As we get older, we cannot help but look back more and more. It’s inevitable – life is mostly about memory, and it’s often not even for nostalgic reasons. We’re faced with endless revivals and reissues and reboots, and Facebook reminding you it’s exactly eight years since you wore that hat, but it’s also that, in the digital age, the present is full of the past. There has never been so much ‘past’ hanging around before, and even if you are determined to keep up with new albums, TV shows, books and films, elements of them will still ping inside your head: motifs, emblems, patterns, that unavoidably hark back to past experiences.
Two recent events I attended found their respective creators also wrestling with memory and how it floods their present day lives. David Baddiel’s My Family: Not the Sitcom, a jet-black but celebratory show about the eccentricities of his family background, has just completed its third theatrical run in London. I saw it two nights before it closed. Baddiel’s mother died just before Christmas 2014, when his father was already in the advanced stages of a dementia illness called Pick’s Disease, and the show finds Baddiel grappling with the dilemma of how to remember and portray those who are no longer ‘with us’, either literally or figuratively. It’s a complex show (but very funny), and it uses a variety of illustrative sources: photographs, documents, footage and correspondence.
I first encountered David Baddiel’s comedy on The Mary Whitehouse Experience in the early 1990s; his stand-up was a combination of pop culture and sport (much of it exhuming the forgotten flotsam of his 1970s boyhood) and a frank, often unflinching gaze into ‘difficult’ areas: death, sex, illness, and even occasional glimpses into his own family life when growing up in North London. I sometimes wondered how his parents might have reacted to this particularly confessional type of comedy, but as he outlines in the new show, they seemed fine with it – after all, they came to lots of recordings, especially his mum. But I also found myself thinking about how pop culture is not mere nostalgia in our formative years – it’s a kind of furniture around us, a way of connecting us to the wider outside world.
The night after I saw David’s show, I saw the pop trio Saint Etienne perform live at the Royal Festival Hall, the same day that they released a new album, Home Counties. As ever, they continue to blend the contemporary (glossy, tuneful, often danceable) with elements that yearningly evoke the past. In their case, they use folk elements, mood music, what used to be called ‘easy listening’, and a smattering of references to TV, film and trivia. The effect can be both delightful and haunting.
Like Baddiel, Saint Etienne also use evocative visual accompaniments in their live act: archive film, animation, montages and graphics. During one song, ‘I’ve Got Your Music’, complete with period footage of Sony Walkmans, I kept giggling – sometimes a little nervously – at the recurrent use of Cliff Richard on rollerskates from the ‘Wired for Sound’ video. You can’t get rid of memories, not even – in fact, least of all – trivial ones. Least of all trivial ones. They keep nudging and distracting you.
On Home Counties, there are some short interlude tracks which allude directly to broadcasting that celebrates the past: The Reunion (a Radio 4 discussion about a past event) and ‘Popmaster’ (Ken Bruce’s enduring phone-in quiz on Radio 2). But on some earlier records in the 1990s, they used lo-fi samples from television and film: Peeping Tom, Billy Liar, Brighton Rock, House of Games, a Chanel No. 5 TV advert from 1970, a record about understanding decimalisation, and a pioneering fly-on-the-wall documentary called The Family, about an ordinary suburban family in Reading.
The effect of these extracts was disorientating. It evoked the feeling of how, as young children, our encounters with popular culture – the world at one remove – are often accidental and out of our control. At some point, I suppose when school enters the picture, when we have to start remembering things, we progress beyond a few snapshots and start to find ourselves living a more or less linear experience. From there on, it’s not that we remember everything; it’s just that we start to piece things together, and try and make sense of our surroundings.
For me, this point would lie in the summer of 1974, the long break between nursery school and actual school. I had just turned four years old, an age when you’re still mastering the basics of early life and so you’re forever in the present. You have no idea what is going to register so strongly in your subconscious that you will never forget it. Quite often, it’s not the big events, but the trivia. Forty-three years later, I can isolate actual moments in my memory. And they’re nearly all related to television, or at least contexualised by television. Yet they’re not the big events. No memory of the World Cup in Germany, or a US president forced to step down in disgrace, or either of the two General Elections. I’d like to be able to claim that I recall Victoria Wood winning the talent show New Faces, or Abba winning the Eurovision Song Contest – but I don’t. And I didn’t see The Family either, at least not till the repeats in the late 1980s.
