Nige remembers one half of “the unfunniest double act ever to have been described as ‘comedy'”…
This coming Saturday is truly a red-letter day in the annals of showbiz, for it was on 6 September in 1932 that Bernie Winters (Weinstein) was born. Bernie joined his brother Mike in what was arguably (out of a crowded field) the unfunniest double act ever to have been described as ‘comedy’. Once, when Morecambe and Wise were asked what they would have done if they’d flopped in showbusiness, they replied ‘We’d have been Mike and Bernie Winters.’ And yet Mike and Bernie were, from the late 50s through to the early 70s, huge. They were even, mystifyingly, rated ‘top comics for Britain’s teenage audience’ in 1957.
The brothers began as a musical comedy act, with Bernie interrupting Mike’s solos with hilarious impressions of Jimmy Cagney and Charles Laughton, while Mike ‘did’ Cary Grant. Many years later, Grant dropped in on Mike backstage at the Bristol Hippodrome and remarked ‘You know, Mike, that was the worst Cary Grant impression I ever heard.’
The evolved (if that’s the word) Winters double act consisted of Mike looking serious and smoking a pipe while Bernie looked like an imbecile and talked like an imbecile with a speech impediment. Backstage at a Royal Variety Performance, the Queen was introduced to the brothers and asked ‘Do you speak French?’ She must have thought that their being French was the only possible explanation for their comedy being that bad.
After the brothers broke up – with much acrimony, apparently – Bernie replaced Mike with a 14-stone St Bernard, Schnorbitz, who was considerably funnier and became a bigger star than either of them. Schnorbitz once fell into Terry Scott’s swimming pool and was rescued by Barbara Windsor. You had to be there.
Today would be the 89th birthday of comic actor Charlie Drake. But did you know he once appeared alongside Peter Gabriel, Sandy Denny, Robert Fripp and Phil Collins in one of the weirdest prog rock line-ups ever?…
Born on this day in 1925 was the diminutive comic Charlie Drake, who was, incredibly, a considerable star in the Fifties and Sixties. Even in an era that abounded in deeply unfunny comedians, he stood out as quite singularly tiresome – though he was very popular with children, including, I blush to recall, my boyhood self. I’m pretty sure I even watched (and presumably enjoyed) at least one of his feature films – Sands of the Desert?
Drake’s catchphrase ‘Hello my darlings!’ was originally addressed to the breasts of any of the tall, big-busted starlets with whose poitrine he found himself eye to eye, as it were, in the course of duty. Later, he adapted it to all situations, to unfailingly irksome effect.
Apart from the catchphrase, Drake’s stock in trade was slapstick – and it was nearly the end of him when a live TV sketch went wrong in 1961. The little chap was to be hauled through a bookcase that had been specially set up to fall apart as he emerged – but an over-diligent workman (or friend of British comedy) had mended it, with the result that it put up a considerable resistance. Unaware of what had happened, Drake’s fellow actors proceeded with the rest of the sketch, which involved picking him up and throwing him through a window. Drake was unconscious for three days, with a fractured skull, and didn’t return to the screen for two years.
Like many a comedian in those days, Drake made several records (mostly produced by George Martin, who has had to live with the shame ever since) – but his most startling contribution to music history was a 1975 single titled You Never Know, the first post-Genesis solo project of prog rock / world music legend Peter Gabriel (who had himself recorded the song as a demo).
The performing line-up for Drake’s recording of You Never Know is surely one of the most bizarre ever: lead vocal Charlie Drake, backing vocal Sandy Denny, Robert Fripp on guitar, Percy Jones on bass, Keith Tippett on keyboards and Phil Collins on drums.You can, if you must, listen to it here (though I must warn you, it’s pretty terrifying):
Drake – whose last stage role was as Baron Hardon in Jim Davidson’s ‘adult’ pantomime Sinderella – was a notorious womaniser. However, there is no truth in the rumour that flame-haired Simply Red frontman Mick Hucknall was his love child.
To his credit, Drake did put in a fine performance as Smallweed in the BBC’s 1985 Bleak House. This too was pretty terrifying, but in a better way.
‘It ridiculed humour itself’…A week on from the untimely death of Rik Mayall, Professor Nick Groom pays tribute to that peerlessly stupid yet brilliant sitcom The Young Ones…
In retrospect, it all seems so simple: a sitcom based in a dilapidated student house, showcasing upcoming young comedians. But that’s hardly recognisable as The Young Ones – which most people remember by the noisome exploits of its principal characters. They lived in ridiculous squalour, ate only lentils, made embarrassingly puerile jokes (in ironic postmodern fashion, of course), smashed up everything, and spent a lot of time shouting ‘You utter, utter bastard’ at each other.
