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2 February 2022

From the NS archive: Thoughts in the wilderness: the new drolls

19 February 1955: Comedy on stage and television and the serious business of being funny.

By JB Priestley

The novelist and playwright JB Priestley was a regular contributor to the magazine. In 1955, he wrote about his life-long fascination with comedians. He had started watching them in the music halls of his youth and had never shaken off the habit. The difference between the “drolls” he grew up with and those of his current day, he said, was that the new generation had risen to fame on the BBC without the graft and learning-the-trade endured by performing on a “wet Monday in Leeds or Glasgow during a trade slump”. The new men were good – Jimmy Edwards, Frankie Howerd, Tony Hancock (though he had reservations about Norman Wisdom) – but were held back by their lack of good material and played it safe. “The clowns and drolls could dissolve into laughter much that is bitterly frustrating now,” but they held back.

Ever since I used to sit, as a lad, in the fourpenny balcony of the Empire, Bradford (which was known in the profession as the “comedians’ grave”), I have been a collector and connoisseur of drolls, clowns, zanies.

About thirty years ago I contributed a series of studies and appreciations of comedians to what was then a very stately morning paper. (It was I, in these columns, who wrote a tribute to Sid Field.) But the comedians I described in the middle Twenties, unlike the star performers of today, had reached the top only after years of either concert party work or provincial music hall tours. The old music halls were a matchless training ground. The fellows we watched from that fourpenny balcony (and there was a twopenny gallery behind us), as we sat on benches about six inches wide, packed closely together by experts at the job, had to be good – or God help them.

Night after night, year after year, the old comedians worked away, getting an instant grip on those tough critical audiences, bringing their acts nearer and nearer to perfection. Just as a lion-tamer must have at least one lion, so a performer must have an audience, there in front of him; an act cannot be perfected except in the constant presence of a paying public, preferably from the North, where they want their money’s worth.

Now the new droll who has natural ability and a genuine odd personality goes whizzing up to stardom in a few years. One really successful TV or radio series can put him up there. Then he will be paid hundreds of pounds a week to appear on the stage, not necessarily because he is thought to be funnier on the stage than on the air (though he should be), but because managers know that hundreds of thousands of his BBC fans will want to see him in person. The result is that our most successful light entertainment is now dominated by these new stars from the BBC who have risen since the War. So let us take a look at some of them, bearing in mind that these men are now important public figures. Humour is a very personal taste; but I will try, as if still endeavouring to please the examiners of my youth, to give reasons for my choice.

Jimmy Edwards has been extremely successful, both on the air and on the stage. He is fortunate in having a radio programme, written by two excellent wits, that provides him with some good foils and is economic in its use of material. (The nightmare of radio comedy is its appalling consumption of material.) He is a bustling, larger-than-life comedian, with an engaging informal style on the stage, an air of doing charades for us; never suggesting an actor, but rather a certain type of schoolmaster one used to know, the type that in anger would threaten to go out of its mind; and Jim, one may say, has done it and gone.

Frankie Howerd, who is much funnier on stage than he is on the radio, is best as a kind of desperately worried zany, who arrives to do something he never gets done, just because he is suspicious of the management, or the other performers, and wonders how soon he can get rid of the astonishingly stolid lady at the piano. There is about him almost a feminine fussiness; he reminds us of some despairing hostesses. He does not need witty material. Either you find his stage personality very funny itself, as I do, or you do not like him at all.

Another despairing but different type is Tony Hancock, a very clever performer, owing more to art than to nature. He comes on all smiles and confidence, to recite, to sing, to dance, but is quickly reduced by the malice of circumstance, aided by a strange blank stooge who is the very image of no enthusiasm, to a gasping, pitiable wreck, his gleaming rolling eye pleading for our tolerance, for just another chance. This is all in a high tradition of clowning. Good clowns never try to be funny; they are very serious but eager and hopeful creatures lost in a hostile world; and with great clowns like Grock and WC Fields the very furniture is menacing, never to be trusted.

Al Read, who was an amateur a few years ago, has shot up like a rocket; he is, however, not a clown proper, a droll, but rather an extremely effective, self-taught character actor, whose work is based on very acute observation of Lancashire types, especially the loud, self-important chaps. He does not need the stage, as most of the others do, to reveal himself at his best.

