“The story so far: In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.” Thus begins Douglas Adams’ Restaurant at the End of the Universe, sequel to his culture touchstone The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. That’s the book that gave us the answer to life, the universe and everything, though not the question. Welcome to episode number 42, which I have decided to devote to [drumroll] the history of British comedy. That means we’re going to try to cram hundreds of years, thousands of performers, and a dozen mediums into a half-hour show. But don’t panic.
British comedy history is measured in centuries, from chase scenes and beatings into Shakespeare’s comedies to the misadventures of Mr. Bean. Even as times, tastes, and technologies changes, some themes are eternal. Innuendo, for example, has been a staple in the literature as far back as Beowulf and Chaucer, and is prevalent in many British folk songs. King Charles II was such a fan of innuendo that he encouraged it to the point that Restoration comedy became not only its own genre, but an explicit one at that. The repressive Victorian period gave us burlesque, though not in the same form as the shows you can see today – more vaudeville than striptease. Absurdism and the surreal had always been an undercurrent, which firmly took root in the 1950’s, leading Red Dwarf, The Mighty Boosh, and Count Duckula. Though the British Empire successfully conquered ¼ of the globe, but its individual people struggled and suffered. Plagues, wars, poverty, class oppression, and filthy cities gave rise to, and a need for, black humor, in which topics and events that are usually treated seriously are treated in a humorous or satirical manner. The class system, especially class tensions between characters, with pompous or dim-witted members of the upper/middle classes or embarrassingly blatant social climbers, has always provided ample material, which we can see in modern shows like Absolutely Fabulous, Keeping Up Appearances, and Blackadder. The British also value finding humor in everyday life, which we see in shows like Father Ted, The IT Crowd, and Spaced, which also incorporates a fair amount of absurdity.
But there’s nothing the Brits do better than satire and nobody does it better than the Brits. “The British, being cynical and sarcastic by nature do have a natural flair for satire,” says BBCAmerica.com writer Fraser McAlpine. “There’s a history of holding up a mirror to society and accentuating its least attractive qualities that goes back hundreds of years…Sometimes the satire is biting and cold, sometimes it’s warm and encouraging, but if you want someone who can say a thing that isn’t true, but also somehow IS true in a really profound way. You need look no further.” There are three principal forms of satire. Menippean satire uses fantasy realms that reflect back on modern society. Everything from Alice in Wonderland to the works of Terry Pratchett fit here, as would Dr. Who. Horatian satire skewers cultural moments of silliness using parodic humor. These are the kind of thing you tend to see most of in comedy TV shows, like The Office. We’re laughing at people being inept and harassed, but not evil. Juvenalian satire skewers everything with abrasive, often bleak, wit. If there’s an element of horror at the topic being discussed, that’s a clue that it’s Juvenalian. John Oliver is a fair hand with Juvenalian satire. Most political cartoon and black humor fall under this heading.
Though comedy is as old as laughter, we’re going to begin today’s time travel with the music hall. (FYI, the narrative today is going to overall linear, but there will be a fair amount of bouncing around.) Music halls sprang up as an answer to proper theater, which was at the time heavily monitored and censored by the government. It took place in humble venues like the backs of pubs and coffee houses. By the 1830s taverns had rooms devoted to musical clubs. They presented Saturday evening Sing-songs and “Free and Easies”. These became so popular that entertainment was put on two or three times a week. Music in the form of humorous songs was a key element because dialogue was forbidden. Dialogue was for the theater and if you had speaking parts, you’d be subject to censorship. The Theatrical Licensing Act of 1737 empowered the Lord Chamberlain’s Office to censor plays; this act would be in force until 1968. So, no speaking parts, less, though still some censorship. Music halls also allowed drinking and smoking, which legitimate theaters didn’t. As the shows became more popular, they moved from the pubs into venues of their own. Tavern owners, therefore, often annexed buildings adjoining their premises as music halls. The usual show consisted of six to eight acts, possibly including a comedy skit (low comedy to appeal to the working class), a juggling act, a magic act, a mime, acrobats, a dancing act, a singing act, and perhaps a one-act play. In the states, this format was essentially vaudeville. The music hall era was a heyday for female performers, with headliners like Gracie Fields, Lillie Langtry, and Vesta Tilley. The advent of the talking motion picture in the late 1920s caused music halls to convert into cinemas to stay in business. To keep comedians employed, a mixture of films and songs called cine-variety was introduced.
