Posts Tagged ‘steptoe and son’

The spectrum of comedy

There’s a strong case to be made for not analysing comedy. Laughter is a spontaneous thing, and as soon as one starts analysing, the very essence of what made us laugh in the first place is gone. All we know is that we have in us an impulse under certain circumstances to contort our faces into odd grimaces, and sometimes, in more extreme cases, to open our mouths and emit some peculiar noises. And that it feels good when we do. So let’s just leave it there.

But we can’t leave it there. At least, I can’t, especially when I think it gives me a good excuse for a blog post. So let me crave your indulgence for a bit while I try out a pet theory I have long held – that there are, essentially, two poles in comedy, and all that makes us laugh lies at one or other of these poles, or, more usually, at some point on the spectrum somewhere between.

At one end we have comedy that is dark, that is aware of the suffering and the misery of our common human lot. This kind of comedy can occupy the same space as tragedy: indeed, it can often be both comic and tragic at the same time. It acknowledges, as tragedy does, that life is indeed dark and comfortless, and profoundly sad; but where tragedy tries to salvage some sense of human dignity and nobility, comedy relishes the absurdity of it all – the absurdity even of trying to salvage anything. In this category I would place such works as Dead Souls, Waiting for Godot, Catch 22,

And then there’s the other extreme, where all thoughts of darkness are banished, where one is encouraged to smile at sunny cloudless skies, and to celebrate the fact, for fact it is, that even our brief existence can contain such warmth and happiness. In this category I’d place such works as The Importance of Being Earnest, The Inimitable Jeeves, Singin’ in the Rain.

Most comic works are somewhere on this spectrum, though leaning perhaps towards one end or the other. And, almost as if to illustrate my contention, two of the finest British television sitcoms – one may go as far as to sat the finest, without any objection from me – exemplify these two extremes. Both started in the 1960s, and the various series continued into the 1970s. One is Steptoe and Son, which a friend tells me that he finds so grim when he watches them these days on DVD that he cannot even bring himself to laugh; and the other is Dad’s Army, which, despite being set during the dark days of WW2, manages, without the slightest hint of self-importance, to celebrate all that was worth fighting for.

Steptoe and Son was successfully remade for American television as Sanford and Son, but since I haven’t seen this, I’ll comment on the British version only. It presents a father and a son, working class rag-and-bone traders – i.e. people who collect unwanted items people wish to get rid of, and salvage what they can out of it. Scavengers, if one wishes to be unkind. They live together in a dirty and impossibly cluttered old house, eccentrically furnished with various items that have been discarded by others. The decorations in the main living room include a medical skeleton and a huge stuffed bear. The old man is a pathetic creature, aware of his approaching end, and terrified that his son may leave him to fend for his own in his last days; he uses all the emotional blackmail and manipulation he can think of to keep hold of his son. The son himself has dreams of all the things that he may one day be, but he is no longer at an age where such dreams are viable: far from being an impressionable teenager, he is in his 40s. Possibly older: old age isn’t too far away from him either. He is deeply lonely and unfulfilled, and hates his father for having held him back; but he also loves his father, and can’t leave him, no matter how much he longs to. And so the two are stuck, loving and hating each other at the same time, seemingly for eternity.

This does not seem very promising material for comedy. And indeed, many would argue that it isn’t. Scriptwriters Ray Galton and Alan Simpson skilfully weave a path balancing the various conflicting elements of this essentially tragic situation, and, aided by two peerless performances (Wilfrid Brambell as the father and Harry H. Corbett as the son), manage to get more laughs out of this than one might have thought possible. But the tragedy isn’t short-changed either. The whole thing is a masterpiece of dramatic writing. We may sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that the best dramatic writing is reserved for the stage, but we must beware of snobbery – even, or especially, unwitting snobbery: I do not think I have encountered anything in twentieth century theatre that surpasses in sheer quality, and very little that equals, these scripts by Galton and Simpson. They manage to invest these characters and the relationship between them with such depth and complexity, that there were entire episodes consisting of just these two talking to, and reacting to, each other: nothing further was needed – not even, quite frequently, a plotline.

