Ditsy daisy refrains

This kitsch "Ladybird book" musical couldn't be more fun.

The Salad Days lovers sing "we said we wouldn't look back!" as they graduate from Oxford in 1954: already elegiac in tone as they prepare for the real world in which the men are defined by work and the women defined by the men they marry. There's a bevy of patriarchal uncles ready to tip the wink to various institutions on Timothy's behalf, and a bevy of patriarchal bachelors ready to sign up Jane to the institution of marriage.

The very title is elegiac: a paean to lost youth, a wistful vision of endless sunny days that would have been fantastical escapism even in 1954, when the musical was first performed; doubly so now in this respectful revival by Bill Bankes-Jones of Tête-à-Tête opera, who remembers crooning along to an old vinyl cast recording in his own childhood.

I hesitate to mention plot, since there isn't one to speak of. A magic piano that "makes everyone gay" features large. And there's a flying saucer. But really it's a series of numbers that are strung like pearls along a pretextual thread of amusement. This is a Mary Poppins caper, a holiday from real life: some have pointed out the parallels with our own times - the Cold War references prefiguring our own paranoiac times, for example, but I think it possible to overstate the case; the pursuit of such analogues tends to say more about the spectator than the spectacle. It's hard to make any great political capital out of a magic piano that makes everyone dance, and a libretto like this one:

"Look at me - oh!
Look at me - oh!
Look at me, I'm dancing!"

It's a completely dotty story. Race, gender and class are skipped through with all the insouciance of a Ladybird reading book - Egyptians wear fezzes; Russians sport turbans and do a bit of Cossack kicking. Dear Jane is perfectly blonde; the women wear the flippy "ultrafeminine" skirts of the New Look; the emotional palette is pastel. There is even a mute clown who expresses himself through the medium of mime, who is called, as if to forestall our objections, Troppo (too much).

Salad Days could (perhaps should) have been awful. Its saving grace is the unwavering cast who perform this flimsy daisy chain of a show with nothing less than complete conviction. This self-belief is as catchy as the show-tunes. The tone is kept straight, or as straight as is possible given that this is a period piece, and as such subject to the distortions of time. The ensemble remains po-faced as they tackle the antique semantics - the instrument that makes everyone gay - and they take the fifties diction equally seriously: hat becomes het, piano becomes pi-ah-no and so on.

The show's great coup is the evocation of intimacy: the audience are welcomed in by the performers; some are later asked to dance, and we are all invited to sing. Bankes-Jones has kept the singers unamplified. I hadn't realised how much I had missed the sheer connective power of the human voice, unmediated by microphones. And they are physically close to us, and exposed to us, on their cheery quadrangle of astroturf that greens up the traverse stage. Two pianos, a drum and double bass enthusiastically rip through the intricate score, and support the already buoyant voices.

There are, en passant, some fabulously awful rhymes too. In the nightclub Egypt, they sing of Cleopatra (and it was Shakespeare's Cleopatra who coined the term "salad days") who wouldn't "p-tolerate a Ptolemy to collar me," and "sugar daddy Caesar" is paired with "squeeze her".

Evangels of musical theatre, Tête-à-Tête have a seriousness of purpose which, combined with a comic-strip energy, make for a considerable charm offensive. They have certainly managed to rejuvenate this ditsy daisy chain, which should by rights have wilted over the years - I take my het off to them.

Photo: Getty
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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.