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28 August 2023

A comic story of Britain

This history of comedy contains much moralising – but the best creations transcend the monstrousness of their characters.

By Peter Williams

When asked at what point in life he realised he was funny, Matt Berry, the Bafta-winning comic actor and writer, said: “I don’t think I am and anyone who does is a wanker.” Ego-policing aside, he raised an interesting question: what kind of person asserts that they are amusing? Humour is nothing special, a universal tool that can be used to nearly any end – to bully or resist bullying, to affirm common values or refute them, face fears or bury them. That the British have a strong comic tradition is not remarkable; how loudly we self-declare our funniness is.

And, as David Stubbs shows in his preamble to Different Times, his history of British comedy, it is a complacent tendency. Boris Johnson understands how we over-value apparent self-deprecation and humour, “how seriously anti-serious” many of us are. When he came to wider notice as a guest on Have I Got News for You in the late Nineties, his clowning persona of a posh “young relic” made his flaws and missteps seem not merely forgivable but characterful, the mark of a real human being, while recalling the comic Arcadia of PG Wodehouse. There, alongside Gussie Fink-Nottle and Lord Emsworth, you can just about imagine “Boris” – not nearly so well drawn but recognisably of the type. He promised a better future partly by referencing a warm vision of the past. Voters laughed him all the way into Downing Street and reaped the consequences.

Different Times is a chronological survey of the last century of British screen comedy, from the first films of Chaplin through to the Ealing comedies, the Sixties satire boom, the alternative wave of the 1980s, up to today. It focuses mainly on our best-loved television shows and comedians while essaying a breezy social history: comedy as a means to interrogate Britain rather than vice versa.

Unfortunately, the diagnosis that Stubbs offers is reliably hackneyed. Humour is a “consolation prize” of life in these dank, cramped islands. The British, by which he is anxious to make known he mainly means the English, are an unfortunate race: terminally frivolous, “miserably monolingual” and therefore xenophobic; where they do have depth it is usually only as stews of repression, bigotry and loathing. That such an immiserated isle produces such joyous comic talent is only lightly pondered. Instead, Stubbs advances further bloke-down-the-pub analysis of what ails us: declinism, deindustrialisation, post-imperial blues, etc.

Moving briskly through the ages, he contextualises acute analysis of the material itself with period clichés so exhausted it’s a wonder they dragged themselves on to the page. The Fifties are drab and grey; the Sixties “swing” repeatedly; the Seventies are also drab, except for the soft furnishings and the pop music; while the Nineties mean “things can only get better” and the end of history. Any mention of sex means bawdiness and seaside postcards. At times, these assemblies degenerate into nonsense, as when we are told the Carry On cast “intermittently brightened our lives with their seaside familiarity, representing a bawdy levity we recognised in ourselves, a consolation for our ongoing British predicament”. Does anyone, subject to our ongoing British predicament or otherwise, know what “seaside familiarity” is? Knowledge of coastal walks? Answers on a saucy postcard.

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[See also: David Runciman’s armchair politics]

It is a pity as, with its love for and knowledge of its subject, Different Times near-elucidates all sorts of fascinating contrasts and continuities between the eras, and a more thematic arrangement might have enabled Stubbs to junk the empty generalities. There are lines to be traced in, say, the “comedy of confinement”, from Tony Hancock to Steptoe and Son, where Harold is entombed as much by his decency as by his inept striving; to the bleak solipsism of Peep Show. With class and place perennial themes, we might have travelled in one chapter from Alan Bennett to Victoria Wood to Caroline Aherne, or looked at how British comedy is often at its sharpest when talent collaborates from across society, as with the performers of Beyond the Fringe or The Day Today.

Such an approach may also have better addressed one of the book’s main questions: what comedy from the past are we allowed still to enjoy? Here, beside the political anxiety of a scrupulously correct modern liberal is the anxiety of a fan: the fear that something beloved will be rejected or forgotten. But the result is much humdrum moralising.

On the “What have Romans ever done for us?” skit in Life of Brian, Stubbs sniffs, “One could argue that imperialism has not entirely been a source of civilising benefit to occupying countries… but given that at this point [John] Cleese was probably the funniest man in the world, he more than just about gets away with it.” Staying with Cleese, Stubbs declares that the Major’s infamous racist outburst in Fawlty Towers should have been cut, adding, “If you wouldn’t do it now, you shouldn’t have done it then.” Refusing to air any counter-argument – say, that daring to use such vicious language is artistically courageous and all the more damning of society coming from a seemingly harmless old soak like the Major – betrays its own kind of intolerance. Castigating the past for failing to adhere precisely to modern mores becomes more an exercise in self-exculpation than criticism. Pointing out how it falls short of the eternal standards we have lately happened upon is no real insight at all.

I was reminded in this of The Fast Show’s Arthur Atkinson, a parody of a music hall entertainer played by Paul Whitehouse, whose wartime audience is in fits as he capers about the stage proffering a stream of baffling catchphrases, innuendoes and non-sequiturs (“I’ve seen you wrapping presents when it’s nobody’s birthday…”). The joke is that we can no longer understand the joke, that a society different from ours was different in ways we cannot fathom.

To laugh is not to take a moral position, or not solely so. A good joke toys with our assumptions and expectations, and liberates the unspoken. A really good one will tap into our prejudices not to propagate them but to jolt us into self-knowledge. As for how we approach the comedy of past, it should depend on what we need it for. A social historian who neglected how Dad’s Army or Morecambe and Wise captivated millions would be hindering their own enterprise. The ghastly relics that Stubbs describes, such as The Black and White Minstrel Show and Mind Your Language, also tell us much about their time. But in artistic or entertainment terms they are inert, as much because of how feeble they are as how offensive.

Indeed, at the close of Different Times Stubbs argues that, partly thanks to political correctness and modern identity politics, comedy has become both kinder and better over the past decade as it rejects the crude stereotypes of old. Stand-ups such as Bethany Black and James Acaster and sitcoms such as Detectorists and This Country are “a haven of considerateness, diversity, multiculturalism, richer in comedic detail and observation”. It’s an appealing idea, but as Different Times shows, the very best comedy transcends its time not merely by being correct, let alone nice. Many of Britain’s greatest comic creations – Fawlty, Rising Damp’s Rigsby, Alan Partridge – are monsters, but, through the skill of those who wrote and performed them, retain across the ages the breath of something human.

Different Times: A History of British Comedy
David Stubbs
Faber & Faber, 416pp, £20

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[See also: Colleen Hoover’s tales of love and trauma]

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This article appears in the 06 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Crumbling Britain