Cruel, Surreal, Disturbing: The Oddities Of British Humour
Two British things are especially hard to explain and often impossible to understand; cricket and comedy.
My mantra on the subject is that slapstick travels across cultural barriers but wit does not. Reading Norman Collins’ ‘The Three Friends’, published in 1935, I find myself noting certain phrases he uses because they are funny while being intrinsically descriptive. His tropics-set novels place him alongside Somerset Maugham, Evelyn Waugh and William Boyd, while his London novels give him the air of a less cynical Patrick Hamilton. Yet Collins remains by far the least respected of any of those writers, probably because he was more vocal than any of the others about his populist beliefs.
The English have a deeply peculiar sense of humour; I should know – I have the gene in buckets, and have relied upon it for years. Certain TV shows, films and books produce tropes that bounce back and forth between us throughout our lives. Catchphrases had always existed here from ‘ITMA’ and ‘Much Binding in the Marsh’ through to ‘Round The Horne’ and ‘Monty Python’. It’s something I celebrate in the next Bryant & May novel, which is lighter in tone than usual. Catchphrases are not funny in themselves; however, phrases like ‘Suits you, sir’, ‘…Which is nice’ and ‘You stupid boy’ easily slipped into everyday language.
Comedy is threaded through non-comedy too. In ‘Abigail’s Party’, Alison Steadman plays the gorgon hostess in such an estuarine tone that she inspired dozens of catchphrases like ‘Come through’ and ‘I’ll just pop it in the fridge.’ For years, my friends in theatrical circles used dialogue from Ken Russell’s oddity ‘The Boy Friend’, with phrases like ‘Let’s face it, the closest you got to the West End was Harrow on the Hill.’
This Christmas the League of Gentlemen returned with their grotesque mash-up of Hammer Horror and Grand Guignol, spawning ‘We didn’t cut their faces off!’ from Tubbs’s accidental murder confession. Dark humour is blackening ever further in these strange times with ‘Inside No.9’ and ‘Black Mirror’, which began as a series of satires and has now become a modernised ‘Twilight Zone’.
What decides if comedy is for the ages? For me, there’s an unforced, organic sense of humour that comes from the writer’s natural instincts. British humour is less about sketches than character studies. If you turn the sound off of a TV show and it still looks funny, the comedy isn’t working. Try that with ‘Inside No.9’ or ‘Steptoe and Son’ and you’ll think you’re watching Pinter plays. Why did Bruno Gantz’s speech from ‘Downfall’ become one of the most mutated memes ever? It turns a serious dramatic moment into comedy, and that’s what the best comedy does.
The weird case of ‘Dinner For One’ is rather unique, even by these standards. The story has featured in the press now. Freddie Frinton played drunks in the music hall. As a child I’d watch him hanging from a lamppost with a dangling fag while my father laughed himself helpless. He starred in little plays, slightly too long to be sketches. One of them strikes me as not particularly funny but sweet and strange; Frinton plays a butler forced to impersonate dead relatives as he gets progressively more drunk. For some reason, this forgotten, barely amusing snippet became beloved in Germany, where it’s on TV every New Year’s Eve, and Germans know it off by heart.
The language barrier has prevented the same thing from happening in reverse. We rarely see or read German or French humour, so English comedy continues to grow in isolation. While the cleverest American humour is hugely admired here, most mainstream comedy is overlooked not because it’s culturally alien but because it’s too wholesome for us even when it’s being dark. I liked ‘It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’, but it remained cultish and barely seen in this country, and I loved ‘Veep’, but realised it came from a UK writer.
These days the safest bet is to leave humour out of what you do. As Tony Hancock once said; ‘You can get away with anything if you keep a straight face.’ But when the only survival response left to a mad world is to maintain a sense of amused detachment, comedy is hard to keep out.