THE CURSE OF BILLSON: FAMOUS MEN I HAVE FANCIED

Boris Vian

With Proust, it was tea and biscuits that set him off. With me, it was a movie. Backbeat is the story of Stuart Sutcliffe, the one-time Beatle who left the band in 1961 to become a painter. When I saw it on its release in 1994, it reminded me that I’d once had such a big crush on Sutcliffe I’d torn his picture out of Beatles books to make a Stuart Sutcliffe collage. The problem was, I had that crush in the mid-1970s, by which time he’d been dead for a decade and a half.

Stuart Sutcliffe

I can’t help it, I’ve always gone for unsuitable men. I’m not talking about my private life (though some of the men in that have been unsuitable too). I’m talking about the sort of public figures whose pictures end up on bedroom walls: film stars and pop singers, sporting idols, TV personalities – pin-ups and pashes. I made a list. Some of the names on it are embarrassing. Here are men whose dork-rating shoots off the end of the scale. Here are names that could be held against me. But I’m going to tell you about them anyway.

Towards the end of the 1950s, I was sufficiently sentient to have formed preferences, and my favourite TV personalities were Tonto and Mr Turnip. Evidently, my taste in men was already showing signs of nonconformity, but I’m happy to say this was the first and last time that headbands were featured. In the early 1960s, I was still intending to be a ballerina and accordingly nursed a pash on Rudolf Nureyev, blissfully unaware that the bulge in his tights was not for the likes of me. I must have had a thing about Russians, because the next object of desire was Illya Kuryakin in The Man from U.N.CL.E. as portrayed by David McCallum with his trendy polo-neck sweater and floppity blond hair.

Mr Turnip
Tonto
Rudolf Nureyev
Illya Kuryakin

Then there was Brian Jones from The Rolling Stones, bestowing on my list a hip credibility — almost immediately neutralised by his being followed by Peter Tork of The Monkees. (ETA: Note to young people: The Monkees may have some retro-respect now, but at the time of their TV show they were about as trendy as Elsie and Doris Waters.) Any lingering trace of hipness is then blasted out of the known universe by the two names that come next: Peter Frampton from The Herd and Mike D’Abo from Manfred Mann. Uncannily enough, they too had that floppity blond look. They were all cast from the exact same physical mould, and only now can I face up to the true identity of the prototype. Let’s hear it for the guy who was always stuck on his own in the Thunderbirds space station. John Tracy: loner, philosopher, puppet.

(ETA: My first live teenage crush was on a boy called Bryan who had that same floppity blond hair. We never went out, but he did once stick his tongue in my mouth at a party while we were slow-dancing to “The Long and Winding Road”.)

Brian Jones
Peter Tork
Peter Frampton
Mike D’Abo
John Tracy

Skip this next paragraph if you have a weak stomach. I was bewitched by John Hurt’s freckles in A Man for All Seasons, bothered by David Hemmings’s horsemanship in The Charge of the Light Brigade, and bewildered — God forgive me — by Peter Wyngarde’s sideburns in Department S. I can reclaim a smidgeon of pride by confessing to a brief A-level crush on Lucifer in Paradise Lost. But Milton would have wept.

And then – catastrophe! No sooner had I decided to dedicate the rest of my life to Robert Powell in Doomwatch than his character blew himself up while defusing a nuclear bomb, so leaving the actor free to take on the title role in the Jesus of Nazareth mini-series. A generation of schoolgirls went into shock, and thence into mourning. Black armbands were seen in class. This violent termination of a favourite TV character had a profound and traumatic effect on me. After that, my crushes tended towards the morbid and the damned.

It was the Curse of Billson: throughout the 1970s and most of the 1980s, my chosen darlings bought the farm, one by one. Remember James Beck, the spivvy Private Walker, now gone to that great Dad’s Army in the sky? He was one of mine. I transferred my allegiance to Sergeant Wilson, aka John Le Mesurier, but he passed away as well. Warren Oates? Lee Van Cleef? Lino Ventura? One by one, these hard-boiled heroes were snatched away.