The Young Ones is a sitcom, but a punked-up, magic-realist sitcom. Completely grotesque yet painfully accurate, it is a monstrous parody of students and the student lifestyle – and don’t anyone dare say that they live ‘just like the Young Ones’, unless whenever they are about to have a party their houses are half-demolished by gigantic ham sandwiches discarded by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Nevertheless, the four undergraduates are all embarrassingly familiar characters. Rik (Rik Mayall) reckons he’s a ‘right on’ anarchist and the people’s poet – in fact, he’s a sanctimonious and self-centred little prig with the emotional maturity of a sniggering thirteen-year-old; Vyvyan (Adrian Edmondson) is a psychopathic, headbanging medical student who sports a row of studs in his forehead and keeps a Glaswegian hamster called SPG (Special Patrol Group); Neil (Nigel Planer) is the fall guy, a miserable hippy always shuffling around and complaining about how ‘heavy’ everything is; and Mike (Christopher Ryan) is a midget conman evidently blackmailing the university’s vice-chancellor and living in a fantasy world of cool in which he effortlessly hobnobs with celebrities and sex kittens.
Together, these four explosively incompatible housemates barely do anything but bicker and fight about the most excruciatingly mundane things – paying the bills, going to the laundrette, borrowing a coin for the phone, answering the door. It is positively Beckettian in its banality – except that around this black hole of mindless boredom and acute pettiness revolves a mad universe of the strangest and most inexplicable events. Their whole hallucinatory world is teemingly alive: the fruit in the fridge makes cheap sexual innuendoes, the toilet eats bog-brushes, one of Vyvyan’s socks escapes and has to be beaten to death with a frying pan. The weirdest people come and go: members of the Balowski family (landlord, party drunk, international arms dealer, medieval jester – all played by Alexei Sayle); two shipwrecked men who are holidaying on a raft under a lightbulb in the cellar; Cinderella, who stays at their party past midnight and promptly turns into a pumpkin; the ghosts of two decapitated Elizabethans who get their heads mixed up; a premature Easter Bunny; and a teapot genie who gives Neil six pairs of arms. ‘The nuttiest things happen in this crazy house’, as Rik puts it at one point, aping a cretinously zany commentator: an unexploded atom bomb lands in front of the fridge, the lads discover that their wardrobe leads to the magical kingdom of Narnia, they appear on University Challenge against Footlights College, Oxbridge (despite Vyv losing his head on the way there when he oh-so rebelliously leans out of the train window), and the whole house is transported back to the Middle Ages. This last elicits the comment ‘Oh, who cares?’; they are most concerned that they might miss Scooby Doo.
Noisy, stupid, fantastically odd, and still unbelievably funny, The Young Ones was the ‘alternative’ comedy scene’s rambunctious coming of age. Most of the performers came out of London’s Comedy Store club, which was compèred by Sayle, and later by Ben Elton, and gave a platform to a new breed of aspiring, radical and subversive comedians. Mayall and Edmondson, for example, originally developed their ultra-violent slapstick, which features heavily in the show, as the Comedy Store’s ‘Dangerous Brothers’. But until The Young Ones, there had been hardly any television exposure of this edgy new comedy.
They tackled the new medium by deconstructing the whole concept of that TV standby, the sitcom. Mayall and Lise Mayer wrote the scripts, Elton pulled their stream-of-consciousness into shape, and they managed to combine situation comedy with the cabaret format of the Comedy Store, thereby introducing dozens of new comedians to the nation. But at the same time they created something that was so knowing, so self-aware and so self-mocking that it actually ridiculed humour itself. You laugh at the jokes, you laugh (again, of course, in ironic postmodern fashion) at the laboured jokes which mock the imbecility of mainstream comedy, and you laugh at the scathing satires of traditional sitcoms: ultimately, you laugh at the whole idea of people laughing at anything at all. It’s dizzying.
The post-punk generation needed to rebel against the old folks with something more than music and fashion, and The Young Ones did feel, if only for a few months, like the new rock’n’roll – not least because the show’s entirely spurious musical slot featured happening bands like Madness and Motörhead. The Goons, the Pythons, even The Goodies may have been as out of control as The Young Ones, but by the 1980s they were all firmly Establishment: the grand old tradition of anarchic British humour. Everyone from your father to Prince Charles told you to listen to the Goon Show, Python was a very English institution one followed with an awed and often baffled admiration, and parents, grandparents, and aunts and uncles would merrily endorse comedy from Fawlty Towers to Benny Hill. Yes, they were funny, but we young ones needed our own comedy – and The Young Ones was just that. Obsessed with zits, crapping and wanking, like the evergreen comic Viz it was in-your-face rude – which is precisely why our parents never got it.
Talking of parents, the hippy Neil Pye’s mum and dad once managed to visit him and his housemates, arriving in the middle of a street riot during which some joker has impaled a head to their front door. The episode (‘Sick’) is typical. All the characters – from the Young Ones themselves to the blazers-and-British-Legion Mr and Mrs Pye to a police officer who arrives simply to hit Rik with a chair – cheerfully admit that this is just a TV show.
Neil’s Mum: You have brought shame on your family, Neil. I daren’t show my face at Lady Fanshaw’s bridge evenings, now that you’ve taken up with these television people. I mean, what kind of monsters are you? I mean, The Young Ones. Well, it all sounds very good, doesn’t it? But just look around you. It’s trash!
