RIP TBT

It’s perhaps a measure of where we are after approaching a month of this that the famous names who routinely pass away are now having announcements of their deaths placed in a coronavirus context. Every celebrity obituary provokes the question ‘Did they die of it?’ The Marquess of Bath – he had it; Honor Blackman didn’t; Stirling Moss didn’t; Peter Bonetti didn’t; Tim Brooke-Taylor did. When we are informed the UK has now experienced over 10,000 deaths connected to Covid-19, it seems almost naive to feel sad just because some of those to have gone during the lockdown happened to have been strangers who nevertheless felt like friends on account of them being in the room during our formative years. But it’s only natural, whatever the circumstances; and in the case of Tim Brooke-Taylor, it’s one of those deaths that it’s difficult not to feel sad about, particularly if one is the wrong side of 50.

It’s not been the best year for characters associated with comedy whose training grounds were now-vanished comedic academies, namely the music hall and the working-men’s club – Nicholas Parsons, Roy Hudd, and Eddie Large being prominent casualties. Added to that list of long-gone schools could be the one-time ‘intellectual’ alternative, the Footlights. Tim Brooke-Taylor was a Cambridge graduate from an especially fruitful Footlights era, making his mark alongside the likes of John Cleese, Graham Chapman and Eric Idle as well as a duo with whom he would eventually cement his household name status, Graeme Garden and Bill Oddie. Smoothly traversing the then-obligatory route to television, TBT (as he was known to his friends) ended up working with his fellow graduates on 60s TV, starring with Cleese, Chapman and Marty Feldman in ‘At Last The 1948 Show’.

His association with the nucleus of the Pythons meant TBT apparently came within a whisker of being asked to join the embryonic team in 1969, but he had already embarked upon a new series with Garden and Oddie called ‘Broaden Your Mind’. The programme was a sketch show with humour dovetailing between slapstick and the surreal; this winning combination was then carried over into the sitcom (in the loosest meaning of the phrase) the trio premiered in 1970, ‘The Goodies’. The only TV comedy series that spanned the entire decade from beginning to end, ‘The Goodies’ when seen as a time capsule accurately evokes so much of what constituted Britain in the 70s – good and bad – that it probably serves as a better guide for those who weren’t there than any documentary or heavyweight volume. Few expressed that belief for years, but it’s good that ‘The Goodies’ recently received a long-overdue appraisal that all three of the team lived to see.

Every fad, fashion, craze, cultural, social and political development was lampooned, satirised and spoofed throughout the ten years the show aired on the BBC – everything from Apartheid South Africa to Punk Rock and from feminism to Fleet Street. The programme may have been absent from TV for decades, but the entire series was finally (if belatedly) issued complete on DVD a year ago. Coming to it with fresh eyes via the box-set, it’s surprising how sharp the satire is when the main childhood memory is of the silent movie-style film sequences, which were akin to live action equivalents of what the Pythons relied on Terry Gilliam to animate.

Each of The Goodies displayed clearly-defined personas on screen. Graeme Garden was the brainy boffin, an eccentric inventor producing the same kind of implausible gadgets Wile E Coyote regularly purchased from the Acme Corporation. Bill Oddie was the anarchic idiot who was often looked down on by his colleagues as an uncouth pleb, but whose refusal to compromise was especially popular amongst the show’s huge audience of children, many of whom identified with his childlike obstinacy. In contrast with Oddie’s working-class ruffian, TBT represented a rather wet upper-middle-class patriot; in his trademark Union Jack waistcoat and unswerving loyalty to the Crown (one episode ended with him marrying Prince Charles), TBT’s character would often stick ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ on the turntable and embark upon a rousing speech whenever the country was confronted with another crisis. Ironically, compelled to watch an episode last night, I randomly selected one in which Britain has become a virtual police state as the boys in blue are out of control zealots, arresting people on the flimsiest of pretexts.