The other critically important tradition of that era was panto or pantomime, but not the Marcel Marceau type of pantomime you might be picturing, but a type of theatrical musical comedy designed for family entertainment. Modern pantomime includes songs, gags, slapstick comedy, dancing, and gender-crossing actors. It combines topical humour with well-known stories like fables and folk tales. It is a participatory form of theatre, in which the audience is expected to sing along with certain parts of the music and shout out phrases to the performers. It’s traditionally quite popular around Christmas and New Years. In early 19th century England, pantomime acquired its present form and featured the first mainstream clown Joseph Grimaldi, while comedy routines also featured heavily in British music halls. British comedians who honed their skills at pantomime and music hall sketches include Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel. The influential English music hall comedian and theatre impresario Fred Karno developed a form of sketch comedy without dialogue in the 1890s, and Chaplin and Laurel were among the young comedians who worked for him as part of “Fred Karno’s Army”.
Hopping back to famous ladies of music hall, one such was Lily Harley, though her greatest claim to fame is having given birth to Charles Spencer Chaplin. When Lily inexplicably lost her voice in the middle of a show, the production manager pushed the five-year-old Charlie, whom he’d heard sing, onto the stage to replace her. Charlie lit up the audience, wowing them with his natural comedic presence. Sadly, Lily’s voice never recovered, and she was unable to support her two sons, who were sent to a workhouse. For those of us who don’t know workhouses outside of one reference in A Christmas Carol, think an orphanage or jail with indentured servitude. Young Charlie took whatever jobs he could find to survive as he fought his way back to the stage. His acting debut was as a pageboy in a production of Sherlock Holmes. From there he toured with a vaudeville outfit named Casey’s Court Circus and in 1908 teamed up with the Fred Karno pantomime troupe, where Chaplin became one of its stars as the Drunk in the comedic sketch A Night in an English Music Hall. With the Karno troupe, Chaplin got his first taste of the United States, where he caught the eye of a film producer who signed Chaplin to a contract for a $150 a week, equivalent to over three-grand today.
During his first year with the company, Chaplin made 14 films, including The Tramp, which established Chaplin’s trademark character and his role as the unexpected hero. By the age of 26, Chaplin, just three years removed from his vaudeville days, was a superstar. He’d moved over to the Mutual Company, which paid him a whopping $670,000 a year to make now-classics like Easy Street. Chaplin came to be known as a grueling perfectionist. His love for experimentation often meant countless takes, and it was not uncommon for him to order the rebuilding of an entire set or begin filming with one leading actor, realize he’d made a mistake in his casting and start again with someone new. But you can’t argue with results. During the 1920s Chaplin’s career blossomed even more, with landmark films, like The Kid, and The Gold Rush, a movie Chaplin would later say he wanted to be remembered by. We’ll leave Chaplin’s story while he’s on top because his private life from here on out gets, in a word, sordid.
Though Chapin was English, his film were American. British cinema arguably lagged decades behind, but they began to close the gap in the 1940’s. Films by Ealing Studios, particularly their comedies like Hue & Cry, Whisky Galore! and The Ladykillers began to push the boundaries of what could be done in cinema, dealing with previously taboo topics like crime in comedic ways. Kitchen sink dramas followed soon after, portraying social realism, with the struggles of working class Britons on full display, living in cramped rented accommodation and spending their off-hours drinking in grimy pubs, to explore controversial social and political issues ranging from abortion to homelessness. These contrasted sharply with the idea of cinema as escapism. This was the era of such notable stars as actor/comedian/singer-songwriter Norman Wisdom. Beginning with 1953’s Trouble in the Store, for which he won a BAFTA (the British equivalent to an Oscar), his films were among Britain’s biggest box-office successes of their day. Wisdom gained celebrity status in lands as far apart as South America, Iran and many Eastern Bloc countries, particularly in Albania where his films were the only ones by Western actors permitted by dictator Enver Hoxha to be shown. He also played one of the best characters in one of my favorite and most hard to find films, “The Night They Raided Minsky’s.”