[She smashes a chair.]
I mean… even Triangle has better furniture than you do!
Mike: I think you’ll find that was specially designed to fall apart like that, Mrs Pye. Rick was going to get hit over the head with it in the next scene.
This out-of-telly experience then continues with a sharp parody of Grange Hill, before the opening sequence of The Good Life rolls. Vyvyan spectacularly tears down the screen, declaring, ‘No! No! No! We’re not watching the bloody Good Life! Bloody, bloody, bloody! I hate it! It’s so bloody nice! Felicity “Treacle” Kendall and Richard “Sugar-flavoured-snot” Briers! …They’re just a couple of reactionary stereotypes, confirming the myth that everyone in Britain is a lovable, middle-class eccentric – and I HATE THEM!’ Rik, self-deluding anarchist and card-carrying Cliff Richard fan that he is, returns us to TV-land, declaring his love for Ms Kendall. The storyline then digresses into a cross between Macbeth and The Good Life, in which Rik accidentally kills Neil. Rik hides the body in manure, and is tortured all night by the voice of his conscience (which is so loud it keeps Vyvyan awake), before Neil returns from the grave – or rather Neils do: under the compost, Neil has germinated like a seed and grown into three. As the Neils greet the terrified Rik, the entire set suddenly disappears to reveal Neil’s parents and Brian Damage, ‘a violent and highly dangerous escaped criminal madman’, waving and blowing kisses to the studio audience from a glitzy stage while a continuity announcer declares, ‘Good evening, and welcome to Nice Time’. The Young Ones themselves frantically jump up and down flashing V-signs and trying to get into shot as the credits roll. Evidently nothing makes sense once your parents arrive.
It is not simply surreal, it is purely bizarre. And there’s another element that makes this so great, so British, and so funny: embarrassment. Embarrassment has always been a key feature of British comedy, and The Young Ones surely takes it as far as it can go. Neil’s parents coming to tea is embarrassing enough, but who can forget Rik’s party, where he forbids everyone to drink before the party starts, sucks up to his trendy sociology tutor like a total bloody swot, and thinks that a tampon is a carefully wrapped present – a mouse hiding in a telescope? Or Rik’s pretend girlfriend: having woken up in bed with a girlie, he gives a blow-by-blow account of their night’s adventures to his male housemates (which Mike records on tape), before she appears and reveals that the entire encounter is entirely fictitious. Rik is condemned to wear a sign around his neck reading ‘I am a Virgin’.
Even as I laugh, I still cringe. The Young Ones is less the successor to George and Mildred than the bastard love-child of Samuel Beckett and Alan Bennett. It is wild comedy based on endless and obsessive non-sequiturs and cataclysmic moments of fatal misunderstanding which generate their own crazy logic. Stupid is funny and, in this case, very stupid is abso-bloody-lutely hilarious.
Nige remembers Bea Lillie, the once extremely famous comedienne and formidable character…
Today marks the birthday of Beatrice Lillie, born on this day in 1894 in Toronto. Beatrice who? you may well be asking – and with good reason. Though she had a huge reputation in her day, ‘Bea’ Lillie specialised in the most ephemeral and fast-dating forms of comedy: stage revue, comic songs, parodies and routines – and was not keen on making films.
There’s little in what footage of her survives to explain her reputation as the ‘Funniest Woman in the World’. According to Sheridan Morley, her gift was for ‘the arched eyebrow, the curled lip, the fluttering eyelid, the tilted chin, the ability to suggest, even in apparently innocent material, the possible double entendre.’ I guess you had to be there.
Lillie was certainly a formidable professional. Her revue contracts invariably stipulated that she would not step onto the stage until at least half an hour into the show, to ensure maximum impact. Rather chillingly, when she received news of the death of her son as she was about to go on stage to entertain the troops, she insisted the show should not be cancelled: ‘I’ll cry tomorrow,’ she declared.
This was her only son – by Sir Robert Peel, 5th Baronet (in private life, she was Lady Peel). Beatrice remained married even after she took up with a fellow entertainer, John Philip Huck, some 30 years her junior.
She succumbed to Alzheimer’s and died at the age of 94, in 1989. Huck died of a heart attack barely 24 hours later.
Nige digs out a nearly-forgotten foreigner’s eye view of the British…
The Hungarian-born British writer George Mikes (15 February 1912 – 30 August 1987) is best known (if he is remembered at all) for his gently humorous foreigner’s-eye view of the English, How to Be an Alien.
First published in 1946, it went into innumerable printings (my copy is the 23rd impression, from March 1957). ‘This book,’ says Mikes on the dust-jacket flap,
is meant for those who see the funny side of life and to help those who can’t see it, but chiefly it is intended for xenophobes and anglophobes. The author, Mr Mikes (pronounced “me-cash”), has been a keen observer of the behaviour and misbehaviour of foreigners and natives in this country and is happy to give all and sundry the benefit of his research. Chapters on hypocrisy, language, sex, tea, the soul, the weather, rudeness and simple joys are just a few results of his vast investigations.
