Performing arts

Why great comedy matters...

The ability to laugh at yourself is very important. By encouraging us to recognise the eccentricities and flaws in others, and ourselves, and forgive them - or even find them endearing - it prompts a very healthy sort of self-analysis. 

I guess a lot of comedy could be seen as jokes made at someone else's expense. Virtually any joke could be taken out of context and read out with mawkish solemnity to someone most likely to be offended though. Then we’d really stop making jokes which would make the world a poorer place.
There’s definitely a British approach to comedy. A lot of our humour stems from our class system – our divided society – our sense of embarrassment, understatement and respect for the rules, even if we don’t follow them at all times.

Blackadder manages to combine history and comedy so well, covering so much ground from the Middle Ages, and the adventures of King Richard IV, to World War I and the ever funny Captain Darling. The slapstick comedy and word play is brilliant – such great put-downs and witty puns. I particularly like "Ink and Incapability" from the third series about Dr Samuel Johnson’s dictionary.

Monty Python
The brilliance of Monty Python lies in the absurdity of the many situations which the sketch writers explore. This can be particularly seen in "The Village Idiot" sketch.

The Two Ronnies
The Two Ronnies punned like no-one else. I like way they use and abuse linguistic meanings and structures and sounds to find and create humour. They were great at slapstick humour, as well as being amazing character actors - imbuing each character with believable emotion, acting with a lot of subtlety and taking the joke as far as anyone possible good and still getting the audience to laugh.

Yes Minister
Yes Minister made the driest possible subject - the minutiae of politics - into sparkling comedy. It opened the lid on the way the Government really operated.

Much of the show's humour derives from the antagonism between Cabinet ministers (who believe they are in charge) and the members of the British Civil Service (who think they really run the country).

Always buffeted by fate, wanting to do good but too scared of losing votes and status to do anything, the Right Honorable Hacker, MP, is the symbol of all of us, wanting to be better, and not quite making it.
Sir Humphrey, on the other hand, genuinely believes that it is the Civil Service that knows what is best for the country. His actions are motivated by his wish to maintain the prestige, power, and influence he enjoys.
Hacker's use of catastrophically mixed metaphors, his Private Secretary Bernard's fondness for awful puns and maddening pedantry, and Sir Humphrey's laconic wit and brain-wrenching sentences designed to confuse are just brilliant!
I particularly like "The Ministerial Broadcast", in which Hacker is advised on the effects of his clothes and surroundings on his media personae and "A Conflict of Interest" which lampoons the various political stances of Britain's newspapers through their readers. 
That Mitchell and Webb Look/Peep Show
Comedy these days seems to be more about developing long running returning characters whose comedy is found in the way people speak and behave. It’s all about observation of human nature, exaggerated and made grotesque.

It seems to be more about the eccentricities of people and less about the underlying eccentricities of communication. There are definitely fewer puns around. I think the best of the bunch is David Mitchell and Robert Webb. The "Toothbrush Company" sketch is particularly memorable.
Fawlty TowersFawlty Towers is more than just a comedy, it's a work of genius. It gave us the most unhinged sitcom hero ever, a brace of unforgettable comedy moments and a biting portrayal of a loveless marriage.
Farce doesn't normally work on television, but somehow in Fawlty Towers it did. Basil attacking his car with a tree, found straddling Manuel in the hotel lobby, being hit on the head by a stuffed moose… all priceless television moments. 
The setting was a pretty ordinary hotel, with Fawlty constantly struggling to inject a touch of class into his tawdry surroundings. His escapades included trying to hide a rat from a hygiene inspector, keeping a dead customer hidden and pretending to a party of his friends that his wife Sybil was ill during their anniversary party (when in fact she's walked out on him).

Basil was the perfect vehicle for Cleese's comic talents: mixing the biting verbal tirades against his wife and guests with the physical dexterity utilised to charge about between self-induced disasters.
Only Fools and Horses
Only Fools and Horses was about loveable, doomed aspiration. It gave the world Derek Trotter, the fast-talking, quick thinking whirlwind at the centre of the show who stirs up clouds of cash, dodgy goods off the back of lorries and affection wherever he turns. And it gave us Rodney Trotter, the ultimate sidekick, straight man and annoying kid brother. 

The show celebrates family values, practical morality and workaday virtues. Family and friends, loyalty and decency, fish and chips. It handles the heavy stuff - thwarted dreams, miscarriage and even death. But can still turn this unpromising material into comedy gold sometimes in a single sentence.
Only Fools even had the perfect ending. The boys started off on their usual journey but this time came away with their dream of becoming rich realised. This happened only once they had grown up, learned how to be kind to each other and everyone else and turn into fully rounded human beings.
Porridge is set in the grimmest place imaginable - a prison. And yet still manages to be both gritty and witty.
Fletch laid down the template for comedy rogues which Del Boy and Fools and Horses followed shamelessly. And who could be a better comedy foil for Barker than doe-eyed innocent Richard Beckinsale. 'Porridge' had proper villains too! 