So I was fascinated by television – indeed, I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t watching television, just as I cannot remember a time when there wasn’t music in the house, or a time when I wasn’t reading books. And so, my early memories – even if they don’t feature TV or pop or books – are determined by those contexts. For some reason, I have an unusually vivid memory for date recall – not faultless, but I can usually work out to the day when something happened. And because the Internet now exists and there are sites like the remarkable BBC Genome project, which has every BBC TV and radio schedule between 1923 and 2009, it is actually possible to cross-check these kinds of early memories to the exact day. (If I were a child now, in the on-demand world, this would be practically impossible to monitor.)
It was relatively easy to be obsessed by television in the first half of the 1970s as there wasn’t that much of it. There was no CBeebies or Nickelodeon. There were three channels, there was at most about 12 hours of children’s television a week, mostly in the late afternoon, and there were lots of intermissions and interludes, a lot of waiting. You even had to wait a few minutes for the television to warm up when you switched it on.
I felt like I wanted to own television, the way I owned books. And, in the days before video, not everything had a spin-off book or LP record. So how did I do that? Well, the answer is obvious: I tried to reproduce logos, graphics from TV shows and station idents. (I did play with Lego as well, honest.)
My favourite programmes were mostly visually driven: cartoons, Sesame Street on Saturday mornings, and a lunchtime show on ITV called Pipkins, which was like a comic serial for the under-fives featuring actors and puppets, and which on 5 August that year dealt with the death of the programme’s lead actor George Woodbridge by confronting the death of his character head-on. Quite groundbreaking. Did I watch that one? Frustratingly, I’m not sure – that memory is not there.
But my very favourite programme was called Vision On, ostensibly for hearing-impaired children but which appealed to them – and consequently a wider audience – by disregarding verbal content and concentrating on visuals: short films, animation, mime, surreal and comic sketches, and art demonstrations by the brilliant Tony Hart. Any speech that did remain was accompanied by sign language from his co-host Pat Keysell.
At the heart of Vision On was, I guess, was an early exercise in interactivity. ‘The Gallery’ was an invitation for young viewers to send in original artwork to the BBC and be rewarded with five vital seconds or so onscreen. The accompanying music is now an obligatory soundtrack to anything to do with painting: to those of us of a certain age and above: ping, Vision On.
I wasn’t particularly good at drawing, but I was already somehow skilled at lettering – and I was fascinated by the Vision On logo. Tony Hart, who created it, named it ‘Grog’, a symmetrical cross between a grasshopper and a frog. I could have just painted Vision On on some paper or card, and then folded it over to get a mirror image, but that would have been much too straightforward. Instead, I actually tried to copy the Grog from memory, without the image in front of me. I now realise that trying to copy something exactly can be harder than creating something. I was so committed to getting it right that I momentarily considered sending my best result off to the programme, before reasoning that they probably wouldn’t have needed it. Vision On already have their own Grog, Justin. It’s a big one, on their wall, behind them, every week.
Sometimes I found television funny; sometimes it made me feel funny (Samantha off Bewitched, that woman off Hickory House, and a classical violinist I kept seeing on BBC2 – probably the young South Korean virtuoso, Kyung Wha-Chung). At other times, in the blink of an eye, it could turn into something utterly anxiety-inducing. There were public information films straight after children’s programming which alerted you to a world of road accidents, rabies, drowning in lakes full of shopping trollies, glass on the beach. There were other alarming things in the world: people also seemed to find The Osmonds dangerous and kept screaming at them on TV. (You remember that public information film: BEWARE OF OSMONDS.) I didn’t like the look of the ATV logo at all, and it was hard to draw. The dubbed monkey shrieks on Daktari – horrid.