There are few institutions in British history that have had such a massive role in shaping
the daily lives of British citizens as the British Broadcasting Corporation, which for decades meant the wireless radio. “For many it is an ever-present companion: from
breakfast-time to bedtime, from childhood through to old age, there it is telling us about
ourselves and the wider world, amusing and entertaining us,” says Robin Aitkin, a former BBC reporter and journalist. The BBC solidified its place in the public consciousness from its beginnings in 1922 to the end of the Second World War in 1945 is of special interest
because these pivotal years helped redefine what it means to be British in modern society. This was especially true during the high unemployment of the 1920’s, when other forms of entertainment were unaffordable. The BBC was formed from the merger of several major radio manufacturers in 1922, receiving a royal charter in 1927, and governmental protection from foreign competition made it essentially a monopoly. Broadcasting was seen as a public service; a job at the BBC carried similar gravitas to a government job. Classical music and educational programs were its bedrock, with radio plays added to bring theater to the wireless. The BBC strove to be varied but balanced in its offerings, neutral but universal; some people found it elitist nonetheless. Expansion in offerings came slowly, if at all, in the early years.
Trying to bring only the best of culture to the people meant that bawdy music hall acts had little to no place on the radio. Obscenity was judged by laws passed as early as 1727. British libel and slander laws are more strict than in the US, so making fun of public figures was taboo even in forms that would have been legal. And blasphemy? Lord, no. In 1949, the BBC issued to comedy writers and producers the Variety Programmes Policy Guide For Writers and Producers, commonly known as “the Green Book.” Among things absolutely banned were jokes about lavatories, effeminacy in men, immorality of any kind, suggestive references to honeymoon couples, chambermaids, fig leaves, ladies’ underwear, prostitution, and the vulgar use of words such as “basket”. (Not an actual basket, the Polari word “basket,” meaning the bulge in a gentleman’s trousers. More on that later.) The guidelines also stipulated that “..such words as God, Good God, My God, Blast, Hell, Damn, Bloody, Gorblimey, Ruddy, etc etc should be deleted from scripts and innocuous expressions substituted.” Where the independently tun music halls gave people what they wanted, BBC radio gave people what it felt they needed. But comedy writers are nothing if not clever and there is always a way to slip past the censors if you try.
In the very beginning of radio, comedies lampooned the poor, because only those with money had radios. As radio ownership grew, the topics of shows broadened. First half-hour comedy program in 1938, Band Wagon, included musical interludes, was effectively a sitcom and set the stage for much of what came after. By then, nearly every household had a radio.
WWII had an enormous impact on British comedy and entertainment in general. Unlike WWI, which was fought on the continent, WWII was right on top of them, with the Blitz, blackouts, rationing, et al. All places of amusement, which by their nature meant lots of people would gather and could be a target for bombings, were closed. But the government soon realized comedy had an important role to play in helping its people to keep calm and carry on. Bonus fact: The iconic ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster was designed months before the WWI began, but was never officially sanctioned for display. It only achieved its prominent position in the public imagination after its rediscovery in 2001. All the parody t-shirts still annoy me though. Theater was allowed to continue, but television service was suspended. This brought radio back to the forefront for communication and diversion. The most popular show was It’s That Man Again, which ran on BBC radio from ‘39-’49. It’s humor was a great unifier during the war, helping people to laugh at the things they were scared of. People would often listen huddled around their radio during a blackout. In its character archetypes, it offered a more comprehensive range of social representation than what had come before it, with characters ranging from east end charwomen to the upper class. It was so universally popular that supposedly its catch-phrases, which is regarded as the first to really succeed with, were used to test suspected German spies. If you didn’t know who said what, they’d be shot.
During the war, Britain fought back against the Nazi propagandists’ ferocious scaremongering with things like a song about the fact that Hitler may or may not have only one testicle, the other of which we were storing in a London theatre for safe keeping. This attitude, combined with having had enough authority to last them a while, would extend to their own government at the start of the 1960’s when Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett, and Jonathan Miller made fun of the prime minister in their stage show Beyond The Fringe, with the PM in the audience. This would open the door for satirical news programs like 1962’s That Was The Week That Was, grandfather to The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. There was also The Frost Report, whose staff of writers included five names many of know well and you know we’re going to get into more detail on – Chapman, Jones, Idle, Palin, and Cleese.