This unintentional serendipity aside, The Goodies are generally rooted very much in place. Whereas Monty Python combined basic silliness with timeless highbrow references that retain their relevance, The Goodies focusing more on whatever happened to be in the moment has perhaps prevented the series from having a longer life beyond the massive success it enjoyed at the time, for nothing dates quite as quickly as the recent present. The fact The Goodies capitalised on their appeal to children by venturing into the musical arena and becoming as much a fixture on ‘Top of the Pops’ as The Bay City Rollers and David Essex also helps preserve them in 70s amber; but Tim Brooke-Taylor and Graeme Garden had a parallel career on another medium that is impervious to changing trends, the radio.

From its inception in 1972, TBT has been the one mainstay of that sublime oasis of silliness, ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue’, outlasting original host Humphrey Lyttelton and remaining a permanent fixture of the antidote to panel games even when fellow veterans Garden and Barry Cryer routinely take time off. I’ve been lucky enough to see the show live twice, first around seven or eight years back, when the aforementioned trio were all present, and again when TBT was the only member of the core team there; the latter occasion was just three months ago, even though January already feels like another lifetime. Tim Brooke-Taylor was on top form, giving no indication he’d be taken from us by April; but nobody in that audience could have imagined where all our lives would be by then, anyway.

Amidst a mounting death-toll that included a childhood hero in its depressing numbers, the PM has finally re-emerged into the spotlight after a week in which his own mortality received a dramatic jolt. Despite accusations largely emanating from journalists still in search of points to score, Boris Johnson’s condition seems to have been reported to the public with refreshing candour. Certainly when compared to the manner in which serious health issues afflicting past US Presidents such as FDR and JFK were hidden from view, there appears to be little evidence there has been any ‘cover-up’ or conspiracy to deny the public the truth of Boris’s battle with Covid-19 – though, of course, we shouldn’t refer to him as ‘a fighter’ in case that casts aspersions on the failure of others to overcome the virus. Is it racist? Not sure. I’ll have to consult the Guardian. Give me strength. I bet The Goodies could have satirised it brilliantly.

© The Editor

CIRQUE DE MORONS

krustyEver get the feeling you’re living in a society modelled on a Chris Morris spoof from the early noughties? Two of yesterday’s headlines involved a) exploding phones and b) the pedestrians of Britain being terrorised by clowns. What the f**k? In the aftermath of the latter, Vera Baird QC, Police and Crime Commissioner of Northumbria – a woman whose stony countenance is guaranteed to freeze the ice at parties – issued the unforgettable advice ‘Don’t go outside dressed as a clown.’ The mother of a child whose school went into ‘lockdown’ after reports that clowns were in the neighbourhood said ‘You don’t know if it’s a 15-year-old that’s looking for a giggle or a 30-year-old man who’s looking to do something far, far different.’ Invasion of the Paedo Clowns? I give up.

I must admit I’ve never quite got the clown thing. I don’t find them funny and I don’t find them scary. I recall Charlie Cairoli, a man in a bowler hat and a red nose who used to have his own TV show on children’s BBC when I was six or seven; but I found his sidekick funnier – a little old man in a vest and kilt who took many a custard pie to the face. On the other side of the clown controversy, quite a few kids of my generation were apparently traumatised by Bubbles, the test card clown embroiled in the unfinished game of noughts & crosses with his schoolgirl companion, though I always found his smiling face quite appealing. Not appealing enough to dress up as a clown for a wacky laugh when a fully-grown adult, however.

What we seem to have at the moment doesn’t really reflect the merits of clowns as either funny or scary, but is more a coming together of two separate strands of contemporary moronic trends that define our dumb and dumber era: Firstly, the extended juvenile sensibilities of those who should be old enough to know better; and secondly, media hysteria generated by the social branch of the business. Both parties are as complicit as each other in the spread of a craze that requires the constant pinching of one’s arm to remember this is actually happening in the real world.

It began – as so many of Britain’s fads and fashions do today – across the pond, probably as some zany frat-school prank that the presence of social media enabled to be seen by an audience of billions in a way it wouldn’t have thirty or forty years ago, when such japes were restricted to first-hand witnesses wherever they took place. Of course, today it doesn’t take much in the way of effort for something of this nature to be beamed around the world in a matter of hours; and Brits being especially enamoured of anything that shines out of Uncle Sam’s arse meant it was bound to cross the Atlantic and be replicated by our own plentiful supply of dickheads.