Furthermore, there was some frightening regional thing after Sesame Street on Saturdays called Orbit, in which a doubtless well-intentioned announcer called Alan Taylor pretended to be in space (rather than a weather forecast studio in Bristol) with only a buzzing gonk called Chester for company. Alan Taylor, for reasons I have never quite processed, absolutely put the fear of God into me. The three minutes of Orbit that survive here – and I defy you not to sing along with the opening theme – provides no clue about what they might have filled the rest of the half hour with. Cartoons from Spain? Showjumping highlights? It’s going to be birthday greetings, isn’t it?
This was all disorientating and scary and yet I couldn’t back out. I had joined a story I didn’t yet begin to understand, but was determined to make sense of. Is that Bernard Cribbins singing the Wombles theme? Why do we keep being told ‘watch out watch out watch out watch out there’s a Humphrey about’? Why is television closing down now with some music – is it tired? Why is Alan Taylor doing this programme as well? Does he ever go home, and please can he do that? And oh god, why ‘The Laughing Policeman’, at all, ever?
And then, somewhere in the background which perhaps should be in the foreground of these memories, there was real life. And I strangely don’t remember much of that. I’m sure I went to the beach a lot with my family, and shopping, and played games with my brother and so on. My twin cousins were born that summer – they lived nearby but I don’t remember the event itself. Maybe I was too busy watching Wait Till Your Father Gets Home to notice.
But all my early hazy memories have television in there somewhere. The first definite early memory I have is of my nursery school teacher, who owned two Labradors, telling us it was time to watch Play School. So that can’t be later than about June or July 1974. I can remember being on the back seat of a relative’s car snoozing while they went into a shop, and for some reason I can remember it was a Wednesday, and for some even stranger reason I remember that I’d just watched an episode of the stop-frame animation series Barnaby. (Summer 1974, but no later.)
In late August 1974, one week before I started school, we visited Birmingham, partly to stay with friends of my parents, but also probably because my paternal grandfather lived nearby, in Sutton Coldfield. I remember arriving in Birmingham on the Sunday afternoon: 25 August 1974. You must remember!: The Golden Shot was about to start. Three days later, on Wednesday 28 August, after Teddy Edward and Derek Griffiths’s Ring-A-Ding and that’s how I can be sure, we visited my grandfather. Or at least we visited his house. I do not remember my grandfather – I just remember a rather messy house. I sat in some kind of living room area – the decor was brown as most things in the seventies were. My brother may have also been there. My mum definitely wasn’t. I don’t remember much else – perhaps it was because the television wasn’t switched on.
This is all a bit embarrassing. Maybe I had tunnel vision, and didn’t like people very much. Or maybe it’s just that it’s harder to put a timeframe around real life. Unless you were diligent enough to put a date on the back of a photograph back then, you’d have to guess, and that’s not always easy. But in fairness, television is a powerful medium: colourful, urgent even in those more languid days, and yes addictive. But it taught me a lot, and one thing it did was start to explain things to me. Like music, it has frozen memories in time, a counterpoint to everything else that was going on.
I started school on Monday 2 September 1974, but I still went home at lunchtime to watch Pipkins. My grandfather died on Saturday 19 October 1974. But I have no memory of that.
Saint Etienne’s Home Counties is out on Heavenly Records.
David Baddiel’s My Family: Not the Sitcom has completed its London run, but tours the UK in 2018 and 2019.
What makes you laugh on television? Maybe it’s Xander and Richard bantering on Pointless. Maybe it’s the dog acts on Britain’s Got Talent. Maybe it’s the esoteric songs they choose for Homes Under the Hammer. Maybe it’s when they say ‘soggy bottom’ on Bake Off. Maybe it’s Danny Dyer’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? Maybe it’s when Phil and Holly get the giggles on This Morning because one of them said ‘knob’ in another context, somehow. Or maybe it’s one of the remaining Actual Comedy Programmes that shiver in the schedules due to lack of company and clothing.
Half my life ago now, one sweltering day in July 1995, I attended a final board at BBC Radio, for a position as a trainee comedy and entertainment producer. It was an exciting time for comedy: the BBC Radio and Television entertainment departments were growing closer together. Many radio series had successfully transferred to television – The Mary Whitehouse Experience, Have I Got News for You, KYTV, Room 101, The Day Today – with many more still to come. And the trainee producer candidates were likely to work in both media. I faced five (it may even have been six) people in that interview room. An exciting but scary experience.