The war would remain subject to comedy, either as the primary setting or a recurring plot point for decades to come in shows like Dad’s Army, Allo Allo, and even Are You Being Served?, one of my personal favorites. If you’ve ever seen me at my customer service day jobs, I pattern my behavior on Mrs. Slocombe, though I don’t reference my pussy as often. [clip] Experiences in the war led to the prominence of absurdism/surrealism, because nothing could match what they men had been through. One of the most famous example was The Goon Show, with Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe, and Peter Sellers. The scripts mixed ludicrous plots with surreal humour, puns, catchphrases and an array of bizarre sound effects. Some of the later episodes feature electronic effects devised by the fledgling BBC Radiophonic Workshop, who also created the theme to Dr Who. The Goon Show and other such programs were popular with those who were students at the time, seeding their sense of humor into the next generation. Spike Milligan in particular had wide-reaching cultural influence. The Goon Show was cited as a major influence by The Beatles, the American comedy team The Firesign Theatre, as well as, among many others, Monty Python.
Do you remember how I said in episode #39, Short-Lived, Long Remembered that Jackie Gleason’s Honeymooner’s was the first TV sitcom? I was mistaken and I don’t mind issuing a correction. Pinwright’s Progress, which ran for ten episodes starting in 1946, was the first half-hour television sitcom, telling the tale of a beleaguered shop-owner, his hated rival and his unhelpful staff. By 1955, ⅓ of British households had a TV. That year saw the launch of ITV, I for independent, because it was *not run by BBC with its war vets with good-school educations, but by showmen and entertainers. Where the BBC did comedies for and about the middle-class, ITV brought full-blooded variety to TV. The BBC was forced to loosen its tie a bit to keep up. ITV also had commercials, which BBC shows never did -a concept that is quite foreign to the American brain- so writers had to learn to pace their shows differently to allow for the break. One stand-out was Hancock’s Half-hour, which began on radio and moved to TV. Fom 54-61, it pushed sitcoms with a focus on character development, rather than silly set-ups, musical interludes, and funny voices of radio plays. Two writers on the show, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, would leave to create Comedy Playhouse in 1961, ten half-hour plays. One of these grew into the TV show Steptoe and Son (1962–74), about two rag and bone men, father and son, who live together in a squalid house in West London. This was the basis for the American series Sanford and Son, as well as version in Sweden, Netherlands and Portugal. For those not in the know, a rag and bone man collected salvageable rubbish from the streets, making it a bizarre name choice for a clothing company but oh well.
The tone and offerings changed considerably with the cultural revolution of the 1960’s. Rock music, the birth control pill, civil rights, everything was changing. Round The Horne, which aired on BBC radio on Sunday afternoons was chock full of brazen innuendos and double-entendres. Some of them were risque to the point of being ironically safe — people who would have objected to them were not of the sensibility to catch the joke it the first place. Their most remarkable characters were Julian and Sandy, two very obviously gay characters in a time when it was still illegal to be gay in Britain. Julian and Sandy got away with the bawdiest of their jokes because they spoke Polari, a pidgin language made up a words from Romani, French, Italian, theater and circus slang and even words spelled backwards. They might refer to someone’s dirty dishes and the squares would have no idea that “dish” meant derriere. Bonus fact: You probably use Polari words without even realizing it, if you describe a masculine person as “butch” or something kitchy as “camp,” even “drag” meaning clothes, particularly women’s.
The Carry On Films, a franchise that put out nearly a movie a year for three decades and spun off a TV series, held up a cartoonish mirror to the depressed and repressed Britain of the 1950s and 1960s. They blended the rapid-fire pace of music hall sketches with topicality and a liberating sense of directness. Carry On also filled the gap left as music halls as an institution collapsed.