John Hurt
David Hemmings
Jason King
Lucifer
Robert Powell
James Beck
John Le Mesurier
Warren Oates
Lino Ventura
Walter Matthau

And yet there are a few on my list who cling to life, though – even now – they are old enough to be my father. I surprised even myself when I had an erotic dream about Walter Matthau (shortly after watching The Secret Life of an American Wife). Not so surprising was the erotic dream about Jean Rochefort, that wonderful pointy-faced French actor, perhaps best-known for his Arabian dancing in The Hairdresser’s Husband.

I thought I was finally exhibiting symptoms of an orthodox if belated schoolgirl crush when I started fancying Daniel Day-Lewis in The Last of the Mohicans, but it turned out to be a one-off; when not reloading his rifle while simultaneously running through the woods in a loincloth, the actor left me cold. I developed a fixation on Michael Keaton’s mouth, but only when it was set off by his black rubber Batman costume. The nearest thing I had to an unconditional infatuation was with Christopher Walken, who invariably played misfits and psychopaths. I like to think Christopher and I would have got on rather well.

And the spirit of space-loner John Tracy lived on in the studly form of one of my most intense 1990s crushes, Data the android from Star Trek: The Next Generation, occasionally enhanced, though never entirely supplanted, by sporadic weaknesses for other members of the crew: Worf, Riker, Counselor Troi. And the dead men kept on coming: Gary Cooper, Gary Grant and (a final desperate stab at hip credibility) French surrealist Boris Vian – literary prankster, occasional actor and cat-lover to boot. This isn’t nostalgia; it’s virtual necrophilia.

But what are we to conclude from all this? What erotic imperatives are at work here? And what would I get if I fed all these crushes into a dating computer to construct my composite ideal? A dead blond ballet-dancing surrealist father figure, with strings. No wonder I never got married.

Jean Rochefort
Daniel Day-Lewis
Michael Keaton
Christopher Walken
Data
Gary Cooper
Cary Grant

This is an edited version of an article first published in GQ (the British edition) around the time of the UK release of Backbeat in 1994, hence the reference to it in the opening paragraph. Walter Matthau, bless him, was still going strong when the piece was written. I’m retrospectively dedicating it to everyone on the list who has passed away. RIP.

TEN ACTRESSES ON WHOM I HAVE GIRLCRUSHES
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7 thoughts on “THE CURSE OF BILLSON: FAMOUS MEN I HAVE FANCIED

  1. Hi, I too have crushes on dead people (Louise Brooks, Emily Dickinson, Laura Nyro, Audrey Hepburn) or people who are decades past it (as am I but it's their younger selves I am in love with) Looking at your list I am struck by the contrast between the early members, who were surely handsome and considered cool by most(Frampton, d'Abo, McCallum) and some of the later ones who are more of a mixed bag. But maybe you traded looks for something else. Best, Peter Henderson

  2. Pingback: TEN ACTRESSES ON WHOM I HAVE GIRLCRUSHES « MULTIGLOM

  3. I enjoyed this very much and was amused to read about Mr Turnip because the first male I ever fancied was Alexander the Great’s horse Bucephalus. I was 6. Then came Mark Lester in “Oliver” when I was 8. He was replaced by Sean Connery a couple of years later when my parents decided I was old enough to watch racy Bond films (“Just close your eyes when Bond’s kissing a girl,” they said.). Although, looking back, I suspect it was his marvellous DB5 I really fancied because to a 10 year old, a secret agent of 34, dashing as he was, was very old indeed. I had a brief crush on Rudolph Nuryev too, and will always have one on Christopher Walken.

    • This is an excellent list and a great piece. I like the unexpectedness of these men and the fact that discerning a coherent pattern is pretty much impossible. There’s some kind of alchemy that occurs when watching an actor playing a role and suddenly feeling you fancy them. Obviously, it’s the purest form of projection. The subject of your crush is fictional, after all. I think there is probably something here about the ability to love diversely. For the record, Gina Gold (played by Roberta Taylor) from the later seasons of THE BILL was my most unexpected telly crush. Gold was anti-glam, hard-bitten, no-nonsense, but also holding herself together and remaining human.

  4. Pingback: BORIS VIAN, FROTH ON THE DAYDREAM & MOOD INDIGO | MULTIGLOM

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