Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Stan & Ollie's "Brokeback Mountain" was funnier than the life's work of all the BBC's other pet comedians combined

The BBC presented us with a difficult choice on Monday evening. Should we watch the drama based on "Sir" Lenny Henry's life on BBC One -  Danny and the Human Zoo, which was not only only written by the enormously talented funnyman and brilliant dramatic actor but also, mouthwateringly, featured him playing his own father - or the BBC Two offering, An Evening with Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse, featuring highlights from their various TV programmes over the years?

Tough one. I, of course, was dying to see Sir Lenny, because I've always found the story of how the great man overcame innate British racism to achieve success against all the odds immensely moving - but my family insisted on Harry and Paul. (I now suspect my nearest and dearest of unconscious racism - I will henceforth be monitoring their behaviour for signs of it, and will report them to the authorities if my suspicions are confirmed.)

Enfield and Whitehouse are essentially BBC comedians, in that they've undoubtedly done their best work for the corporation. Over the years, the BBC practice of nurturing and developing comic talent has paid huge dividends for licence-payers. The problem now is that, while the process evidently continues, the comics being encouraged and supported by the BBC seem to display almost no talent for comedy. I was reminded of this fact by a recent comment on this blog regarding the emergence of Susan Calman - a Scottish lesbian (is it my imagination, or is the BBC absolutely awash with lesbians these days?) - who I've heard a few times on radio, and who, like practically every "comedian" the BBC champions these days, isn't remotely amusing. Here's a list of current (or very recent) BBC pseudo-comics, none of whom would make me laugh even if I were breathing pure nitrous oxide, and who, as far as I can tell, would have found it difficult to sustain a career in comedy without the BBC:
Mark Steel
Sandi Toksvig
Rich Hall
"Sir" Lenny Henry
Arthur Smith
Jeremy Hardy
Stephen K. Amos
Stewart Lee
Steve Punt
Fred MacAulay
Hardeep Singh Kholi
Marcus Brigstocke
Richard Herring
Andy Parsons
I'm not claiming that all of these performers don't work outside the BBC as well - it's just that one suspects that without the BBC's support, we'd never have heard of them (obviously, you may never have heard of them in any case). Honestly, you could sift through every single piece of "comedy" these people have produced over the whole course of their careers and not find anything one tenth as funny as Laurel & Hardy's Brokeback Mountain - or any of the other items featured in the Enfield/Whitehouse celebration (apart from most of the new celebrity impersonations used to glue the video sketches together - they were mostly dire).

I've no idea why the system is no longer working - but it evidently isn't. Is it because  comedians are now chosen on the basis of their right-on political attitudes or the colour of their skin rather than because they're actually funny? Are the corporation's comedy controllers and commissioners more concerned with putting over certain messages about modern society rather than with making us laugh?  Are comedy executives so cut off from punters that they have no idea how deeply unfunny we find their current crop of capering, madcap jesters? Or is it simply that, what with po-faced political correctness having rendered whole swathes of national life and whole segments of society off-limits to TV and radio comedy, genuinely funny would-be comedians and comic writers have decided to reverse an age-old trend by becoming doctors, lawyers and bankers instead: far less hassle and not so much kowtowing to stifling political orthodoxy.

I'm not particularly nostalgic when it comes to popular entertainment: things were never quite as great as we remember them being. But I can't help feeling that in the 1990s, with Harry Enfield & Chums, The Fast Show, The Day Today and Knowing Me Knowing You - not to mention their various offshoots - we were living through a bit of a golden age of TV and radio comedy. Maybe the best answer would be to appoint Guardian TV reviewer Stuart Jeffries as the new controller of BBC comedy. Having (inevitably) praised the Lenny Henry biopic to the skies, he had this to say about An Evening with Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse:
They then cut to a sketch in which Enfield and Whitehouse appeared in thick blackface as two putatively Caribbean contestants on Dragons’ Den seeking funding for their Me Kyan Believe It Nat Custard. Just possibly, Levi Roots, who got £50,000 from the dragons in 2007 for his Reggae Reggae sauce business (now worth £30m) was in the satirical crosshairs. But the main target was white political correctness – the dragons only invested in the custard so as not to appear racist. Given the history of blacking up and the pain it caused black Britons, dramatised so clearly in Danny and the Human Zoo, that satirical target was attacked with bumbaclot witlessness. White satirists in blackface draw attention overwhelmingly to their insensitivity rather than whatever they were hoping to satirise.
Yeah, Stu would have us all crying with laughter in no time. You can find the rest of this bumbaclot's review here.


  1. "The Guardian: Missing the Point But in a Caring Way". In defence of Arthur Smith, his tribute to the songs of Leonard Cohen which I saw in the Soho Arts Club (yes, pseud, I know) was both touching and funny. I had not seen it before the BBC Harry and Paul programme but the Brokeback Mountain piece - and thanks for posting the full version - is right up there with 'Heroin Galore' from the Fast Show.

    1. Any comedian who has been plying their trade for thirty years or so is simply bound to come up with something funny at some stage - on the stopped clock principle. Sorry, but I just can't stand the man, despite the fact that he is a fellow pancreatitis sufferer.

      We are, however, in full agreement regarding the merits of "Heroin Galore".

  2. A very good and accurate post.
    The last time BBC comedy was alive and kicking was "The Armstrong and Miller Show" [2007-2010]. The RAF pilots and the Flanders and Swann parodies were tremendous. Current BBC comedy seems to be wedged into talk or panel show formats where very unfunny guests bray at each other and say "fuck" a lot because they are edgy. And if they come from the world of "pop" music they get to wear silly head-gear. See the ghastly James Corden show, for example, which is what original Sky programming looks like. Pitiful.
    And what happened to the very talented Armstrong and Miller? One has his own game show and the other appears in crap serials and British comedy films like "Johnny English". I suspect the writing talent has dried up [or decamped to the United States] as the BBC has to fuel the burgeoning payroll of its army of managers and Yentob's activities.

    1. I think the answer is probably that writing and performing comedy sketch shows is much harder and less well paid than starring in drama series (although Miller has left "Death in Paradise") or presenting daily quiz shows, like Armstrong (they knock off a whole bunch in a single day, so it doesn't take as much time as you'd think). As they're both middle-aged and married, with children, they're probably also glad of greater security, and, as Arsmstrong, at least, isn't a standard, off-the-shelf BBC lefty, I imagine having to deal with Auntie's teenage "comedy" executives must have been particularly trying.

      Yentob. Yes, indeed. One of these days, with any luck, the mystery of his continued employment as the BBC's "creative director" (????????) will be revealed.I look forward to that day.

  3. I don' t watch much telly but have looked at your Laurel and Hardy pastiche of Brokenback Fountain - ONLY JUST mildly amusing in my view - not terribly original and redolent of student humour in my days on the boards at college - 'very unfunny' was the clarion call from the slight audience, and that that was nearly forty years ago..
    Flanders and Swann however - pure genius. 'Have Some Madeira My Dear' one of my desert island discs.

    1. My favourite Flanders and Swann song is probably their classic "Have You Ever Had to Take a Shit on a Train":
      I'm also fond of "Foreigners":
      I'm not sure, however, that either would be considered suitable for Desert Island Discs