the participants as "neither male nor female, but superhuman", and Logan confirms that the event is about "getting rid of the idea that there are male and female", replacing it with a spectrum on which we are all mobile. Male-to-female cross-dressing, he suggests, has even become a little passé; it shows more imagination to transform yourself into a box of After Eights.
But just as the superhero comics of the 1980s took a darker, grittier turn, so the Alternative Miss World became more than just a fabulous playground. The 1986 competition was banned from its planned venue - ironically, the first time it had attempted to go literally underground - with the response "We don't want Aids in Chislehurst Caves." Michael Cashman, facing his own tabloid headlines of "EastBenders", pointed out that in the Clause 28 era, the Alternative Miss World was political through its very existence. The Russian entrant observed that this could never happen in Moscow: dressing like a Martian queen could get you "killed in the street". Logan, he touchingly confides, "learned me to be like lamp...like rainbow lamp". Underground styles were gradually incorporated into the straight mainstream as the contest moved to central London's Hippodrome club, but Miss Nigeria, runner-up in 2005, still bore scars on her legs from homophobic bullying.
Benstock's documentary reconstructs the show's history from 1972 to the present, inter-cutting archive footage with observational material of Logan and his friends preparing for the 2009 event. The vintage material, including Derek Jarman's Super-8 films of previous ceremonies, is wittily framed with animation reminiscent of both Terry Gilliam's cartoons and Peter Greenaway's digital experiments: the present-day scenes provide a warm, down-to-earth contrast to the on-stage spectacle, as Logan and his partner unblock drains, apply for funding and wander companionably, like an ageing Batman and Robin on their days off.
As they stroll in the countryside, the lasting impression is not of shocking transgression. Rather, it seems that Logan's project represents the best of Englishness, in its embrace of eccentricity, pomp, camp, tradition and imagination. In the Alternative Miss World we see distinct traces of the Eurovision Song Contest, The X Factor and this year's royal wedding. As David Bowie pointed out, we can all be heroes, and we can all be queens, if only just for one day.
Will Brooker is the head of film and television research, Kingston University.