The phrase (as) camp as a row of tents (also more camp, or camper, than a row of tents) means extremely camp—the adjective camp meaning:
– (of a man or his manner) ostentatiously and extravagantly effeminate;
– deliberately exaggerated and theatrical in style.
This phrase, of course, puns on the noun camp, meaning encampment.
These are the earliest occurrences of the phrase that I have found, in chronological order:
1-: From The Sleeping House Party (New York: Coward McCann, 1951), a thriller set in Australia, by the British novelist and food writer Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz (1915-2003):
They were camp, as a coarse common army friend of mine once put it, as a row of tents.
2-: From Aussie English: an explanation of the Australian idiom (Sydney: Ure Smith Pty Limited, 1965), by the Australian author John O’Grady (1907-1981):
A ‘queer’, a ‘pansy’, a ‘poofter, a ‘ponce’. A male homosexual. Known to be ‘camp’. ‘Camp as a row o’ tents.’
Queens are tolerated, provided they keep their perversions to themselves. The average Australian attitude is ‘You can’t help feelin’ sorry for the poor bastards.’ (Incidentally, the name ‘Poncy Ponce’ is hilarious to Australians.)
3-: From the following book review by Nigel Gosling, published in The Observer (London, England) of Sunday 15th December 1968:
The World of Salvador Dali1 by Robert Descharnes (Macmillan 5 gn)—A more modest reprint of the revealingly illustrated volume on an artist who ‘has never been quite sure of the motivation of his eccentricities.’ The candid camera reveals a home ambiance as camp as a row of tents; but the paintings of the thirties are still compelling.
1 Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) was a Spanish painter.
4-: From Camp Ink (Sydney, New South Wales: Campaign Against Moral Persecution) of September 1971—this was the first-anniversary issue of Camp Ink, “the official monthly publication of the Campaign Against Moral Persecution”. (“The society was formed in July 1970 to work towards a better understanding of homosexuality and a redefinition of the homosexual’s place in the community.”):
The Queens’ Birthday Message
Damn we’ve dropped a diamond down our drawers! Are we on? mummble, mummble. . . .In our far-flung family of branches stretching from the sunny suburb that is Brisbane to the sunny Swan that is Perth we congratulate ourselves on this the first anniversary of our Birthday. . . .
To read, or write rubbish like that she deserves a million a year, and still she is broke. Successful queens are in the red. Minnie Drear reads our first Birthday message.
Camp as a row of tents, a cake stands with one large candle stuck in it all alone like a country john. Deep, deep breaths now everybody. . . .hold it, hold it. . . . .steady, steady. . . .Now BLOW. Come, come you are holding back. Did you make a wish?—Cheeky! Oh to be young again!
5-: From the following film review by George Melly, published in The Observer (London, England) of Sunday 19th December 1971:
Up The Chastity Belt […] is the follow-up to Frankie Howerd’s Pompeian romp of blessed memory2. Here he is cast in a double role at the time of the Crusades, ogling his way through keeps and bedchambers beset by houris, nearly burnt at the stake, and spitting out double entendres as if they were hot coals.
It is intermittently very funny […] and the end really springs to life after the appearance of Robin Hood (Hugh Paddick3) who, together with all his merry men, turns out to be as camp as a row of tents.
2 Up Pompeii is a 1971 British comedy film starring the English actor Frankie Howerd (Francis Alick Howard – 1917-1992).
3 Hugh Paddick (1915-2000) was an English actor.
6-: From King of rock and rouge, a portrait of David Bowie4 by Deborah Thomas, published in the Daily Mirror (London, England) of Monday 22nd January 1973:
The Glam Rock idol has an image as camp as a row of tents on stage but he’s just plain Mr. David Jones back home in Beckenham, Kent, where he lives with his wife, Angela, and their baby son, Zowie.
4 David Bowie (David Robert Jones – 1947-2016) was an English rock singer, songwriter and actor.
7-: From the review of Who Killed Santa Claus?, a stage play by Terence Feely5, produced at Acton’s Woodlands Hall by the Acton Dramatic Society—review published in the Acton Gazette and West London Post (London, England) of Thursday 23rd May 1974:
The story centres around Auntie Barbara, the presenter of a children’s television programme […].
The producer, the director, the make-up man and the secretary—Barbara’s “little family” gather around her on Christmas Eve to celebrate the festive season […].
But this Christmas Eve […] someone wants to kill Auntie Barbara—but who? […].
