Tag Archives: Till Death Us Do Part

Tony Blair’s Muslim sister-in-law is performing at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Muslim sister-in-law is performing at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Lauren Booth, Tony Blair’s sister-in-law, was a very vocal opponent of the 2003 Iraq War and a supporter of the Stop The War Coalition.

She is performing Accidentally Muslim at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe.

She trained as an actress, became a journalist and converted to Islam in 2010.

Her father was actor Tony Boothwho became famous as the Left Wing son-in-law of Alf Garnett in BBC TV’s sitcom Till Death Us Do Part.

“Your mother’s maiden name was Pamela Cohen”

Accidentally Muslim is a dramatisation of her 2016 memoir Finding Peace in the Holy Land.


JOHN: Do you still exchange Christmas cards with Tony Blair?

LAUREN: Yes.

JOHN: So you are persona grata…

LAUREN: Ehhh… Well, I think there’s a lot of love in the family.

JOHN: Your mother was Susie Riley née Pamela Cohen. That’s a Jewish name.

LAUREN: Yeah. Her father, my grandfather, was Jewish.

JOHN: Was her mother Jewish?

LAUREN: No.

JOHN: So she’s technically not Jewish.

LAUREN: That’s right.

JOHN: There’s a lot of stuff at the moment about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. Can someone be anti-Israel without being anti-Jewish?

LAUREN: I’m not going to go into that, because that’s not in my show.

JOHN: So…?

LAUREN: It’s not the same at all.

JOHN: Why not?

Lauren in Iran with an anti-Zionist Rabbi and Christian priest

LAUREN: Because you can be against a political regime without wishing harm on people who follow a faith. There are Zionists who are not Jewish and it’s the political ideas that people protest against.

JOHN: Why are you an ‘accidental’ Muslim?

LAUREN: Because things kept happening to me that pushed me in one direction until, one day, I pretty much woke up and went: Whaaaaat?? – Oh! OK! Right!

Some people will go and read and study for six years. Other people will just accept a faith. But I was resisting. I was like: Nice food, but no thankyou. And… it just happened.

JOHN: You saw a report on TV in 2000 of a boy who got shot in the Gaza Strip and then you accidentally found yourself in his village.

LAUREN: Yes.

JOHN: Are you Sunni or Shiite?

LAUREN: I just say I am Muslim.

JOHN: Can you be?

LAUREN: You can, because everything is between our hearts and the Creator. I just think it’s really disingenuous and unhelpful to get involved in sectarianism.

JOHN: Don’t people say: “You have to be with us or them”?

LAUREN: Yes, unfortunately that happens and that’s why I don’t go into it.

JOHN: How do you spell the faith? Moslem or Muslim?

LAUREN: Muslim. Like the word mosque. You know the origin? Apparently the colonial troops in India described the people flocking to their religious building as mosquitos – that eeeee sound. There were thousands of them and you didn’t want them, so that’s why it’s ‘mosque’. Most Muslims refer to it as ‘masjid’.

Young Sarah Jane later Lauren Booth

JOHN: You were born Sarah Jane Booth. So where did ‘Lauren’ come from?

LAUREN: It’s an Equity name. There was already an actress called Sarah Jane Booth, my height, brown hair, brown eyes, born the same year.

JOHN: That is rather creepy. You have a doppelgänger!

(LAUREN HUMS THE THEME TO THE TWILIGHT ZONE)

LAUREN: I just plucked ‘Lauren’ out of the air.

JOHN: Accidentally Muslim is billed as a play in the Theatre section of the Edinburgh Fringe Programme. Is it a play or a monologue?

LAUREN: A monologue.

JOHN: So is it a monologue about how we should all become Muslims?

LAUREN: Absolutely not.

JOHN: But it’s going to be a terribly serious talk about death, destruction and…

LAUREN: Well, I’ve just come out of rehearsals for it and we’ve been roaring with laughter for 30 minutes. It has some real light and shade in it.

JOHN: You have a director for the show. You started as an actress, then became a journalist. You can write and you can act. Why do you need a director?

LAUREN: It would have been such an act of arrogance to have come back after 26 years of not being on the stage as an actor and say: “I can do this on my own!”… It would have been a catastrophe. I wanted to dramatise the story and make it ‘live’. It has a soundscape and visuals and lighting cues and I play twelve characters. So it’s very much not a lecture.

