Black Comedy Primer 2:
Great black comedy manages to take uncomfortable subject matter and reimagine it with wit. Early black comedy tackled sexuality and race taboos. Comedies like ‘The Producers’ and ‘La Cage Aux Folles’ recognised that the best way to defuse prejudices was to confront them with laughter. The UK countered racism with a series of shows that broke down barriers for Caribbean and Indian nationals.
Often, death and sickness are the chosen subjects for black comedy. The playwright Peter Nichols has He always enjoyed making audiences uncomfortable. His play (and film) ‘The National Health’ was a zeitgeist tale presenting Britain as an ailing patient, as soap-opera medics fall in love while, in the real world, an imploding NHS hospital proves unable to cope with the sick, who die in an atmosphere of cheery indifference.
‘Privates On Parade’ rendered Nichols’ ENSA experiences into dramatic form as the members of the Song And Dance Unit South East Asia, under the command of queeny Captain Terri Dennis, end up running guns on a hellish tour of Malaysia that sees most of them shot dead or wounded.
Novelists from Robert Louis Stevenson (‘The Wrong Box’) to Evelyn Waugh (‘The Loved One’) have wrung laughter from death and cheerful incompetence. Virtually everything Waugh had an element of Black Comedy. How else can you describe books like ‘Black Mischief’? How many other writers have had their main characters inadvertently eaten?
We misuse the term ‘politically incorrect’ too often, by divorcing certain writings from the periods in which they were written, or by
confusing writers who are genuinely prejudiced with ones seeking to highlight the absurdities of prejudice and hypocrisy.
Black comedy thrives on paradox. The main joke of ‘The Brittas Empire’ was that the man intent on improving the nation’s health was destroying the mental and physical welfare of everyone around him. Alan Ayckbourn is a master of this; his suburban men often fail to notice that they’re ruining their women’s lives. In several of his plays wives go from being well-adjusted to catatonic.
English humour thrives on discomfort and unthinking cruelty.
Many years ago, Milo O’Shea starred in a painful sitcom called ‘Me Mammy’, which was about a mother whose love for her son was destroying his life. The flip side to this was ‘Steptoe And Son’, in which the father and son were trapped in a kind of Shepherd’s Bush ‘Grey Gardens’, unable to live apart or remain together. Some episodes are staggeringly uncomfortable. In one, two prisoners on the run hole up in the house, only to realise that their hosts have more tragic lives than the convicts.
American has lately developed its own sharp style of black humour, from films like ‘The Opposite Of Sex’ to shows like ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’. A recent US volume of horror stories, ‘Vile Things’ (which must be aware of the connotations of its title) features a number of astoundingly Black Comedy horror stories.
Imagine a ‘politically incorrect’ combination of Bertie Wooster, Falstaff and Raffles, and you get an idea of Kyril Bonfiglioli’s fictional hero. He appeared in (almost) four of Bonfiglioli’s books, and is a wonderful invention. After 15 years as an art dealer in Oxford, an experience that clearly provided the background for his books, Bonfiglioli became the editor of small science fiction magazines. All other biographical information about Bonfiglioli – that he was an expert swordsman, a good shot and a teetotaler, for example – is entirely wrong.
Before his first book ‘Don’t Point That Thing at Me’ even starts, Bonfiglioli warns ‘This is not an autobiographical novel. It is about some other portly, dissolute, immoral and middle-aged art dealer.’ In fact, the first line is; ‘When you burn an old carved and gilt picture frame it makes a muted hissing noise in the grate – a sort of genteel fooh – and the gold leaf tints the flames a wonderful peacock blue-green.’
This is his snobbish, cowardly, dandy art thief Charlie Mortdecai speaking before fencing a Goya and attracting the murderous attention of several governments. Mortdecai is a delicious creation who, accompanied by his thuggish sidekick Jock, outrages the art world dullards of the 1970s as he heads towards come-uppance and a disgraceful cliffhanger of an ending.
Mortdecai returned in ‘After You With The Pistol’, ‘Something Nasty In The Woodshed’ and three-quarters of ‘The Great Mortdecai Moustache Mystery’, which was published posthumously, having been finished by the literary mimic Craig Brown, a forgery act Bonfiglioli would surely have adored.
Every generation reinvents its Black Comedy. Christopher Buckley’s uproarious ‘Thank You For Smoking’ took the scalpel to the lobbying procedures of vested interests, but ‘Wall Street 2’ proved toothless. Coming up, Steve Hely’s novel ‘How I Became A Famous Novelist’ trashes the publishing industry – but this is the point where Black Comedy and satire meet and blur.
More to follow.