The chapter on Sex is the shortest:
Continental people have a sex life; the English have hot-water bottles.
Soul is something foreigners have and the English don’t need: ‘The English have no soul; they have the understatement instead.’ Mikes is very good on English understatement – a form of expression that is in retreat in today’s more emotionally incontinent times – but he acknowledges that
Overstatement, too, plays a considerable part in English social life. This takes mostly the form of someone remarking: “I say…” and then keeping silent for three days on end.
As a portrait of English life it is, of course, very much of its time; this is a lost England of stiff upper lips, scrupulous politeness and strong social codes. In a few places, though, it is strangely prescient, as when Mikes advises foreigners who wish to fit in to ‘start eating porridge for breakfast and allege that you like it.’ Nowadays everybody seems to eat porridge and claims to enjoy the experience.
The best thing about How to Be an Alien, though – as with so many other titles – is that ‘Nicolas Bentley drew the pictures’. This brilliant illustrator makes any book embellished by him well worth a look – and he was on top form with How to Be an Alien.
Would you like to recommend one of the thousands of books that can be bought online for a penny (or a cent)? Email your submission to email@example.com
Mike Yarwood emerges triumphantly from 10 Downing Street. The funnyman spent many a long night advising PM Margaret Thatcher on key decisions
As Frank reveals, stand-up comedians have always played a vital role in British political decision-making…
In his Dabbler Diary on Monday, Brit noted the delusion of contemporary “panel show comedians that they are public intellectuals, superior in their integrity and insight to the corrupt political class”. This widespread phenomenon leads the likes of Russell Brand and Steve Coogan to pontificate on matters outwith their ken. In this they are assisted by the BBC, for instance by the now almost obligatory inclusion of a comic performer (in “serious” guise) on the panel of Question Time.
Where Brit is wrong is to think this is something new. As my research has shown, comedians have long been at the very centre of British politics. What is new, and what fuels their current absurd warblings, is the sense among today’s funnypersons that they have been pushed aside, shoved to the margins, in stark contrast to their predecessors. Thus they shout louder, and more witlessly, all too aware of their irrelevance.
How different things were in the eighties, when Margaret Thatcher barely made a decision without the sage advice of Mike Yarwood. The impressionist was constantly at her side, doing an impersonation of her press secretary Bernard Ingham, Ingham himself having been relegated to the role of typing press releases and restocking the stationery cupboard. The big bushy fake eyebrows Yarwood wore when in character are now held in the National Archives, attached to a piece of cardboard with cow gum.
Thatcher was of course following the practice of her immediate predecessor, the Labour Prime Minister Jim Callaghan. Callaghan reserved a place at the cabinet table for Dick Emery, the sparkly-eyed TV comic famed for his catchphrases “Ooh, you are awful … but I like you” and “Crisis? What crisis?” His counsel during the three-day week was said to be “mildly amusing”.
Ted Heath appointed Charlie Drake to several important positions, but the diminutive unfunny funnyman was unable to outface the then mighty Trade Unions, being so diminutive and unfunny.
Harold Wilson, in his first period of office, had better luck when he handed most of the decision-making to the Carry On team. Sid James and Hattie Jacques were the true powers behind the throne, and it was apparently Charles Hawtrey who first spoke of “the white heat of the technological revolution”.
In the fifties, Betty Marsden was often spoken of as a likely candidate to become Britain’s first female Prime Minister, after her invaluable contribution during the Suez crisis. And before the war, the music hall act Wilson, Keppel, and Betty each held the top positions at the Home Office, the Foreign Office, and the Treasury, on a rotating basis, so that nobody was ever sure who was in charge of what. That arrangement served to flummox Johnny Foreigner, at least until the outbreak of hostilities.
Such were the comedy politician titans of yesteryear, in whose shadows the current crop of japesters can only bleat impotently, parroting the latest Guardian editorial. It is a sorry sight.
By Aerostat to Hooting Yard: A Frank Key Reader is available to buy for Kindle from Amazon now.
Born in 1803, Douglas William Jerrold was one of those industrious Victorians writers who seem never to have slept. He was a successful dramatist (his first staged piece written when he was 14), a hugely prolific critic and journalist, a famous conversationist and wit, friend of Dickens, founder-editor of half a dozen magazines and a mainstay of the early Punch. It was there that he published the work for which he is still (just) remembered – that gem of Victorian comedy, Mrs Caudle’s Curtain Lectures.
These are verbatim accounts, written from memory (as a kind of bitterwseet memorial) by the widowed Mr Caudle, of a series of withering monologues delivered by his wife as the hapless Mr C climbed into bed in hope of sleep – only to be reminded of some indiscretion that would surely bring about in due course the fall of the house of Caudle.