The contrast with Dad’s Army could hardly be greater. This is set in the fictional town of Walmington-on-Sea, on the south coast of Britain, during WW2. And it focuses on the local branch of the “Home Guard”, an outfit consisting of volunteers who are either too old or too young to be called up for the forces, or who have been exempted for medical reasons, or on account of the importance of their jobs. Their task was to fight back as best they could against enemy parachutists, saboteurs, and the like; to help organise the local defence against air raids, or other enemy attacks.

Now, this premise seems no more conducive to comedy than did the premise of Steptoe and Son: the days depicted were indeed dark days; invasion by one of the most evil regimes in history seemed imminent (with the enemy themselves only a few miles away across the channel); and news of injuries and deaths from abroad, and shortages and hardships at home, were everyday things. And yet, out of this, somehow, emerged the sunniest of comedies.

It’s an ensemble piece. At the centre of it were George Mainwaring (pronounced “Mannering”), played by Arthur Lowe, the captain of the platoon, and the local bank manager; and Arthur Wilson, his underling both in the bank and in the platoon itself, where he is sergeant. Mainwaring is impossibly pompous and self-important: he is convinced that he is, by nature, a leader of men, and that his Home Guard platoon, consisting largely of doddery old men, he can mould into a mean and ruthless fighting machine. Wilson, played by John le Mesurier, is the more intelligent, and he wryly recognises the absurdity of it all. One would expect in such a situation that Mainwaring would be from an upper class family and Wilson from a lower, but the genius of the writing is that it is quite the opposite: it is Wilson who is from a privileged background, although, given his rather lackadaisical attitude to life, has risen no further in life than a senior bank clerk; and it is Mainwaring who is middle class, who has had to fight his way to get where he is, and who resents the privileges which Wilson has had, and has wasted. He resents also Wilson’s natural charm, and his popularity.

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The main players of “Dad’s Army”, picture courtesy BBC

The platoon is made up of a wonderful cast of comic grotesques, as beautifully eccentric and as vivid as if they had just stepped out fresh from the pages of Dickens. Each one is cast to perfection – Clive Dunn as the doddery old Mr Jones, the butcher, endlessly reminiscing of his younger days under Kitchener in the Sudan; John Laurie as Mr Frazer, the somewhat mad old Scottish undertaker; Arnold Ridley as Mr Godfrey, a pleasant old gentleman, as willing to please as he is physically incapable of … well, of doing much at all; Ian Lavender as Pike, the immature mummy’s boy; and James Beck as Walker, the spiv, well dodgy and – although we never get to the details – more than slightly crooked, who could get you anything you needed for a price, with no question asked. (James Beck died at a distressingly young age while they were shooting the sixth series in 1973, and although they continued for a few more series without him, the gap he left behind was never quite filled.)

These characters, especially Mainwaring and Wilson, have more complexity than may at first appear. Mainwaring may be insufferably pompous, but when the occasion demands, he could be genuinely heroic: when, in one episode, they had to form a line to clear the rubble created by an air raid, with those at the head of the line in imminent danger of being crushed by falling masonry, Mainwaring actually pretends to have drawn the short straw so that he could take the most dangerous position himself. This really is extraordinary courage, but such is the quality of the scripts (by Jimmy Perry and David Croft) and of the performances, it does not seem at all out of character. In another episode, he gives an absurd lecture to the platoon about the distinguishing physical characteristics of a typical Nazi, prompting the thought that had this man been born in Germany rather than in Britain, he would probably have been an enthusiastic Nazi himself.

Wilson, too, has depths that are not apparent: he may see the whole thing as a joke, but, as he concedes at one point, he is rather proud of being in the platoon, and even admires what Mainwaring has achieved. Underneath his general good humour there is more than a hint of sadness for an essentially failed life: we find out in one episode that his marriage had broken down, and that he only very rarely sees his now grown-up daughter, whom he never mentions, but of whom he is proud.