Today denied the tribal youth cults that could once be relied upon to generate moral panic, Fleet Street is all too happy to get its teeth into the clown craze and a few isolated incidents have been blown up to the point whereby clowns are poised to be filed alongside ISIS on the Public Enemy Number One hit-list. Yes, you heard that right – clowns. Police are giving talks in schools, advising children not to dress up as them; and professional clowns are criticising amateurs for taking the clown out of the circus ring and onto the street. How long before questions are asked in the House and anti-clown legislation is proposed by some publicity-hungry career backbencher? I’m pretty sure I remember an episode of ‘The Goodies’ where a clown craze swept the nation in a similar fashion, though I doubt Graeme Garden, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Bill Oddie anticipated a comedy show would one day pass for a documentary.

Anyone unfortunate enough to reside in an area with a large student population will be familiar with the tedious parade of weekend fancy dress victims en route to the local hostelries; how we have laughed at this weekly Red Nose Day! The clown craze would appear to be an extension of the same gormless (not to say desperate) hilarity, whereby the ongoing infantilisation of adulthood finds newer and wackier ways of expressing itself in public. I have yet to be confronted by any clowns myself, though accustomed as I am to seeing adults engaging in an activity that was once the province of actual children, the sight of one in Sainsbury’s wouldn’t raise an eyebrow. I certainly won’t be dialling 999 should that happen, nor running home and going into ‘lockdown’.

Okay, so the world is bloody grim at the moment and light relief is required in order to prevent the interior of the oven from appearing as an appetising eternal pillow; but the alternatives to doom ‘n’ gloom are so relentlessly stupid in theory and execution that it often seems as if they emanated from the same nightmare factory as the serious shit – both designed and manufactured to keep mankind in a state of simultaneous pre-pubescence and fear; in other words, under control.

© The Editor

DEFENSIVE PLAY

the-goodiesWhenever I sign out of my inbox, Yahoo automatically takes me to what passes for their ‘headlines’, which usually consist of the kind of showbiz fluff I cross oceans to avoid. One I saw today was referring to some actress in some movie where she apparently drags up (i.e. wears a fake beard); I only know because there was a photo of her. I didn’t bother reading it because I couldn’t care less, though the headline itself caught my eye because it claimed said actress ‘defends her trans-role.’ Curious choice of word – ‘defends’. Sorry, it was my understanding that the only people who have to defend their actions are those on trial for murder and other such serious crimes. Am I missing something? What is there to defend about playing a part, which is indeed the definition of being an actor?

‘Plumber defends his decision to unblock drain!’ ‘Mechanic defends changing tyre!’ ‘Postman defends delivering of letter!’ Any sillier than ‘Actress defends pretending to be a fictional character in a completely made-up story’? Not really, though public figures over the years have often had to answer to the archetypal ‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’ figure incensed by something they’ve seen on the TV, at the cinema or in the paper – or haven’t seen at all but have surmised they would find offensive. This seems to have expanded in recent years, perhaps a consequence of the democratisation of fame, so that those who grab their fifteen minutes also have to be scrutinised by Mr and Ms Disgusted, now firmly on the left where once they were on the right. It gives the impression that society as a whole has been transformed into one giant court of law, one in which we are all permanently on the defensive, having to justify every move in anticipation of criticism from the unofficial PC police who guard against offence.

This is a court bereft of statute books so that nobody is entirely sure what can and can’t be said and what can and can’t be done, hence the increase in habitual criminality. How helpful then, that we have our self-appointed online lawmakers who are on hand to recite the dos and don’ts, as well as intervening if we unknowingly break their laws. The novelist Lionel Shriver gave a lecture in Australia a few days ago, one that received publicity across all mediums; generally, the sense she spoke was well-received, though there was the predictable backlash from those that enjoy the lashing of backs. Shriver appeared on ‘Newsnight’ to…yes, you guessed it…defend what she had said.

