Friday 20 February 2009

A discotheque called Crumpet

Turned Out Nice Again: The Story of British Light Entertainment, by Louis Barfe (Atlantic Books)

The cover of this book shows Morecambe and Wise dancing side by side, raising fears that that we’re in for a dose of soupy sentimentality about the glory days of British entertainment. So is reading this book worth sacrificing a few hours of iPod or computer screen time? Barfe sets out his stall for us straightaway. He defines ‘light entertainment’ (LE) as a development within radio and television broadcasting from the ‘earthier productions of the variety theatre and music hall’, and its subsequent expansion with features such as quiz, chat and talent shows.

He also gives us a brief autobiographical picture of how his own viewing habits developed: growing-up in the late 1970s and early 1980s - the era of The Muppet Show, The Good Old Days and Tommy Cooper - he went through a period of teenage rejection of this material, preferring alternative comedians. The unlikely setting for an epiphany was provided by an episode of a Russ Abbot show. The teenage Barfe tried to watch it determined not to laugh - a resolution that lasted for all of three minutes before he cracked a smile: he realised that it was possible to like both old and new forms of entertainment, ‘to love both Adrian Edmondson and Bruce Forsyth’.

Then it’s off with Barfe to the music hall to see the LE that was on offer before the advent of radio. This is familiar territory for anyone with any knowledge of British pre-First World War social history - Dan Leno, Marie Lloyd and George Robey all strut their stuff in just a few pages. He mentions the Frank Matcham, a prolific music-hall architect whose use of a combination of styles ranging from Oriental to Renaissance arguably qualifies him as an architectural Pre-Modern Post-Modernist.

After the Great War the nascent BBC with a mandate to educate, inform and entertain (in that order) under the leadership of its general manager, the Presbyterian John Reith, was wary of promoting LE. And so were variety managers and performers – entertainers could tour using the same act for years but once material was broadcast, it couldn’t be used again. Light material appeared in dribs and drabs until 1933 when Eric Maschwitz, lyricist, playwright and novelist and editor of the Radio Times, became first director of variety, scoring a major hit with In Town Tonight, a programme allowing new acts to be showcased. From then on, LE on the radio was there to stay, aided by the outbreak of the Second World War and the need to maintain morale by means of popular comedy shows such as the fast-moving (for its time) It’s That Man Again, which eventually garnered 40 per cent of the listening public.

But after the Second World War, the rise of television meant the main locus of LE changed from the radio to the small screen, and Barfe gets into his stride when examining this. He’s careful to avoid his survey becoming a mere celebration of favourite performers and programmes, so not only well-known stars but back-room boys such as scriptwriters Ray Galton and Alan Simpson (Hancock’s Half Hour and Steptoe and Son) and theme-tune writer Ronnie Hazlehurst (The Likely Lads, Last of the Summer Wine, Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em)get their rightful look-in. He reminds us that television has been a source of both innovation and repetition: How Do You View? (which ran from 1949 to 1952), a vehicle for pseudo upper-class bounder Terry Thomas, satirised television itself, whilst Noel Edmonds’ Late Late Breakfast Show (running from 1982 until it was taken off screen after a fatal accident in 1986) involved a mixture of stars and physical stunts that would have been familiar to music-hall goers of the 1920s.

Reality television, often decried as a latter-day tarnishing of televisual standards, appeared in 1960 with Candid Camera involving the secret filming of ordinary people confronted with extraordinary situations and so providing amusement for the viewers. Talent shows such The X Factor are not new: back in the 1970s we had New Faces from which emerged - in contrast with many modern such shows - a large crop of talented entertainers such as Marti Caine, Lenny Henry and Victoria Wood.

Barfe’s only weakness here comes when he points out that the satire boom of the early 1960s - especially the BBC’s That Was the Week That Was (TW3) came as an attempt to provide contrast with the standard ‘tits and tinsel’ television shows represented by the Eurovision Song Contest, but doesn’t pursue the thought behind the pro-satire zeal of BBC controller Hugh Carleton Greene: he had experience of political cabarets in pre-Hitler Berlin, but had seemingly forgotten that they noticeably failed to prevent the rise of the Fuhrer. Indeed, the arts in general have a poor track-record when it comes to toppling politicians of any hue. Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan - a frequent butt of the satirists - had no desire to stop TW3 as he felt ‘being laughed over… is better than to be ignored.’ Perhaps Greene was just a dogmatic figure in his way as the puritanical Reith was.

