MAN’S LAUGHTER

file_000Maybe because it’s felt like the 24-hour news media has been laughing at us for months, but I’ve started to be plagued by the memory of a most disturbing record. ‘The Laughing Policeman’ by Charles Penrose is the aural equivalent of being poked in the ribs by The Sun. You rarely hear it nowadays, but in my childhood in the 1970s, Junior Choice on Radio 1 was still playing it. It was already fifty years old, yet no child I knew liked or enjoyed it, and I suspected that grown adults were writing in to troll us by requesting it.

Even now, it makes me feel queasy for several reasons. As an infant, I shunned an ITV children’s show with the same title, even though it featured Deryck Guyler off Sykes and whom I liked, because of its inevitable theme tune. If it came on the radio, I would make a quick getaway, defeated by a mixture of embarrassment (‘Stop doing it, this isn’t funny’) and alarm: ‘Why is he laughing, again and again? He doesn’t sound happy. Why?’

What did this police officer, one presumably in busy full-time employment, find so uproariously funny? Miscarriages of justice? Assuming he was ‘always on the beat’, what sort of weekly targets was he expected to meet? Did his laughter impede his ability to arrest potential suspects? (We discover, at least twice, that yes, it did.) Did his colleagues in the force suffer from other behavioural quirks, like the Crying Desk Sergeant or the Petrified Superintendant?

Is this the ultimate example in comedy of ‘You had to be there’? Because nothing, not Duck Soup, not Seinfeld, not even Three Up Two Down, is that funny. Nothing warrants four ferocious choruses of whooping and barking that makes Kriss Akabusi sound like Droopy the Dog. And it brings to mind another tiresome record that Junior Choice patronised: ‘I’ve Lost My Mummy’ by a now-disgraced Australian entertainer, which replaced the machine-gun laughter with furious mock-sobbing. Who on earth was this rubbish for?

‘The Laughing Policeman’ has no sincerity. It’s the cabaret at Trump Tower. You can imagine Nigel Farage miming to it; it doesn’t laugh with its eyes, only its lungs, a kind of physical exertion like clearing your throat. It’s laughing at nothing – whereas at least David Bowie’s ‘Laughing Gnome’ attempted puns with an ‘-ome’ suffix. One of my favourite bits of laughter in pop, though, is Bernard Sumner on New Order’s ‘Every Little Counts’ where he splutters over the line ‘I think you are a pig/You should be in a zoo’. Here the laughter sounds genuine – because he’s trying not to laugh.

If only ‘The Laughing Policeman’ were an isolated offence by Charles Penrose (aka Charles Jolly). But no, for this was a self-styled ‘laughing comedian’. Its B-side on its 1926 release, ‘Laughter and Lemons’ is, disconcertingly, a barrage of forced mirth over the Open All Hours music. There were, still, others: ‘The Laughing Major’, ‘The Laughing Ghost’, ‘The Laughing Monk’ (sadly not a Trappist one), and – a sure sign that someone will not shut up – a sequel: ‘Laughing Policeman Again’ in which the policeman finds a girlfriend who also laughs inanely. As that Glasgow Empire heckler perceptively said of Mike and Bernie Winters, ‘Oh fuck, there’s two of them.’

It seemed appropriate, in the week that Desert Island Discs celebrates 75 years on the radio, to check if anyone had ever chosen ‘The Laughing Policeman’. Four people have, including Twiggy and Hugh Grant, and I shudder to think of having that in your list of eight for ever more. What is it there to do – maybe it was to remind company-starved hermits of how to laugh? And it reminds me why I dislike that laugh certain comedians do: not the laughter of amusement, more the laughter of existence, tediously and constantly reminding you they’re still in the room while other people are speaking. At least Paul Whitehouse’s Chuck Perry character on the radio phone-in parody Down the Line has a point to his relentlessness: formless laughter simply at the inappropriate or even mundane subject under discussion.