Essentially, Lionel Shriver accused the scourge of so-called Identity Politics and accompanying disgust with Cultural Appropriation of stifling the creative and the imaginative – which those who propagate such Orwellian control are not. This is the attempted policing of creativity that says writers of fiction can only write from the point of view of their own gender, sexuality and race; and if ‘ethnic’ characters are introduced into their stories, they have to be non-caricatures and inoffensive, officially approved representatives of their individual ethnicity. What a remarkably philistine set of rules and regulations.

Any good novelist researches the background and environment of any character that isn’t based directly upon them or somebody they’ve known – or they simply use their imagination, which is one factor that distinguishes the writer of fiction from the writer of fact. Beatrix Potter couldn’t converse with ducks or mice, so she had to imagine what it would be like to be a duck or a mouse.

I’ve written stories myself that have been set in, say, Georgian London. I was born 200 years too late to have lived in Georgian London and to have known anyone who did. So I research. I get the historical facts right in terms of surroundings, social manners, dress, diet, language et al – in short, making sure my characters and the world they inhabit are as accurate as somebody living in the twenty-first century can possibly portray them. Graft contemporary mores onto the past and you end up with an invented ideal that says more about now than then. Hollywood does it all the time because America doesn’t want to accept that many of its revered Founding Fathers were slave-owners.

The ludicrous ‘outrage’ a couple of weeks ago over a funny line in ‘Coronation Street’ provoked a silly storm in an even sillier teacup, whereby a reference to a character from ‘Roots’ was deemed to be racist. Considering the amount of black and gay characters in Weatherfield, there’s a surprising absence of racism or homophobia from those who fall into neither camp. I would hazard a guess that the majority of those who were sufficiently outraged were white and probably of middle-class descent.

It’s that familiar condescending middle-class white guilt which prompts such people to speak ‘on behalf’ of the perceived persecuted minority, which ironically makes them sound more colonial in their attitudes than those who don’t take offence if a campus ‘Mexican’ night deigns that wearing a sombrero is crucial to the event. They feel compelled to appoint themselves as spokesmen and women, as though the minority in question are incapable of articulating any outrage themselves. A verbal pat on the head which says ‘Don’t worry, poor ignorant little coloured person; we can be your mouthpiece, what with you being denied our privileged education’. It’s laughable.

I’ve cheered myself up of late by watching episodes of ‘The Goodies’. Aside from the nostalgia factor and the surreal madcap humour which still makes me laugh, one element that really struck me was the freedom the trio had to poke fun at anyone and anything. A series that was unfairly regarded at the time as ‘Python-Lite’ today seems incredibly subversive. Indeed, it’s hard to watch it now and not mentally note all the jokes that could no longer be made on television, let alone the piss-taking of celebrities we’re not allowed to mention anymore, such as Rolf Harris, Clement Freud or Jimmy Savile. There’s no what used to be called ‘bad language’ on any episode of ‘The Goodies’ whatsoever, yet whilst one can now swear to one’s heart’s content on TV comedy today, the field has narrowed beyond belief as to targets of jokes.

As regular readers will know, my sideline online identity as a purveyor of satirical and silly videos enables me to get away with things that television would no longer permit. Comments often say ‘You should have your own TV show; you’re funnier than anything currently on telly’, which is immensely flattering, but also misses the point. I’m not on the telly because nobody would dare commission anything of a humorous nature that refuses to acknowledge the boundaries established that define what can and can’t be laughed at. Well, sorry. I’m not prepared to defend myself or my work to people I neither respect nor recognise as creative peers. You either find it funny or you don’t; and if you don’t, I’m not especially bothered; go and watch ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’.

Any unwritten rules when it comes to any artistic medium stinks of puritanical censorship and the policing of creativity by the non-creative. Sorry if I offend, but you can go f**k yourself. I’m not living under Stalin, the Stasi or the Spanish Inquisition, so your opinion carries no weight and has no authority.

© The Editor