Amongst the ton or more of Sunday papers, I read a passing comment about the latest series on TV of ‘Little Britain’. Someone who had just emerged from a Rip van Winkle state was unable to see what was funny. This struck a chord with me inasmuch as I felt the new production was below par in comparison with the earlier shows. Exactly what it was that had gone wrong evaded me. The gross exaggeration of the characters still shocked at times but I deemed to be missing the full in your face effect.
One of the things that I had enjoyed was that I felt it was challenging as well as being entertaining. The programme seemed to be saying what I sometimes wanted to say but where I lacked a platform and, maybe, the concern about how my opinion would sound. No one could be offended by Daffyd (The Only Gay In The Village) and his lesbian barmaid. They brought out the question of alternative sex lives in a way that no one could claim was offensive and this could lead to further discussion. The pretend-disabled guy in the wheelchair and his carer had similar properties. We have now seen enough episodes, and catch-phrases have entered everyday usage, that shock has worn off. The critic awakening after his 40 year snooze was just too late. Rather like joining a group just at the moment the punch line of a joke is revealed.
Other long-term TV entertainments such as East Enders, Coronation Street, Casualty and Co seem destined to run for ever. Admittedly, they are drama rather than entertainment but it seems that the viewers do not tire of them as happens with comedy shows.
We have a history of spurning great entertainment. I can only go back to TW3. There again the – let’s call it honesty and shock – of the script was it’s main attraction. It broke all sorts of taboos and taste boundaries. I think it must have been the first to ridicule the Royal Family. Again, time robbed it of its attraction. It was not that suitable new targets did not exist. The unique selling point had been lost.
Other shows that demanded attention to issues other than comedy were those involving Alf Garnett. He opened up discussions on bigotry, racial and sexual prejudice. He was so dreadful that he was able to refer to things that none other dared to raise in public or over their breath. Well, not strictly. I sort of grew up in that part of his East End and there were many real Alf Garnetts. I think that any attempt now to reprise Death us Do Part would run into serious trouble – Mosley on the march sort of reaction.
OK – what went wrong with the Muppet Show? Humongous whilst it was here and died with a whimper. No confrontation other than gentle mickey taking of the guests. No big brave statements. I think it was like our favourite Teddy Bear or comfort blanket – we just grew out of it.
There was the series based upon an Army entertainment unit in India during the last World War – ‘It ain’t half hot Mum’. This was not so ‘in your face’ as the others but again, it exposed misconceptions about Indians and included sexual discrimination in a low-key style. I think that went for something like the Muppets. Those who had served in the Army in general and in India in particular were a dying breed and support just ran out. It still gets repeated quite a bit in the outer space of Sky after 1 a.m.
More recent entertainment has also faded after a big glossy start. Goodness Gracious Me. Again, we get the pattern that it said things banned or difficult for the rest of us. It mocked our perception of the Indian life style but, as it was written and performed by Indians, how could any of us complain? It showed us just how stupid and wrong those attitudes were. There was a similar style show before this – I’ve forgotten the title but it was scripted and performed by black artists. They reflected our prejudices in comic style and exposed them for what they were – ignorant and ill-informed. The show included a Nigerian (played by Desmond someone) who was here ostensibly to study as an accountant but repeatedly failed his examinations despite having lived in England for more than 10 years. He explained that his ‘fadder was very rich mon’. We had a real one of these employed by me as a security guard and I found great difficulty restraining myself when he spoke of his, naturally, rich family in Nigeria. I did once ask him what his father did that made him rich but was unable to fully understand his answer because it was hurting to bite my lips.
So, it seems that comedy is constantly re-inventing itself. Even going back to live entertainment before TV was a common possession. Max Wall - I saw him twice and would not bother a third time. Charlie Chaplin - once was enough funny as he was. Arthur Askey - my third seeing was my last. Tommy Trinder - ah; different. I could have stayed with him.
Just another little thing from the pre-waste recycling papers. There was an interview with the cameraman who had shot a lot of Sophia Loren's movies. He explained that to do his job properly he had to discuss and get close to her and examine her from all angles. Over time, this grew to an intimacy they both recognised. He said, 'But I was married and didn't dare to risk it'
My God! Didn't dare. Risk it. I've been good all my marriage - except, occasionally, mentally - but being in his position would certainly have led me astray.