JOHN: So it’s not a monologue: it IS more of a play.

LAUREN: Is it a one woman dramatisation? Does that work? One of the characters I play is Billy Connolly.

One of the 12 characters Lauren will play (Photograph by Eva Rinaldi)

JOHN: If you have to cover your head for religious reasons and you don’t have a beard, how are you going to do that?

LAUREN: You’ll have to see the play to find out.

JOHN: Good PR!… So the play is a coming-together of your skills as an actress, journalist, world traveller…?

LAUREN: You know, going through these rehearsals, it’s a story of somebody who’s by chance at certain pivotal moments in history and has certain realisations along the way. It covers 40 years, 12 characters, 2 faiths and 2 or 3 continents.

JOHN: Which continent is the Middle East in?

LAUREN: It’s a totally Orientalist term. The Orientalists said Britain is the middle of the world and everything else (beyond the English Channel) is East, so it is the Middle of the East.

JOHN: It’s certainly not Africa; it’s certainly not Europe; it’s not Asia.

LAUREN: What about calling it Middle Earth?

JOHN: We would have to worry about the Nazgûl coming in. Talking of which, among others, you wrote for the New Statesman AND for the Mail on Sunday. There’s a – eh – mixture of politics in there.

LAUREN: Well, my politics was always the same. I like to tell myself that the Right Wing paid for my Left Wing pretensions. But I don’t know if ethically, looking back, that really works. Can you take quite so much money off Associated Newspapers and still be Left Wing? That’s up for debate. But I wrote what I wanted. They did give me free rein and I did get some good stories that I wanted in because I used to stand-in for Suzanne Moore: hardly a bastion of the Right.

I described doing that kind of job as being an aquifer for hatred for Middle England.

JOHN: …and at the New Statesman? The type of stuff you were writing was…?

LAUREN: I would call myself  “a chronicler of London society” at that time.

The Daily Mail’s photo of Lauren with her dad Tony Booth

JOHN: Someone said, when you converted, you had moved “from hedonism to hajj”. Your dad, actor Tony Booth, was very Bohemian.

LAUREN: Well, we are all products of our childhood and my dad taught me an awful lot. He taught me how to roll a spliff that would look like a cigarette.

JOHN: Remembered fondly.

LAUREN: Absolutely.

JOHN: You’ve worked for Press TV AND Al Jazeera. Press TV? That’s pure propaganda…

LAUREN: It was the only place to get out some really good information about Palestine.

JOHN: You spend a lot of time in the Middle East?

LAUREN: I haven’t been for five years. I’m hoping to go back to Qatar. I can’t really get into Gaza at the moment. The last time I went through Israel was 2009. The problem with getting into Gaza is you can’t get in through Egypt. You have to go in through Israel.

JOHN: Do you personally, specifically have problems getting into Israel?

LAUREN: I haven’t so far.

JOHN: You were on I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here in 2006. Why did you do that?

LAUREN: Because it was adventure. The only thing that scared me was bungee jumping and I did three… Three!

JOHN: The viewers voted that you had to?

LAUREN: Yeah.

JOHN: You are always going to be tarred with Tony Blair… but the good side is you will always get coverage out of it.

LAUREN: It’s not about coverage. I have no issue with it having been a door-opener. At certain times, you have to say: That door was absolutely opened because of it. What you do when you get inside, though, is what defines you. So I am very grateful for that and I hope I’ve used it for good and made some points that needed to be made and told stories for people who don’t normally get their stories told.

JOHN: I was going to say it’s a cross you have to bear. But I suppose it’s a crescent you have to bear.

LAUREN: Can I have that for the play?

JOHN: It’s yours.

Leave a comment

Filed under Islam, Palestine, Politics, Religion

How Left Wing TV writers won an election for Margaret Thatcher, the godmother of UK alternative comedy

The new ITV series Newzoids starts tonight. A satirical programme about politicians, performed by puppets. (Not too far removed from real life, then.)

“It sounds just like Spitting Image,” I suggested yesterday to Dave Cohen, who is one of the writers on Newzoids. Dave is also the man who originally created the oft-used saying Comedy is the new rock ’n’ roll.

“W-e-e-e-e-l-l,” said Dave, “That’s the first thing people compare it to.”

“How far ahead is Newzoids recorded?” I asked.