It has given me an idea for a new TV drama series, though:

‘The Laughing Policeman’: Like Midsomer Murders but set in the fictional village of Hillarity. DI John Lafferty (played by, I dunno, Robson Green, it often is) tries to solve crimes of murder, except he can’t because he’s laughing. We don’t know why yet. Theme tune is ‘The Laughing Policeman’ but slowed down, like off a John Lewis advert, and sung by Emeli Sande. Repeated Fridays on ITV3. Be there.

 

 

EDUCATION, EDUCATION

blog-diary-mockup-150117It is strange to read of a time when, technically, you really were alive, yet remember nothing about it. I often wonder why no-one can consciously recall their early life. Perhaps it’s because, as infants, we are so busily absorbing the basics – of feeding, bathing, dressing, our surroundings, understanding and then adopting vocabulary and meaning – that there is no capacity in our mind to record even seismic events. We are so enthralled by the present that there is no space to look back. I can barely remember a thing before the spring of 1974, when I turned four years old, and so to read of 1971, in daily vivid detail, is disconcerting. I was in the world, after all. But what was I doing?

Sarah Shaw’s 1971 is wonderfully brought to life in her book, Portland Place: Secret Diary of a BBC Secretary, published last summer. It dutifully records every single day of her professional and personal life that year. She began the year aged nineteen, working at the BBC’s Schools Broadcasting Council at the Langham Hotel building. At the time, the BBC had just begun to experiment with sex education programmes on television and radio for primary school children, and it is startling to read some of the complaints and reactions that the SBC received. It feels like prehistoric times, and the kind of sexual politics that Sarah encounters often reflect that too.

Meanwhile, she writes about her own romantic education, after meeting an Irish lift attendant called Frank, who is much, much older and married. With empathy and humour, it nails the obsessive thought processes of what happens when you meet someone special, and details all the strategies of how far to go, like a chess game. It’s about falling in love, then out of love and back in again, at times even wondering if it’s love at all.

What gives Portland Place an edge over ‘celebrity diaries’ lies in its fearless openness, which stems from the teenage Shaw’s assumption that these contents of these entries would never be shared. When Alan Bennett and Michael Palin write their entertaining, thoughtful diary entries, deep down they know that this stuff will eventually connect with a wider public. There are no ‘Had lunch with Cleese at the Ivy’ entries in Shaw’s story, and though a TV personality or two brushes past, these are cameos that are barely at extras level. This is not a book about celebrities.

For most of 1971, Sarah lives in a hostel close to London’s Victoria station. She goes to see films and plays, listens to music, writes her own songs and plays the guitar, reads avidly, socialises with colleagues, and sometimes returns to suburbia at weekends to see her family. Even so, at times not much happens, and she describes watching Morecambe and Wise on TV with such relief that it reminds you how unforgiving and drab a Sunday could be in those days. Furthermore, when an entry appears like ‘My challenge today was to find out the date for Good Friday in 1973,’ it hammers home how tough it was to research something Wikipedia could clear up today in five seconds.

Meanwhile, the lift of the Langham acts as a secret compartment for her life with Frank. It is the starting point for their adventures, and offers them a freedom of sorts. On Monday 9 August she writes:

‘Is life like a lift? We are on ground floor when we are born, and reach the top floor when we die, and in between we go up and down at different speeds, stopping at different floors.’

It’s a striking observation. But the lift is also a metaphor for a confined space, and sooner or later, one she must escape from. (Fortunately, Shaw does reveal in two postscript chapters what did happen next.)

I have rarely kept a diary. I used to joke that there was no point; I can eerily recall to the exact date when something happened. I even once tried writing a diary in retrospect, trying to remember the content of each day of 1988. I can’t bring myself to tell you what that was like to revisit years later. But reader, I shredded it. With relief.

