Gravity’s Python

Raymond Williams

  • From Fringe to Flying Circus by Roger Wilmut
    Eyre Methuen, 264 pp, £7.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 413 46950 6

What is the difference between a satirist and an impressionist? I don’t know – what is the difference between a satirist and an impressionist?

The sad little question is properly cast in the form of a comic routine. There must be some people, perhaps most of us some of the time, who can look back on the wit of the last twenty years and simply revive old laughter. Any book of quotations from Beyond the Fringe to Monty Python’s Flying Circus offers enough occasions, and there is still Not the Nine O’Clock News. But then other memories intrude. The early impersonations of Harold Macmillan seemed at the time to have some political content. But go across from that memory to, say, Mike Yarwood, doing the whole run of political leaders. We still laugh, but with other questions. Isn’t there a certain air of obeisance in this whole exercise with celebrities? Isn’t being impersonated now a mark on the scale of effective image-building? Is it true that all celebrities ask even the hardest cartoonist for their originals?

That may only mean that the bite has gone out of it all. Yet Peter Cook, one of the early impersonators, is quoted here as saying : ‘My impersonation of Macmillan was in fact extremely affectionate – I was a great Macmillan fan.’ On the printed evidence, he could have fooled us. Did he fool us?

It is useful to have even this broadly adulatory record of the last twenty years of – what? It seems that Kenneth Tynan first called it satire. Others have called ‘it’ almost everything, but the only reasonably constant factor, of any importance, is a specific conjunction of university revue with popular television. Yet that can then override the obvious differences of content. There is really hardly anything in common between, say. That was the week that was, Monty Python’s Flying Circus and The Goodies, except this very general fact of formation. Should we then set it aside, as a matter of mere biographical or vulgar sociological interest? Glad of the laughs, I can usually agree to this until I notice a fair number of these performers turning up between the acts, doing their funny commercials. With the commercials still running we remember how often and how brilliantly the commercial mode has been guyed. Take the point across to politicians and official spokesmen, and it begins to seem a problem that after twenty years of mocking impersonation we are stuck with public figures even more ludicrous than any of the original targets.

So satire can’t change the world? But then how much of it was satire anyway? There is one old sense of satire as medley, supposedly derived from a dish of various fruits offered to the gods. That is getting more like it. The range has been very wide, from social and political comment through traditional comic sketches and monologues to prolonged verbal jokes and a kind of late Dadaism. In some of the contributors, it has edged towards a kind of drama, full of intricate subjectivities. In others, it has moved happily towards commercial farce. There has been a general supposition that it was broadly progressive, but it has included its share of racial and foreigner jokes and a persistent proportion of mockery of the English working class. In the early days it included several internal parodies of theatre; lately it has sometimes seemed that its whole content is internal parody of television.

With this range of content it is reasonable to ask why it is still distinguished from the general run of comic entertainment. Certainly the range can be wider, including kinds of educated joke (the persistence of Proust) and more black comedy. There has been wider use of comedy drawn from the mechanics of the show itself: internal mix-ups; self-conscious reference to the sketch while it is playing; the use of devices to undermine the device. It could be said that this is the world of late Modernism and Brechtian influence, but there is no need to say this: the Marx Brothers and the Goons were already in place. What may be distinct, in the use of some of these methods, is a kind of amateurism. It is often difficult to distinguish between deliberate amateurism as a joke on professional routines and the amateurism which has simply run out of writing and rehearsal time. Either is compatible with the brilliance of some of the performers and the high spirits of each new wave.

Without radio and especially television, many of these performers would have passed through comedy in their student and training years, and then dropped it. Some of them have indeed dropped it but with a popular reputation to launch other projects. Others, in larger numbers than in earlier generations, have stayed with the shows. I don’t know whether this is loss or gain. I have met former student performers in such surprising places that I don’t know how there could be any rule of advantage. But this fact of persistence, beyond the generation of student comedy, gives us an unusual opportunity to watch what happens when that frisky irreverence becomes successful, professional, stabilised.

This broadens into the question of the sheer amount of comedy on television. The amounts of drama and of news are equally striking. Many of us can spend more time watching any of these than in, say, preparing and eating food. That is why it is difficult to go along with the opening paragraph of Mr Wilmut’s ‘Prologue’, with its references to the jester in the baronial hall and the ‘continuing and changing tapestry of laughter’. The quantities alter any simple notion of a historical mode. Whether or not the appetite grows on feeding, the slots are still there, in hitherto unimaginable numbers.

This has required exceptional invention. Without this new range of writers and performers, the traditional comedian could hardly have coped. The Oxbridge network, so important in British broadcasting, made opportunities easier to come by than in most cultures. The formation moved through.

