Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Another comedy hero

Some time ago, I closed a post (featuring one of my poems - unusually, on a Classical theme) with the line: "I could have been a judge if I'd only had the Latin."

A wistful reflection on lost opportunities... or a useful excuse for a lifetime of under-achievement? The line has certainly always appealed to me!

I, in fact, do have the Latin (although it's been almost entirely phased out of the law in England in the last 10 years). And the law too, come to that. Alas, to become a judge in England you also need a lot of personal connections, family connections - or at least, the sort of personality that can cultivate such connections. I was never much good at schmoozing with the "upper reaches" of society, and thus always felt rather marginalized during my brief, unhappy attempt to gain acceptance at the Bar (NO, not a drinking bar; I mean, "to make my career as a lawyer", you fools!). I console myself with the thought that, as (I believe it was) H. L. Mencken once said, "A judge is just a law student who gets to mark his own exam-paper."

I am surprised that no-one has yet quizzed me on the reference, though. It's a famous line from E. L. Wisty, one of the distinctive comic characters created by Peter Cook, a giant figure in English comedy from the '60s through to the '90s. He is perhaps best remembered for his partnership with Dudley Moore, which began in the classic long-running stage revue 'Beyond The Fringe', continued on TV, most notably in the mid-60s BBC series 'Not Only, But Also', and even made a successful transition to the cinema in the original 'Bedazzled' (have no truck with the pointless Liz Hurley 'remake' of a few years ago).

I do remember a number of the 'Not Only' shows extremely vividly - though I was scarcely out of nappies when they were originally made. I wonder if there were re-runs of them at some point in the '70s? My childish mind particularly enjoyed what I think was a regular ending to the show (I hope I am not deluded on this point, or confusing it with another show) in which Pete and Dud and a guest star would take it in turns to improvise lines of comic doggerel. Whenever they hesitated too long, or missed the required rhyme, a spring under their chair would catapult them into a large tank of foam in front of them. Utterly silly - but they somehow made it seem like a matter of life-and-death, and their desperate fumbling for the rhyme that might save them was far funnier than the eventual inundation in the foam.

Another sketch that has haunted me down all these years was a particularly poignant fable about a medieval King (played by the diminutive Dudley) who was so paranoid about people stealing his gold and jewels that he wore them about his person permanently. In fact, all he wore was an enormous cubic brown-paper parcel (containing the crown jewels), with only his crowned head and his naked arms and legs protruding from it. I entirely forget what the outcome of the story was, but that image of Dudley Moore as a human parcel has never left me.

Some of the best stuff, though, was in their pub conversations as 'Pete & Dud', two slightly seedy, slightly simple-minded friends in identical raincoats and flat-caps, musing 'philosophically' over pints of beer. Some of these dialogues - almost entirely improvised - would take the most wonderful, surreal twists and turns. And a large part of their charm was that the pair so clearly had the time of their lives doing them; in fact, one or other of them (though more usually Dudley) would quite often be taken by surprise by his partner's comic inventiveness and lapse for a few moments into helpless corpsing (in one of the most famous ones, where Pete fantasises that he is being stalked by a lovelorn Greta Garbo, Dud at one point nearly chokes on his beer).

I also fondly remember being lucky enough to catch a few of his impromptu contributions to London's LBC Radio, where - intermittently through the early '90s - he would phone in to the wee small hours show purporting to be a Norwegian oil-rig worker called Sven, who would talk of his loneliness, his difficult relations with his wife Yuta, and his obsession with his pet fish. Some of these phone calls - and much of his other recorded output - are now available for download here, a site maintained by the Peter Cook Appreciation Society (they can't spell, but they do a good job of collating his work). The official Peter Cook website is here, and there is (of course) a very good bio of him on Wikipedia, here.

Sadly, Peter, like so many brilliantly funny men, was often seemingly rather troubled in his personal life, and suffered from alcoholism. Despite managing an extended spell on the wagon in the '80s, he relapsed again, and essentially drank himself into an early grave, dying while still in his middle 50s. Much missed.


The British Cowboy said...

How on earth can you leave out the joy that was Derek & Clive?

Never have two men drunk more alcohol and spouted more obscenities onto recording media in the history of the world. They make most rap stars look like choirboys.

Froog said...

Yes, well, 'My Old Man's Got Cancer' is, er... NOT FOR EVERYONE, is it?

Frankly, I find D & C chiefly interesting as a post-modern experiment in reducing humour to its most essential elements, a challenging exercise in pushing the bounds of taste as far as they can possibly go - and then some.

But it is essentially just a retread of the original 'Pete & Dud' stuff 10 years on, with swear words substituting for most of the actual humour.

I suspect it appeals most strongly to boys discovering it in their adolescence - in your early teens swearing can seem exhilaratingly rebellious and cool and subversive and liberating. And so it is. It's not especially funny though.

Maybe I should give 'Derek & Clive' another go. I really don't know the stuff well. I think I have perhaps only heard parts of it twice, and not for many years now. The first time, when I was in my teens, I found it intermittently amusing; the second time, 8 or 10 years later, I found it rather tedious.

trish said...

I finally visited your blog to find out how the party went (I didn't remember to visit it during until too late - toyed with the idea of going online and leaving a silly message about having only arrived in time to clean up the mess... Then dismissed that as too goofy [or at least too goofy to go through the irritating process of logging on to a blog to leave a comment for...]. Funny to discover then that there was, indeed, a very big mess to clean up. Obviously you could have used some help. Although I’m not sure the electronic version of help would have done much good...)

On my way to find out about the party I stumbled on your “I didn’t have the Latin” reference. Goodness. I almost NEVER have any clue where any of your quotes come from (being a complete pop culture illiterate; if the line came from an opera, I might have a fighting chance...). But that one I knew. My brother had a recording of that coal miner sketch, which he used to listen to when he was about 12 and had memorized. He could probably still recite it verbatim over 30 years later.

Froog said...

Ah, was it a miner?

I'm pretty sure I heard it first peformed on stage as the lugubrious E.L. Wisty character, at a charity gig in the late '70s. Maybe I'm wrong about that? I do also dimly recall that it had first appeared much earlier, as a skit in one of his '60s TV shows.

You should ask your brother how much of it he can remember now.

trish said...

I can still remember quite a lot of it from my brother.

"I would like to have been a judge... but I didn't have the Latin.”

“I didn't have the Latin for the rigorous judging exams.”

“They're rigorous, they are.”

“People come staggering out going ‘Oh my God, what a rigorous exam.’”

I don't remember the rest verbatim, but the upshot is he has to become a miner (less rigorous exams). In fact, there's only one question on the miner's exam: What's your name.

“I got 50 percent on that one.”

That's just what I remember. (My brother is living in Paris at the moment. He called me yesterday, but I didn't think to ask him to do Peter Cook for me...)