One’s diary is not an act of memory until you re-read it; writing a diary is about a near-instant reaction. These days I sporadically write a journal, for the downside of not writing about one’s life isn’t that events go unrecorded. It’s that they remind you of how you thought, and even more crucially, how you felt. I definitely had a squeamishness about emotions when younger, and had I bothered to keep a diary for when I was nineteen (1989–90), it would make for painful, lonely and needy reading: stumbling around university on an unsuitable course, longing for friendship and romance, but mainly hiding in the arts library reading back copies of The Listener, or shuddering in bed. That year felt like being in a trap: stifling and dangerous, but aware that admitting defeat and leaving would feel like regressing. So you stuck at it, somehow.

It is almost miraculous that Portland Place’s raw material survives at all. Sarah Shaw had never written a book before, and she only found the diary when clearing out her attic. It’s not just a compelling, novelistic account of someone’s life as an independent young woman, but it’s packed with detail, subtlety and humour. I’d like to read more by her.

Sarah Shaw’s Portland Place: Secret Diary of a BBC Secretary is published by Constable. Sarah Shaw also has an excellent blog, which you can find here.

‘IT’S NOT GOING IN’: ROOM 101’S RADIO YEARS

room-101-illustrationIn early 2015, Len Goodman off Strictly Come Dancing and the Farm Foods advert was on the TV panel show Room 101, more than ably hosted by Frank Skinner, in which celebrities and sometimes comedians compete to have their pet hates consigned to oblivion. Len’s selections included ‘all foreign food’, ‘the Metric system’ which was introduced in the UK forty-six years ago, and, most remarkably of all, ‘too much choice’. I’m guessing he voted Remain.

For me, Len’s appearance underlined the shift between the attitudes of millennial Room 101 – too often a howl of despair at ‘modern life’ (it even has a regular category called that) – and those attitudes of its early incarnation. Because when the programme began, in January 1992, it was less about banishing the Present Day than rejecting the Past. Back then, it was a low-key lunchtime radio series, with one guest not three, and no studio audience. Somewhere between a comedy show, a chat show and a game show, Room 101 launched just a fortnight before Desert Island Discs celebrated its golden jubilee on BBC Radio. And it’s probably one of the funniest radio series ever made.

For its origins, it’s back to the summer of 1990. After BBC Radio 2 aired a short series about all-time worst films, called Talking Turkey, its producer Harry Thompson received some feedback. ‘Two people sent a letter the same week, both suggesting a “bad records” show,’ remembers Room 101’s original producer Lissa Evans. ‘One was called “Devil’s Island Discs”, the other “Desert Island Discards”. And Harry said, “Does anyone want to do something with this?”’

Evans immediately thought of the stand-up and actor Nick Hancock as a presenter, ‘because he’d always made me laugh, he had this emphatic delivery’. She had previously booked him for a spot on a series called The Cabaret Upstairs in 1988, and for a topical sitcom called Little Blighty on the Down. But Hancock had also been a relatively early exponent of comedy about trivia, thanks to a double-act with Neil Mullarkey – where they, with limited resources, recreated title sequences of old television shows – and a series for the satellite station BSB called La Triviata.

A show about hated records had been done – Radio 2’s Hit List in 1982 and 1984 with guests including Kenneth Williams, Denis Norden and Claire Rayner – so Evans and Hancock expanded the idea to also encompass terrible films, books, people, places, TV programmes and objects. Both of them fans of George Orwell’s books, it was the host who hit upon the final title, and which resulted in probably the only comedy show to boast a theme tune by Eurythmics.

Despite what its producer rightly describes as ‘a perfect pilot’ (with Paul Merton as the guest), Radio 1 inexplicably turned it down, and so the series would battle with cruddy medium wave reception over on the newly-created BBC Radio 5. For a show that asks a lot of a guest, Merton grasped its sense of humour almost immediately. When subjected to Kenneth More’s laugh from the film Genevieve, his groan contains proper horror.

Stand-up comedy in the 1980s had been political, observational or surreal, but rarely directly autobiographical. This gave way in the 1990s to a more personal take on comedy, and guests on Room 101 were encouraged to choose items that could evoke personal experience, a way of forcing them away from pre-prepared material and into some quite revelatory and individual anecdotes. The result was not just good comedy, but a superior kind of talk show.