A naturally generous and convivial type, Mr C is sometimes a little the worse for wear when he comes to bed, and knows what he must expect. On other occasions, though, it is some insignificant and barely noticed lapse that has set Mrs Caudle’s dark imaginings to work, and he must be forcibly reminded of the inevitable consequences.
Here, for example, he has thoughtlessly lent an umbrella. Oh dear…
‘BAH! That’s the third umbrella gone since Christmas.
“What were you to do?
“Why, let him go home in the rain, to be sure. I’m very certain there was nothing about him that could spoil. Take cold, indeed! He doesn’t look like one of the sort to take cold. Besides, he’d have better taken cold than take our only umbrella. Do you hear the rain, Mr. Caudle? I say, do you hear the rain? And as I’m alive, if it isn’t St. Swithin’s day! Do you hear it against the windows? Nonsense; you don’t impose upon me. You can’t be asleep with such a shower as that! Do you hear it, I say? Oh, you do hear it! Well, that’s a pretty flood, I think, to last for six weeks; and no stirring all the time out of the house. Pooh! don’t think me a fool, Mr. Caudle. Don’t insult me. He return the umbrella! Anybody would think you were born yesterday. As if anybody ever did return an umbrella! There—do you hear it! Worse and worse! Cats and dogs, and for six weeks, always six weeks. And no umbrella!
“I should like to know how the children are to go to school tomorrow? They sha’n’t go through such weather, I’m determined. No: they shall stop at home and never learn anything—the blessed creatures!—sooner than go and get wet. And when they grow up, I wonder who they’ll have to thank for knowing nothing—who, indeed, but their father? People who can’t feel for their own children ought never to be fathers.
“But I know why you lent the umbrella. Oh, yes; I know very well. I was going out to tea at dear mother’s to-morrow—you knew that; and you did it on purpose. Don’t tell me; you hate me to go there, and take every mean advantage to hinder me. But don’t you think it, Mr. Caudle. No, sir; if it comes down in buckets-full I’ll go all the more. No: and I won’t have a cab. Where do you think the money’s to come from? You’ve got nice high notions at that club of yours. A cab, indeed! Cost me sixteenpence at least—sixteenpence! two-and-eightpence, for there’s back again. Cabs, indeed! I should like to know who’s to pay for ‘em; I can’t pay for ‘em, and I’m sure you can’t, if you go on as you do; throwing away your property, and beggaring your children—buying umbrellas!
“Do you hear the rain, Mr. Caudle? I say, do you hear it? But I don’t care—I’ll go to mother’s to-morrow: I will; and what’s more, I’ll walk every step of the way,—and you know that will give me my death. Don’t call me a foolish woman, it’s you that’s the foolish man. You know I can’t wear clogs; and with no umbrella, the wet’s sure to give me a cold—it always does. But what do you care for that? Nothing at all. I may be laid up for what you care, as I daresay I shall—and a pretty doctor’s bill there’ll be. I hope there will! It will teach you to lend your umbrellas again. I shouldn’t wonder if I caught my death; yes: and that’s what you lent the umbrella for. Of course!
“Nice clothes I shall get too, traipsing through weather like this. My gown and bonnet will be spoilt quite.
“Needn’t I wear ‘em then?
“Indeed, Mr. Caudle, I shall wear ‘em. No, sir, I’m not going out a dowdy to please you or anybody else. Gracious knows! it isn’t often that I step over the threshold; indeed, I might as well be a slave at once,—better, I should say. But when I do go out,—Mr. Caudle, I choose to go like a lady. Oh! that rain—if it isn’t enough to break in the windows.
“Ugh! I do look forward with dread for to-morrow! How I am to go to mother’s I’m sure I can’t tell. But if I die I’ll do it. No, sir; I won’t borrow an umbrella. No; and you sha’n’t buy one. Now, Mr. Caudle, only listen to this: if you bring home another umbrella, I’ll throw it in the street. I’ll have my own umbrella or none at all.
“Ha! and it was only last week I had a new nozzle put to that umbrella. I’m sure, if I’d have known as much as I do now, it might have gone without one for me. Paying for new nozzles, for other people to laugh at you. Oh, it’s all very well for you—you can go to sleep. You’ve no thought of your poor patient wife, and your own dear children. You think of nothing but lending umbrellas!
“Men, indeed!—call themselves lords of the creation!—pretty lords, when they can’t even take care of an umbrella!
“I know that walk to-morrow will be the death of me. But that’s what you want—then you may go to your club and do as you like—and then, nicely my poor dear children will be used—but then, sir, then you’ll be happy. Oh, don’t tell me! I know you will. Else you’d never have lent the umbrella!
“You have to go on Thursday about that summons and, of course, you can’t go. No, indeed, you don’t go without the umbrella. You may lose the debt for what I care—it won’t be so much as spoiling your clothes—better lose it: people deserve to lose debts who lend umbrellas!
“And I should like to know how I’m to go to mother’s without the umbrella! Oh, don’t tell me that I said I would go—that’s nothing to do with it; nothing at all. She’ll think I’m neglecting her, and the little money we were to have we sha’n’t have at all—because we’ve no umbrella.
