After a prolonged famine in new entries to the comedy hall of fame, a saviour has arrived and he’s serving up a feast
In every artistic form, every literary genre, and in every broadcast format, there are talents so great they seem impervious to the cruel ravages of time. The unpredictable ebbs and flows of taste through the generations and across social classes seem to pose no obstacle to some. It is, naturally, impossible to know for sure who or what will stand the test of time. In fifty, a hundred years from now, will Kazuo Ishiguro be held in high esteem (highly likely); will Steve Coogan? (very likely). Will Hilary Mantel?… Haruki Murakami? And Tracey Emin? Ian McEwan? Anthony Gormley?… I could go on.
This, of course, involves larger questions about what is art, what is comedy, and who, if anyone, can judge it, and is perhaps the subject of another post. But Wikipedia, for one, is bursting with long lists of Victorian novelists no one has ever heard of, and yet who provided solace and entertainment to millions in their time, only to be horribly consigned to cultural and historical invisibility. Some rise again, but most don’t.
There was a time, only a few years ago, when I thought Fawlty Towers stood alone in the upper echelons of the greatest comedy that had, and could ever be written. Now I’m not so sure. It’s good. Of course it’s good. Even great. Yet now, at its edges, like an old book yellowing with age, there seems to be faint signs that it is not exactly timeless. The structure is amazing (I’ve seen every episode about ten times and I’ve read the scripts twice). The artful weaving of character and action, melded with gob-smacking irony and the excrutiatingly painful desperation and embarrassment of Basil, is up there with the best. But, I don’t know why, for me, it no longer quite hits the mark. Will it soon be an ex-parrot? I have in fact recently come to think of Peep Show as the best sit-com. The quality, consistency and intelligence of the writing is simply awe-inspiring.
I grew up listening to BBC Radio 4. Especially its comedy, which they slotted in periodically through the week, between seemingly endless news, news quizes, and news reviews. On Friday evenings, for example, at 6.30pm, my fish fingers were often accompanied by the grandiloquent rants and insolent ravings of the mercurial Kenneth Williams, on the still running Just a Minute; I sniggered over my bangers and mash at the croaking voice of Eric Pode in the eccentric show The Burkiss Way; or retched over my vomit-inducing knuckles of oxtail while listening to the highly inventive Radio Active. More recently, I followed On the Hour, and Radio Shuttleworth. All good stuff.
All were soundly written and skillfully performed, were unique and helped sustain Radio 4’s reputation as the breeding ground of up and coming comedy talent. Many of the station’s writers and performers went on to successful TV careers. Coogan is the best recent example. As is the pioneering Chris Morris in On The Hour. And of course BBC TV’s flagship comedy programme Have I Got News For You cut its teeth as the News Quiz on Radio 4 (which still exists as a programme). Not that progressing to TV is obligatory, or the sole standard of success. Radio is radio, a specific skill in its own right. In the right hands the medium of radio can become a virtually unlimited universe in the mind of the listener, a thing of playful wonder, in both comedy and drama.
But, and it’s a massive but, since those early halcyon days of my childhood love of Radio 4 comedy, in the last ten or fifteen years something awful has happened. Radio 4 comedy has ceased to be comedy. It is not funny. For one, the editors tried, and do still largely try, to serve up comedy five times a week. At least. This is not possible. There aren’t enough quality writers or performers to achieve such a thing. But more importantly, qualitatively, we are swamped with comedy game shows populated by mediocre talents, or by unoriginal formats with poor writing. If that isn’t enough, there seems to be an unwritten rule that if one says something against the Conservative Party in a certain tone of voice, or just generally rails against the evils of the Right in a half-liberal manner, it is naturally and hilariously funny (The Now Show; The News Quiz). It isn’t. It isn’t even satire. It’s lazy, predictable and shows none of the skill, subtlety and rawness that help carve Coogan’s, Shuttleworth’s, Morris’s names into the annals of greatness, for example.
There is nothing wrong with slagging off the Tories. After all, I love the standup comedy of Stewart Lee, hardly one to hold off on such things. I’m simply saying there is more to achieving a comedic effect than that. Far more. Stewart Lee knows that, and is perhaps the best standup I’ve come across, not least for his uncanny ability at seamless, subtle and inventive self-referencing and irony. He is unique in modern live comedy, very near to genius.
