Medieval illuminated manuscripts sometimes feature animals capering irreverently around the margins, such as the ones above and below. I discovered whilst reading Peter Ackroyd’s fascinating Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination that these doodles are quite excellently called ‘babooneries’. I also learnt that, at least according to Nikolaus Pevsner, they originated in England – a satirical streak and an interest in the potential of animals to amuse run deep.

Baboonery is such a remarkably good word it seems a shame to have almost completely lost it. It could still have a use – perhaps to describe any form of marginal but amusing animal activity. We’re not short of examples as the English tradition of baboonery persists even if we’ve forgotten the word for it. I can think of a few modern-day examples…

The most literal form of baboonery would include potentially satirical capers conducted by animals in the presence of people engaged in some terribly serious activity. For instance, Butch enthusiastically licking his nethers on the sitting room rug whilst an intense discussion is being conducted over his head on the impact of government spending cuts would be a baboonery.

The use of animals in adverts is a baboonery: they are there to divert and amuse whilst sitting in the margins of the TV programmes. Such baboonery by real creatures reached something of a peak with the PG Tips chimps and the Andrex labrador puppy. Presumably, though, worries about animal cruelty have led to their replacement by puppets. I imagine the confusingly Russian meerkat Aleksandr Orlov is probably the most commercially successful of these; I leave it to you to judge whether he’s a success otherwise. On the other hand, an undoubtedly huge critical success was enjoyed by Jonny Vegas’s Monkey, even as the brand he initially advertised, the ill-fated ITV Digital, crashed and burned. Indeed, he made such an impression that he stepped out of the wreckage and went on to take simian/primate endorsements full circle by promoting good old PG Tips.

Animals can also sometimes feature to great effect in marginal, surreal and weird comedy. There are a few examples but the award for the most creative – and bafflingly funny – use of animals by an edgy comic troupe has to go to The Mighty Boosh. Their Crack Fox and once-seen-never-forgotten Mod Wolves should be mentioned:

Then there are the examples of baboonery that become so successful they no longer sit in the margins. Probably, the most successful piece of transcendent baboonery in modern times was undertaken by Roland Rat. A truly marginal figure compared to the galaxy of news stars who founded and originally anchored TV-am (Michael Parkinson, David Frost, Angela Rippon, Anna Ford, Robert Key), he went on to become the main attraction. He was famously described as a rare example of a rat joining a sinking ship; he went on to save it, taking viewing figures from 100,000 to 1.8m. From baboonery to stardom in his own right.

Finally, Googling ‘baboonery’ (there’s very little to see) I came across Andrew Graham-Dixon from 1995 identifying a striking piece of ‘living English baboonery’:

On film, he even looks like a baboon (arms strangely too long for his body) and he has the manic, glaring face of a gargoyle. His sin was not, perhaps, to have been radically new but disturbingly old – an ancient imp, an old spirit of native anarchy come back to haunt the English with the terrors of a half-suppressed and irrational past.

Who? John Lydon aka Johnny Rotten of The Sex Pistols.

So there you go. Do try to work the word into a conversation whenever you can.

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15 thoughts on “Babooneries

  1. Worm
    October 26, 2010 at 08:45

    Sadly it seems that with the advent of the 24 hour society, microwave meals and the internet, chimps just no longer have the time to sit down together at meal times.

    ian russell
    October 26, 2010 at 08:54

    God, there was some programme I happen to catch on the telly last weekend, the dumb hour before pizza or something on toast, that would have had Johnny Morris spinning in his grave – Walk On the Wild Side, or something, I think (I hope they apologised to Lou Reed). Don’t go there.

      October 26, 2010 at 09:08

      Hi Ian,
      My niece’s rave about that programme, but I have never watched it. Then, by coincidence, we were at their house on Saturday evening, as we were all going to the theatre, when the show came on.

      Hubbie and myself were amzed that they should find it so hilarious, like you say Johnny Morris would be turning in his grave.

      Animal Magic was always one of my favourite childhood shows, but we just could not explain to them, why it was so much funnier than it’s modern day counterpart.

      We even found a clip of the original ‘Morris’ magic, but they still thought the new interpretation was superior and more funny!!!!

      At that point, we gave up

  3. Gaw
    October 26, 2010 at 09:12

    I’d forgotten about dear old Johnny Morris. Wasn’t he stood down as it was thought his anthropomorphic approach to animals was old fashioned? Has it been revived in this new programme?

    October 26, 2010 at 09:13

    Let’s not forget Rod Hull’s Emu, surely classic baboonery.

    The heroically bad Live TV – oh sorry, L!VE TV – had the News Bunny, which must have been based on an idea of baboonery. As Wikipedia puts it:

    The basic premise was that during news bulletins, an extra dressed as a giant rabbit would stand behind the news presenter, and mime actions related to the news. For example, good news would be greeted with an enthusiastic thumbs up, while during bad news the bunny would hang his head and look sad.

    It was a very controversial experiment, as up until this point almost all UK TV news was presented in the same serious manner…

  5. Gaw
    October 26, 2010 at 10:42

    Worm, I suppose Johnny Vegas and Monkey are representative of the new, fragmented simian/primate family unit. Monkey’s probably wearing a hoodie and shooting up now.

    Brit, L!VE TV’s Topless Darts still haunts me. I never actually saw it, mind – but I suspect leaving it all to the imagination may be worse. Somehow I find myself in the position of the dartboard, looking back at the oche…

    ian russell
    October 26, 2010 at 14:12

    I wouldn’t say revived. Imagine Life On Earth meets Badly Dubbed Porn.

    ian russell
    October 26, 2010 at 14:23

    Hi Yvonne,

    Johnny had charm, which has obviously gone out of fashion. Mind, I always thought he was a real zoo-keeper. Mustn’t forget Percy Edwards, of course. Imagine the two of them sharing a long car journey…

  8. Worm
    October 26, 2010 at 14:33

    Johnny also had a Terry Nutkins

    October 27, 2010 at 12:26

    Gaw, I blame you for the fact that the Animal Magic theme tune is playing over and over in my head. It’s driving me nutkins.Though, Ian, I agree Johnny was charm personified – even with all that baboonery going on around him.

    PS coincidentally I featured a dog involved in some baboonery (if that’s possible) in a blog post today. Worm, your comment curiously disappeared, but do I look forward to seeing your dog cam.

    October 27, 2010 at 12:35

    Johnny Morris was at Bristol Zoo of course. I was there on Sunday. It’s a lovely place these days. They have okapi.

  11. Gaw
    October 27, 2010 at 12:39

    Love that dog Susan – but, as I pointed out over at your lovely place, they don’t look as good on the streets of London at the end of a chain held by a young man in a hood.

    October 27, 2010 at 13:00

    Brit – what are okapi? Gaw, thanks for the compliment – and for popping over to my place… Yes I totally agree with you about those nasty creatures, slavering, snarling and straining on their leads. Perhaps they’d behave better if Johnny was in charge?

    October 27, 2010 at 13:09

    They’re like giraffes with short necks and zebra’s bottoms.

  14. Gaw
    October 27, 2010 at 15:20

    I imagine Johnny would have to voice their ‘thoughts’ in Cockney-Jamaican patois…

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