My obsession with Norman Wisdom began as a small child. Every adult found him deeply annoying, but I thought he was hilarious. It helped that he looked like my father, I suppose, and was the same height. Then I realised that for all its love of complex wordplay, the British seem to love a slapstick fall, from Wisdom dropping onto the roof of an ambulance to Del Boy vanishing through the bar and Miranda Hart falling over everything in sight.
Wisdom was a strange one, though. Strip away the sentiment and you arrived at the surreal, whether Norman was imagining his landlady with a horse’s head, singing an eye-chart off-key, turning a police pursuit into a back-garden steeplechase, playing golf upside-down in the top of a tree, being induced with pneumonia or seduced in weirdly convincing drag. Miranda does the opposite, constantly being mistaken for a man.
It took me years to work out why I enjoyed these films. The shrill, inarticulate Wisdom had his roots in the class war. In ‘One Good Turn’ he made straight for the First Class train carriage for no other reason than to disturb its occupants, and this was a trend that continued throughout his films until it became open anarchy. He destroyed posh buildings, wrecked institutions, smashed up expensive cars and gleefully encouraged others to be drawn into fights; this was a schoolboy’s anarchist manifesto, a reaction against the ration-book restrictions of Post-war England that consistently attacked authority figures including mayors, corporate executives, government officials, police sergeants and politicians, and only caused destruction to status symbols – Rolls Royces, country mansions, gala dinners and state visits.
Steptoe and Son were working class – rag and bone men could hardly be anything else. Tony Hancock played an unemployed actor, but the link he shared with Harold Steptoe was that they were both anxious to climb the social ladder.
The odd thing is that although the class system is arguably more securely in place than ever before – albeit twisted so that there’s a huge tranche of people who consider themselves middle class and only a small embattled group of upper class folk (ie with inherited wealth and property), comedians don’t conduct class war any more. Miranda’s wordplay and slapstick exists entirely within her own social group, whereas Wisdom and Steptoe were virtually class warriors.
Political comedy thrives in the form of ‘The Thick Of It’, but why is mainstream comedy now so completely divorced from class? Could it be that since the arrival of the desperately aspirational Richard Curtis, comedy located its place at the heart of the middle classes?