Boys will be girls

Clive James

  • Footlights! A Hundred Years of Cambridge Comedy by Robert Hewison
    Methuen, 224 pp, £8.95, June 1983, ISBN 0 413 51150 2

The English are not at their best, although they may well be at their most characteristic, when they go on a lot about the dear old days at school or the ’varsity. Not even the inspired Cyril Connolly could get his tongue far enough into his cheek to be anything more tolerable than stomach-turning about Eton. George Orwell, who had been there too but thought it was possible to have a life afterwards, was surely right to tell him to come off it. Even if there were room for doubt in this matter, however, there can be no question that an ex-Colonial transplantee who happens to have done some of his growing up in an English school or ’varsity should be slow to bring forth his cosy reminiscences, and very slow to hand them over to anyone else. So when the author of this book about the Cambridge Footlights approached me, in my capacity as one of the club’s numerous surviving ex-Presidents, I imitated the action of the clam. Judging from the relative sparseness of the acknowledgments list, a lot of other alumni did the same thing, for whatever reasons. Probably they were just being cautious. For a professional performer after a certain time, every interview he doesn’t give counts as a victory, on the principle that the label you help them lick is the one that will stick to you longest.

Nevertheless, or perhaps therefore, Mr Hewison has produced a respectable book: sensible, well-researched and solid enough to be unexciting. If the publishers thought they were going to get the kind of sputtering firework that one of David Frost’s script associates might help him deliver into a tape-recorder, they haven’t. This is a book meant to be read and even kept. Indeed it might have more keepers than readers, since a probable majority of buyers will be the people mentioned in the appendixed lists of club committee-members, tabulated on an annual basis. An ex-Junior Treasurer or Falconer from the late Sixties now sweating it out in front of a computer terminal in the City will be able to look up his own name and remember when he suffered from a different, sweeter form of nerves – trembling on the bench beside the little stage in Falcon Yard as his time grew close to go on and do a sketch. He never really got the laughs, but he learned how to stay alive under the lights. Most important, he discovered for certain that his path lay elsewhere. By finding out what he wasn’t, he started to find out what he was.

But if Mr Hewison had confined himself to such a typical non-story his book would have been for subscribers only. Understandably he puts his emphasis on those who made names later on. It is a seductive emphasis because whereas later on their various relationships and interlockings tend to be evanescent, circumstantial, conjectural or non-existent, early on, as he tells it, they seem to have hung out together in groups of a dozen at the minimum – generation after generation of tight little cliques busily revolutionising the comic heritage, usually as a reaction to what was supposedly achieved by the clique on whose heels they were treading. Since Mr Hewison went to Oxford and was thus never a Footlight himself, his success in making himself familiar with this snug little world is doubly remarkable. Only a man of scholarly temperament could have squeezed along these burrows, although it might be remembered that the same could be said about the author of Watership Down. There are commendably few factual errors, and the sole really glaring one is an editorial slip on page 151, where the photograph captioned ‘Germaine Greer, 1965’ is of a happily unfamous girl called Sheilah Buhr. I was ASM for the touring company of that year’s May Week revue (its title, My Girl Herbert, was, alas, my suggestion) and can remember Sheilah well. A Canadian graduate student of high intelligence and angelic temperament, she was a typical Footlight in that she was just passing through an amateur dramatics phase on the way to the real world.

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