Comedy Chronicles

Opening the Chronicles


Quizmaster: "Who was Prime Minister at the time of the 1832 Reform Act?"
Contestant: "Wha? 1832?? I wasn't even born then!"

You never get that kind of reaction on TV quiz shows to 'proper' history questions - and by 'proper' history questions, we're talking questions about politics, war, science, literature, religion, know, those sorts of things. You do tend, however, to get that kind of reaction to questions about popular culture in general, and comedy in particular.

Ask a question relating to, say, a minor military figure from 1916 and you will get either an answer or a meek admission of ignorance. Ask a question about a famous comedy figure from, say, 1963 and, increasingly, you can expect a shrug of the shoulders, a mildly irritated expression and that petulant protestation: 'I wasn't even born then!'

It's an attitude made all the odder by the fact that it is far easier to access comedy's past than most other parts of history, thanks to the fact that so much of it has been recorded and remains easily in reach on radio, TV, DVD and online. If you want to discover for yourself what, say, Disraeli did, then you will need to dig deep, read widely and spend plenty of time ploughing through the archives, and even then much will be left to conjecture. If, on the other hand, you want to discover what, say, Freddie Frinton did, you can start swiftly and simply enough by sitting down and watching Meet The Wife (below) and Dinner For One. Perversely, however, many people still seem to believe that comic history is far more obscure and dustily inaccessible than that of the more 'respectable' subject areas.

Meet The Wife. Image shows from L to R: Freddie Blacklock (Freddie Frinton), Thora Blacklock (Thora Hird). Copyright: BBC

It is a prejudice that has now crept into mainstream publishing. Pitch a project about, for example, an Edwardian private investigator or a Victorian child murderer, and the least you can expect is a polite and respectful listen, followed either by a regretful rejection or an eager commission (both of these topics, by the way, have indeed been published in the past couple of years, presumably to meet that well-known public need for studies of obscure private investigators and mysterious child murderers). No serious and sensible editor would simply react by exclaiming: 'What? About what? From how long ago? How on earth will we sell that?' The only really pertinent issue, quite rightly, is: is it a good, important, unusual and interesting story?

It is another matter entirely, alas, if you try to pitch a project about something from comedy's past - even from its recent past. Most publishers today will react with wide-eyed incomprehension if they've been invited to consider something about comedy dating from before about 1990. Before then, they reason, a good proportion of their key reading audience wasn't yet born - and who in their right mind, they reason, would want to read a book, let alone buy one, about something that happened before they were born?

It's an inconsistent position, as well as an illogical one, and, let's be frank, an insultingly stupid one as well, but it's a position that these days is all-too prevalent. History, we are told, is for telling stories about important people doing important things, and making people laugh, it is implied, or asserted, is simply not important enough.

Some of us, however, still think that making people laugh is important enough - and sometimes at least as important as making people suffer, or bow down in submission, or fight the Pastry War of 1838, or present a spring statement to Parliament in 1927, or fail repeatedly to find Jack the Ripper, or nail people's feet to the floor on behalf of the Krays in the 1960s, or concoct increasingly bizarre ways to bellow out 'Ooor-dahh!' in 2019.

The Blood Donor. Image shows from L to R: Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock (Tony Hancock), Donor (Frank Thornton), Nurse (June Whitfield). Copyright: BBC

Hegel might have sought to consign happiness to the blank pages of history, but, as the devout dialectician that he was, he was far too smart to think that humour or humourists deserved the same fate. You can, and should, learn as much from what, and who, used to make people laugh as you can from what, and who, used to make people miserable.

So those of us who do care about comedy's past actually need to be rather more bullish about our belief. As Tony Hancock (above) once said of his fellow AB negatives: 'We must stick together. A minority group like us, we could easily be persecuted!'

Comedy does indeed have a past, it does have a history, and that past, that history, is interesting enough and important enough to preserve and remember and reflect upon, just like any other aspect of the past, just like any other aspect of history. It does not just teach us how things used to be; it also teaches us how things are today, and even how they might be in the future.

How can you rate the sitcoms on the screen at the moment without being able to compare them to the likes of Steptoe And Son, or Dad's Army or Fawlty Towers? How can you judge a stand-up without knowing about Bob Hope, or Mort Sahl or Lenny Bruce? How can you appreciate properly a contemporary droll comic character without any awareness of Sid Field, or a double act without a solid knowledge of Laurel and Hardy? The answer is: nowhere near as well as you need to.

History is enlightening and empowering as well as entertaining. We can use it as well as consume it.

We need, however, to acquire it and study it in the right kind of way. The temptation, in all aspects of history, is to look at the past from the perspective of today, and make sense of it exclusively in terms of what seems to progress things towards the present, so we focus on the victors at the expense of the vanquished. We need, none the less, to resist this in order to learn more about the bigger and richer picture.

Fawlty Towers. Image shows from L to R: Basil Fawlty (John Cleese), Polly (Connie Booth). Copyright: BBC

The same lesson certainly needs to be learned when studying, more specifically, the history relating to comedy. Rather than merely meditate on the biggest stars and the most successful shows, we need to reflect as well on the noble failures, the unjustly neglected, the people and programmes that could have and should have but, for whatever reason, did not make it right to the top.

These Comedy Chronicles, therefore, under the kind auspices of British Comedy Guide, will seek to make a modest contribution to this project by filling in a few notable gaps and restoring the odd colourful detail. They will tell some of the stories relating not only to the heroes but also to the villains, the high points but also the low ones, the overlooked or underappreciated as well as the famous and fawned over.

They will also reveal and reflect on one or two of those strange sliding doors moments when, in the blink of an eye, probable successes became palpable failures, promising ideas were developed or dismissed, and plum roles were seized on or thrown away. The odd secret or two will be revealed, and the odd myth or two will be debunked.

These, in sum, will be some short stories to glance at, smile about and think about. These are brief pieces of comic history.

And for those of you who were not yet born when any or most of these strange and, one hopes, entertaining, things actually happened: do please treat the knowledge of them as a bonus. They should, at the very least, come in handy on forthcoming quiz shows.

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