“The children, too! Dear things! They’ll be sopping wet; for they sha’n’t stop at home—they sha’n’t lose their learning; it’s all their father will leave ‘em, I’m sure. But they shall go to school. Don’t tell me I said they shouldn’t: you are so aggravating, Caudle; you’d spoil the temper of an angel. They shall go to school; mark that. And if they get their deaths of cold, it’s not my fault—I didn’t lend the umbrella.”
“At length,” writes Caudle, “I fell asleep; and dreamt that the sky was turned into green calico, with whalebone ribs; that, in fact, the whole world turned round under a tremendous umbrella!”
Mrs Caudle’s Curtain Lectures quite often turns up in bookshops in nice illustrated Victorian editions. It has also been reprinted in the excellent series of Prion Humour Classics, with an appreciative introduction by Peter Ackroyd, no less [and there's even a Kindle version available for free - Ed].
If you’re looking for a double entendre, Mr Slang is just the man to give you one…
Those who, gazing at last week’s cab-referrent illustration, could tear their eyes from what Joyce, a connoisseur of such things, would have termed Judy Geeson’s ‘frillies’, would have noticed the strapline: ‘He gets more than his fare share.’ This, of course, is a pun. It is also a double entendre, the difference being sometimes hard to discern but the definers of the latter tend to advert to the term ‘racy’. I shall leave such fine-tuning to those swifter than I, and, while accepting the inevitable overlaps, concentrate on what rhetoric terms paronomasia (Greek ‘a play on words’) and the Nobel laureate Henri Bergson set down as a sentence or utterance in which ‘two different sets of ideas are expressed, and we are confronted with only one series of words.’
Or, as Shakespeare has it in Henry V: ‘Pistol’s cock is up and flashing fire will follow,’ or Kenneth Williams, channeling Talbot Rothwell in Carry on Cleo: ‘Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in for me.’
Slang, a Carry On movie (but perhaps not quite a Shakespeare) scripted from the entirety of the national language, is of course smitten with puns. The lists offer some 628, plus another 754 where I have opted for ‘a play on’, typically bosom friend, for a louse. Being a man-made lexis, and in the way of men seeing the world through the priorities of the little head rather than of the large one, such usage may often veer towards the double entendre. There is little I can do.
Many of the puns refer to sex. We have abandoned habits, which playing on their morality and their dress, refers to the up-market courtesans who frequented Rotten Row in London’s Hyde Park. We have the airplane blonde, who may appear to sport golden tresses, but on closer inspection reveals her ‘black box’. We have the agreeable ruts of life, the vagina, where rut encompasses bestial intercourse and one of the many variations on ‘slit’ that have been attached to the fermale genitals. We have the article of virtue, playing on the French objet de vertu, a curio or an antique, and which betokens a virgin. And that, as will be noticed, is but a sample of the letter A. If we refine things down, say to ‘brothel,’ we find finishing academy and seminary, clap-trap, cunny-warren (coney being both vagina and rabbit, with all that that implies), and so on. There are also a good number of internal slang-on-slang puns. Bobtail, properly a cropped horse, which can mean a eunuch or at least an impotent man, has had his ‘tail’ cut off, while the homonymous use as prostitute refers to one who, still in horse country, both sports her own variety of ‘tail’ and in addition is ‘good for a ride’.
It is hard, and how can we overlook the adventures of the solicitor-general in the low countries, but lets us at least try to abandon the narrow delights of standing room for one, of naval engagements and indeed of two-handed put, both a card-game and a play on French putain, a whore.
Barking dogs, for instance, are painful feet, a foot being one of the dog’s many roles in slang, a blunderbuss, usually a weapon, was once any ill-handling vehicle, a botanical excursion transportation to New South Wales, i.e. ‘Botany Bay, a Bryant and May, for the matches, was a ‘light’ ale, while modern Scotland offers a low-flying birdie, a shot of Old Grouse whisky. A chamber of commerce, on US campuses around 1905, was a lavatory: therein one ‘does one’s business’. Captain Grose, in 1785, offers go to the diet of worms, to die, the anodyne necklace, the hangman’s noose which plays on a necklace of herbs which being anodyne ‘cures one’s pain’; hanging could also be the hearty choke with caper sauce, further extended as a vegetable breakfast. Still with Grose there are backgammon player, a sodomite, one of many such that play on ‘back’ ( though modern equivalents have opted, scatalogically, for ‘chocolate’), the king of Spain’s trumpeter, a.k.a. ‘Don Key’, manoeuvre the apostles, playing on ‘rob Peter to pay Paul’, master of the mint, a gardener, a catching harvest, combining the standard term for unpredictable, unsettled weather with the possibility that the highwayman may get ‘caught’, is an unpropitious moment for a hold-up, and custom house goods, a vagina ‘because fairly entered’; the revenue also gives Earl Rochester’s customs house, again the vagina ‘wherein Adam made the first entry’ and as cited in Hotten, the customs house officer, a laxative, which ‘permits goods to pass through.’