Monty Python’s Flying Circus aired from 69-74 and enjoyed a unique watershed success not just for British comedy but also for television comedy around the world. Monty Python was unlike anything that had appeared on television, and in many ways it was both a symbol and a product of the social upheaval and youth-oriented counterculture of the late 1960s. The show’s humour could be simultaneously sarcastic, scatological, and intellectual. The series was a creative collaboration between Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, and Terry Gilliam, the sole American in a group of Oxford and Cambridge graduates. The five Brits played most of the roles, with Gilliam primarily contributing eccentric animations. Although sketch comedy shows were nothing new, television had never broadcast anything as untraditional and surreal, and its importance to television is difficult to overstate. Their free-form sketches seldom adhered to any particular theme and disregarded the conventions of comedy that writers, performers and audiences had been accustomed to for generations. Even the opening title sequence didn’t follow the rules; it might run in the middle of the show or be omitted entirely. Over the run of the series, a *few characters recurred, but most were written solely for one sketch. The show spun-off a number of feature films, like Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), Life of Brian (1979), and the Meaning of Life (1983) and even a Tony Award-winning musical comedy Spamalot, first produced in 2005, as well as books and albums like Instant Record Collection. Decades after the show’s initial run, the mere mention of some dead parrots, silly ways, Spam or the Spanish Inquisition is enough to prompt laughter from even casual fans. All the members who continue on to successful careers, but let’s follow John Cleese to his next best-known project.
Fawlty Towers has been described as the sitcom by which other sitcoms must be measured, voted number one in the BFI’s 100 Greatest British Television Programmes in 2000.
Its main character, Basil Fawlty, was inspired by a seethingly rude hotel proprietor John Cleese encountered while filming abroad with the Monty Python team. Cleese actually tested the character on another show in 1971, Doctor At Large, a comedy about newly-graduated doctors, based on the books of Richard Gordon. The setting for Fawlty Towers was a painfully ordinary hotel that Basil constantly struggling to inject a touch of class into. His escapades included trying to hide a rat from a hygiene inspector, keeping a dead customer hidden, and pretending that his wife Sybil was ill during their anniversary party, when in fact she’s walked out on him). Basil was the perfect vehicle for Cleese’s comic talents: mixing the biting verbal tirades against his wife and guests with the physical dexterity utilised to charge about between self-induced disasters. Part of the success of the show is arguably the fact that it ran for a mere twelve episodes, so never ran out of steam. It’s been remade in other countries, but those version never really capture the success of the original. That’s one of the key differences between British and American TV series. A British show might have 2 writers for a season of 6-10 episodes, whereas an American show will have a team of writers for a season of 13-25 episodes. Quality over quantity, I suppose. In part, this is a reflection of the difference between the size of the TV audience in the two countries, and the economics of television production; for decades sitcoms on US television that delivered the highest ratings, whereas; in Britain the highest ratings figures were normally for soap operas.
The tone shifted again as the 60’s gave way to the 70’s. The anger of 60’s revolution gave way to a more comfortable feeling in the 70’s. One of the stand-outs of the decade, which continued into the 80’s, was The Two Ronnies. A sketch show starring Ronnies Barker and Corbett, it moved away from the long-standing comic and straight-man format. It was the BBC’s flagship of light entertainment, the longest running show of its genre. If we’re talking modern comedy duos, we need to talk about Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders. Even in alternative comedy scenes, women had trouble gaining the same notoriety as their male peers. A step in the right direction was 1987’s French and Saunders, a sketch show that displayed the wilful amateurishness of much alternative comedy, but shunned both the violence and scatology or the strident politics that were staples of the big-name performers. The duo’s humour was distinctively female, but not feminist, and most of their jokes were at the expense of themselves or each other. As audiences and budgets grew, the pair increasingly favoured elaborate spoofs of pop stars and blockbuster movies. After the show French starred in The Vicar of Dibley and Saunders to the role she’s probably best known for, Edina in Absolutely Fabulous.
And that’s where we run out of ideas, at least for today. Don’t be surprised if this topic spawns a sequel. I left out Punch and Judy, skipped right over literature, had to forgo luminaries like Morecambe and Wise, didn’t get to the panel show format, and said nothing of Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, which may actually be a crime, I’m not sure. Well, it’s like they say in the biz, always leave them wanting more. Thanks for spending part of your day with em.