No More Classical Allusions?

The Arts


‘Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you?’ Tony Hancock asks his fellow jurors. ‘Did she die in vain?’

In ‘The Producers’, nervous accountant Gene Wilder attempts to do the books of sleazy theatrical agent Zero Mostel, who terrifies him, inducing a hysterical fit in Wilder. ‘You’re going to jump on me!’ Wilder screams, ‘just like Nero jumped on Poppea!’

‘Socrates, himself, is particularly missed, a lovely little thinker but a bugger when he’s pissed,’ sang Monty Python.


Classical allusions have always been involved at the heart of British comedy. From Hoffnung to ‘Blackadder’ there were always jokes and puns to be made at the expense of historical figures. In books too, from ‘1066 And All That’ to ‘No Bed For Bacon’ (the novel which acted as the unacknowledged basis for ‘Shakespeare In Love’).  But lately all classical, literary and artistic allusions have vanished from comedy, which has turned inwards and away from the tide of history.

I think it’s to do with shared knowledge. Once it was taken for granted that most people would know that Hannibal crossed the Alps with his elephants and wasn’t a serial killing cannibal, that King Canute failed to command the tide and that King Alfred burned the cakes. Now, after decades of revisionism and altered focus onto more recent historical world events, you wouldn’t make jokes about Cavaliers and Roundheads, and god forbid you try one about Beethoven’s deafness.

It’s a shame, because the past is a great resource for writers. There are many very funny books about the Victorians, for example. So, without history to draw upon are there any new trends in comedy? What makes us laugh now?

14 comments on “No More Classical Allusions?”

  1. Helen Martin says:

    You start this off with one of my favourite books and you’re right. You can’t remark about the Picts painting themselves woad or true blue or the Scots now living in brackets because people just gaze blankly at you. How about “Arold with ‘is eye full of arrow – on ‘is ‘orse with ‘is ‘awk on ‘is ‘and?
    Now it has to be current events that everyone can be presumed to share: Hollywood people or Donald Trump. I don’t get the movie people, but I’m out of the loop, I guess.

  2. Vanessa says:

    What makes me laugh now? Not a lot, sadly. You are so right about this. I have a nasty habit of judging people based on whether or not they laugh at the joke about Descartes going into a bar…

  3. Martin Tolley says:

    I used to teach undergraduates. Mentioning age-old folk like Oliver Cromwell hit a brick wall many years back. In a lecture last year my 150-odd first-year students had heard of Winston Churchill; but more than a third glazed over at the mention of John Kennedy. The one consolation is that most of them, like me, didn’t know which was Ant and which was Dec.

  4. Brian Evans says:

    I’ve just watched a “Stanley Baxter Picture Show” of the late 1970’s. This was once compulsory viewing, yet anyone under 30 watching it now wouldn’t have a clue who the film stars and celebrities were that he was taking off. Although they might recognise the Queen. Perhaps.

  5. anthony williams says:

    Don’t think Mel Brooks is a Brit, but maybe. Point well taken, although Izzard seems to like history. Of a sort

  6. Ness says:

    I mentioned tilting at windmills to blank stares. Not as bad as mentioning the Berlin wall to those born after 1990. No reason not to go and look things up if you don’t get the joke or the reference in a book – that’s mainly how I got my education. I wasn’t alive in the 1940s but I’m well aware of WW2 and jokes about invading Poland. My mother survived being bombed out multiple times in the East End and even she found these types of jokes funny as they didn’t have a whole lot else left but humour in those very bleak times.

    Let’s persist in the references and people may learn something – otherwise with Trump as president and the Kardashians as our pop culture compass (there’s a joke in there somewhere) I might as well give up now. Damn my education, it’s ruined me for the modern world.

  7. Peter Dixon says:

    Woah Nellie!

    Historical reference went out sometime after mass television ownership was reached and celeb ‘culture’ made its prurient progress into the popular press. Today history in general and the common classical and historical tales and stories that made up part of my education (whether forced or absorbed through cultural allusion) is completely sidelined. Whereas a whole bunch of avid watchers can tell you all about Eastenders, Corrie and Emmerdale (which used to be about a farm until someone realised it wasn’t sexy enough; for gods sake – lambing, harvest festival, milk quotas?). Not only that but 70% of the popular press is taken up by the sad lives of the minor celebs who appear in this stuff.

    Remember ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’ when they sang about the Sabine Women? Who, under 30, would have a clue about the reference? Sadly its no longer the case that; ‘If you’re out with a girl and you’d flatter her, tell her what Anthony told Cleopatra’ (Brush Up Your Shakespeare).

    One of the delights of Wodehouse is Bertie Wooster’s historical or literary misquotes which have to be corrected by Jeeves.

    How many of todays children understand the great Nigel Molesworth’s meanderings into the classics? How many adults? Chiz.

    As he said: ‘History started badly and hav been steadily geting worse’

  8. Vivienne says:

    I fear it starts even earlier – I worry about children not knowing the old fairy stories, to say nothing of nursery rhymes – you’d need a great grandmother these days, or a revival of ‘Listen with Mother’.

  9. Ken Mann says:

    I can’t say that my nieces and nephews are less educated than I am – this seems too strong a claim. but then again who remembers the Piccadilly goat?

  10. Ken Mann says:

    …does this mean that a revival of the 1066 and all that stage show is off the cards?

  11. Helen Martin says:

    Fairy tales. Are you aware of what the modern age has done to them? Traditional tales have helpless female characters, either that or wicked stepmother/witch ones. Something had to be done so ten to twelve year olds were encouraged to write or re-write “better” stories and numerous children’s authors wrote take off versions, including The Three Little Pigs from the wolf’s viewpoint and the Frog Prince from his viewpoint as a frog. Some of them were witty and The Paper Bag Princess is a great story, but to negate hundreds of years of story telling as misogynism isn’t really helpful.
    Reading is the answer. If we’re not going to teach ancient history and on this continent the first question is who’s ancient history would we teach then we have to encourage reading that references the past. Lamb’s essays should still be readable (remember the discovery of roast pork? Never mind the vegans) and the semi-historical tales like Robert Bruce and the Spider are fun because you can tell them using whatever vocabulary resonates with the listener/reader.

  12. Richard Burton says:

    Well historical references do change over time, but I do think Horrible Histories has a pretty good stab at keeping fun references going. The kings and queens song is pretty useful.

  13. Helen Martin says:

    Report from the trenches. Two people (separately) posted to my Timeline a drawing of a Roman Emperor with the caption “We’re going to build a wall and make the Picts pay for it. Vote for Hadrian.” Responses were great guffaws – and I certainly liked it.
    Rats! I had another one but can’t remember now.

  14. Helen Martin says:

    Got it! A proposed fish and chip shop in Vancouver was refused by the building’s owners because they felt the smells would bother other tenants but ALSO because the proposed name, especially the second half was offensive. The proposed name? Moby Dick.

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