Comedy Without Class


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?

7 comments on “Comedy Without Class”

  1. Tom Ruffles says:

    Well done – something about Norman Wisdom that doesn’t mention that he was big in Albania. I often wished he would defect.

  2. J. Folgard says:

    I discovered Norman Wisdom via your blog a while ago, and maybe (well, it’s just a knee-jerk reaction) class is a bit taboo today? Or we even want to persuade ourselves they don’t exist anymore, whereas economical & cultural crevices and inequalities keep getting worse?
    Regarding the ‘Miranda’ clip you chose, I keep seeing this show popping up on various people’s favorites lists, would you recommend it? I’ve only seen bits and pieces of it on BBC playlists, and it looks genuinely funny.

  3. admin says:

    The funniest bits of Miranda are the linguistic repetitions, lovely odd bits of dialogue that feel like adult versions of playground arguments. This is what links it to the Crazy Gang or Norman Wisdom – a childlike delight in wordplay and slapstick.

  4. J. Folgard says:

    Thanks admin! What I liked in those aforementioned clips is the overall goofiness the show seems to give off, I will definitely check it out. Cheers!

  5. neil b says:

    The opening scene in The Early Bird where Norman Wisdom makes a tea for everyone in the house is genius. He was a rebel and couldn’t even resist doing a comic trip in front of the queen when he was knighted.

  6. John Howard says:

    Could the lack of class gap comedy be because the quantities on either side have changed? As you mentioned, the numbers in the upper class seem to have reduced somewhat and the numbers in the middle class have swollen considerably. In the sixties the opportunities to show or hear comedians be scathing, or even aspirational, towards the class above you were very limited so when it happened it was snapped up and made a hit as in the case of ‘Beyond the Fringe’. Even when gentle digs at your own class were made, a la ‘Flanders and Swann” the results were a big hit.

    Now that we have so much opportunity for the comedy to get out there; the upper class has shrunk to such a small proportion and the generation that make the comedy haven’t really grown up with much of a class divide, then any satire that is produced is directed towards what could be called their own class.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    We tend to laugh in the right places in comedies based on class because most societies have some form of it. In North America there are two versions. On the East Coast there is Old Family and money, especially old money. On the West Coast it’s money, although it still blurs on occasion. My husband was acquainted with a member of the Westinghouse family whose idea of a formal occasion was one where his jeans were pressed. I’ll bet he had black tie in his closet, though. The professional organization to which my husband belongs, based in eastern Canada, has trouble understanding that members out here don’t have evening dress and, in fact, have to rent it if it’s really required. People who do have that element in their wardrobe are generally upper class – senior business people, successful members of the bar or the medical fraternity. You can’t easily recognize class by listening to accents here. I was asked once whether I’d been raised in England or gone to a private school, so precise enunciation can give a false impression. I knew I knew Miranda Hart, but had to look her up as we have only seen her here in Call the Midwife where she played a particularly vulnerable and nice nurse.I liked her character in spite of the accent and I admit it was in spite of it.

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