Dave Cohen, the man behind television's political laughter

Dave Cohen, the man behind television’s political laughter

“Like Spitting Image,” Dave said, “over a long period of time. I’ve been doing mainly songs for it. And the odd sketch.

“The songs have to be done quite a long time in advance.

“We were doing music at the start of the year – January/February.

“Most of the show has been made and I think they have a 2 or 3 minute window to add things.”

“That’s very dodgy during a General Election campaign,” I suggested.

“Well,” said Dave, “I’m surprised four episodes are going out before the election because, all the years I’ve worked on topical shows and at the BBC, there was always this absolute decree that you must be equally rude about everybody. But maybe, because it’s ITV…”

Spitting Image,” I said, “transmitted an episode on Election night, but only immediately after the polls closed. Margaret Thatcher singing Tomorrow Belongs To Me

“That was actually from another episode,” said Dave.

“But very effective,” I said, ignoring my mistake.

“A lot of people,” said Dave, “thought Spitting Image won the election for the Tories in 1992. Which was a paradox. Everybody who was writing for Spitting Image hated the Tories. I’d say most people who write and perform comedy in general are Left-ish or Left or very Left. The BBC are always moaning that they’re desperate to get Right Wing people on quiz shows. I think I agree – and I am not Right Wing myself – but the trouble is finding them. There are not that many.”

“You have scripted for Have I Got News For You,” I prompted.

“God, yes,” said Dave. “Over the years, I’ve written for William Hague, Robin Cook, Neil Kinnock – that was the worst one ever. He guest-hosted.”

“Why was he a nightmare?” I asked.

“When you have some professional comedian like Jo Brand or Lee Mack hosting the show, they’ll say OK, give that line to me; I’ll do it my way, and you trust that. But, when Neil Kinnock says: It’s OK. Don’t worry. I’ll sort it out… Apparently he wouldn’t do any of the script in rehearsal either. I went to the recording and it was an absolute nightmare, really.”

Neil Kinnock: Have I got a loser for you?

Neil Kinnock: Have I got a loser for you?

“Did he look good on transmission?” I asked. “I sat through one recording of Have I Got News For You and it was two-and-a-half hours of recording for a half-hour show.”

“All I can say,” said Dave, “is that Neil Kinnock looked relatively better in the half hour edit.”

“Getting back,” I said, “to Spitting Image – with Left-leaning writers influencing the result of the 1992 Election, which the Conservative Party won…”

“Well,” said Dave, “there was all this slagging-off the Tories, as you’d expect but, when it came to Labour, there was maybe more anger because Labour were so crap – they were not criticising the poll tax or the Tory cuts and Neil Kinnock was being a bit useless. And that anger also seemed to hit a chord with voters who, even if they hated the Tories, thought: At least they’re better than Labour.”

“Well,” I suggested, “on Spitting Image, Neil Kinnock’s character was a floundering Welsh windbag. Margaret Thatcher was very strong in her male business suit. And Norman Tebbit in his leather jacket looked really aggressive – I guess he was supposed to be a devilish-type figure – but, as a result, he actually came across as a strong politician.”

“Well,” said Dave, “Johnny Speight created Alf Garnett (the central right wing character in Till Death Us Do Part) as a monster and the worse he made him the more loveable he became to the audience. People were saying: Oh, Alf Garnett? We love Alf Garnett! Alf Garnett for Prime Minister! That was another thing with Spitting Image – However hard they made Tebbit and Thatcher, people just went: Hahha! Look at the funny monsters!

“I always,” I said, “thought Alf Garnett was very complicated because, if you agreed with his views, you agreed with his views and the young git sitting on the sofa (his Left Wing son-in-law, played by Tony Booth, father of future Prime Minister Tony Blair’s wife Cherie) was just some young idiot. There was nothing to change your existing views. And I always thought, in reality, Alf Garnett would have been a Labour voter: a real dyed-in-the-wool working class conservative-with-a-small-c Labour voter.”

There is a clip of Till Death Us Do Part on YouTube.

“Well, this is an interesting area,” said Dave. “There was this myth at the time that people who voted Labour could not be racists or sexists. And that’s sort-of mostly true now but certainly, in my experience in my stand-up comedy years, there was then a lot of sexism on the circuit.”

I said: “I think dyed-in-the-wool Labour voters over a certain age are very conservative with a small c.”

