Cruel, Surreal, Disturbing: The Oddities Of British Humour

The Arts


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.


11 comments on “Cruel, Surreal, Disturbing: The Oddities Of British Humour”

  1. Peter, The Hague says:

    Last weekend I spent Christmas and New Year in Cologne and I watched DINNER FOR ONE three times on different German TV channels (it must have been broadcasted at least 10 times on other channels). The charm of this less than 20 minute sketch is that it is performed in front of a live audience who laugh themselves silly. It is a classic and I think people who watched it as a child still enjoy it in their middle age.

  2. Martin Tolley says:

    I suspect these days Dinner for One wouldn’t tick the correct boxes for UK entertainment – it pokes fun at old age, loneliness, alcohol consumption, the class system, worker exploitation etc and could possibly give offence to so many potential groups who were indignant at either being included or being excluded.

  3. Debra Matheney says:

    The thing I most admire about the British is self deprecation. Not taking yourself too seriously is a real gift. (Obama had it. Not many Americans or politicians do. Trump is totally devoid of it) I think this trait plays deeply in your humor. The other factor I have observed is the facility with language, which makes a simple turn of phase hilarious like “Bob’s your uncle.” You can’t define that phrase.Used in the right situation, it’s really funny.
    On the tube at rush hour having left the Bank station during a summer heatwave, the train ground to a halt outside Holborn station. No one stopped the London Transport man on his way thorough the car, but on his return someone stopped him to ask, “Would you mind telling me what the matter is?” Train man says, “When the body is cleared from the track, the train will proceed. ” Man across from me looks me right in the eye and says, “He would pick rush hour.” And no one laughed, not even this American. This story summarizes what I love about the British character- not overwrought emotionalism but wicked humor.
    Oh, and tolerance for eccentricity is another trait I admire, although in the age of needing to label every quirk of personality, there seems to be less of that in Britain. Never has been any over here. You do a great job in B and M novels with eccentric characters.
    Alan Bennett’s diaries keep me in stitches and I laughed out loud reading Gerald Durrell’s descriptions of family events, as I do reading Bryant and May. Keep them coming!

  4. snowy says:

    Cricket is a piece of cake to understand, [at least when compared to British humour!]

    Cricket as explained to a Foreign Visitor*

    You have two sides, one out in the field and one in.

    Each man that’s in the side that’s in the field goes out and when he’s out comes in and the next man goes in until he’s out.

    When a man goes out to go in, the men who are out try to get him out, and when he is out he goes in and the next man in goes out and goes in.

    When they are all out, the side that’s out comes in and the side that’s been in goes out and tries to get those coming in out.

    Sometimes there are men still in and not out.

    There are men called umpires who stay out all the time, and they decide when the men who are in are out.

    Depending on the weather and the light, the umpires can also send everybody in, no matter whether they’re in or out.

    When both sides have been in twice and all the men are out (including those who are not out), then the game is finished.

    [*Author unknown Serveral versions exist]

  5. Denise Treadwell says:

    I loved the League of Gentlemen, the local shop etc. The Two Ronnies, My Family, Little Britain , and the unforgettable Father Ted.

  6. Iain Triffitt says:

    Dinner for One plays in Australia (on SBS – a government channel with advertising) every New Year’s Eve. It’s pretty much our It’s a Wonderful Life for some reason.

    Maybe it’s the extreme drunkenness.