[…] While the play might have become just another murder mystery, it doesn’t. It switches to humour with the help of one of the characters.
He’s Ray the make-up man—a part that Brian Welch made as “camp” as a row of tents. Although at times he lost his high pitched voice, he was really funny and the audience loved him.
5 Terence Feely (1928-2000) was a British screenwriter, playwright and novelist.
8-: From Dog breath, an article about Lou Reed6, by Brandon Stewart, published in the Hamersley News (Perth, Western Australia) of Thursday 10th July 1975:
Fame came […] with the release of the “Transformer” album which had a lot going for it.
Not only was it produced by David Bowie and his guitarist, Mick Ronson, it contained some of Reed’s finest compositions.
Two of these being “Viscious” and “Walk on the wild side.”
The lyrics in “Viscious” are as bent as a dog’s back leg.
Then we came to “Walk on the wild side” and realised that it wasn’t just a joke.
Lou Reed really is as camp as a row of tents.
6 Lou Reed (Lewis Allan Reed – 1942-2013) was a U.S. singer-songwriter.
9-: From Pardon me, your spy is undone, by Ron Saw, published in The Bulletin (Sydney, New South Wales) of Saturday 8th October 1977:
I’ve just seen Philby, Burgess and Maclean, ABC-TV’s semi-documentary on the three KGB spies who got into the British Foreign Service and counter intelligence.
[…] Guy Burgess, superbly played by Derek Jacobi, is a marvellous mess: camp as a row of tents, drunk, disorderly, dissolute, dissentient and dangerous.
10-: From a portrait of David Bowie by Kenelm Jenour, published in the Daily Mirror (London, England) of Saturday 11th February 1978—The Gazette (Montreal, Quebec) reprinted this portrait on Thursday 3rd January 1980:
Since he burst on to the scene seven years ago, Bowie has undergone more changes of character and style than most performers manage in a lifetime.
In the beginning he put showbusiness back into music.
With flame-coloured hair, heavily mascaraed eyes, and clad in a saucy variety of sequinned, multi-coloured cat-suits, he led the charge back to glamour.
Bowie’s early sartorial style was more shimmering, more outrageous, more extravagant than Shirley Bassey’s7.
In those days he appeared as camp as a row of tents. The blatant bisexual image invited—and won—adult outrage, but the young eagerly aped his style.
7 Shirley Bassey (born 1937) is a Welsh singer.
11-: From Dave Donnelly’s Hawaii, published in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin (Honolulu, Hawaii) of Wednesday 9th August 1978:
Bill May, manager of Andy Gibb8 discovery Samantha Sang9, in town for a brief vacation. May was described by an Island pal thusly: “As camp as a row of tents.”
8 The younger brother of the Bee Gees (i.e., Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb), Andy Gibb (1958-1988) was an English singer and songwriter.
9 Samantha Sang (Cheryl Lau Sang – born 1951) is an Australian singer.
12-: From Born to Dance, an article about ballet by Tom Davies, published in The Observer (London, England) of Sunday 27th July 1980:
My main objection has been to all that formalised posturing, particularly by men with cod pieces the size of cabbages and as camp as a row of tents.
The following is an occurrence of more camp than a row of tents, from a negative article about the British singer-songwriter Freddy Mercury (Farrokh Bulsara – 1946-1991), frontman of the rock band Queen—article by BP Fallon, published in The Sunday Tribune (Dublin, County Dublin, Ireland) of Sunday 22nd June 1986:
Fronting these harmonising sisters is Widow Mercury, this butch yet androgynous creature with an important-looking moustache, an aquiline nose and short thinning hair lacquered just so. This Widow, who sings in an empty quavering voice, he’s got a fine line in eye expressions, gazing up and out in self-elatory triumph as if he, and he only, can see that mirror-image of himself in the sky, and that only he is blessed with the pleasure of enjoying it.
And for people watching Freddie The Widow … they can take their fill of his greatness. That’s probably how Fred sees it. He’s more camp than a row of tents. And he seems to be serious.
And this is an occurrence of camper than a row of tents—from the following film review published in The Sunday Tribune (Dublin, County Dublin, Ireland) of Sunday 6th July 1986:
Mommie Dearest […]. Director Frank Perry turns Christina Crawford’s trashy book into a ludicrous movie that’s camper than a row of tents. Diana Scarwid plays the wimpish Christina who gets flogged with wire coat-hangers by her sadistic actress mother, Joan Crawford, played by a wildly over the top Faye Dunaway.