How Alien Is English?

Christopher Fowler
12832_full Cultural differences are what make visiting other lands so much fun, and although they're fast smoothing out on the surface (thanks, Starbucks) they still exist beyond cities. But we live in times of the cultural export, when everything must work on a global level. America has successfully exported itself as a brand value - we probably all know far too much about US history and geography compared to what we know of other countries. Recently a friend complained, 'I never want to see or read another thing about the Chicago gangster era - there are better stories to tell, surely?' But 'The Wire' - deep Americana, was a brilliant spin on an old genre. Still, how revelatory it would be to see a series set in the Spanish Civil War or The Great Leap Forward. Englishness, too, has been branded into something exportable - why else would an appalling play like 'The Mousetrap' still be running? When a cast of four staged a stripped-down comic version of John Buchan's 'The 39 Steps' in Edinburgh, nobody ever thought it would run in Piccadilly Circus for years. Filled with jokes that were stale in the 1930s, packed with references no-one who is not English and under the age of fifty would get, it sits there, night after night, packing in tourists. It's a show that consists of some torches and two stepladders. Presumably, so long as the theatre remembers to turn the lights on and open the doors each night, the play will continue to coin cash. I went along recently to see it. The house was half-empty and the audience comprised mostly Germans and Eastern Europeans, together with a few Chinese, who sat in bewildered silence. It was a slickly produced bit of silliness that got good mileage out of its leads being handcuffed together, and the doubling up of character actors, but it really belongs at the Stag Theatre, Sevenoaks or somewhere else in the sticks, being watched by very, very old ladies. Which brings me, it seems, to Bertie Wooster. The joy of PG Wodehouse is hard to explain; it's the amused lightness of the language, the silly similes, the utter refusal to deal with anything serious, the farcical twisting of situations. And aunts, lots of aunts. So a new play, 'Perfect Nonsense', is in the West End, with the dream casting of Stephen Mangan as Wooster and Mathew Macfadyen as Jeeves, and I thought boded well. Not last night, though, as we had a brave but hopelessly out of his depth understudy replacing Mangan, in what turned out to be a
'Let's Put On A Show'-style farce peppered with read-out chunks from the book. Minus its star turn, the play looked decidedly ropey. The selected starting point was the 'The Code Of The Woosters' - the one with the stolen cow creamer - and the format was 'We'll play all the parts', cue props and business with wigs. The audience, who consisted of inbred-looking families from the shires, seemed vaguely amused but hardly impressed. My partner, who was already three strikes down, a/ being from New Zealand, b/ never having read Wodehouse and c/ not arriving until the intermission, turned to me and said; 'This is the most alien, incomprehensible thing I have ever sat through.' I imagined it running in five years' time, God help us, to an audience of mystified Chinese tourists who might perk up whenever someone bumps into a door. I always thought Monty Python was Deep English, but students in the USA loved that. (There's now a book of the complete scripts out that explains all the cultural references in detailed footnotes.) 'Jeeves and Wooster' has become an English brand, like Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Who, the acceptable face of Alien English, and there's nothing at all wrong with that. But the beauty resolutely remains on the page, not the stage. Being a Londoner, I cannot imagine what constitutes alienness now. The black comedies of Peter Nichols? The subtle slights and cruelties of Saki? But what has there been recently? Taking an American friend to see a terrific fringe production of Sheridan's 'School For Scandal', I got a horrible sense of what alienness might now be. She asked to leave at the intermission because she said it wasn't in English.


Alan G (not verified) Thu, 21/11/2013 - 10:39

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Thank you Admin - will cross this off the "Event not to take the new Girlfriend to" list.

Christopher Fowler Thu, 21/11/2013 - 11:12

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I do imagine the double act of Macfayden and Mangan would be the saving grace of the play, just by the skin of its teeth. Still a bit too close to a touring production of an old Brian Rix farce, though.

Dan Terrell (not verified) Thu, 21/11/2013 - 13:31

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

That can happen when you are with a mixed group of "foreigners." Everyone can be communicating well and then suddenly for some of them it's "dropped signal," "signal strength weak" or "no service this area." And it happens fast when a conversation enters the culture-bound joke arena. That's why my wife once posted a sign in her language school reading: "Best Not to Try to Joke in a Foreign Language."

Dan Terrell (not verified) Thu, 21/11/2013 - 16:13

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

According to the newspaper this morning the Monty Python crew will be holding a single-night reunion in London this coming summer. Idle says it will be about: Comedy, Pathos and Ancient Sex. He also says that tickets will cost about 300lbs (I have a non-British keyboard here, guys) less than the last Stones concert. You going Admin?

Keith Page (not verified) Thu, 21/11/2013 - 16:17

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Hmm.Having watched one of the first performances by Mangan and Macfadyen I reckon they managed to pull off a very difficult task with this play.I remember the Old Brian Rix farces and they came nowhere near this.The rest of the audience seemed pretty impressed as well; this was one of the most entertaining productions I've seen in a London theatre.It does of course help a great deal if you've read some of the books, though.

Christopher Fowler Thu, 21/11/2013 - 21:04

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I agree - there's no substitute for the books!

Helen Martin (not verified) Fri, 22/11/2013 - 00:02

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I was just informed by the husband about the Monty Python reunion - "No funny walks now that I have an artificial knee and hip." That says it all, really. Remember "You can't go home again"?

Alan G (not verified) Fri, 22/11/2013 - 11:23

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Mmm. A on a Wodehouse and Jerome K. Jerome binge at the moment (just a change from brain-eating zombies and over-sexed vampires.) I might try her out on a bit of Jeeves and Wooster.

Alan G (not verified) Fri, 22/11/2013 - 11:24

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Get it? See what I... - oh, never mind.