Yet it can’t, in some of the cases, be only a matter of quantity. The quality of some of the modes found a ready or almost ready audience. The grim reproductive character of official English culture went on providing occasions for anything from the most studied parody to a kind of helpless, hysterical flatulence. Thus, long after the public-school jokes had faded, the world created and managed by the sober face of the same institutions provoked the same ribaldry. The dissident comic fraction of the governing and administrative class joined the rest of us in our amazement, and because they were much nearer to it could be much funnier about it.

That process happened, but though it’s often told as the whole story, it is, in fact, only part of it, perhaps a small part. For with that specific dissidence came the other attitudes that had not been shed: the funny foreigners, the funny regional accents, the funny house-wives and working men. In a period of anxious mobility and of national decline, the familiar repertory had a new edge. If there was one thing English culture could agree on, at least in off-business moments, it was that it was all bloody ridiculous.

It? We? Of course comedy at its best takes everything on. It can at times be very ridiculous to ask it for a consistent point of view. But there are usually specific forms under any apparent universality, and this period is not an exception. Beyond the general medley, beyond the specific class characteristics, beyond the hurried improvisations to capitalise on success, there are some specific features which invite reflection from the point of view of the Eighties. They are difficult to describe, for they are the most genuinely contemporary elements. Much more than the topical references and allusions, they situate some of this work in a period. I think they can be seen now as a very specific problem about seriousness, which was comically discharged.

There are different levels in this. One obvious effect of some of the best work – for example, in Monty Python – is to create a residual mood in which virtually nothing can be said or done without becoming absurd. Perhaps I am too preoccupied with problems of sequence and flow on television, but I keep noticing a sense of devastation of other kinds of work and statement around this kind of comedy. It often needs a sleep to get back, with any kind of attention, to the straight-faced or poker-faced statements of the dominant programming. Considering what much of that is like, the effect is salutary.

It is interesting that some of the best sketches seem to be centred on this problem of how to take anything seriously. Of course, these vary. How much of the comedy in the Dud and Pete sketches (the Dagenham Dialogues) comes from a shared sense of helpless philosophical rumination, and how much from the fact of helplessness in those precise accents: the absurdity of the thinking working-class man, the autodidact, and his errors in university-style vocabulary? The sketches can be reduced to this latter component, which is often heavy, but at other times behind them there is indeed a shared helplessness. It is in some of Monty Python, and perhaps at its best in The Life of Brian, that this note is most often struck. Somebody is trying to say something, or to think something through, and every kind of interruption and disability not only intrudes and prevents him, but seems marshalled, systematically, to prevent him. At its best, this has much in common with the more officially recognised art of what is called ‘non-communication’. Indeed often, in its exuberance, it is less decadent than these more prestigious currencies of the official art and theatre world. But still, less decadent.

English philistinism has always comforted itself with the half-memory of the man who tried to be a philosopher but found that cheerfulness kept breaking through. What we have in some of this comedy is the opposite and probably now more relevant situation: of the man who tries to be cheerful and amusing, but finds sadness, loss, a sense of arbitrary insignificance, welling up and needing to be hit sharply over the head.

But then the decadence, if it is there, is quite general. It has very little to do with what is officially complained about: the irreverence, the rudery, the cruel jokes and joking cruelty. Those fit the culture like a glove: the comic version of alienation and of hang-up and of overtight nerves. What underlies all this is a determining sense of loss. Most of the old serious statements have moved to at least the edge of absurdity, when at all carefully listened to in this actual world. But there is then a long gap before any new serious statements can be made and really listened to. It has seemed for perhaps two generations to require the thickest of hides and the most rooted or protected of situations even to attempt them, in any sustained way. The laughter of instant parody is at the shoulder of every gravity. An awareness of lightness, of darting and laughing mobility, accompanies most consciousness of weight. Suddenly, and perhaps against our will, the snigger and the belly-laugh rule. And all the time that grim old culture keeps providing their occasions, while directing, at a different level, a cruel danger and misery.

There is no point then in blaming the boys, even when they have become men. They have filled, are still filling, that long gap, at most of the levels from distraction through caricature to wild bursts of anarchic energy. When they got to the BBC, from the early Sixties, their chief patron used to refer back to the Berlin revues of the Twenties, and, characteristically, they both accepted this patronage and laughed about the boring historical reference. It seems less boring now, and not only because of what came after it, in Germany, which was usually left out of the flattering retrospect. What is really in question is how we get through, get out of, a state of disbelief and helplessness which is bound, in all its early stages, to seem comic and edgy: demanding the funny face and the paranoiac prance.

Those at least we have had, brilliantly, in a sketch which hopes it will never have to hear the probable punch line.