“I think where Labour is losing votes to UKIP in this election,” said Dave, “it’s where those type of attitudes still persist. In cosmopolitan places like London and Manchester, even people who aren’t satisfied with Labour are not going to UKIP whereas, in some of the places where things haven’t changed so much and people are more dyed-in-the-wool and there are older people in older communities, they’re the ones who are going to UKIP.”

“Margaret Thatcher still divides people,” I said.

“She was a brilliant politician,” said Dave. “She did do all these amazing things like the Channel Tunnel, which brought us closer to Europe. She was the first person to say climate change is happening and we’ve got to do something about it. People forget the very pragmatic side to her. But…”

“You could almost be a fan,” I laughed.

“I got utterly stitched-up by a Daily Telegraph journalist,” said Dave. “When my book How To Be Averagely Successful at Comedy came out, he interviewed me and there’s a chapter in my book in which I say that Margaret Thatcher probably did more to help alternative comedy than anyone else.

An inspiration: Margaret Thatcher

Godmother of British Comedy?

“Not just for the jokes but also by allowing people to be unemployed. She basically said: Unemployment is a price worth paying for getting rid of all our old manufacturing industries. So people of my era – I’m from Leeds but I was a journalist in South Wales – just moving to London, unemployed, only had to sign-on once a week, didn’t have to go to Job Centres, were allowed to earn a certain amount of money every week and were still allowed to sign-on as long as we declared it. You still got your housing benefit and your dole money.

“The alternative comedy clubs were starting up and The Young Ones had become famous on TV and suddenly there were loads of clubs in London and not enough comedians to play them. I was doing 3 or 4 gigs a week and being paid £20 here, £30 there. All legit and all thanks to Margaret Thatcher.

“So this journalist gave me a nice plug for my book in the Daily Telegraph but said Dave Cohen says Margaret Thatcher had a fantastic sense of humour – I didn’t say that at all!”

“People demonise her,” I said.

“Well,” said Dave. “I’ve been thinking more about how to deal with politicians, because the social media has become so polarised now – You HAVE to be one thing or another. But I think, really, you’ve got to engage seriously with people you disagree with. However much you disagree with people, you’ll always find a few things you can agree on and that’s where you have to start from, really.”

The Immigrant Diaries are coming to the South Bank soon

The Immigrant Diaries are coming to the South Bank soon

“You told me,” I said, “that you are in a storytelling show called Immigrant Diaries in two Fridays’ time at the Purcell Room on the South Bank.”

“Yes,” said Dave. “I’ll be telling the story of that fateful day in 1994 when a bunch of comedians got together when the (extreme right wing) BNP were doing very well in the Isle of Dogs – it’s in my book too.”

“I think everyone in Britain,” I said, “is a bloody immigrant except a few people in Wales who speak Welsh and ironically don’t want to be British. But then, go far enough back, everyone is an immigrant in every country.”

“I am working,” said Dave, “on a show for the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn in July – a Muslim/Jewish comedy show. The fact that Jews and Muslims can get together to create a comedy show is considered quite a shocking thing by some people. The very idea they can have a dialogue! The auditions are happening next week.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Comedy, Politics, Television

Political comedy, racism and Jew jokes

Liam Lonergan. Is all racism a black and white issue?

A Liam Lonergan photo. Not everything is so black and white.

Yesterday’s blog was a continuation of a chat I had with Liam Lonergan for his BA (Hons) course in Creative and Media Writing at the University of Portsmouth.

Earlier in our chat, we talked partly about my idea that British sitcoms which have lasted the test of time have often been set in tragic not comic situations.

Here is another extract:

__________

Liam: It’s sort of a rubbish question and I hate asking it but Is comedy actually important?

John: I guess it must be important because if there’s a totalitarian regime they don’t allow it. I somehow suspect there were not many Nazi comedy clubs – or, if there were, the jokes were all about Jews. So maybe they had some great Jewish jokes. Swings and roundabouts.

But totalitarian regimes are frightened of comedy and frightened of humour. If you made a joke about General Franco in Spain in the 1950s you would got arrested. Because I think you can change people’s opinions – slowly – with comedy. The trouble with a lot of political comedy, of course, is that comics are preaching to the converted. The left wing comedians who seem terribly popular are popular with left wing audiences. So they’re not actually doing anything at all.

