Donate to my Legal Action vs Oliver Kamm

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Remembering Joyce Grenfell: The observational comedian who genuinely loved people

All strata of society were grist to her mill – she could turn herself into the grande dame at the opera, the bosomy good soul who does the flowers in church, or the young working-class wife on her day out, and she could portray all of them without malice or sneering.
She would also have thought that the self-obsession of today’s stand-ups was extremely vulgar (she could be right).

writes Rupert Christiansen in his wonderful Daily Telegraph tribute to Joyce Grenfell, who was born exactly 100 years ago this month.

Grenfell was a very funny observational comedian, but her comedy, as Christiansen notes, never involved malice. Although coming from a privileged background- her aunt was Lady Astor and she spent much time at Cliveden, she was no snob.

Her humour - based upon her genuine love of people- contrasts sharply with the nasty, sneering and misanthropic humour of today’s middle-class observational comedians.
Jimmy Carr, Sacha Baron Cohen, Lucas and Walliams, as I noted here, get their laughs by sneering at those they think are their inferiors- something Joyce Grenfell never did.

Christiansen begins his short tribute by saying:
"Perhaps somebody somewhere has marked the centenary of one of the truly great comic stand-ups, but if they have, I didn’t notice.”

Alas, it seems the dear boy doesn’t take the Morning Star.


Robin Carmody said...

Agreed, and it is depressing that fans of Carr, Baron Cohen et al might well dismiss Grenfell as "right-wing" simply because of her accent (shared by many members of the Attlee and Wilson governments) when Baron Cohen came to prominence with an inherently right-wing mockery of people who don't know the supposed racial and cultural rules, who are prepared to play roles and step outside their comfort zone in the way people did in the 1960s, whereas Grenfell - despite being much older at the time - was broadly tolerant and accepting of the post-war cultural changes, the Beatles etc.

But - as always - there is a but. Grenfell's world, rightly or wrongly, has gone - her archetypes mostly no longer exist. Good broadcast comedy today would recognise - and, when necessary, attack - *today's* archetypes, and seriously challenge and criticise the entire neoliberal system and the false assumptions that hold it up. There is precious little of this today, I'll grant you, but there was much of it in the early 1990s (have you seen 'If You See God, Tell Him?' Now *that* was Richard Briers' best role), before British TV was finally asset-stripped, and before comedians became complacent in the face of NuLab and wrongly thought there was nothing left to fight.

The other but, in the context of the nasty racist mockery that made Baron Cohen rich in the first place, is Neil's misguided, unthinking anti-hip-hop stance. It is true that much of it reflects aggressive individualism, but - as one of them once put it - rappers were given this world, they didn't make it. And in British hip-hop/grime there is often a rigour there, an awareness that the market is a myth (however seductive) that we haven't had in white rock music for decades, and arguably never really did.

Mr. Piccolo said...

How true. Classic comedians like Joyce Grenfell always wanted to make people laugh and smile, not cringe. I often cringe more than I laugh or smile when I watch many modern comedies.

jock mctrousers said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Gregor said...

Interesting article Neil. The irony is that if a middle class guy 'invented' Bernard Manning (ie pretended to be a fat, bigoted working class boor from oop no'th) then it would no doubt be regarded as genius.

On a similar note, this is horrible:

I find the idea someone as stupid, ignorant and belligerent as Sarah Palin could get anywhere near a position of power frankly terrifying. But mocking her for having a son with Downs' Syndrome is just vile. I'm not sure if even South Park would go quite that low.

I do think it says a lot both about the West and about where meainstream liberalism now is. I don't think most mainstream comedy is something you'd watch with your friends repeatedly (a friend and I who are both in our twenties can watch Peter Sellers' Clouseau films again and again and always laugh heartily at his wonderful performances as a lovable but inept and pompous detective). I think a lot of modern comedy is more for someone to snicker at with aquaintences to be 'hip'. But I doubt if they really feel it brightens their lives up.

Neil Clark said...

thanks for the comments.
Robin: no, I never saw 'If you see God, will you tell him', unfortunately. thanks for advice re British hip-hop!
Jock, I don''t know much about 'Socialist Action' to be honest.
mr piccolo: absolutely. today's comedy sets out to shock, (think Little Britain and Sacha B-Cohen, Mock the Week), the comedy shows of the past simply wanted to make us laugh.

"I do think it says a lot both about the West and about where meainstream liberalism now is"
Absolutely. As do the o.t.t. attacks on religion and religious figures.
how many of today's comedies leave you with a warm glow after watching them? It's cruel and nasty humour for a cruel and nasty age.

Mr. Piccolo said...


Excellent points. I couldn't agree more. I often wonder if perhaps some of these modern comedians go for "shock value" and "edginess" because they lack actual talent. I personally think this might be the case. I think it takes a lot more talent to make people laugh without resorting to cruelty or vulgarity.

On a different note, what is even more interesting is that despite the claims of economic liberalism, it seems that the more turbo-capitalist the society, the more its top economic, social and political rungs are filled not by people with actual talent, but by people who are just a lot meaner, nastier, and more aggressive than others. That is my take anyway.

Robin Carmody said...

If you never saw 'If You See God, Tell Him' you missed a treat - although am I right in thinking you may have been living in Hungary by 1993? It's a stunning attack on the entire *myth* of the market, a brutal inversion of every assumed norm of the Right (which may be part of the reason why Briers himself doesn't like it). If you like unequivocally left-wing deconstructive humour, there's no excuse for not owning the series on DVD - I'd do an Amazon link but doubt their overlong URLs would come through here. You really should buy it, though - it's quite unlike most current TV comedy which leaves a nasty right-wing taste (c.f. the celeb/image-based criteria behind the taunting of Gordon Brown).

Briers' other great performances were in 'The Other One' (the first series of which is on DVD, but more than two years later the second series remains unavailable) and 'Ever Decreasing Circles' (now almost universally recognised, partially due to Ricky Gervais' endorsement, as in a different league from almost every other suburban sitcom - though I was speaking up for it when it was still rather frowned upon - and thankfully available in full). Both of these for me were much more challenging and psychologically revealing than 'The Good Life', which is enjoyable but not really anything more.

jock mctrousers said...

The name only vaguely rang a bell to me until I happened on Maureen Lipman doing a show devoted to her on the tv - very entertaining. I enjoyed it so much I intend to check out the real thing - there are some very cheap cds and a dvd of Grenfell herself. She really DOES recall a gentler and more civil world. But after the 2 world wars it's little wonder people valued a bit of civility.

Completely off topic. I find references to 'Socialist Action' cropping up everywhere of late, but little substantial proof that it actually exists - they dominate Student Broad Left (?), they dominated Ken Livingstone's Town Hall, they're in deep in the Stop the War Movement, and now they've taken over the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign - though the membership, including me, seem to be unpersuaded of that. Apparently the first and last rules of SA are that you never mention SA. I think they first got a public mention in that film by that self-confessed zionist who made a film about Livingstone's administration ( Martin Bright was it?) - take with a pinch of salt. And now there seems to be a steady drip of 'little mentions' of SA throughout the blogosphere.
What do you think, Neil? Do you know of any concrete evidence that this IS a real group? Or is it just a bit of divisive rumour mongering being seeded into discussion by 'secret forces'?

jock mctrousers said...

Yes, no one seems to know anything about Socialist Action.