Show Hide image Music & Theatre 30 October 2014 What would Tony Hancock make of Neville’s Island and the muezzin app? Mark Lawson’s weekly Critic’s Notes. Print HTML The Swiss are currently applying for national heritage status to be given to the art of yodelling and so maybe the British should seek similar cultural recognition for the sitcom. There is a certain type of humour – involving a group of people with one comic characteristic each swapping puns and misunderstandings in a closed setting – that is as associated with the UK as Basel is known for rolling high notes around the throat. While situation comedy is primarily associated with television – Citizen Khan starts its third series on BBC1 on 31 October – the genre occurs more generally. For the next five weeks, BBC Radio 4 is running new recordings of five editions of Hancock’s Half Hour, the radio series by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson that began in 1954 and which is one of the progenitors of Brit sitcom. These are recast re-creations of some of the Hancocks that do not survive in the archives. Even in theatre, the Hancockian influence is felt. Tim Firth’s much- produced 1992 stage farce Neville’s Island, in which four Salford businessmen are stranded during an outward-bound bonding exercise, has the feel of a television comedy and the revival that has just opened at the Duke of York’s in London acknowledges this heritage by casting four familiar TV faces: Adrian Edmondson, Neil Morrissey, Robert Webb and Miles Jupp. Although originally a protégé of the great stage craftsman Sir Alan Ayckbourn, Firth has been drawn more towards television, especially with his Territorial Army series Preston Front. And, while Neville’s Island conjures some very funny stage pictures – including two blood-spattered tableaux in which the mood seems to have shifted from comedy to horror – the plot and characterisation constantly betray a desire to stop after 30 minutes and pick up in a week’s time. The audience seemed to warm more to Edmondson, cast close to his dangerous TV persona, than to Webb, playing against telly type as a psychotic Christian. In the Muslim sitcom Citizen Khan, the basic set-up of tension between relatives echoes family comedies from . . . And Mother Makes Three to Mrs Brown’s Boys. Co-written by Adil Ray – who also plays the title character, a self-elected “community leader” – the show is a combination of English jokes very old (the protagonist clashes with his mother-in-law) and very new: Khan has a muezzin app on his iPhone to call him to prayer. Because religious hypocrisy is a running gag – one of Khan’s daughters hides her enthusiastic western values behind a hijab and piety – the show has been accused of racism, although largely, in the modern way, by white liberals, perhaps because that tribe is a target of many of the best jokes: Khan often extracts himself from slapstick embarrassments by telling non-Muslim authority figures that his behaviour was “a cultural thing”. The treat among our trio, though, is The Missing Hancocks on BBC Radio 4, in which Kevin McNally proves a spooky auditory substitute for the late Hancock and Galton and Simpson give a masterclass in joke writing. The biggest risk of English comedy is the reduction of dialogue to punning but these writers show – as they would continue to in their later TV classic Steptoe and Son – the ability to play with language at a much cleverer level. “I promised your mother I’d never let you go to Paris after what happened last time,” someone says. The protesting reply: “But I’ve never been to Paris!” “No. But your mother did!” Literature and its double The big autumn film releases include The Imitation Game (released next week), a movie about Alan Turing and the Bletchley code breakers, which activates the memory circuits of those who grew up watching the BBC Play for Today series because one of the standout achievements of that franchise was an Ian McEwan screenplay with the same name and subject, directed by Richard Eyre. The title is the only overlap between the projects. And, in another soundalike, this year’s Man Booker Prize winner – Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North – shares its name with a 1968 play by Edward Bond about the Japanese poet Basho whose travel sketch (of the same name) was the inspiration for both Bond and Flanagan. As all three texts are still in print, let’s hope that no online book buyers are sent the wrong one. A really narrow road at the moment seems to be the naming of travel books. Just last month, both Clare Balding and Sonia Choquette published hiking chronicles called Walking Home, which Simon Armitage had used only a couple of years before. Titles can’t be copyrighted but it feels sad, in the case of The Imitation Game, that the Hollywood movie should, in effect, paint over the memory of a fine television play, which would now be hard to repeat in case it looked like passing off or cashing in. Greater baptismal imagination seems needed to prevent entertainment schedules becoming like classrooms that have four Georges or five Sophies. › Vanishing interest: The Missing is ambitious but ultimately cheesy Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman. 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