For those who think that – for good or ill – light entertainment has been a home for unchained radicalism, Barfe has some amusing examples of this being very definitely not the case. The 1957 pop music programme Six Five Special was accused of promoting ‘hooligan’ music: today, ‘most of the surviving hooligans have national treasure status, bus passes and a lifetime’s guarantee of work on the nostalgia circuit’. The same goes for 1980s comedians: by the early 1990s, ‘Stephen Fry was rapidly becoming the human equivalent of a much-loved listed building’. Indeed, Fry has been possessed of some old-fashioned views - in one episode of A Bit of Fry and Laurie (late 1980s and early 1990s) he could see a future Britain which would largely ‘smell of urine and vomit’ - which go against his avuncular, New Labour image.

Writing of the 1965 radio show Round the Horne - often regarded as a ground-breaking presentation of homosexuality because of its two camp characters – Barfe reminds us that the gay slang Polari, with which it was liberally sprinkled, wasn’t specifically gay (it was often used by theatricals and market traders) and neither of its two scriptwriters were homosexual. At one time the Eurovision Song Contest featured singers of the calibre of Francoise Hardy and Nana Mouskouri, tempting one to wonder if that might still be the case today if the programme had not been arguably over-drenched in irony from some quarters.

Barfe also has a dry delivery style - for instance, we discover that comedian Bernie Winters, raised in north London, learned to play drums ‘at the Tottenham campus of the University of Life’, and that, due to legislation which affected clubs, Batley Variety club reopened in September 1978 as ‘West Yorkshire’s answer to Studio 54, a discotheque called Crumpet’. While Barfe has declared his even-handedness when it comes to different genres of comedy, he can’t help noticing some falling-off in standards in recent years.

Economic considerations were always important - back in the 1950s, the BBC was able to justify its licence fee by the large audiences variety pulled-in - but Barfe feels the managerial over-zealousness displayed by John Birt (appointed as BBC’s Director-General in 1993) seems to have seriously weakened a by-and-large healthy organisation, and he quotes with approval former BBC producer Roger Ordish’s view that the ‘rot started with Birt, there’s absolutely no question about it’. Another cause of decline may have been the demise of the attitudes symbolised by the BBC’s drinking culture: whilst in itself alcohol consumption isn’t necessarily conducive to producing good art, it indicates a pleasure-accepting, risk-taking, happy-go-lucky attitude which usually is. A point which leads neatly to Barfe’s view of the present state of LE. He reminds us that, when the handwritten script for the famous ‘Four Candles/ Fork Handles’ sketch from The Two Ronnies was auctioned in December 2007, it raised £48, 500, a fact which cannot help prompt the question as to how many current comedy scripts will fetch comparable sums at future auctions.

Barfe ends on a downbeat note. Modern managerial styles - including those in LE - are generally risk-averse and, whilst the genre of television variety is far from dead, Barfe quotes a 2004 interview with legendary one-time head of BBC LE the late Sir Bill Cotton, who said that ‘not only in television, but in so many things in modern life, things are too serious, or are made out to be too serious. Where there was fun to be had in work, there’s not the same type of fun now.’ Perhaps it will help if there if television critics are prepared to offer firmer criticism: Barfe quotes a 1962 criticism from The Times of one television satire revue as ‘a feeble and irritating little show that suffers from the callow superciliousness of undergraduate review’, showing a tone that few reviewers would adopt today - especially where anything concerning ‘yoof’ was involved - and which they might usefully rediscover. Well-honed work sharpened by the scalpel of criticism might benefit LE more than the unwieldy use of ‘cutting-edge’ material that’s possibly reached its sell-by date. A careful reading of Barfe’s book in some quarters may help those responsible for LE to leave their current comfort zone so that normal service is resumed as soon as possible.


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