Filmmaker Jes Benstock On His Andrew Logan Documentary, The British Guide To Showing Off

Filmmaker Jes Benstock talks about the artist Andrew Logan, the Alternative Miss World show, and his rambunctious documentary, The British Guide to Showing Off

What was your impression of Andrew Logan when you met him for the first time in 2004?

“It's funny because I expected him to be totally over the top, and yet he was so domestic and domesticated, and vicar-like, really. He was like an English vicar more than anything else . . . You'd never think of him as being shy, but he has a kind of shyness about him. Not all the time, but he likes quietness as well. Anyway, it seemed totally at odds with the extravagance of the [Alternative Miss World] event, so I was delighted.”

Do you think the show creates a space that gives people permission to be the outrageous people they want to be?

“Absolutely. Christine Binnie, who was one of the Neo Naturists, said that being around Andrew, he gives you licence. He gives you licence to be a diva, or whatever is you want to be for the night. You never feel a sense of being censured for what you're doing. He is an endless encourager.”

Did you see any examples of that during your time with him?

“You know, he comes across as a bit of a straight edge. He doesn't drink, he doesn't smoke, although he did, as we know from the film, take acid. I sort of realised how cheeky he was when one time we were filming, he was showing me this hand mirror that he had made, and on the back of the hand mirror was this face, and he said, 'Oh yes, look at the nose.' You could take the nose off and it was a coke holder. Even though he didn't do [coke] himself, he knew so many people who did, so he thought, 'Well, that's what they want. It's a nice mirror, with a nose that comes off.'”

He knows his clientele.

“But he also enjoys the cheekiness of it. He is not at all afraid of stepping over any boundaries. I don't think he acknowledges them, actually.”

Is the cheekiness and mischievousness part of what makes the AMW quintessentially British?

“Yeah, I think it's definitely a very important part of it. Cheekiness doesn't respect money at all. And you get the feeling that if this show was in America, or pretty much anywhere else in the world, they'd be so concerned about the money side that they might get a bit upset if people suggested things that were a bit naughty, or did something that was a bit naughty. People might then tell them off afterwards or something. Which doesn't happen at all with the Alternative Miss World. So yes, I think that's one element of the Britishness.”

Has the show become more radical, or more alternative, the more homogeneous a lot of pop culture has become?

“I think it just appears so. I think it was always very radical. If you think about when it was first started, it was only a few years after the repealing of the laws against gay men being together, full stop. Also, the first show was only a few months after the first gay rights march in London. Although the show itself is not politicised, it fits comfortably within a world which is politicised, or is satirical.”

Something I liked about the AMW show watching your film is the way that it's about people being themselves, and not being moulded like on, say, the X Factor.

“Yeah, I agree. The whole point about what Andrew does, and they talk about it a lot in the run up to the show, is about encouraging people to break out of their own confines. So yeah, I think the X Factor is very of our time in the sense that people don't really care how they become famous or why they become famous. It is just that they must somehow become famous.”

And Andrew doesn't seem to care how professional or amateur people are, so long as they're being true to themselves.

“He doesn't care, everyone can have a go. That's very much a part of his philosophy: everyone should have a go and shouldn't be judged on having a go. And I guess that's where he departs from the X Factor stuff in the sense that in the X Factor if you have a go and you're not very good, then it's quite right that you should be chucked out. Whereas for him, if you have a go and you're not very good, you're still included.”
It almost seems like he was Punk before Punk.

“Yeah, Peter York is very interesting on this. He wrote an article called for Harpers & Queen in the mid '70s which was about Logan and his scene, and in that he does this amazing description of them and the way that they dress. But what was interesting was that at the end of that article, he says something like, 'The Punk scene has more to owe to them than they would like to admit.' Because the whole Punk scene was populated by people from Andrew Logan's world. In '75, a lot of people went from Glam and then came out as Punk, started dressing punky. People like Zandra Rhodes, of course, who was pioneering with her Punk clothing. Vivienne [Westwood] and Malcolm [Maclaren] were also part of that scene, before they publicly turned against it. Although privately they were still involved.”

So when the Sex Pistols played at Andrew's Valentine's Ball, at his Butler's Wharf studio, in 1976, it wasn't a collision of cultures but one emerging from the other?

“Totally. Up to that point, Vivienne and Malcolm had been coming to Andrew's dos and shows. And they had been to the Alternative Miss World the year before. That's why they chose the venue, because they saw the debauchery and licentiousness that went on at the 1975 show and thought, 'Well, we'll have some of that.'”

Andrew's siblings feature prominently in the film. When did their importance in the story become clear to you?

“After a couple of years of spending time with him. In 2004, his sister Janet and his brother Quentin were brilliant and hilarious, so I knew they were really important. His mum had just died, so I never got to meet his mum. I knew he dedicated the 2004 show to her but I don't think I really took it in. But they did, Andrew and Michael [Davis, his life partner], because I had just finished a film about family and the importance of family ties to coping with suicide and mental illness, Orders of Love, and they'd seen that and they loved that, and they said, 'You're the only person who's talked about the threads throughout the years.' They didn't mention family, they didn't talk about it at all, because it's so taken for granted. So it was just spending time and realising, 'Oh, Janet keeps turning up. Quentin keeps turning up. I keep hearing about Peter and I keep being given discs of music that Peter got together for Andrew,' and slowly I got to meet them all.”

What was the picture that emerged?

“I realised that, of course, Andrew isn't at the centre of the family, the parents were. And they're all their own people. They're all very strong and they're all very interesting. But Andrew could not do what he has done over the years without their support. He couldn't have done the first eight Alternative Miss Worlds without Peter and Richard. They wouldn't have been the same at all.”

Their parents encouraged them to play and to express themselves. Is Andrew giving to other people what his parents gave to him and his siblings?

“Maybe, yes. I think he is definitely passing on. He doesn't have kids, he is a very uncle-y figure, and, you know, in order to feel part of the world, you have to pass stuff on. And I think he does it tremendously through his life, really, not just through his work. Everything he does is about trying to make people feel better about themselves and about the world, in quite a striking way.”

So did you find this an inspirational world to go into?

“Massively, yeah. It was a huge inspiration. Andrew himself, of course, is very inspirational, but so are many of the people around him, or the people I met as a result. I'm thinking in particular of Duggie Fields, Molly Parkin and Bruce Lacey. Molly's going to be 80 next year, Bruce had just turned 80 when I met him, and Duggie's a contemporary of Andrew's, so he's in his 60s: they're all such great artists and they keep the faith with their work, and they keep at it. And it doesn't matter to them the level of recognition that they get, it's much more about doing the work.”

Have you taken something away from that yourself?

“Yes, in the film world it's quite hard to just keep doing but it really inspired me to encourage myself to get together not just scripts, not just development ideas, but actually shoot things. Actually make things. Go out and shoot a documentary. Go out and shoot something. And then see if there's a market for it. But don't be afraid of doing it in the first place because the more that you delay, the less you make. And the less you make, the less happy you are.”

The British Guide to Showing Off is out now

© Stephen Applebaum, 2011

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