Freud’s theory was that a good joke offers an exhilarating mental short cut between two disparate ideas. ‘The pleasure that it produces,’ he wrote, ‘whether it is pleasure in play or pleasure in lifting inhibitions, can invariably be traced back to economy in psychical expenditure.’ The comedian Ken Dodd, who amassed a substantial library of academic books on the subject of humour, was fond of quoting this line from Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious in interviews and adding, ‘Then again, Freud never played the Glasgow Empire on a Friday night.’ The put-down from a working comedian might have been justified, but for me, Freud’s theory continues to ring true. ‘The purpose and function of jokes,’ he maintained, ‘consists from the first in lifting internal inhibitions and in making sources of pleasure fertile which have been rendered inaccessible by those inhibitions.’ Since ‘both for erecting and for maintaining a psychical inhibition some “psychical expenditure” is required … [it is] plausible to suppose that this yield of pleasure corresponds to the psychical expenditure that is saved.’
This is what our best jokes do: they remove the inhibitions we spend so much energy raising and sustaining, and reveal us standing there, just as nature intended – the naked truth. On a personal level, the kinds of thing we laugh at reveal the truth about us as individuals. On a national level, the kinds of thing we laugh at reveal the truth about us as a country. This seems to apply to Britain more than most countries. Even in the post-Brexit age, you don’t have to travel abroad for long before encountering a touching anglophilia, the primary ingredient of which seems to be a love for the ‘British sense of humour’: a phenomenon everyone considers to be distinctive but no one can define. As David Stubbs writes in Different Times, his impressive survey of British comedy on stage, radio, film and television, ‘it’s not so much a case of Britain producing comedy as comedy producing Britain.’
The book provides a good opportunity to look at our recent national history not through the prism of successive governments and their ideological tendencies, but in terms of what has made British people laugh over the years, and to examine whether changes in comedy fashion match up with shifts in political direction. Are the jokes that make us laugh in 2023 fundamentally different from the ones that creased people up seventy years ago? Do we still have ‘psychical inhibitions’ that can be lifted only through the medium of comedy? Surely the viewers of 2023, at ease with Jimmy Carr’s jokes about paedophilia and anal sex, are less inhibited than the viewers of 1953 who chuckled at the classic-car comedy Genevieve, in which expressing the need for a ‘profound emotional experience’ was the closest Kenneth More’s character was allowed to come to saying that he was desperate to get laid?
Stubbs begins his book by musing on the irony of the humour-loving Brits electing a comedian as their last-but-two prime minister. It’s an early hint at his thesis that to have your sense of humour embedded in the national character as deeply as we do can lead to serious difficulties:
Boris Johnson is an indictment of many things: among them, the British over-emphasis on humour. Can’t-you-take-a-joke, cheer-up-it’ll-never-happen, oi-oi, lighten-up, top-bantz, oggy-oggy-oggy, go-on-my-son, oi-love-give-us-a-smile, you-don’t-have-to-be-mad-to-work-here, kiss-up, punch-down, ’ave-it, one-up-the-bum, Boaty McBoatface, boorish, whimsical, chortling, this-is-an-ex-parrot, famous-as-bully-beef British sense of humour … Humour, our craven inability to resist humour, is what created Boris Johnson.
If our ‘inability to resist humour’ is a national characteristic, we can probably find an early manifestation of it in the comedies made at Ealing Studios in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Indeed, as Stubbs reminds us, Michael Balcon, the studio’s head in its heyday, was explicit in defining its mission. When Ealing was sold in 1955, he placed a plaque on the studio building that read: ‘Here during a quarter of a century many films were made projecting Britain and the British character.’ For Boomers like me, treated to an endless cycle of these films on afternoon television in the 1960s and 1970s, they offered a wonderful cinematic comfort blanket, making us feel that we’d had the good fortune to be born into a society which was monochrome, buttoned-up and circumscribed, but fundamentally benign and (to use John Major’s celebrated phrase) ‘at ease with itself’.
That ease was, of course, predicated on the exclusion and silencing of certain social groups: there are almost no people of colour in Ealing films – or in many British films of the 1950s, for that matter – and no gay characters either (although Dennis Price and Robert Hamer, the star and director of Kind Hearts and Coronets, were both gay). The quintessential ‘Englishness’ so often lauded in these films wasn’t total: throughout his book, Stubbs is unusually attentive to the musical content of screen comedy, and he points out that the scores for Passport to Pimlico and The Lavender Hill Mob were written by the great French composer Georges Auric, a member with Poulenc and Tailleferre of Jean Cocteau’s Les Six. The Lavender Hill Mob is often seen as a gentle caper comedy, but wrapped up inside this genre piece is a powerful fantasy of escape. Stanley Holloway and Alec Guinness, the film’s partners in crime, are at heart romantics and dreamers chafing to break free from the conventions of postwar Britain in all its drabness, austerity and repression, and Continental Europe provides the closest escape route (even the name of Guinness’s character – Holland – gestures towards this). The film’s most lyrical and dynamic sequence takes place in Paris, where the couple scarper in order to dispose of their stolen bullion; at this point Auric’s score becomes a crucial component of its zany Francophilia. And when Guinness and Holloway career down the Eiffel Tower via a spiral staircase and emerge spinning and delirious, they are consumed by the one thing that life in the mother country has been denying them above all: laughter. Helpless, shaking paroxysms of it. The music reaches a pitch of Gallic delirium and we are brought to understand that if we are really going to laugh, both with ourselves and at ourselves, we must first escape ourselves. To attain what is apparently the essence of Britishness, Guinness and Holloway have to become profoundly un-British.