Liam: Politics has merged into one now…

John: In the 1980s alternative comedy started because it was Mrs Thatcher. It took off because she was perceived as a right-wing, fairly authoritarian prime minister and the left-wingers had a field day. With the Conservatives (effectively) back in power, I don’t quite understand why that left-wing political comedy thing hasn’t come back again.

Liam: I think it’s easy to chuck something at something that’s made of lead – like Thatcher – but something that’s made of marshmallow, like Cameron… there’s no point chucking anything at it. It just moulds itself to accommodate the object that’s being flung at it.

Ben Elton used to be a political comic

Ben Elton – he used to be a political comic back in the 1980s

John: Maybe it was all done before in the 1980s and you can’t repeat… you can’t swim the same river twice or something. I dunno… Errr.. I have no idea where I’m going with this. Have you found out what your actual thesis is yet?

Liam: Well, I think you opened it up for me when you talked earlier about this comedy/tragedy thing. That’s something I’ve been really interested in for ages. So I think I might lean it towards that.

John: Well, American TV sitcoms like Cheers and all those shows, they’re written by committees and it’s gag, gag, gag, gag, gag and not really primarily personality based. David Croft’s BBC ensemble sitcoms, which are almost in a class of their own, were by-and-large written by two people: David Croft and someone else. They are by-and-large personality based. They’re not primarily gag based. Dad’s Army does have lots of gags in it but it’s actually personality based.

Most other British sitcoms that have lasted are personality-based in a tragic situation… Terry and June has not lasted; One Foot In The Grave has.

Liam: Do you think there’s any American comedy that has that vein – that sort of dark thread running through it – that you like?

John: I did like Maude. Have you ever seen Maude?

Liam: No.

John: It was with Bea Arthur. She went on to be in The Golden Girls as well. But Maude was sometimes wonderfully dark and she was an arguably sometimes unsympathetic central character. In Britain, it was transmitted as a half hour with one commercial break in the middle.

Bea Arthur as Maude with Bill Macy as husband Walter

Bea Arthur as Maude; Bill Macy as husband Walter

She’s a married late middle-aged woman and, in this one particular episode I remember, her husband’s long-lost chum who had been with him during the War was gonna turn up. He turns up at the end of Part One and he’s excited to meet his long-lost comrade and goes “Urghh!!” and falls on the floor behind the settee. Cut to commercial break. When you come back… he’s dead! So for the whole of the second half of the episode, the husband’s going: “Oh my god. I killed him! If I hadn’t arranged this today!… Oh my god, he had a heart attack…I killed my best friend!”

Bloody hell! This is an American sitcom! And Maude was sort of dark and had… It was more sort of vaguely Jewish humour.

Liam: With the American Office you’ve got to separate it from the British version. It’s a completely different sort of beast. The main character played by Steve Carrell is, in a more subtle way… he’s a dark character. The fact that he’s absolutely full of desperation and is in love with this idea of love but it’s never fulfilled.

John: Another British comedy set in an unfunny situation (that was funny) is Till Death Us Do Part. I saw a few episodes of the American version – All In The Family –  and it wasn’t as dark. He was not as dislikeable a character.

Also ‘dislikable’ is in the eye of the beholder.

Till Death Us Do Part was interesting because it was written by Johnny Speight and supposedly Alf Garnett was a character to be despised and frowned upon. But I always had a feeling that it reinforced people’s prejudices. People who were already bigoted wouldn’t be turned by the way his character was written. We’re talking about trying to change people’s attitudes. The whole point of that was to turn people’s attitudes so they realised what a bigot he was and I’m sure…

Liam: …it reinforced it.

John: Yes, absolutely reinforced the bigotry. I’m sure if you were that sort of person you would sit there and think: “Yeah, Alf’s quite right. That Liverpool yobbo son-in-law IS a wanker and Alf is the voice of reason.”

Liam: I think Jimmy Carr has used quotes… holding a mirror up to racism and laughing at racism rather than race. He’s laughing at the racism rather than race.

Love Thy Neighbour - top-rating comedy show

Love Thy Neighbour – a top-rating comedy show of the 1970s

John: I always thought Love Thy Neighbour – which has not lasted, because it wasn’t tragedy – was always very dodgy. I saw it when it first went out and I always thought: “I’m not sure I like this very much”. And Mind Your Language, which was set in a language school, was just full of stereotypes and I thought it…  was just about OK but it wasn’t really… It was just… There’s a difference between…

Liam: Like, cartoon racism?