No sitcom has ever had a character quite as mean as the man who really runs Slade Prison - Harry Grout. And prison officer Mackay, played to neurotic perfection by Fulton Mackay, very nearly stole the show from under the convicts' noses. It's comedy gold.

Father Ted
Father Ted charts the misadventures of chain smoking morally suspect Catholic priest, Father Ted Crilly (the late Dermot Morgan) who’s been banished to a stark, desolate off-shore ecumenical limbo somewhere off the Galway coast, named Craggy Island, for numerous misdemeanours and character defects.

With him are a young, inexperienced, child-like and likeable, but staggeringly stupid curate, Father Dougal Maguire (Ardal O'Hanlon) and the alcoholically hazed, psychopathically monosyllabic retired veteran cleric, Father Jack Hackett (Frank Kelly). Rounding out the central quartet is the excellent Pauline McLynn as the manically devoted parochial housekeeper, Mrs Doyle.

From this basically simple scenario, writers Linehan and Matthews created a near self contained universe of inspired lunacy and comic invention, which more often than not revolved around Ted's (forever) just out of reach dreams of striking it rich and effecting an escape to the civilisation, and tantalising pleasures of the fleshpots of the mainland.

Everything from the cult of celebrity through the blatant (but very funny) recycling of plots borrowed from every imaginable genre, to the lure of sex and existence of God Him/Her/Itself were routine grist to the comedic mill of the Craggy Island foursome. 

My favourite Blackadder quotes

“E: Baldrick, where's the manuscript?
B: You mean the big papery thing tied up with string?
E: Yes, Baldrick - the manuscript belonging to Dr Johnson.
B: You mean the baity fellow in the black coat who just left?
E: Yes, Baldrick - Dr Johnson.
B: So you're asking where the big papery thing tied up with string belonging to the baity fellow in the black coat who just left is.
E: Yes, Baldrick, I am, and if you don't answer, then the booted bony thing with five toes at the end of my leg will soon connect sharply with the soft dangly collection of objects in your trousers. For the last time, Baldrick: Where is Dr. Johnson's manuscript?
B: On the fire.
E: (shocked) On the *what*?
B: The hot orangy thing under the stony mantlepiece.”

“Baldrick, believe me, eternity in the company of Beelzebub and all his hellish instruments of death will be a picnic compared to five minutes with me and this pencil if we can't replace this dictionary.”


“BAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA” - General Melchett

“We're in the stickiest situation since Sticky the Stick Insect got stuck in a sticky bun.”

“A man may fight for many things; his country, his principles, his friends, the glistening tear on the cheek of a golden child. But personally, I'd mud-wrestle my own mother for a wad of cash, an amusing clock, and a sack of French porn!”

"Bugger me with a fish fork!"

"You see, the ancient Greeks, Sir, wrote in legend of a terrible container in which all the evils of the world were trapped. How prophetic they were. All they got wrong was the name. They called it "Pandora's Box," when, of course, they meant "Baldrick's Trousers." We are told that, when the box was opened, the whole world turned to darkness because of Pandora's fatal curiousity. I charge you now, Baldrick: for the good of all mankind, never allow curiosity to lead you to open your trousers. Nothing of interest lies therein."

"God you really are as thick as clotted cream, that's been left out by some clot until the clots were so clotted up that you couldn't unclot them with an electric de-clotter"

“Madam, life without you was like a broken pencil...totally pointless!”

My favourite children's toys

This was a really easy list to write. Without question, no debate or any further ado, my top ten children's toys are:

Giant jenga
Space hoppers
Connect Four

And I don't think that needs any further explanation. I did almost include Monopoly but I've always found that a bit dull to be honest.

Why I love the theatre...

I love the theatre because it combines many arts in one – from writing and music, to set and costume design, as well as acting and dance or movement choreography.

Beyond that, anything that happens live is great. A play is recreated every time it is performed. It’s not exactly the same over and over again like a film. The audience’s experience is unique.

They audience plays a role in creating atmosphere which the actors feed off. We wait with anticipation to see the drama unfold...and the actors rise to that occasion and respond to each other. No-one knows what’s going to happen that night. Within this confluence, there’s an unknown factor. It’s risky.

Peter O’Toole once said, “Oh, it's painful seeing it all there on the screen, solidified, embalmed. Once a thing is solidified it stops being a living thing. That's why I love the theatre. It's the ‘Art of the Moment’. I'm in love with ephemera and I hate permanence.”

The very best actors learn how to identify, internalise and magnify the feelings of a character. They have a special gift and can be “fully present” when expressing a character’s intent to the outside world.

