Gerard Hoffnung: A comedian ahead of his time

Nige pays tribute to a nearly-forgotten comic whose work seems remarkably contemporary…

Under Mahlerman’s Sunday post on Unserious Music, Worm mentions the once very famous and popular Gerard Hoffnung. That name took me right back to my boyhood. One of my uncles had a recording of Hoffnung’s legendary stand-up (and sway about) performance in front of a notably well lubricated Oxford Union audience. This was the huge comedy hit of its day, and my uncle and father would laugh almost as uproariously as the Oxford audience as they listened to Hoffnung in full flow – sounding, as ever, like the most bufferish of old buffers, though he was a young man [he died of a cerebral haemorrhage at the age of just 34 – Ed].

It’s a tour de force, and, though something of a period piece, still worth a listen – his comic timing is quite extraordinary. Hoffnung’s charming little books of music-themed cartoons sold very well – it’s impossible not to like them – and still turn up quite often in charity shops.

The musical performances he staged were perhaps rather laboured affairs, as such minglings of comedy and ‘serious music’ tend to be. But his most interesting legacy, I think, are his recorded interviews with an urbane Canadian called Charles Richardson. Hoffnung, his bufferish persona honed to perfection, proves the most impossible of interviewees (think Peter Cook’s Arthur Streeb-Greebling and then some), offering rambling irrelevant ‘answers’, interrupting his hapless interviewer, taking offence at innocuous pleasantries and indignantly telling Richardson to mind his own business when pressed for anything resembling an answer.

The result is something at once very funny and way ahead of its time…

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About Author Profile: Nige

Cravat-Wearer of the Year Nige, who, like Mr Kenneth Horne, prefers to remain anonymous, is a founder blogger of The Dabbler and has been a co-blogger on the Bryan Appleyard Thought Experiments blog. He is the sole blogger on Nigeness, and (for now) a wholly owned subsidiary of NigeCorp. His principal aim is to share various of life's pleasures.

11 thoughts on “Gerard Hoffnung: A comedian ahead of his time

    Toby Ferris
    March 26, 2012 at 09:50

    Great stuff

    My father had this record of Hoffnung, which he used to wheel out from time to time in the course of my childhood and recommend to my attention. I don’t remember if I found it funny or not as a child (the bricklayer if I recall has its measure of aural slapstick, if I can put it like that, so perhaps)

    I learnt recently that Malcolm Arnold’s Fifth Symphony, written a year or two after Hoffnung’s death, is in part an elegy for lost youthful promise, and memorialises his friends Dennis Brain and Gerard Hoffnung, among others.

      John Halliwell
      March 26, 2012 at 11:11

      Toby, Mervyn Cooke’s liner notes for the Chandos recording of Malcolm Arnold’s Fifth throw some light on the background to what is a magnificent symphony:

      ‘The tragic tone which constantly pervades the Fifth Symphony was explained by the composer as arising from memories of several musical friends who had died young in the years leading up to its composition. These included the clarinettist Jack Thurston (d. 1953), horn-player Dennis Brain (d. 1957), and humorist Gerard Hoffnung (d. 1959), for whose celebrated Music Festival Arnold had composed a series of brilliantly witty entertainment pieces including the Grand, Grand Overture (1957) for three vacuum-cleaners, floor polisher, four rifles and orchestra.’ I guess Hoffnung would have loved even the thought of that.

        March 26, 2012 at 13:56

        Dennis Brain, incidentally, took part in Hoffnung’s music festivals, playing a horn concerto by Leopold Mozart and using a length of hose pipe instead of his usual instrument.

        Toby Ferris
        March 26, 2012 at 17:50

        Thanks John – I have the Andrew Penny set on Naxos. My brother runs a youth orchestra (Thames Youth Orch.) and they just gave a performance, for which I did the note – which is why I say recently. Didn’t previously know the piece, to my shame, and will now explore the rest. I’m told 7 is a good one.

    ian russell
    March 26, 2012 at 10:22

    Brilliant!, my cup of tea. I was aware of the cartoons but this is the first time I’ve heard any of this.

    He had a cat that sat at table, with a serviette around his neck, holding a candle until dinner was over..

    – What else did he do?

    – Well, isn’t that enough?

    March 26, 2012 at 11:44

    Lovely to be reminded of these charming mini masterpieces, Nige. I remember watching the cartoons on television as a child. They seemed to be on at randomly chosen times of day – and sometimes late at night, probably to fill in gaps between programmes. Surprised to learn that Hoffnung was so young…

    March 26, 2012 at 11:50

    PS – excuse the name-dropping, but I’ve met Hoffnung’s son, Benedict, who’s a timpanist.

  5. Gaw
    March 27, 2012 at 10:41

    Those interviews are really very funny. Great use of animals. I’m quite taken aback at how much Peter Cook must have taken from Hoffnung – he looks a lot less original to me now.

    • Gaw
      March 27, 2012 at 10:43

      I’m aiming to adopt “I rather resent you asking me that” as a conversational gambit.

      March 27, 2012 at 14:38

      Ditto – my exact thoughts.

    jonathan law
    March 27, 2012 at 16:37

    Actually, this reminded me less of Cook than of his one-time associates Johns Bird and Fortune — those “George Parr” interviews in which an increasingly flummoxed questioner fails to get any purchase on the outrageous, languidly blustering questionee. Something about the way those apparently rational or concessive “Well, certainly, certainly”s and “Oh yes, oh yes”s lead only to further insult or absurdity. Hoffnung even sounds a lot like John F. in places: I’d say B and F took a good deal of their schtick from this.

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