There were four trainee producer positions available. I came in fifth or sixth, I think, probably due to lack of directing experience or simply that the others were better candidates. They would join a department that was nurturing shows like People Like Us, The League of Gentlemen, Goodness Gracious Me!, and later Dead Ringers and Little Britain. I licked my wounds, and applied instead for office jobs and hackwork.
In the 1990s, with a massive number and range of comedy programmes on television, it felt like the torrent would never end, and this was still before the invention of PlayUK, E4 and BBC Three, who all invested in original comedy. Twenty years on, TV comedy seems on the fringes. In one way, there’s no shortage of them, but they’re scattered around the edges: iPlayer, Sky, Netflix, Amazon Prime. Only Harry Hill, these past six weeks, has been able to sneak a designated comedy show into pre-watershed hours on terrestrial television, and even his Alien Fun Capsule, which is great fun by the way, needs the facade of a panel show, despite being nothing of the sort on closer inspection. Comedy is expensive and risky, and so a lot of broadcasting couches ‘funny bits’ within other kinds of entertainment format: competitions, lifestyle, reality TV.
But everyone still thinks they’re a comedian, and some like to pretend that provocation is the same as telling a joke. Ersatz ‘comedy’ often survives in bastardised forms, such as the output of the tabloid columnist or a front page headline: you write a shit pun, one which doesn’t even work, you punch down at a minority or at least people who are ‘different’ from you, and then after jokelessly causing offence, you switch to disingenuous and wonder why people are causing such a fuss. Sarah. It’s easier to get attention by enraging them than by entertaining them.
There have been, of course, some great newspaper columnists, but many are, like me, people who would have died on their arse in open spot after open spot. A columnist on a comedy panel show is frequently and embarrassingly at sea, discovering that, when voiced aloud, their aggravating gallery-playing shtick turns to gravel in their own mouth. In the distance, a lone owl coughs, and Paul Merton has to step in. Even Alexander Johnson had to work from an autocue after his first Have I Got News for You appearance.
The columnist’s attitude of bleak bravado has spread to social media. The more shrill posters there – who tend to type with their nose or whole arm – have to stress that they’ve made a joke, using that peculiar crying/laughing emoji, when in fact they mean that they’ve just said something they can’t begin to defend.
Then again, my relationship with Twitter is not entirely innocent. For a while it seems liberating. It’s liberating to dismiss provocative figures in kind: to liken Quentin Letts to the Viz character Spoilt Bastard; to describe the head of The Sun’s editor-in-chief Tony Gallagher as looking like ‘a dented football trophy from the 1930s that’s just been dug up’; to call Paul Dacre ‘a putrified testicle’; to call Theresa May ‘a Londis Thatcher who attended elecution classes and said “Make me sound like the cane from school”’; to wonder why Alexander Johnson and Donald Trump seem to want to look like Jimmy Savile first thing in the morning.
All of this is cathartic, briefly, I suppose. But then the excitement cools and sours and you feel resigned and powerless. It’s not funny anymore, you feel tired, and then the next day’s news comes, and it’s more dung, and the dung is even worse. It’s as if your attempts at being funny didn’t change stuff.
Because Twitter is so transitory, it’s not just easy to become addicted to it (nods), it also has no shape, no finity. If only one could channel its funniest, most dynamic components into a TV concept, for funny, engaging contributors. (Note: I am certainly not suggesting a TV show about Twitter – the only time TV entertainment really used the Internet effectively was on So Graham Norton, which was pre-broadband.)
But I think there’s another problem with Twitter and again, I’m as guilty as anyone. We all have our Twitter character now, and a tweeting style, and we can be prone to catchphrases and memes and hobbyhorses. And if you’re a heavy user of Twitter (nods), you risk becoming reliant on saying a thing just to say something, anything. You are Mumbler3, hence: bins, Pacman Ghosts, pop trivia. You start to become bored of your own language.
On the other hand, Twitter has been a constant companion to me over the past seven or eight years, through self-employment, bereavement (twice), anxiety, depression and isolation. It’s also made me laugh a lot, and there are close friends I would never have met without it.