But I now frequently hurl myself at the radio to turn it off, if only to save a penny of electricity while giving my ears a rest from such appalling efforts at comedy. Particularly gruesome are Mitch Benn’s ‘songs’ on The Now Show – songs, I must add, by a man who cannot sing for toffee and whose lyrics must have been knocked up two minutes before the show, possibly by a monkey. And recently the BBC had the gall to produce a series of one-off shows called 15 Minute Musical. Each were written, I think, by different writers, but achieved such a uniformity of unfunniness, I did actually think about wasting my time writing to the BBC. Again, they were actually really hard to listen to. Painful. What this debacle in the state of British radio comedy says about our current society at large, if anything, I shudder to think. Are we really unable to produce funny people on radio anymore?
Thankfully – and this is my point – the answer is yes. Of course, Coogan is very much still about. But a rare and deeply funny saviour has come amongst us. And here I must confess: I often lie awake at night in the dark, crying.
Before you comment below, offering me words of comfort, maybe cash, perhaps alcohol, or even book tokens which I can spend on self-help books, let me explain.
They are tears of laughter (as if you didn’t know). Because I am speaking of no other than Count Arthur Strong, a character who induces in me such mirth, I am often bent double, my eyes streaming. I am not exaggerating.
He has, from some quarters, come under attack. What is funny, some ask, about a bumbling old man who does nothing else but stumble over this words. Well, very little, I agree. And if that’s all he was, I would have turned it off long ago. But there is far more to the noble Count.
For those of you who don’t know of him, the character (written and performed by Steve Delaney) is an oldish man who, having had a very low key – in fact failed – career as a bit-part actor, on stage and screen, spends each episode trying to relive or revive his career in a triangle between his house, Gerry’s Cafe, and his local butcher, Wilf Taylor’s Quality Meats. In this claustrophobic atmosphere, the count takes centre stage, and, fuelled by an overwhelmingly meat-based diet, consistently displays his incompetence about the English language, usually in the form of malapropisms, and ties himself into verbal knots, often with only himself present; he lies, blames others for his mistakes, and, frankly, bullies his inept and gullible friends into helping him stage various one-man shows in the community hall, and expresses genuine amazement that no member of the public remembers his previous and highly insignificant acting roles. Delaney’s character is utterly unique and, if you catch any clips of his live act on Youtube you’ll see what I mean, at heart a grotesque individual, objectionable, absolutely horrible. But, vitally, he also has the right amount of vulnerability and desperation to play against the unpleasantness, and therefore leverage enough sympathy, and keep us onboard in his absurd universe. It’s just very, very funny.
It is this over-the-top grotesqueness which appeals, although not to some, and I can understand that. But the comedy is far more, far higher and far subtler than a fool stumbling over his words. There is much more humour here than his malapropisms. The writer’s feel for humour marks him out from the crowd. He’s had seven radio series and is currently shooting a TV series, co-written by Graham Linehan, one the writers of the hugely successful TV show, Father Ted. It will be interesting to see how such an oddball will transfer to the screen. I wait with baited breath.
Radio 4 Extra (formerly Radio 7) airs many repeats of old classics. And while I’m not a fan of some, it is undoubtedly true that a number of the shows are indeed timeless classics. The quality, the talent, the timing, the writing, the indefinable chemistry, all shine through within seconds. Two examples are Round The Horne (in which, again, Kenneth Williams steals the show), and Hancock’s Half Hour. I have, I must admit, never been a fan of The Goon Show, still an immensely popular show. In fact I hate it. I was going to say it falls, for me, too far on the side of silliness, but I can hardly level that against it, having sung the praises of Count Arthur Strong.
But I strongly believe that Delaney’s creation will, one day, be recognised as a radio classic. I think it ticks all the right boxes to do that, and demonstrates radio comedy at its very best.
Copyright © 2013 David Hansard / davidhansard.wordpress.com
All articles on davidhansard.wordpress.com are written by David Hansard unless otherwise stated.