“Acting is making words into flesh,” according to O’Toole. He, “love[d] classical acting because... you need the vocal range of an opera singer...the movement of a ballet have to be able to's turning your whole body into a musical instrument on which you yourself play.”

It takes amazing abilities of empathy to transpose a character into your being as an actor. The best actors portray characters as if he or she were real. The period or country in which a play was written should have no consequence. Actors have to live and breathe the motivations and the voice of their characters and bounce off the rest of the cast to create something that’s truly special.

We go to the theatre to be inspired and entertained, to learn and to seek answers about ourselves. We identify and we berate, we admire and we admonish.

It’s a really tough one to choose my top ten plays as I’ve seen or read thousands of plays...but generally only once. Despite this, there are things which have made an indelible impression on me to the extent that I can visualise the set at "curtain up" in my mind. And I can replay the drama that unfolds. 

The fact that something "stays with me" is as good a sense I can get that it's good. Although I recognise the fact that perhaps I just needed that work of art at that moment my life, I was inspired by exceptional direction or acting, or perhaps my field of reference was more limited when I encountered the play. Value in the world of the arts can be so subjective.

In no particular order, my top ten plays at this moment in time are:

Arcadia by Tom Stoppard
Art by 
Yasmina Reza
The History Boys by 
Alan Bennet
Welcome to Thebes by Moira Buffini
The Glass Menagerie by Tenesse Williams
The Rivals by Richard Brinsley Sheridan
The Tempest by William Shakespeare
King Lear by William Shakespeare
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf by Edward Albee
The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekov

There are many other plays have “spoken to” or “entertained” me, but don’t quite make the cut as lasting works of art. Just missing out on this list are Aristophone’s The Birds as well as Michael Morpurgo’s Warhorse

I shall reflect on each work in subsequent posts...and make a point of re-reading them. It's something that I so rarely do. I'm drawn to the new and un-encountered in general. Life is so full of possibility...which is a good note to end on.

Why I like The Rivals by Richard Sheridan

The Rivals was Sheridan's first play, written in 1775. At the time, he was a young newlywed living in Bath. At Sheridan’s insistence, upon marriage his wife Eliza (born Elizabeth Linley) had given up her career as a singer. This was proper for the wife of a “gentleman,” but it was difficult because Eliza had earned a substantial income as a performer.

Instead, the Sheridans lived beyond their means as they entertained the gentry and nobility with Eliza’s singing (in private parties) and Richard’s wit. Finally, in need of funds, Richard turned to the only craft that could gain him the remuneration he desired in a short time: he began writing a play. He had over the years written and published essays and poems, and among his papers were numerous unfinished plays, essays and political tracts, but never had he undertaken such an ambitious project as this. In a short time, however, he completed The Rivals. He was 23 years old.

This is a play about the comedy of courtship and duplicity in 18th-century Bath. I recently went to see a production directed by Sir Peter Hall in his 80thyear. The performances of Penelope Keith as the “Queen of the dictionary” Mrs Malaprop, and Peter Bowles as Sir Anthony Absolute, a man who rumbles and thunders with rage whenever his iron will is crossed, were outstanding.

There was a mixture of hauteur, roguishness and vulnerability in Keith’s performance that is truly endearing. Mrs Malaprop is noted for what Julia calls, “her select words so ingeniously misapplied, without being mispronounced.” Bowles is terrific too, his sour, pursed face.

The dramaturgy is impeccable. Sheridan roots the play in the audience's taste for comic character: from Shakespeare (Mistress Quickly and Dogberry are Mrs Malaprop's antecedents) and Jonson (Sir Lucius O'Trigger, Sir Anthony Absolute bearing Jonsonian monikers that define type) via the Restoration.

In poking fun at poseurs, pretentious country arrivistes and snobs, Sheridan pushes the manners and stereotypes of the plays and society of the time to extremes. He is attacking attitudes to love and money, marriage and responsibilities, the battle of the sexes, and the age-old tensions between the generations.

Sheridan was satirising a new society, although he signed up to it in one chief respect: that anyone could be a gentleman through their own efforts and achievements rather than through birth or marriage. He was very American in this respect - the revolution in that country was just a year away.
The Rivals is set in Bath, a newly invigorated city: new architecture, new fashions, new intellectual curiosity avidly embraced by newcomers. Bath offered a levelling of society. There was no hierarchy to be observed in the ballrooms, for example. But it also bred snobbery from the old order. With a fondness for the new comes the posturing of the nouveau.
Bath was also where Sheridan had spent the most tumultuous time of his life on leaving school, as an employee of his father's elocution academy (there was a ready market in social climbers looking to knock the edge off their common accents).
The rivals is a comic gem in which Sheridan combines mastery of situation with an awareness of sentimental absurdity that Jane Austen went on to harpoon in Northanger Abbey.