But one reason I started this blog at all was to expand Twitter thoughts into something more fully-formed and ‘permanent’, if a blog can have permanence. Mind you, it’s been tricky to write much lately without interrupting with BUT SO WHAT in big capital letters. It’s because the enormity of Britain leaving the EU with so few concrete ideas about how and even why it is doing so (and real solutions, please, not just that Union Flag you jammed in your arse last June, thanks) has given us a sense that not only is the past far away, but so is the future – and so is the present.
We need to step back from the edge. Idiots must not set the agenda. We want real clowns. We need incisive, thoughtful comedy back at the centre of things. Partly to entertain us, but partly to make sense of it all.
I was once roped into attending a trivia quiz night in London which hinged on the life and work of the comedy writer, producer and performer Chris Morris. None of its several rounds acknowledged his esteemed radio work, but at one point we were played a clip from his 1997 TV series Brass Eye. The item parodied the studio discussion format in which a contributor (played by actor Mark Heap) had been booked to talk about living with the AIDS virus. He revealed that he had caught the virus from his boyfriend, rather than through a blood transfusion. ‘So you’ve got Bad AIDS, not Good AIDS,’ accused Morris, in character somewhere between Paxman and Kilroy-Silk. Chaos was seen to erupt in the studio.
When the clip ended, the round began. We were shown images of ten public figures, and asked whether they had died of Good AIDS or Bad AIDS. As we started, sighing, to identify the likes of Freddie Mercury and Arthur Ashe, gloomy that their extraordinary lives had been reduced to this cruddy indignity, one of my teammates leaned over and whispered to me, ‘Haven’t they missed the entire point of the sketch?’
The sketch was, of course, really sending up the tabloid perception that some people deserve their punishment according to lifestyle. But maybe, I dunno, maybe the quiz organisers just thought it’d be funny to do a round about people who’d died of AIDS. I know the argument that, once someone’s work becomes public it no longer belongs to them, but it was surprising to discover that Morris fans had misunderstood something so profoundly. Warren Mitchell, who played the character of the bigoted east Londoner Alf Garnett on television for many years, used to say that he had grown used to people approaching him in the street and congratulating him for ‘having a go at the foreigners’. He reputedly used to retort, ‘No, I’m having a go at people like you.’ Oh, fandom.
All art needs context, and although not strictly topical, Brass Eye needs some background. Before, during and even after its first transmission, it caused unprecedented trouble for a TV comedy show, especially one that was only watched by around 1.5 million people. It was billed as ‘comedy with a strong taste’, and as ‘a satirical look at television current affairs’. Each half-hour episode addressed a broad subject that provoked emotive responses: animal rights, drugs, science, sex, crime and ‘moral decline’. After being scheduled for premiere in November 1996, it was postponed by Channel 4’s Chief Executive, Michael Grade, concerned that MPs and celebrities had been hoodwinked into contributing to the programme.
The series made great use of creating its own fake news footage and campaigns, and then showing the material to obviously uninformed politicians, journalists and celebrities. A lot of the footage was supposedly uncovered abroad: cattle being fired out of cannons in Libya; the dangerous drug of ‘cake’ in Prague making it to British shores; heavy electricity in Sri Lanka which hit victims like ‘a ton of invisible lead soup’; a two-foot bollock being kept alive in a Siberian hospital; the miraculous vision in Ireland of a statue of Mary driving a car through a field; a US senator who couldn’t stop masturbating at press conferences… It lampooned that quintessentially British way of thinking: we’re normal; the rest of the world’s crazy.
After the series belatedly began airing in January 1997, Grade ordered that a segment about a West End musical on the murderer Peter Sutcliffe – itself commenting on the celebrity of criminals – should be snipped from the final episode. When broadcast on 5 March, dutifully minus the contentious item, it included a defiant flash-frame: ‘Grade is a Cunt.’ The c-word; the c-word about your channel controller; and a flash-frame, in itself illegal on television. Cue further controversy when the stunt was revealed.
