Terrence Rattigan and the New Statesman

The magazine features in a revival of While the Sun Shines.

Terrence Rattigan had a close association with the New Statesman, most strongly just after the Second World War when his friend T C Worsley, who often spent winter breaks at Rattigan’s house in Bermuda, became the magazine’s literary editor and drama critic. In 1950 the playwright provoked the contemporary equivalent of a Twitter storm in the letters pages of the NS when, following a bad reception for his play Adventure Story about  Alexander the Great,  he published his article “Concerning the Play of Ideas” which took a swipe at the idea that drama had to address topical controversies, singling out Ibsen and Shaw for particular criticism. Shaw waded into the controversy closely followed by Sean O’Casey, James Bridie (playwright and translator of Ibsen), Benn Levy (playwright and Labour MP for Eton and Slough 1945-50), Peter Ustinov and Ted Willis.

Rattigan had success in the 1950s with The Deep Blue Sea and Separate Tables (which also features a copy of the New Statesman read by the Major disgraced by the disclosure of his conviction for a minor sexual offence), but his spell at the heart of the Zeitgeist was over, aggravated by his self regarding remarks after the first night of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger.

The hundreth anniversary of his birth last year has produced a spate of Rattigan revivals and his reputation has been restored almost to the heights it reached in the 1930s and 1940s. The hugely successful recent production of his 1944 play Flare Path has now been followed by a revival of the play that immediately preceeded it, While The Sun Shines, at the Lion and the Unicorn Theatre in Kentish Town. Set in the London of 1943 when many couples were getting hitched only to be parted by the war, sometimes forever, this is not one of the playwright's social commentaries but a very funny comedy featuring the young Earl of Harpenden’s faltering progress towards the altar with Lady Elizabeth Randall. Matters are complicated by the earl’s entanglement with the comely Mabel Crum and Lady Elizabeth’s unwitting bewitching of both a Free French officer Lieutenant Colbert and the Earl’s new found American friend Lieutant Mulvaney. The Duke of Ayr and Stirling, Lady Elizabeth’s permanently impecunious father is desperate for the match to succeed so he can obtain a share of the Harpenden money to fritter away in the bookies – at one point he plays dice to decide which of the suitors will actually make it to the altar. A copy of the New Statesman is brandished at several points in the action, twice as Mabel Crum is dispatched to hide in the kitchen with the NS to keep her company and most memorably when Harpenden clashes with Colbert who proudly admits to being a socialist, convinced that the British aristocracy will soon be extinct. “Well I read the New Statesman, you know” retorts the distressed Earl.  The combination of misunderstandings, bed sharing, military uniforms and a splendid butler called Horton might make you think you’ve seen it before, but never better written than this and probably not better acted either. If you’re in need of cheering up you should go and fall in love with the cast, especially Greer Dale-Foulkes as Lady Elisabeth and Patrick Rogers as her aristo father – when you first see him, he seems a bit too young for the part but his comic ability soon erases those doubts. Rattigan would be delighted, and you will be too.

"While the Sun Shines" runs at the Lion and the Unicorn pub theatre in Gaisford Street, London NW5 until 17 June. Tickets from www.giantolive.com/tickets.html

Sophia Sibthorpe, Iestyn Arwel and Freddie Hutchins in When the Sun Shines
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.