John: There’s a difference between making fun of stereotypes and being too close to being racist. I think you can say (I’m Scottish myself) all Scots are drunks as a joke. And that’s fine. That’s actual comic social observation, taken to an extreme. There is a drinking problem in Scotland. So Scots are drunk and dour. The Irish are drunk and sing Tiddle-ee-aye music. The Welsh sing a lot in choirs. The English are either toffee-nosed or football hooligans.

Liam: Or sexually repressed.

John: Or sexually repressed. Yeah. Yeah. So there’s a difference between taking a slight tendency to an extreme simply to deliver a punchline and laugh about it… and saying people are to be despised or reviled because of something. That’s arguably the difference between Jewish jokes and jokes about Jews. It’s attitude.

If you’re abroad, the English are seen as two simultaneous stereotypes which are mutually exclusive but which run together. The English are either very snooty, upmarket public school people who look down on you and have a superiority complex – or they’re the dregs-of-society football hooligans. Both views have some basis in reality. And you can make jokes about both. But the first tends towards humour, which is acceptable, and the second tends towards xenophobia, which is not. It’s a fine line and it moves.

… TO BE CONTINUED …

1 Comment

Filed under Comedy, Politics, Racism

Even if you get famous you are probably going to end up an unknown nonentity

At the Edinburgh Fringe last week, I was talking to someone about the fame of Tony Bennett, the great crooner from the golden era of crooners. He even played Glastonbury because he is so famous as the great crooner from the golden era of crooners.

More of him later.

I got home from the bubble of the Edinburgh Fringe yesterday, where reviews and the number of stars each show gets is all-important.

Hold on. Was it yesterday I got home? No, it was Monday. My mind is fogged.

I got home from the Edinburgh Fringe two days ago to find The X Factor has re-started on ITV1 or, at least, programmes in which vast auditoria are filled by excited punters watching the auditions for The X Factor… and Celebrity Big Brother is doing rather well in ratings terms on Channel 5, though I do not recognise anyone on it except the paparazzo with pink hair, Jedward and (because she seemed drugged out of her head) someone I realised was Kerry Katona (and because people keep calling her “Kerry”).

This demonstrates two things.

Edinburgh really is a self-absorbed bubble.

I am out-of-touch with Heat magazine.

And celebrity is fleeting.

That’s  three things.

My mind is fogged.

But I do know there are two clichés of showbiz success.

One is the overnight success and the other is the scenario of plodding-away-for-years, ‘paying your dues’ and then becoming famous.

Of these, the overnight success cliché is easier to comprehend. Talent shows like The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent are like job interviews and non-showbiz viewers can understand that. Showbiz talent shows are like The Apprentice – which has the format of a glorified job interview – with added glitter and stardust.

To the ordinary punter, Michael McIntyre is an overnight success much like an X Factor contestant. It seemed like he was a total unknown one week and, within a month or so, he seemed to just come from nowhere to achieve what punters regard as superstardom.

But last year sometime (my mind is fogged) he said he did not want to crack America because “it’s taken me long enough to sort things out here and I don’t want to start again somewhere else.”

Whether that is actually 100% true and he doesn’t actually want to crack America, I don’t know. But he has certainly paid his dues. He was toiling away for years, mostly unseen, and has eventually succeeded through solid, dogged hard work and talent.

Many others with exactly the same degree of talent or more, also working doggedly for their big break are, of course, still toiling away and will never get even a tenth of one percent of the public recognition Michael McIntyre has received.

Michael McIntyre deserves to be successful.

So do many other equally talented performers.

So, perhaps, do some of the X Factor hopefuls.

But they won’t be.

Because talent is not enough.

Dogged determination and hard work is not enough.

Paying your dues is not enough.

The three ingredients for potential success are talent (not always 100% necessary), dogged determination and pure luck.

The joker in the pack is that many vastly talented people have a self-destructive streak. They have the seeds of their own failure within them.

One of the oddest problems is that many performers, confident on stage, are painfully shy off stage. This means they are terrified of self-publicity when off-stage. Being themselves is a terrifying thought, so they ironically do not want and/or do not understand self-publicity.

But without self-publicity, it is unlikely they will succeed.

And, as several years of Big Brother show, even with rampant self-publicity, celebrity is fleeting.

When I was very young, the biggest comedy and entertainment name on British television was Arthur Haynes. His scripts were written by Johnny Speight.