In the aftermath, Morris returned to radio, to create Blue Jam. For years, radio had been his natural home; a decade earlier, he had begun creating satirical stunts for local radio, influenced by the likes of Kenny Everett, Victor Lewis-Smith and Viv Stanshall. In 1990, he was talent-spotted by radio producer Armando Iannucci, and the pair created On the Hour for Radio 4, later to reach BBC2 as The Day Today. Brass Eye was then only Morris’s second full television project, but its style already seemed a natural conclusion of his work, a full stop.
Repeats or commercial releases of Brass Eye then seemed unlikely, but it won awards, several of its production team went on to senior positions in TV entertainment, and it was a big influence on TV comedy. Not necessarily in a good way: if Mark Thomas and Rory Bremner continued to pursue incisive political satire, elsewhere hasty, ill-conceived hidden camera shows sprang up, frequently concerned with humiliating the public. It was into this environment that Brass Eye was finally repeated, with cut material reinstated, in summer 2001, along with a new seventh episode: satirising tabloid attitudes surrounding paedophilia. It had laudable intentions, but I was a bit disappointed by its comedy elements. Regardless, many weren’t, it helped make more people aware of the original series, and the tabloids got upset all over again.
Morris’s work could be cruel, but his prime target was ultimately media attitudes – and he and his co-writers were both imaginative and obsessed with attention to detail. His targets were wide and courageous: tabloid media of course (who attacked the series) and public figures, but also gangsters and drug dealers. In contrast, those who followed him tended towards simply humiliating the participants, and more desperate to push the envelope than tell any good jokes. It was often a cold, mean-spirited time for comedy in the early 21st century, and I’m struck by how that strain of material has thankfully mostly disappeared from TV now, but migrated to the Internet, an environment Brass Eye anticipated. (Greetings, Mr Pie – now please quit shouting and write some gags.)
Twenty years on, and perhaps the only thing that dates Brass Eye are the public figures who were stung; most are now forgotten, deceased or, in one notable case, disgraced and in prison. Rewatching the programmes again, they remain contemporary, relevant and surprisingly funnier than ever, though in the face of relentless, unfunny ‘fake news’ – too big a subject to be incidental about here – maybe its humour simply acts as sharp relief. Above all, as fans and quiz night organisers should be aware, little of it should be taken purely at face value.
With thanks to Kate for videotaping the original run for me, while I was moving house and while my VCR was in storage.
Brass Eye was last televised in 2008 by More4, but it’s on DVD for peanuts and on YouTube for even fewer peanuts. For much, much more information on the series, there are two books: Disgusting Bliss: The Brass Eye of Chris Morris by Lucian Randall (in which I acted as a text consultant and researcher), and No Known Cure: The Comedy of Chris Morris, an anthology of new essays edited by James Leggott and Jamie Sexton, in which I contributed an essay about Morris’s work as a DJ and musician.
Maybe 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.
In 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.
Desolation Jests is a new Radio 4 sketch comedy series which reunites the actor David Jason and the writer David Renwick. The last time the two worked together for radio was in 1980. Back then, Jason was a guest performer in the final episode of The Burkiss Way, a tirelessly inventive series in the vein of Monty Python, and scripted by Renwick and Andrew Marshall. It was, incidentally, the teenage Armando Iannucci’s favourite radio show. Jason’s one-off role in Burkiss was as an oleaginous continuity announcer who persisted with grovelling links regarding the Queen Mother’s eightieth birthday. Radio 4 panicked after its first broadcast, and the repeat a few days later snipped out all of Jason’s royal links, consequently running several minutes short. (It has never been repeated in full, but you can listen to it here.)
Neither David has made a new radio series since the early 1980s. Both became giants in television – Jason as Delboy Trotter, Skullion in Porterhouse Blue, Pa Larkin, and Detective Jack Frost, while Renwick continued his association with Andrew Marshall on Whoops Apocalypse, Hot Metal and Stuff with Alexei Sayle, before creating the hugely successful Victor Meldrew and Jonathan Creek.
In fact, Desolation Jests is Renwick’s first full series of anything since BBC1’s Love Soup. His pursuit of the perfect intricate plot in his television work has somewhat obscured how gloriously anarchic his sketch writing can be, so it’s a pleasure to announce that he’s revived that latter quality. Like Burkiss, Desolation Jests is all about the elaborate, conceptual spoof. In a distortion of Desert Island Discs (note the rhythmic similarity of the two titles), John Bird plays the Plomleyesque host and invites a guest to imagine that the world has been obliterated, that they are the last human being alive, and that they’ve been given the keys to the history of comedy. Which sketches would they choose? First to unlock the archive is the gangster Frankie ‘Flesh Eater’ Harris.