Max Bygraves is a large, smooth young man, dressy and faintly spivvy, but with an easy, relaxed manner that has charm. But whenever I have seen him I have always felt that be was better, or potentially better, than his material allowed him to be. He is like a cocktail that still needs a touch of Pernod or lemon juice or something to complete it.

Last – for I have no space here for more than one other – is Norman Wisdom, still very young, who is perhaps the most successful so far with the big public. To be fair, I must explain that I have not seen him perform very recently. But when I did see him – and he was already a star then – I thought he had the appearance and feeling to be a Chaplinesque pathetic little clown, but that he had obviously been rushed to the top far too quickly; this before he had mastered the all-important art of timing, in which the good clown must have an exquisite precision. Chaplin is a master of it. So was Grock. You may know in advance, as I did with Grock, exactly what a great clown is going to do or what will happen to him, yet so wonderful is his timing that you are as much taken by surprise as he appears to be. Norman Wisdom has not yet achieved this art, which demands years and years of careful study.

It is best, too, if during those years the audiences are not too friendly, too easily amused. The worst audience for a comedian trying to improve his act is the privileged invited studio audience, there to applaud anything and everything. A wet Monday in Leeds or Glasgow during a trade slump is what the ambitious and conscientious comedian should appreciate. This rapid but slightly dubious progress leaves the new star droll facing many awkward questions. And do not imagine that he is such a gay, careless fellow, so busy enjoying his fabulous salary, that he neither knows nor cares how searching these questions are. Nearly all comedians of star quality are in fact extremely anxious and very conscientious performers, more aware of life and its pitfalls than most of their colleagues are, mere butterflies like singers. The basis of good clowning is the contrast between the ideal and real, the expected and the actual, the shining dream and the grim businesses. So the new star drolls begin to worry about the division of their time between stage and air; the risk of using inferior material on the air or the further risk of using up good material (always hard to find) too quickly; the danger of losing the TV or radio public to competitors; the chance of remaining on the stage until an act is perfected.

Finally, because his rise has been so rapid, he cannot help wondering if he is really good or has merely been lucky. He has come up quickly, he can go down quickly, too. The older comedians arrived the hard way, but once they were there they felt more secure. They could also save money, hardly possible now with our punitive taxation.

In my capacity as a collector and connoisseur, I try to visit most of the so-called revues (a name that should be reserved for less spectacular and more intimate entertainments) that frame the best of these new drolls. When I do, I admire such talent and art as they offer me, note with respect the ever-increasing precision of the chorus girls, who are far better on the stage if not as trainees for the peerage than those of my youth, and the recent marked improvement in decor, often borrowed from the masters of it, the French; but I hardly ever fail to be annoyed by the astonishing and really disgraceful lack of originality and ideas in these shows. Why have they, with so much money at their disposal, to be so corny?

There are sketches that are more or less those I was beginning to yawn at in 1911. Why must they fall back, time after time, on scenes, situations, ideas that were flogged to death years ago? It is as if the new comedians had to take part in some time-honoured ritual of show business. There are religions that have changed faster than these entertainments. Soon they will be fixed for ever, like Punch-and-Judy. After all, it is not this stale stuff that brings in the audience. The famous drolls are the attraction. Take out their names and personalities, and the shows die at once. But the crowds that make haste to see them have not made it a condition of their patronage that the shows must be entirely free from originality, topicality, ideas, genuine satire, real reference to our common lives.

So long as their favourites are on the stage, not only could these audiences take something better than they are offered, but they would probably welcome a little originality, a few ideas. The clowns and drolls could dissolve into laughter much that is bitterly frustrating now. Given some acceptable ideas to work with, they could do an even greater public service than they do already. And in this respect we are worse off than almost any other country I know. Are our drolls themselves afraid of richer and more original material? (And what a wonderful tragic clown has been wasted in Bud Flanagan!) Possibly; though I think they could be persuaded to try it; they are anything but stupid men. The fault lies with the managers. They will tell us that they use the best material available, but will not add that it is only the best within the very narrow field to which they limit themselves. Could some of my colleagues in the League of Dramatists provide better material, some originality, some ideas? Yes, I believe they could and that they ought to try. Across what is now the dramatists’ desert, into which the star actors, either playing Shakespeare or filming, have disappeared, they must join hands with the drolls to make the big public laugh at itself.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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