Drinking, as is slang’s way, plays its part. A Geneva print is gin, which one ‘reads’; to have been at Geneva is to be drunk. The term plays on genever, the Dutch gin that plagued the 18th century, although a Dutch girl is, no prizes here, a lesbian. The grapes of wrath has been wine, and Australia’s shout, to buy someone a drink gives shout oneself hoarse, to buy for the whole bar. Jon Bee adds put this reckoning up to the Dover wagoner, to put a drink on the slate, and which turns out to be a laborious reference to the word ‘owing’ and to the contemporary Dover wagoner, one ‘Owen’.
On it goes. Let us depart then, with a sample from that unrivalled generator of the old Jack Lang, Australia. The term Buckley’s, which means ‘no chance’. It is possible that this refers to one William Buckley (1780–1856), an escaped convict who spent 32 years living with Aborigines in South Victoria. It is, however, far more likely that we have, gratifyingly, another pun, on the name of defunct firm of Buckley and Nunn. You got two chances, mate: Buckley’s and none. Boom bloody boom!
Carry On scripts of course provide the literal thesaurus (Greek, ‘treasure-house’) of such material. To such an extent that reading an appreciative, if academic and thus dour, assessment, and encountering the phrase ‘In his first film, Jim Dale has a small part’ I began sniggering.
Multi-talented author Henry Hitchings’ new book Sorry! The English and their Manners has garnered glowing reviews. In an exclusive post for The Dabbler, Henry explains why Curb Your Enthusiasm is the ultimate comedy of manners…
When I began writing a book about manners, I thought about sitcoms I could reference for examples of amusing faux pas or admirable restraint.
Immediately I saw scope for bringing in Fawlty Towers and Peep Show, as well as mentioning Till Death Us Do Part, Phoenix Nights and Keeping Up Appearances. But the best examples that came to mind were from two American shows, Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. True, neither was concerned with British or indeed English manners, yet in both there were reflections on etiquette and ethics that seemed too interesting to ignore.
In Seinfeld the most eye-watering incidents involve George Costanza. The embodiment of hopelessness, George is perceptive about toxic social norms: ‘When you look annoyed all the time, people think that you’re busy’, ‘If you can’t say something bad about a relationship, you shouldn’t say anything at all.’ Yet his commentary is reactive rather than an attempt to expound a philosophy. When he identifies a sour tendency in other people’s behaviour, he is expressing a grievance, not trying to promote change.
Curb Your Enthusiasm offers a different slant on manners. Here everything revolves around George’s creator (and supposed real-life model), Larry David. His philosophy is summed up when he’s invited to a party and the host insists ‘Tell me you’re enjoying yourself.’ Larry’s response? ‘No!’ More striking than Larry’s reluctance to let his (sparse) hair down is his reluctance to conform. At parties, you’re meant to have a good time: often you don’t, but saying so is considered odious.
I doubt there are many people who would enjoy Curb Your Enthusiasm who aren’t already familiar with it. Yet I don’t feel its assault on the vacuity of modern living has been sufficiently appreciated – outside the privacy of its fans’ heads, at least.
Curb blurs the distinction between fiction and reality: the real-life Larry David, born Lawrence Gene David in Brooklyn in July 1947, plays a character called Larry David, who shares so much of the real Larry’s personal history that it’s possible to get confused about whether Curb is a sitcom, a heavily ‘meta’ essay in postmodernism, or some sort of partly structured, largely haphazard fly-on-the-wall documentary.
The character Larry David is an aggrieved and unrepentant fusspot who is capable of hilarious bursts of rage. In the very first episode he tells his friend Richard Lewis, a neurotic comedian, that Richard’s new girlfriend, with whom he’s had a run-in at the cinema, ought to try reading ‘Emily fucking Post’. This apparently throwaway reference to the American doyenne of etiquette (who died in 1960 but lives on through the assiduities of the Emily Post Institute) is in fact a clue about what’s to come over the rest of the season – and over seven seasons since.
At the heart of Curb is Larry’s realization – endlessly repeated – that being right is by no means the same thing as being polite. I’d go so far as to suggest that manners are the main subject of Curb. The show sometimes reminds me of Gulliver’s Travels. Larry finds himself in a world where everyone else seems to know what to do – and where what they know to do strikes him as moronic.
Writing in the New Yorker in December 2000 (when Curb was still new and strange), Nancy Franklin observed that the Larry character is ‘a psychic accident intent on happening, a speck of grit looking for an eye to lodge in. No good deed that he performs for another human being goes unpunished.’
Larry is hardly a fountainhead of good deeds. Sometimes he does pretty despicable things, such as stealing flowers from a roadside memorial. Even the good deeds he does manage are mostly little courtesies rather than substantial acts of altruism. But, crucially, he is made to feel that they are errors.
In an entirely typical scene Larry holds a door for a woman on his way into the doctor’s surgery: as a result she gets seen before him, and he’s furious. Perhaps you’ve been there? By which I mean: you did something magnanimous and ended up wishing you had behaved in an altogether more ruthless fashion.