Demonstrating his versatility and superb grasp of pastiche, Renwick has of course created all the archive material, aided by Gareth Edwards’ sensitive production. Harris (Jason) revisits favourite sketches like the legendary ‘endoscopy scene’ from the Klutz Brothers’ classic ‘A Day at the Proctologists’, and a send-up of Mastermind from the 90s series ‘Fatman and Littlegirl’, itself a nod to Renwick’s own classic sketch on The Two Ronnies, in which a contestant’s specialist subject was to answer the question before last.
Renwick’s mastery of form and content has not deserted him, and completing the illustrious cast are Rory Bremner and Jan Ravens. Most encouragingly, his taste for silly character names and angry imagery remains, most notably in an item that imagines a more punitive Honours system, in which recipients are awarded a subscription to the Daily Express, or (in Kelvin Mackenzie’s case) deserved recognition as a health hazard.
The connection between Renwick and Jason stretches way back to October 1971 when the former began contributing to Radio 4’s weekly satirical series, Week Ending, in which the latter was already a cast member. Renwick was a 20-year-old reporter on the Luton News, and was not at university – unusual in an Oxbridge-dominated radio comedy world. When Ian Greaves and I wrote our exhaustive history of Week Ending, he stressed how important the show was to his development as a writer, especially when writing material for regular performers like Jason: ‘It was an early lesson that people are funnier than jokes.’
Forty-five years later, and Renwick is back writing for Jason. And it’s worth bearing this in mind – most comedy sketch shows are the work of several people. Rare is the comedy writer who is flexible and resourceful to shine in so many different styles, although there are a few: Victoria Wood, John Finnemore and (in his great Radio 4 series of monologic items, One) David Quantick. Now – belatedly – we can add David Renwick to that list.
Desolation Jests is on Radio 4 on Tuesdays at 11pm, or on iPlayer. My 2008 book on the history of Week Ending, Prime Minister, You Wanted to See Me?, which I wrote with Ian Greaves, is available from here.
Andrew Sachs, who died last week aged eighty-six, was an actor of remarkable versatility and experience. Born in Berlin in 1930, he had lived in Britain since the age of eight, when his family fled Germany to escape the Nazis. From the 1950s onwards, he became a regular fixture on radio and then television, and his ability to inhabit a character so completely meant that he was perhaps not always immediately familiar. Much later, so ubiquitous was his voice on TV documentaries in the 1990s that he was an obvious choice for the role of a dry narrator on Peter Kay’s breakthrough television series. That Peter Kay Thing consisted of six individual pastiches of docu-soaps, the most famous of which – ‘The Club’ – spawned Phoenix Nights.
As far back as 1958, Sachs was also cutting his teeth in the world of physical farce, as part of Brian Rix’s repertory company, both in theatre and sometimes on television. Several members of Rix’s company (his wife Elspet Gray, Derek Royle, Joan Sanderson, as well as Sachs) would later become associated with a 1970s series now so famous that it’s sometimes forgotten that it is also in the grand tradition of farce.
Technically, Sachs did not write Fawlty Towers – his co-stars John Cleese and Connie Booth did that, combining logic, structure, absurdity and psychologically rich characters – but Cleese has been careful to point out how much he, as Manuel, helped expand and enrich their scripts, along with the rest of the cast, to give the end product a profoundly hilarious emotional truth. Manuel’s physicality, gesticulations and faltering attempts to communicate and understand were a joy to watch – especially when he began to absorb his surroundings, as when he adopted Basil’s exasperated ‘cuh, cuh’ grunts in times of crisis. (Basil’s own grasp of Manuel’s native tongue, incidentally, despite his claim of learning ‘classical Spanish, not the strange dialect he seems to have picked up’, relies heavily on adding the lettter ‘o’ to French words, and shouting ‘arriba’ from Speedy Gonzalez cartoons.)