And there are the minor characters as well – Pike’s possessive mother Mavis (Janet Davies), with whom Wilson is obviously having an affair (Pike is the only one who seems unaware of this); the gloriously eccentric pairing of the effete vicar (Frank Williams) and his cantankerous, truculent verger (Edward Sinclair); and there’s the grocer, Mr Hodges (played by Bill Pertwee), who is also the Air Raid Warden. He is the sort of “villain” of the piece – brash, vulgar, unlikeable, and, Wilson says, “common” (“common” being just about the worst put-down in this class-ridden society). It is always a problem how to handle such characters in what is essentially a genial comedy, these Malvolios who refuse to be part of the general harmony: Wagner has been roundly criticised for his depiction of a similar character, Beckmesser, in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, who is presented without any sympathy at all, and whose ultimate humiliation Wagner appears rather to relish. There is nothing like that here: Hodges may be a bit of a fly in the ointment, but it is a fly one may live with, and he doesn’t unduly disrupt the sense of community and of gentleness that characterises the good-natured humour. At no point is the comedy allowed to turn sour.

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Harry H. Corbett and Wilfred Brambell in “Steptoe and Son”, picture courtesy BBC

Dad’s Army is always a pleasure to revisit. Steptoe and Son perhaps less so: one has to brace oneself for it. And, for me, they epitomise not merely the best that television has to offer (Steptoe and Son is great drama as well as great comedy), but also the two extremes between which, it seems to me, all comedy lies. They remind us also not to look down on the humble television sitcom: it is true that the heights these two series reached have rarely or never been followed up, but it is nonetheless good to remind oneself that such heights are indeed possible.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Comedy is no laughing matter

Definitions are tricky things. There is so much that is more easily recognised than defined. For instance, we all know that a “tragedy” is a play (or a film or a novel or an opera or whatever) where everyone – or, at least, the main character – dies at the end; but even so, we recognise Oedipus the King as a tragedy even though Oedipus remains at the end very much alive. Fair enough – the mood at the end isn’t exactly upbeat – but then, what about The Oresteia? Not only does no-one die at the end, the whole thing culminates with a triumphant hymn of joy! Such inconvenient disregard for the rules of tragedy has led theoreticians to come up with all sorts of alternative definitions. The intricacies of these definitions need not concern us now, but they can – as far as I’ve read – be boiled down to “Tragedy focuses on the darker aspects of the human experience”. That really is sufficiently broad-brush to cover everything we recognise as tragic.

But what about comedy? We’re on safer ground here, surely? Comedy is whatever makes us laugh. (Or, if we want to include such stuff as Absolutely Fabulous, it is whatever is at least intended to make us laugh, even if it doesn’t.) But there are objections here as well. There are many works that are undeniably tragic in nature, but which do nonetheless contain incidental humour. So we may modify our definition with the adjective “primarily”: a comedy is a work the intention of which is primarily to make one laugh. No problem with that one, one might think. But a few weeks ago, I found myself at the Royal Albert Hall, at the Proms, listening to the Welsh National Opera perform Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Throughout the four and a half hours or so of the music (six hours including the intervals), I don’t think I laughed once. I don’t even think I smiled, or chuckled. I knew all the jokes already, and, to be entirely honest, they weren’t that funny the first time round either. There are more laughs in any two minutes picked out at random from an episode of Fawlty Towers. And yet, I recognised the world presented in that opera as essentially comic. And what’s more, I found it elating. Walking back from the Royal Albert Hall to the South Kensington tube station, I seemed to be in another world.

So what was it in that work I responded to? What was it I recognised as being comic, even though it didn’t make me laugh? And it’s not just Die Meistersinger: I fail to laugh at other much loved comic operas – Verdi’s Falstaff, Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, say; or Shakespeare’s comedies – As You Like It, A Midsummer Night’s Dream; or even much loved episodes of Dad’s Army or Fawlty Towers: I have seen all of these so often I know all the jokes backwards, and the element of surprise that is so essential to raise a laugh is no longer there. And yet, for all that, I enjoy entering into these worlds which, despite the lack of laughs, I recognise as comic. Some of them even leave me feeling elated.