So when Jo Brand chose ‘Angie’ by The Rolling Stones, it was less about the record itself than a misguided early relationship her parents disapproved of. Frank Skinner remembered awful bus journeys in the West Midlands. Caroline Quentin recalled her unsung days in the original West End chorus of Les Miserables and the modest role of ‘Blind Beggar’. Danny Baker lambasted his brief spell as a presenter on a consumer TV show. David Baddiel brought along a lo-fi tape of his own teenage band with a future indie rock guitarist on lead vocals. Jenny Eclair shivered about her early 80s attempt at recording The Kinks’ ‘Tired of Waiting for You’. Steve Punt reminisced about the harsh limitations of the Bontempi keyboard as a Christmas present (‘Look, I’m sorry – I asked for this, but this is rubbish.’) And perhaps best of all, the late John Walters harked back to his personal nightmare: in a recording studio playing trumpet for the Alan Price Set.

This was an exercise in catharsis and closure, about safely transferring one’s past hell from the jail of one’s mind into a dustbin of a room. And relax. Assuming, of course, that Nick agreed your argument was strong enough for the selection to be banished.

In radio days, it was easy to collar willing victims. ‘It was so last-minute,’ says Evans. ‘We’d get the guests the week before, perhaps even the day before recording. Then I’d rush down to the record library to find clips.’ For occasions when the guest’s suggestion was accepted, she would also find material to put ‘behind the doors’, such as Derek Jameson, ‘Seasons in the Sun’, Norman Tebbit and the showjumper Harvey Smith’s rendition of ‘True Love’. Sometimes, she would mischievously rile the host, like the time she put in footage from a cup defeat suffered by his beloved Stoke City.

In all, Radio Room 101 lasted twenty-seven episodes, including a terrific Christmas special where the tables were turned, and Hancock finally got the chance to suggest his least favourite things: ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ by the Singing Sheep, an excruciating single by Gordon Banks, Scrappy Doo, and his own adolescent song lyrics. Guest custodian Danny Baker was aghast: ‘No, don’t read anything called “Dreamland”.’

Partly because ‘no-one listened to Radio 5’, Room 101 in radio days was left alone. When it moved to television in 1994 on BBC2, booking people became trickier. Lissa Evans: ‘I once drew a Venn diagram: people who are funny, people who are famous, people who want to do Room 101. [The intersections were tiny.] It was absolutely nightmarish. [But] it’s very exposing. And a lot of people, especially actors, are so frightened of exposing their personal opinions.’ In Hancock’s words, some traditionally candid performers suddenly went coy in recording mode, and were reduced to choosing ‘supermarket trolleys with wonky wheels’.

Though the television incarnation – hosted by Hancock, then Merton and currently Skinner – has had many memorable moments, I prefer the radio version, partly because there is no studio audience, simply a conversation where the two participants could actually be outside Room 101 itself. On medium wave.

On one level, comedy about trivia and nostalgia has a poor reputation:

‘Do you remember Deputy Dawg?’ ‘Yes, shut up.’

‘Who remembers those crisps?’ ‘Yes, we still have crisps, I had some yesterday.’

‘Remember dogs?’ ‘No, I don’t, but that’s hilarious.’

‘Do you remember eggs, for God’s sake? Come on!’

But, when on form, Room 101 has risen way above this kind of hackery. Sometimes, it’s not just the stuff you love from childhood that stays with you – it’s also the stuff you hate or even fear. Even if the dogmatism has palled with age, it still reminds you of what you used to be, and what you are now. Don’t be Len. Don’t look back. Embrace that Metric system.

Special thanks to Lissa Evans (@LissaKEvans) for her time and her memories. She now writes fantastic novels, notably Crooked Heart and Their Finest Hour and a Half (now adapted for the big screen as Their Finest), and her books for younger readers include the recently published Wed Wabbit.

The television version of Room 101 continues on BBC1 and Dave. Apart from the links to a handful of radio episodes, most aren’t currently online, but hopefully that’ll change.