The same paradox underpins Passport to Pimlico, in which one of the characters, on discovering that she is in fact a French national, declares: ‘We always were English, and we’ll always be English, and it’s just because we are English that we’re sticking up for our right to be Burgundians!’ The Continental influence pervades non-Ealing comedies of the period, too. Many of Will Hay’s most famous films were made by a French director, Marcel Varnel, and the era’s most didactic film about the importance of laughing at yourself, Laughter in Paradise (in which a deceased practical joker’s relatives can’t claim their inheritance unless they do something ridiculous), was directed by an Italian, Mario Zampi.
The modern British sense of humour, then, of which these comedies might seem to be foundational, turns out to have a broader European flavour in both its authorship and its outlook. These were, and remain, intensely lovable films, which rarely aspire to the status of satire. Cracks in the veneer of postwar cosiness started to appear not first in cinema, but on the radio. Round about the time Ealing comedy was at its zenith, Spike Milligan (whose humour Stubbs admits to disliking) began meeting with old army friends at Grafton’s, a London pub, and planting the seeds of The Goon Show, which would mount a surreal full-frontal assault on British establishment mores. It was first broadcast in 1951; five years later, Hancock’s Half Hour introduced two brilliant writers, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, who between them created a character whose sense of social and intellectual confinement puts The Lavender Hill Mob’s bullion robbers in the shade and eventually – after Hancock had morphed into Harold Steptoe – blossomed into something like existential anguish. In 1961, a quartet of Oxbridge graduates brought satirical revue to the West End and poked fun at the church, the army, the cinematic mythology that had grown up around the Second World War, and even at the prime minister (although the groundwork for Peter Cook’s brutal takedown of Harold Macmillan had already been laid by The Goon Show’s Peter Sellers with his sketch ‘Party Political Speech’, which was released as the B-side of a single two years before Beyond the Fringe reached the stage).
All of these strands, you could argue, converged in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the arrival of Monty Python. But it’s easy to forget that, even then, British television screens were still dominated by cosier, broader-based forms of comedy with a powerful cross-generational appeal. Consensus comedy might be the best phrase for it. Stubbs has a nice section on this era, grouping together Ken Dodd, Les Dawson, Tommy Cooper and Morecambe and Wise. These five comedians in particular, he writes, achieved huge popularity despite the fact that they ‘represented a Britain that was not “with it”, mostly had to do without it. They were weatherbeaten, as familiar as old slippers, and their working lives and formative experiences stretched back to a previous age, to the end of World War Two.’ He might have added that none of them, on the whole, indulged in the rampant sexism and racism that blighted much British comedy of the era (even Python, on occasion). Minorities had become visible, finally, only to find that their role was to be the repeated butt of the joke. But Cooper, for instance, seemed immune to this because his comic universe was entirely detached from social reality, while Dodd and Morecambe and Wise shared a writer, Eddie Braben, whose sense of the corporeally ridiculous was directed firmly at the male body rather than the female (Eric to Ernie: ‘Why don’t you take your clothes off and do your impersonation of a teapot? You know, the one with the broken spout’).
As Stubbs is careful to note, these comics
were hardly our finest men – not our handsomest, or most go-ahead, or most heroic … They were not iconoclasts or trailblazers. They were certainly not radicals … They were middle-aged men who at times affected, perhaps genuinely, a sense of innocent confusion at the pace of social change in Britain after the war … They tended to vote Conservative, despite their natural identification with the underdog.
By the early 1980s, however, voting Conservative had become a more strident ideological statement than it had been during the previous decades. The Young Conservatives’ conference during the 1983 general election campaign offered the unappealing spectacle of Kenny Everett, wearing a pair of gigantic foam-rubber gloves, bounding on stage and shouting ‘Let’s bomb Russia!’ and ‘Let’s kick Michael Foot’s stick away!’ Everett had always been a maverick, and his actions could just about be construed as a Dadaist provocation, but what really rankled were the cheers that greeted these words from an audience that included a very prominent and visibly enthusiastic Morecambe and Wise. These two had already blotted their copybook as comic custodians of the British postwar consensus by transferring their show from the BBC to ITV, a symbolic abandonment of the ethos of public service broadcasting in favour of more hard-nosed commercial considerations. Morecambe’s premature death in 1984, which triggered a justified moment of national mourning, perhaps also spared us more evidence of their willingness to ride the Thatcherite wave.
