The other theory about the expression "camp" is that it came from the polari "camp" for "gay man" - which itself derived from the expression "Known As Male Prostitute". It has a serious effect on 20th century light entertainment in Britain and elsewhere, but especially Britain, where the cultural DNA mixed with 20th century social change to make it an artform.
In England many a performer of the mid 20th century got his start in the war, and most certainly brought elements of female impersonation and "whoops Missis Miggins, you're sitting in my artichokes" bawdy humor of the British vaudeville. One of the most important "camp" performers of the 20th century, Kenneth Williams, tells of his mystifying interaction with army brass as one of these performers, who was outraged at him and others simping in to "We're the Boys of the Service" in full limpwristed sashaying - until they changed the lyrics to "We're the MEN of the Service".
To properly understand camp, one must understand that there was a definite and defined gay subculture in England, one whose activities in the bedroom were technically illegal - resulting in some affectations to allow them to find each other, and a pidgin with which they could speak. In addition, Britain has always been of the "stiff upper lip" variety and rather neurotic about matters sexual. These factors are important because it is in this taboo and this strange mixture of sexual repression and "don't ask, don't tell" that a specific type of comedy in light entertainment came about.
The maddening thing about "camp" is that the major players, whereas they did have some things in common, were starkly different in terms of implementation. In theory it's humor about and by flamboyantly gay or effeminate men, or people pretending to be gay or effeminate. It is usually rife with double entendre and the odd eyebrow wiggle, but it's never malicious and the performer in question is usually a sympathetic character or person. Unlike the minstrel tradition of blackface it isn't meant to directly insult effeminacy and/or homosexuality, but there was a certain template from which a camp performer worked.
Sid Field was one of the earliest of the 20th century, and his mannerisms, from touching his hair to skipping across the stage influenced a generation of comedians. John Inman flat out said he based much of his beloved Are You Being Served character "Mr. Humphries" on Sid Field's mannerisms, and in the little footage that remains of his work, you can see the influence. Sid unfortunately fell into a time when TV arrived too late for him and film didn't quite catch his energy, but he was one of the progenitors of 20th century camp.
But England's first full-on camp stars of the mid 20th century were definitely "Julian and Sandy". Originally conceived as a sketch about two aging Shakespearian actors between roles, they eventually became two obviously and screamingly gay chorus boys on the "Round the Horne" radio program. From the "gay lisp" to the liberal use of "polari" (which covered up a lot of the edgy, boundary pushing nature of their performance) they were a bright flash of color brought to life by Kenneth Wiliams and Hugh Paddick.
Some of their lines were outrageous for the period:
SANDY: “Don’t mention Malaga to Julian, he got very badly stung.”HORNE: “Portuguese man o' war?”JULIAN: “Well I never saw him in uniform…”
Kenneth Williams later became famous for his work in the Carry On films often playing the role of a prig or stick in the mud outraged and disgusted by the sexual carryings on of the other characters, a propos since in his private life he was a heavily conflicted gay man with a crawling horror of contagion. He would regularly wash his walls down with disinfectant and did not like to be touched by other people at all and though for various reasons I won't touch on what we know of his sexuality, none of it involved any physical contact with other human beings. In the Carry On films he played the role of the deeply repressed but very obviously gay man, a slight fey individual constantly trying to overcompensate and act overly masculine. The humor usually flowed from this obvious conflict, especially when they found a way to tie together various and obvious contradictions. In his "plum in my mouth" deeply affected upper class Oxbridgian English, he'd riff on being told at drama school that he "had the diction" and they'd often tell him to "get his diction out", the kind of comment you'd typically hear in lower class Cockney - and it was a clear double entendre even though Williams was obviously a deeply conflicted gay man who'd never touch a soul and was "above such things".
Frankie Howerd, another from that time period, took it one step further and often portrayed an aggressively heterosexual character with predictably humorous results. His slave character Lurcio from Up Pompeii! would often stare through a keyhole or make some leering comment about a large breasted woman. ("And there's so much of her!!!! (looking at her backside) Both ways!!!!") Excepting that when he did see something through that keyhole, it was typically an almost-falsetto "ooooooohhhhh!!!!!" in response. Though Howerd did in fact live in fear of people finding out he was homosexual and did in fact try to find a cure (he was one of the few people given LSD in the 1960s for therapeutic experiments) there was literally no way anyone could have seen his sniggering, stammering, cooing and other campy mannerisms and see him as anything but a closeted gay man playing a rather lecherous straight. In addition, whereas most camp performers were, shall we say, colorful looking human beings, whether a slightly over-coiffed John Inman or an outright Lady Gaga-ish Julian Clary, Howerd had small eyes, large bushy eyebrows that looked like they had been glued on wrong, a face that looked like it had worn out two bodies, and the general attitude that he was in or about to be in a bad mood. Whereas Williams could be downright bitchy ("Don't freeze your tongue and go sledding with me, dear!") and in fact curated a book of his cutting remarks into a memoir called "Acid Drops", Howerd's stage personality was one of someone just beaten down in life and likely simply to deride the audience as being uneducated or "common".
