Wednesday, March 26, 2008

British Comedy: A Question of Class

It was a shame to see Sandra Piddock of Plymouth narrowly fail in her gallant attempt to become the new UK Mastermind. Sandra's specialist subject in the Grand Final on Easter Monday was Jimmy Perry and David Croft's wonderful comedy series 'It Ain't Half Hot Mum', which regular readers will know is one of my all time favourites. By choosing the subject however, Sandra had to put up with some rather patronising treatment. In my tv guide the TV critic claims 'I'm sorry Sandra Piddock, knowing a lot about It Ain't Half Hot Mum doesn't make you brainy- it just means you didn't get out much in the 1970s'.

Worse still was the attitude of Mastermind compere John Humphrys. When discussing the comedies of Perry and Croft, Humphrys asked Sandra Piddock 'Aren't they rather simplistic?' Well, John, if you're looking for simplistic comedy, what about a certain BBC series in which a running joke is a woman vomiting when she hears the word 'black'? But, oops, we can't accuse Little Britain of being 'simplistic' because it's written and performed by public school-educated university graduates. In the same way we can't accuse the humour of Borat (aka Sacha Baron-Cohen, Haberdasher's Aske's; Cambridge University), of being 'simplistic' either. No, the humour of Lucas, Walliams and Baron Cohen might appear lavatorial and simplistic to the untrained eye, but it is in fact incredibly sophisticated, ironic, satirical, in fact all three men are total geniuses..!(not).

I've written before of the dreadful snobbery which exists when it comes to comedy in Britain today- and how BBC comedy output is now dominated by middle-class public school/university educated writers- Mitchell and Webb being the last clones to roll off the production line. For today's public school/university educated comedians the two priorities are:

1. to shock the audience; 2. to sneer at the oiks.

Making us laugh comes a very poor third.

Long Live Jimmy Perry and David Croft. And Galton and Simpson. And Esmonde and Larbey. And Clement and Le Frenais. And Johnny Speight. The sad and truly shocking thing is that none of those great comedy writers would ever get commissioned by today's BBC.


Charlie Marks said...

I totally agree. BBC Four recently repeated some episodes of Steptoe and Son. I was struck by how captivating the show was - it's comedy was situational and character based, like Dad's Army and other classic comedies.

What strikes me about Little Britain and the Catherine Tate show is how they repeat the worst of 60s and 70s humour - the more crass, racist and homophobic tropes - but as it is done in a supposedly ironic knowing way it is permitted.

What's lacking from TV comedy is the voices of working people and I think this has a lot to do with the death of situation comedy, leaving only satirical and panel shows which are populated by media professionals.

Neil Clark said...

I couldn't agree more, Charlie.
It's not just in TV comedy that the voices of working people are lacking these days, it's also in politics and the media.
The Labour Party has been taken over by middle class professionals.
Talking of Steptoe did you ever see the episode where Harold wants to become a Labour candidate, but the local Labour agent, played by Dudley Foster tells him that the party is looking to attract more middle class 'successful' types?
Galton and Simpson could see quite clearly how the party was changing.

Anonymous said...

Long Live Jimmy Perry and David Croft. And Galton and Simpson. And Esmonde and Larbey. And Clement and Le Frenais. And Johnny Speight. The sad and truly shocking thing is that none of those great comedy writers would ever get commissioned by today's BBC.

Well, they're unlikely to commission anything from Johnny Speight any time soon, what with him being dead for a decade - though he was still writing stuff for the BBC into the 1990s.

As for Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, the BBC last commissioned something from them in 2005 (The Rotters' Club) - but they've been a bit busy with big-budget Hollywood commissions since then.

And I believe the others are all well past retirement age - well into their eighties in some cases. Which might be a more plausible explanation for the lack of current commissions than your conspiracy theory.

Neil Clark said...

Hi slapheads:
you've misread the final para.
The point I'm making is that if the writers I mentioned came along today as new talent and tried to sell the BBC their ideas, they'd be rejected.