  7. Ian Luck says:

    British comedy can, to an outsider, seem odd, even frightening. Yes, there are the basic comedies, the genteel comedies, the wouldn’t upset a Victorian comedies – and then you find stuff like Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer, whose humour seems to come from somewhere in hyperspace, unknowable, intangible, but renders one helpless with laughter. I, personally first encountered them in an interview in ‘i-d’ magazine, and knew I had to see them as they tried to describe some of the features of their show, and mention was made of ‘The Singing Mound’. When asked what that was, the reply was: “It’s a pile of dirt that sings folk songs.” I told my brother, and, like me, burst out laughing. It’s silly and weird, with no frame of reference to anything else. The duo’s odd pop culture references, too:”I nearly signed Gary Clail, but he was a bit of a ranter.” Something that only serious music fans would have got. Phrases said only once, but never forgotten, such as Vic Reeves suggesting that the orchestra: “Pump it right up, so we can have a big, brassy tart of an ending.” This happens, and the curtains open, to reveal… Reeves sat at a card table, gluing a model aircraft together. Perfect. And yet, there was the great British darkness never far away. There’s a character called ‘The Man With The Stick’, who always says he misses his kids. It turns out that a shady company (Reeves And Mortimer Ltd) have his kids, and they’re working in a Tin mine – “Tell me, Vic,” says Bob, “These kids in the mine – are they getting the ore out with tools, or bare hands?” Vic replies, in a Cornish accent: “Bare ‘ands!” As the series progresses, Vic taunts ‘The Man With The Stick’, until the last episode, when, just before the end, a very heavily refreshed ‘Man With The Stick’ stumbles onstage waving a gun, and shoots Vic and Bob, before turning the gun on himself. It’s very, very dark indeed, as it seemingly comes from nowhere. Vic and Bob had been poached by the BBC from Channel 4. A lot of British humour comes from darkness and cruelty – Monty Python’s ‘Two Accountants’ skit, where… “A body just fell past the window!” “What?” “One body – two bodies just fell past the window!” “Must be having a board meeting…” This ends with the two accountants leaning out of their window, having made a bet on who will jump next. The notorious ‘Undertakers’ sketch, which touches on cannibalism via various ways of body disposal. Another alienating factor in British humour is basing comedy on high art or the Classics – Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s brilliant (Moore’s corpsing is a highlight in itself) Art Gallery sketch, and Monty Python’s ‘Philosophy Football’ with it’s teams of European and Classical Greek Philosophers, with Confucius as the Referee: “And Confucius say name go in book.” A superbly funny sketch, which, unless you know what these people did, or who they were, isn’t funny at all. Unlike comedy in some other countries, British humour very seldom tells you why it’s funny. Why are two men in tropical gear and pith helmets doing ‘The Fish Slapping Dance?” Nobody knows. Is it still funny? Ask my four year old nephew, who also likes the cartoon of an old lady tripping a bus up, ‘The Ministry Of Silly Walks’ and the ‘Killer Cars’. When his now 21 year old half sister was his age, she loved the Monty Python ‘Gumbys’, and adored the idea of people whose job was to get their heads stuck in cupboards. Our DVD collection has stuff like ‘Black Books’, ‘Big Train’, ‘The I.T. Crowd’, ‘Nathan Barley’ (originally known as ‘C**t’ in Charlie Brooker’s ‘TV Go Home’ website), ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’, ‘Spaced’, ‘The Young Ones’, ‘The Comic Strip Presents…’, and lots of Bill Bailey, whose flights of surreal whimsy, I adore, likewise, we have Kenny Everett show discs, simply because the guy was childishly, inventively, brilliantly funny, and when given scripts by the still brilliant Barry Cryer, could do no wrong in my book.Everett was one of the few people on TV who could reduce both of my parents to tears of laughter. The fact, that on his shows, you could hear the on set crew pissing themselves with laughter, and that he’d break the fourth wall more than Deadpool, or get celebrities (ones that were celebrities, and had worked for it, not some gobby josser from Enfield) to do something silly just for a laugh, made his shows essential viewing, ensuring that the first question asked at school/work the next day was: “Did you see Kenny Everett last night?” ‘Safe’ comedy. I don’t get it, sorry.

  8. admin says:

    One of the oddest shows to which I was addicted before it changed writers was ‘The Brittas Empire’, in which a health centre manager repeatedly damaged, physically and psychologically, everyone around him. The scene where he accidentally pelts children with burning doves before electrocuting them is a classic.

  9. Ian Luck says:

    The Brittas Empire – I’d quite forgotten about that. An oddly surreal show that was a mainstream hit. It does get more than a bit sinister if you stop and think about it. The receptionist whose toddlers live in a big drawer. Gordon Brittas’ ex wife is a neurotic, mindless drug hoover. The world’s most incompetent handyman, pustulent, and always accruing horrendous work related injuries. Gordon Brittas, endlessly, relentlessly cheerful, and almost psychotically ignorant of the utter chaos going on around him. All the other staff members seem to have had relationships with each other that have failed, and, as a result, hate each other, and bicker like children. Yes, a very odd show indeed, but, darkly funny.

  10. Helen Martin says:

    There was an interview with a writer for The Black Mirror on CBC this morning & I only half paid attention except that the interviewer said that after watching the first few shows in order to do the interview he is now a confirmed addict. The program will be repeated this evening so I think I’d better listen for details. I’d never heard of the show until today and hear you are mentioning it.

  11. Ian Luck says:

    Black Mirror is frighteningly prescient. In fact, someone on the radio last night referred to it as the ‘Nostradamus’ of TV shows, as several of the outlandish plots, have, in some cases, come to pass, and disturbingly so. One, where you build up a ‘credit’ score by pedalling gym bikes, has been mirrored in China, where you are judged by several factors on social media, and if your score is low, then you can be banned from flights, or train journeys. This has already happened, and there is a possibility that it will be made obligatory for all citizens. An episode of Seth McFarlane’s sci-fi show ‘The Orville’ showed something very similar, and actually very disquieting it was, too. ‘Black Mirror’ is definitely worth watching, but not what I’d call a ‘comfortable’ watch.

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