But the man most turn to in terms of the template of the camp comedian was Larry Grayson. He brought a chair out with him onstage as part of his performance because of stage fright and needing the company, but also because he was either often sick, or simply hypochondriac. As a result he often found himself leaning against that chair, one hip higher than the other, resting one hand on the chair and making theatrical hand gestures with the other. With a stage manner and speech pattern of a beyond-middle age housewife ("Ooooh, I'm as weak as a vicar's handshake today....") and frequent interjections of catchphrases ("Shut that door!" and (wiping a finger against something) "Oooh, look at the muck on that!") his standup, while not as obviously screamingly gay as Julian and Sandy, most certainly didn't hide his limp-wristedness and gentle femininity. It made the double entendres that much more stinging when he was clearly mincing across the stage. If you look at how gay people were parodied for much of the latter 20th century until political correctness took hold, you can see it was clearly ripped straight from Grayson's demeanor and mannerisms.
With the success of the Carry On films and the likes of Grayson, Williams and Howerd in their own rights, the 1970s became a time when most light entertainment or comedy shows had to have a token flamboyant gay man one way or the other. Monty Python had cross-dressing judges simpering in a Grayson-esque mode when it didn't have a squadron going from marching to mincing and screeching in formation with the command "Camp it up!". Dick Emery, in his "The Dick Emery Show" had "Clarence", a flamboyantly dressed man who greeted others with "Ooh, hello Honky Tonks!" and whose double entendres were in no way subtle. It was patently obvious that he was gay the moment he'd enthusiastically sign up for the Army on hearing the regiment in question was "The Queen's" ("Ooooh, I'll be one of those, professionals!").
But none registered on the radar and kept it alive in the 1970s like John Inman. It's sort of an uncomfortable truth that gay men work in men's wear and shoe fetishists sell shoes, but Are You Being Served riffed on it in a camp-like manner with the high-pitched voiced Mr. Humphries cooing out "Yes, I'm freeeeeeee!" in his inimitable way. From the obvious double entendres and wink-wink, nudge-nudge lines ("Were you ever a Boy Scout, Mr. Humphries?" "Well.... not officially") to the way he clearly made Old Guard Englishman Captain Peacock uncomfortable with his hairnets and hair pins, or walking around with a handbag ("It's Miss Brahms'. She left it on the stairs. (beat). "I'd never be caught dead with this anyways. Not with these shoes" (cue Captain Peacock rolling his eyes in despair)) it pushed ever so slightly on the social tension that arose from increasing social and legal acceptance of homosexuals. Gay rights groups initially hated Mr. Humphries as an objectionable gay stereotype, and the BBC flat out said after the pilot "we'll buy the show, but lose the poof."
But the essence of camp is that it's almost never mean and the portrayal of all concerned is almost always highly sympathetic. It almost never plays on homosexual panic or these men as someone who might come on to you or attack you. They were even less threatening to women: compliments about a woman's breasts the audience are clearly thinking about become defanged when stated by an obvious homosexual like Howerd. Williams clearly never wanted to be touched by anyone. And Mr. Humphries was just a kind and gentle soul with no predatory intent whatsoever. It allowed people to laugh at sexuality, homo- or hetero-, without feeling threatened by it. It could be lighthearted and cheeky without being disturbing or aggressive, and Mr. Humphries eventually went on to be one of the most beloved characters of the 1970s.
Camp couldn't remain the way it was forever. With increasing liberalization of sexual mores to greater pushing of the envelope and boundaries, it was inevitable that they couldn't maintain a delicate balance between daring and outright offensive, suggestion and being blatant. By the time Julian Clary and Graham Norton came about, there was no question of whether or not the people involved were gay, Clary practically takes the stage in a cloud of glitter and sequins, and Graham Norton gives sex toys to guests. The jokes aren't of a wink-wink, nudge-nudge variety, but as bawdy straight sex comedies had become in the 1980s.
It had to die out eventually anyway - whereas once a man had to wear a suggestive scarf or dye his hair to advertise his sexuality and/or walk "just so", and engage in activities in the dark, we live in a permissive age with Gay Pride parades and Log Cabin Republicans. Polari has died out due to a lack of need, and the "ooh matron" jokes of the Carry On days are anachronistically quaint rather than being daring. We're past the days in which people laugh and avoid discussions of sex. But camp and campiness have contributed greatly to British comedy, and British culture.