I suppose if the term “tragedy” can be defined as works that focus primarily on the darker elements of the human experience, then, conversely, “comedy” can be reserved for those works that do the opposite, i.e. as works that focus primarily on all those elements that enhance life, that make it worth living – all those things that tell us there is more, much more, to life than merely the death that ends it. Before Wagner composed Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, he had composed Tristan und Isolde (a concert performance of which this September, incidentally, I have tickets for), and there, the two protagonists, having given up on all that this world has to offer, long only for death. That I can recognise as tragic. But comedy tells us something very different. In Die Meistersinger, Hans Sachs too renounces, and the renunciation is not easy: but the renunciation does not lead to a longing for death. Sachs even refers to the story of Tristan & Isolde (Wagner allows the orchestra to play a strain from his earlier work at this point), but tells us he does not want to end like King Marke: that tragic world is referred to, and is rejected. There is more to long for than merely death.

Viewed in this light, it is surprising how rare true comedy is in the modern world. Much that is ostensibly comedy has these days a dark edge: sometimes the darkness becomes dominant. There’s satire, there’s black humour: indeed, some even tell us that comedy is necessarily dark, and that comic works that do not address this darkness are not worth the candle. I have personally felt very uncomfortable with this. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate darkness in comedy: I can respond to the desperation at the heart of Steptoe and Son, the savagery of the satire in Till Death Us Do Part. But is this true comedy? Are not such dark drama and such vicious satire really aspects of the tragic?

The pilot episode of Steptoe and Son had ended in one of the most powerful and affecting of all tragic scenes: the son, Harold, desperate to get away from his father, had, quite insanely, attempted to draw the cart on his own (and yes, I’d guess the reference to Mother Courage here is entirely deliberate); and, unable, naturally, to do this, he had broken down in tears. And his father, bringing him back home and telling him sympathetically that he’ll make him “a nice cup of tea” somehow accentuates the tragedy: it rubs in the terrible truth that for Harold, there can be no escape, that he is doomed for ever to “nice cups of tea” with his father, whom he loves and hates at the same time. How many serious, tragic dramas have achieved scenes of such tragic intensity, I wonder? Yes, there are belly-laughs in Steptoe and Son, but belly-laughs alone do not a comedy make: the heart of Steptoe and Son remains a dark one.

For true comedy, one has to go to the likes of Sgt Bilko, Dad’s Army, The Morecambe and Wise Show. We have to go to the idyllic fictional world of P. G. Wodehouse (that Eden from which we are all exiled, as Evelyn Waugh once said), to the charm of Pickwick Papers. Or to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, or to Verdi’s Falstaff. Not that these worlds are entirely untroubled, of course: Wodehouse’s world, admittedly, is of sunny, cloudless skies, where the worst danger to be faced is that of Bertie being hitched up to Madeleine Bassett; but Pickwick Papers is darkened by those extraordinary chapters of the debtors’ prison; Hans Sachs does not find it easy to acknowledge his advancing years, and to renounce that one hope of happiness he had cherished; and even Falstaff, at one point, threatens to descend into those dark regions of Otello, as Ford is overcome by an insane jealousy. We know of course that there is no real danger of the darkness overwhelming the light: the very fact that these works are all set out as comedies reassures us. The presence of the darkness can be and often is acknowledged. But that darkness is, in one way or another, overcome: unlike in Tristan & Isolde, there is more to look forward to here than merely death.

But works such as this – works that affirm – seem to me these days to be increasingly rare. It is almost as if writers can no longer believe in affirmation. Or that they consider it trivial, or self-deluding. Have we, I wonder, lost the ability to affirm in the face of it all? I’d guess we haven’t lost the ability to respond to it, to judge from my response (and not merely my response) to Die Meistersinger; or to judge by the continuing popularity of Wodehouse, or the re-runs of Dad’s Army. But possibly we no longer believe in it strongly enough to create it.

“There are dark shadows on the earth,” writes Dickens towards the end of Pickwick Papers, “but its lights are stronger in the contrast. Some men, like bats or owls, have better eyes for the darkness than for the light.” But, he continues “we … have no such powers”. Dickens’ eyesight, admittedly, did change later in his literary career: it became more bat-like, more owl-like. But I for one remain grateful that before this change in his eyesight, he gave us Pickwick Papers. And one can be equally grateful that Verdi, after a career of composing tragic operas, signed off with that miraculous work of true comedy, Falstaff; or that Wagner, in between composing operas about lovers longing for death or about the end of the world gave us Die Meistersinger. The comic vision is one that enhances our lives, and to lose it would be tragic.