From then on, the giant foam-rubber gloves were off in the fight for Britain’s comedy soul. Griff Rhys Jones and Mel Smith took aim at the old guard with a withering attack on The Two Ronnies as ‘The Two Ninnies’. Adrian Edmondson on The Young Ones ranted about The Good Life, Felicity Kendal and twee British sitcoms. Ben Elton peppered his routines with diatribes about ‘Mrs Thatch’, and Spitting Image combined strident ad hominem attacks on current politicians with grotesque and unforgiving latex puppetry. All to no avail (or, as the Two Ronnies might have put it in their ‘Name Droppers’ sketch from 1986, Noah Vale). Thatcher scored three election victories in a row and no British government since has seriously broken with her legacy. Roger Law, one of the puppeteers behind Spitting Image, gloomily observed that ‘at first we were stupid enough to think we were going to make a difference with our humour, but I don’t think, in retrospect, that it did make a difference.’
One of the purposes of Stubbs’s book is to chart the progress made by British comedy towards a greater inclusivity in recent decades, a trend that arguably began in the late 1970s. It was then that Victoria Wood arrived to give a genuine comic voice to the female experience and Lenny Henry startled television audiences with ‘the disconnect of a young Black man doing flawless impersonations of white TV personalities’, a feat that ‘slyly implied: we know all about you people, to the last detail. What do you know about us?’ In the later sections of the book Stubbs celebrates the work of Meera Syal, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Bethany Black, Michaela Coel and others. Even so, there is a lingering sense that progress has been tentative. His concluding lengthy discussions of Ricky Gervais and Stewart Lee remind us that most high-profile British comedy is still the domain of straight white men, and in his closing remarks, Stubbs strikes a note of almost Roger Law-like resignation: ‘Comedy has never been an agent for radical change and there are no laughs in idealism.’
This is especially true in the case of overtly political comedy. Mockery was never going to knock Britain off course once it had set out on the path to neoliberalism. Since 1979 Britain has been a Thatcherite country, in which Thatcher’s economic values are forever argued over and protested against but never deviated from. As a result, the years after 1979 are more resistant than the postwar period to the imposition of a linear historical narrative, either in the fields of politics or comedy.
Stubbs does have a crack at it, and gamely tries to break down recent comedy history, decade by decade: he characterises the 1990s as ‘untroubled’, an ‘economically cosy and pacific’ decade in which ‘the clamour for serious social change was barely audible.’ In the 2000s, he discerns a ‘penchant for cruelty across the board, from Jeremy Kyle to The Thick of It’, which is connected, he believes, to the rise of reality TV and its readiness to expose members of the public to derision. In the 2010s he sees a counterbalance to this tendency, a shift away from ‘the desultory mood of cynicism and low-level sadism’ towards ‘kindness’ as exemplified in the caustic pastoralism of shows such as This Country and Detectorists, which strike ‘grace notes of consideration, nuance, a baked-in reflectiveness of the tradition to which they belong and from which they gently depart’.
It’s possible to find an element of truth in this while also feeling that this kind of comedy doesn’t constitute a hefty counterbalance to thirteen years of cruelty, corruption and incompetence in government. Britain remains a nation of laughers, even if satire has proved an ineffectual tool, and we should never underestimate the extent to which our comedy and our politics still impact on each other in the most unexpected ways. In the 1990s a bored young journalist, sent to Brussels to file reports for the Daily Telegraph, evolved a facetious style that was so successful in spinning a comic mythology of what the EU was like that two decades later, during the Brexit referendum, he was able to campaign successfully against the myth he had created. In 2008 – during Stubbs’s era of ‘cynicism and low-level sadism’ – two comedians, Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross, made a telephone call on air to Andrew Sachs, a beloved actor from sitcom’s golden age, and informed him in shocking detail of Brand’s recent liaison with his granddaughter. The Mail on Sunday whipped the (initially indifferent) public into such a mood of outrage that the BBC, scared out of its wits, retreated into a mode of hyper-caution that has characterised not just its comedy but also its news output ever since. The comedian and broadcaster Jon Holmes has recalled that, in the wake of the scandal, ‘there were suddenly hundreds more forms to fill in for producers … and everything had to be referred upwards … Everything was scrutinised through the lens of what might happen if the Daily Mail took umbrage.’ Stubbs’s book helps us in a necessary task: to reflect on the implications of being a nation that sees its willingness to laugh at itself as an uncomplicated virtue. The trouble is, comedy has consequences.
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