Ask most struggling professional British comics today who Johnny Speight was and they may know because of Till Death Us Do Part.

Ask them who Arthur Haynes was and they will look at you blankly.

Who was his long-time TV straight man?

Nicholas Parsons.

The also-ran has become a star; the megastar is forgotten.

Because the other way to achieve fame is to out-live the competition.

Tony Bennett – the great crooner from the golden era of crooners?

Bollocks.

There was Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Perry Como, endless others.

At the time, Tony Bennett was way down the list of crooners. But he outlived them all, so his place in the running-order of fame has risen.

Perry Como was a megastar.

I hear muffled cries of “Who?”

Exactly.

Fame is like a TV weather forecast.

Everyone thinks it’s important to pay attention at the time but, ten minutes later, you can’t remember it.

1 Comment

Filed under Comedy, Music, PR, Television

The funniest British TV sitcoms are actually tragedies and the latest one is neither British nor a sitcom

(This blog later appeared on Chortlethe UK comedy industry website)

Last night, I caught bits-and-pieces of a documentary on the making of the classic and still funny BBC TV series ‘Allo ‘Allo – one of the wonderful ensemble sitcoms produced by David Croft – Are You Being Served?, Dad’s Army, Hi-de-Hi!, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum et al.

One night last year, I sat through an entire evening of BBC3 comedy – four programmes – without a single smile. I think the main problem – especially with sitcoms – is that the writers think the object is to write funny lines for funny characters in inherently comic situations.

But, with the exception of David Croft’s various series, I think the classic British sitcoms are almost all, at heart, tragedies. They are centred on unfunny characters in tragic situations.

From Hancock’s Half Hour through to One Foot in the Grave, the central sitcom characters are not funny people. And the situations are not funny.

The Tony Hancock character is a pompous, insecure, humourless and self-obsessed prat – you wouldn’t want to be stuck in a lift with him. But the series are very funny.

The situation in Steptoe and Son is that both flawed characters are trapped by their suffocating relationship. The (again slightly pompous) son wants to escape to a wider, more exciting world but is trapped by a sad old father terrified of losing his son and being alone.

Till Death Us Do Part featured another suffocating relationship where a racial bigot, bitter at life in a modern world he hates and his long-suffering wife are trapped by poverty with their daughter and loud-mouthed, know-it-all son-in-law in a claustrophobic circle of constant arguments and ego-battles. It’s a near definitive situation of personal hell.

In One Foot in the Grave, a bitter, grumpy old man and his wife are trapped in a childless and almost entirely loveless relationship but have been together so long they have no alternatives left. In one masterful episode, they are in bed in the dark throughout; the camera never leaves the room; it transpires at the end that they once had a child who died – hardly the stuff of cliché, knockabout comedy.

Only Fools and Horses is slightly funnier in its situation and in the way it plays, but still features a rather sad and insecure loser at its heart in what, in reality, would be an unfunny situation.

Even The Office (much over-rated) has an unsympathetic and again very insecure central character you would hate to work for or with.

The American, partly Jewish vaudeville-based tradition of TV sitcoms is to have a high laugh-per-speech count written by large teams of gag writers.

The classic British sitcoms which have lasted the test of time are written by single writers or a pair of writers and, ignoring David Croft’s shows (almost a genre in their own right), they tend to have what would in reality be unsympathetic central characters in tragic situations.

Ironically, the most consistently funny situation comedy currently screening on British television is neither a sitcom nor British. At the time of writing, episodes from three different series of the American show are being screened on three different British channels every week – by ITV1 before lunchtime on Saturdays, by ITV3 on Thursday evenings and it is stripped at breakfast time on Quest.

Monk is, in theory, a US detective/police procedural series about a sad and lonely former detective with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, without friends, unable to function in the everyday world and unable to get over the murder of his wife several years ago. Almost every episode has tear-jerking pathos and almost every episode is more genuinely funny than any number of current British sitcoms where the writers are wrongly attempting to put funny lines in the mouths of inherently funny characters dropped into funny situations.

Although it is clearly NOT a comedy series – it is clearly a detective/mystery/police procedural series – over the years it ran (2002-2009) it won three Emmys and had thirteen other nominations in the Comedy Series category.

If you want to know how to write a sitcom, watch Monk.

2 Comments

Filed under Comedy, Television