Time and again, Larry seems to be penalized for his lack of guile. One form his guilelessness takes is the conviction that it is a good thing to ventilate the truth. When he and his wife Cheryl discuss renewing their wedding vows, he balks at having to promise to love her ‘through all eternity’: ‘I guess I had a different plan for eternity… I thought I’d be single again.’ And when Richard Lewis accuses him of ogling his girlfriend’s bosom, Larry puts him straight: ‘First of all, Richard, they’re not breasts… They’re just big chemical balls.’
Larry’s problems are rarely outlandish. Rather, they are ordinary issues that he chooses to handle brusquely, pedantically, or in a spirit of unbending bloody-mindedness.
I share Larry’s distaste for being given a detailed tour of other people’s houses. This is the utility room, is it? I’d never have guessed. Wow, check out the faux-Edwardian light switches. I can certainly relate to Larry’s indignation when a mix-up at a restaurant results in his order being given to a fellow gourmand who nabs some of his kung pao shrimp.
Often Larry’s missteps and expostulations tee up a question that’s apparently pedestrian yet not easily answered. What do you do when you lend someone a pen and see him probe his ear with it? Is it okay for your doctor, paying you a house call, to grab a lemonade from the fridge? How well do you have to know someone to feel you should pause in the street for what Larry calls a ‘stop and chat’? When you’re taking paper napkins from a dispenser in a café, how many is too many? Should one indulge teenagers who play ‘Trick or treat’ without entering sincerely into the Halloween spirit? How big should one’s Christmas tree be? What’s the cutoff time for phoning a friend at home?
In each case, Larry has a view about the right way to behave, and so do we. Usually his approach is at odds with how we would conduct ourselves in the same situation. (Or at least with how we’d like to imagine we would conduct ourselves.) We may laugh at the inappropriateness of his actions, but again and again Curb homes in on the arbitrary nature of our ideas of what’s appropriate.
Larry exults in telling truths and exposing the hidden tensions in everyday life. However, his exultation tends to obscure his astuteness. He is bad at dealing with being wrong (he is a master of grudging apologies), but he is also bad at dealing with being right. In the realm of manners, the latter is the graver offence.
Notwithstanding his tolerance (from Series 6 onward) of perpetual houseguest Leon, Larry has a pungent dislike of freeloading. When a customer takes endless free samples in an ice cream shop, he reflects that ‘It’s not right for the woman working back there; she’s got better things to do.’ He also upbraids Christian Slater for ‘going to town’ on the caviar at a party. ‘I think you’re going over your allotment,’ he says.
For British viewers this may prompt an image of the star of Heathers and True Romance tending his radishes. But let’s be clear: Slater (or the version of Christian Slater being played by Christian Slater) is making a pig of himself. Larry doesn’t think piggishness should be allowed to pass without comment. On this occasion his comment concludes with the words ‘Just an observation, not a big deal.’
The trouble is, observations are a big deal. A large part of being an amenable member of society is not making uninvited observations. Slapping down other adults for greed or cheapness is generally considered about as pleasant as spitting in their soup. Worse, that is, than the greed itself. Larry thinks this is bullshit. Or, to revert to his idiom: ‘The whole cashew-raisin balance is askew!’
Larry is confident that he has an expert understanding of what’s proportionate – in a bowl of fruit and nuts, and in all other departments of existence. Confident, that is, until he runs up against other people’s rather different sense of proportion. Then he faces a choice: try to change what they think, or slump into despair. He tends to go for the former. And, true to life, it tends not to work.
Henry Hitchings’ book Sorry! The English and their Manners is available from Amazon and other outlets.
The other day I found my mind turning to the Lancastrian comedian Frank Randle. I’ve been uneasily fascinated with this monster of comedy ever since reading King Twist: A Portrait of Frank Randle by – of all people – Jeff Nuttall, whose Bomb Culture was on every bookshelf in my student days.
The above clip from BBC4 series Rude Britannia gives a flavour of Randle, a comic hugely famous in his day, who was to Blackpool what Elvis was to Las Vegas, though a lot less wholesome. It is hardly surprising that his fame did not outlive him – he was absolutely of his time and place and belonged to a particular phase in the history of impolite popular entertainment. And yet there is something so Dionysiac, so anarchic, so darkly clownish about him that he is bigger than that, almost archetypal. He represents, perhaps, a particular twist (King Twist) on the Shakespearean fool at his darkest and most unruly. Perhaps.
Randle, who seems to have spent much of his life drunk, was also brilliant at playing drunk scenes, so one was invariably included in the handful of low-budget feature films he made (in one of them, mind-bogglingly, he appeared with Diana Dors). The best of the drunk scenes involves Randle negotiating a grand staircase while barely able to stand – I couldn’t find that one, but here’s a taste of Randle in action, making good use of one of his catchphrases, ‘Geroff mi foot!’ Those were the days…