Charlie Marks said...

I recall seeing that episode years ago, Neil.... Most prescient!

A good sitcom that's been going for a few years is Still Game, about senior citizens living on a Glasgow council estate.

Check it out on youtube, it's worth it. This episode "Cauld" is a classic:

Neil Clark said...

Thanks Charlie, for the link. I'll take a look.
All best,

Anonymous said...

The point I'm making is that if the writers I mentioned came along today as new talent and tried to sell the BBC their ideas, they'd be rejected.

It's difficult to respond to this because of the lack of any supporting evidence.

Perhaps if you could name a new writer who's been trying unsuccessfully to sell a Perry/Croft-style sitcom to the BBC, it might carry slightly more weight.

Anonymous said...

You're certainly right about Little Britain, and the disappearance of the working class from television production is a global phenomenon, about which there is a good article here:

However, I can't for the life of me understand the veneration of "It Ain't Half Hot Mum". If racist 'native' humour isn't tedious and trivial and mind-rotting, then there is hardly any reason to criticise Lucas and Walliams. What sense is there in which this was great 'working class' humour? And there is surely a huge difference between the sophisticated humour of Steptoe and Son and the heavily cliched post-empire melancholia of Perry & Croft. Galton and Simpson generated some remarkable moments of television pathos, particularly in 'The Desperate Hours', which in my view is the single best episode of Steptoe and Son. It has hardly dated, albeit modern viewers would quite rightly be put off by some of the in-jokes about immigrants and the way in which female characters are handled. Speight's show lacked these virtues, but was quite unintentional in any encouragement it gave to the racist filth of 1970s Britain - it was intended to attack racism. (Although if anyone saw the Alf Garnett stand-up show a decade ago, it was depressingly obvious that he was still getting laughs for all the wrong reasons). But "It Ain't Half Hot Mum" looks like quite deliberate denigration of colonial indigenes in the context of Britain's imperial decline and a global Third World uprising. The equivalent today would be a "Mussie" show, with little 'jokes' about the niqab and suicide bombings and the Prophet and so on. I can't find a redeeming feature in it. Mind you, I always thought "Dad's Army" was hideously over-rated despite its obvious charms.

Neil Clark said...

Lenin: thanks for the link.
I agree with you about The Desperate Hours- it's not only the best ever episode of Steptoe but also one of the best half hours of comedy ever written.
But I don't agree with you on It Ain't Half Hot Mum or Dad's Army being 'hideously overrated'.
IAHHM was not racist, the people being sent up are the silly arse officers and the ott, homophobic RSM Williams, played so memorably by Windsor Davies. Jimmy Perry said that the aim of the series was to show how Britain became a multiracial society. Perry and Croft haven't got a racist bone in their body.
I think the fact that Dad's Army is still bringing in the viewers nearly 40 years from first being broadcast, speaks for itself.

All best, Neil

Sandra Piddock said...

Hello, Neil. I just came across this article when I googled 'articles by Sandra Piddock' to prove to a friend new to web writing that you don't need thousands of articles to build up a web presence, just your best articles duplicated on appropriate sites.

Mastermind was a great experience, and I never expected to get past the first round, so I didn't mind missing out on the trophy really, and my general knowledge score tied with the winner, so I don't feel I need to defend myself to the likes of that TV critic.

However, what the critic and most other people don't know was that 3 of my first 4 specialist subjects were not acceptable as they had been covered in recent series. The only one I could use was the 'Poldark' novels in the 2nd round. 'It Ain't Half Hot Mum' was my 4th classic comedy choice!

Subjects turned down included 2 on Shakespeare, the Jane Austen novels and the Wars of the Roses, and yes I did get out a lot in the 1970's!

I must defend John Humphrys though - he wasn't at all patronising, it was the way it was edited

I didn't realise I was such a celebrity. Thanks for your kind comments.