Or the moment in ‘Communication Problems’ (aka ‘Mrs Richards’) when, having been compelled to keep a secret by Basil, he is then told he can reveal the truth after all. Cue a theatrical clearing of the throat, and the proud declaration: ‘I know nothing.’ Manuel has painstakingly learnt and reproduced his crucial line. Unfortunately for Basil, he has delivered it at exactly the wrong moment. As Cleese has remarked, if Manuel were sullen and uncooperative, it just wouldn’t work: ‘It’s his sheer eagerness that makes all the incompetence funny.’
We are now so word-perfect on Fawlty Towers that it’s startling to recall that, like many hits, success was by no means guaranteed. The Internet has made the wider public aware of a brief memo sent in the BBC Comedy Department on 29 May 1974. Ian Main, a script editor in the department, had been sent a draft of what became the pilot of Fawlty Towers. He wrote the following terse reply to the then-Head of Comedy, James Gilbert:
‘I’m afraid I thought this one as dire as its title.
It’s a kind of “Prince of Denmark” of the hotel world. A collection of clichés and stock characters which I can’t see being anything but a disaster.’
Cue hails of derisive laughter. Imagine turning down Fawlty Towers, comparing it to some short-lived Ronnie Corbett vehicle. What a fool! How could Ian Main have missed out on the genius of the greatest sitcom ever made. Etc etc.
Except it’s hard to tell from such a brief response what Ian had actually been sent. After all, there is no cast yet (certainly no Sachs or Prunella Scales), he has no pilot episode to relate to (‘A Touch of Class’ was taped just before Christmas ’74), and so he is reading it cold, save for knowing that it was the bloke from Monty Python and his then actor wife. Was it even a final draft, as we would know it? It would surprise me if Cleese and Booth, in the face of that damning response, hadn’t snatched that script back and rewritten it substantially. They were, after all, perfectionists; they would spend at least two months writing an episode, withholding any attempts at writing any dialogue until three weeks into the process.
Ian was right about the title, though. It’s terrible. ‘Fawlty Towers’ sounds like a Crackerjack spin-off starring Peter Glaze running a funny hotel assisted, or should that be hindered, by some annoying gonks.
Furthermore, Cleese may be a comedy giant, but not everything he produced was automatically gold-standard. As evidence, check out ‘No Ill Feeling’, a proto-Fawlty half-hour he submitted in 1971 for the ITV sitcom series, Doctor at Large. The series’ lead character Dr Michael Upton (played by Barry Evans) is booked into a hotel run by an officious, humourless and near-robotic proprietor and his equally forbidding and much taller wife. He is then plagued by a ghastly wise-cracking fellow guest (a thankless task for guest star, Roy Kinnear).
It demonstrates that if you get farce even marginally off-balance – if the mathematics are approximate rather than exact – it becomes grotesque and shrill and unfunny. But while it beggars belief something so mirthless came with Cleese’s name on it, it must be stressed that Doctor at Large wasn’t his creation: he was one of many writers on the series, and the Doctor format was a production line like a US sitcom, where up to 25 shows a year were taped. Compare with the time and care Cleese and Booth gave to writing Fawlty Towers – although even there, each episode had only five days allotted for rehearsal, and just two hours on a Sunday for a studio audience recording.
It’s possible that Ian Main had simply not noticed Fawlty Towers’ potential, but it’s easy to ridicule his judgement in hindsight. Few artistic creations immediately emerge fully-formed: think of each of your favourite books, films, albums and TV shows and chances are, there’s an embryonic version somewhere that ‘wasn’t quite there’. Teamwork made Fawlty Towers a thing of brilliance and Andrew Sachs, as Manuel, was as much a part of that process as anyone, whether it was how he elegantly poured cream into Mr Hutchison’s briefcase; how he performed “She” with rudimentary guitar accompaniment; or how he laughed along with Sybil’s ‘Uncle Ted’ anecdote, vainly standing on tiptoe to share the joke.
Fawlty Towers: The Complete Collection is widely available on DVD for under ten quid these days, and not just from Amazon, and it also contains John Cleese’s audio commentaries, which are a masterclass of the genre, even if his laughter levels can be alarming.