There was a little tussle this past week over who deserved to be called the true godfathers of British situation comedy. A radio producer called Paul Kobrak had taken umbrage at the title being awarded to Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, writers of Hancock's Half Hour and Steptoe and Son. In The Original Godfathers (11.30am, 27 March, Radio 4), he argued that Frank Muir and Denis Norden had the better claim. They wrote The Glums, a sitcom that ran for seven years in the Fifties within Take It From Here. Norden, the surviving partner, claimed The Royle Family as a distant descendant of The Glums. He might have added that Johnny Speight admitted Alf Garnett was partly inspired by Pa Glum, played by Jimmy Edwards.
No one, however, mentioned the writers Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran. There are reasons for that and Birds of a Feather, Shine On Harvey Moon and The New Statesman are among them. A play on Saturday afternoon (2.30pm), however, suggested what might have been and might, indeed, still be. Its premise was: what if Hitler had been treated by Sigmund Freud? The dates add up - Freud was 32 when Hitler was born - and so does the geography, Hitler being Austrian and Freud having set up his practice in Vienna. In fact, the young bed-wetting Adolf really was referred to the children's psychiatric clinic in Austria where Freud was practising. At this point, Marks and Gran's fantasy began.
I confess I had been hoping for something a little more dazzling, along the lines of Tom Stoppard's Travesties, in which Lenin meets James Joyce, or Terry Johnson's Hysteria, which put Freud and Salvador Dalí together. A comedy with Hitler in it needs to have intellectual or satirical edge or you end up with Heil Honey I'm Home! which lasted all of one episode on BSB (rather than BSkyB) in 1990.
For a while Dr Freud Will See You Now Mr Hitler threw at the 20th century's two great fantasists the sort of sitcom jokes you might expect from Marks and Gran. Mrs Hitler takes Adolf to see Freud. "Left leg over right knee," he says. "If you say so, doctor." "No, I meant the boy." We got the usual comical misunderstanding over what sort of painter the young Hitler was, a watercolourist or a house painter. There was even a young/Jung pun going on, I think. Given Freud's interest in jokes, there was some intellectual excuse for this: he picked Hitler up when he mispronounced Slav "slave".
The comedy slipped away, however, as the play progressed and Hitler's anti-Semitism strained and broke his relationship with the Jewish Freud family. The only joke Hitler was allowed at the end was one about burning Freud's works: they burned easily because they were so dry. Freud remained funny, much to his family's fatigue. When the Gestapo raided his home he was required to sign a form saying it had not been harmed. He wrote: "I can highly recommend the Gestapo to anyone." True story.
Hitler's wickedness was explained by this fictional Freud as a consequence of his having been beaten by his father as a child. After his father's death, he reinvented himself as a superman who had stood up to him. "You have inflicted on the Jews the cruelties your father inflicted on you," Freud told him. Freud, though, had a unique ability to make his dreams come true. But the world ended up in one of his nightmares.
Just as interesting was the play's interrogation of psychoanalysis. We were invited to laugh at Freud's sexual interpretations and doubt their therapeutic value. And what credibility could we give a science that can work backward to causes, but not forward to prognoses? How will Hitler turn out, asked Anna Freud. "He'll become a semi-educated, sexually repressed paranoiac. He will make a first-class customs officer, just like his father," Sigmund predicted.
There was a fine cast with Toby Jones as Hitler and Allan Corduner as Freud but - or is it just me? - there is something about radio drama that reduces every performance to Rada, received pronunciation and best behaviour. Jones's Hitler had a northern accent to distinguish the provincial boy from the metropolitan Freuds, but it sounded stagy. The play was more fun to think about than to listen to - not the kind of review Marks and Gran often get.
Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times
Pick of the week
Just William Strikes Again
9 April, 3.30pm, Radio 4
Martin Jarvis and the Outlaws return. The Easter hols start here.
The Reith Lectures
11 April, 9am, Radio 4
The "people's economist" Jeffrey D Sachs – better than last year’s dud?
Picasso's Fallen Women
12 April, 11.30am, Radio 4
Richard Cork on the darkness of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.
Don't miss . . .
La Linea festival
That odd couple of Spanish pop, Barcelona’s the Pinker Tones (pictured right), bring their intellectual brand of rock to La Linea, the festival of contemporary Latin music, on 17 April. Other highlights include the UK debut of the 88-year-old Cuban bassist Israel “Cachao” López, inventor
of the mambo, and performances from the Brazilian songstress Bebel Gilberto, the hip-hop Grammy winners Ozomatli, and the Oscar-winning film score composer Gustavo Santaolalla’s Bajofondo Tango Club.
At various London venues from 13 April. http://www.comono.co.uk