Above: Hancock (left); McNally (right)
Above: the TV version
Radio 4’s The Missing Hancocks which commemorates the sixtieth anniversary of Hancock’s Half Hour, is a treat for listeners of my generation, who can just about remember the originals. For those who don’t know, the radio show ran for 103 episodes between 1954 and 1959 on the Light Programme and at its height was a national institution. The TV version ran from 1956 to 1961. Twenty of the radio shows have been “lost” (actually, wiped by the BBC in order to re-use the tapes) but the original scripts by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson were rediscovered by the actor Neil Pearson and five (chosen by Galton and Simpson themselves) have now been re-recorded in front of a live audience at the BBC Radio Theatre.
It’s become something of a cliché to describe Hancock’s Half Hour as the first modern sitcom, but that description is probably deserved: it was certainly the first British comedy show to revolve around the characters and to dispense with catch-phrases, set-piece sketches and variety acts. And, on the whole, the shows still work today, largely thanks to Galton and Simpson’s brilliant scripts in which Charles Dickens meets Harold Pinter.
The recreations are superb and Kevin McNally does more than simply impersonate Hancock’s intonation and phrasing – he manages to convey all the pent-up frustration, self-righteousness and delusions of grandeur that constituted the Hancock persona. The rest of the cast are nearly as good, though the chap who plays Sid James doesn’t have quite the right voice.
In my humble opinion, this stuff stands up far better than most supposedly “classic” comedy, including shows of twenty or thirty years later, like the grossly over-rated Monty Python’s Flying Circus and the abysmal Only Fools And Horses, the enduring popularity of which remains the source of complete bewilderment to me.
Of course, it’s difficult to listen to these recreations without remembering the real-life Hancock’s sad decline and tragic end. And the scripts make a fascinating comparison with the show Galton and Simpson went on to write after Hancock effectively sacked them – Steptoe And Son.
This isn’t just nostalgia or show-biz archaeology – it’s genuinely “classic” comedy that still works.
Well, I have had one of the worst evenings of my life in the theatre. It’s the Edinburgh Festival, and of course that is to be expected, but a bad night there is usually stumbling into a hopeful group of students doing the Medea on roller skates in a church hall performing to an audience of four. It is not going to the splendid Festival Theatre to see a play that has received pages of press coverage and is sold out.
This was James III: The True Mirror, the third part of a trilogy about the early Stewarts. James was a useless king who irritated his nobles by promoting favourites and neglecting business and was eventually killed- i.e. he was a little like Richard II and Edward II, and though you can’t expect any dramatist to use language like Shakespeare or Marlowe, you would think they could learn a bit about structure and tension and narrative drive. But instead of, say, alternating scenes of a frivolous king with the powerful plotters against him,, there were endless going-nowhere soap opera domesticities of him talking to his wife the Danish Queen Margaret (played by Sofie Gråbøl from The Killing, who made her likable) fighting over custody of the children, a whole meandering pointless mass of boneless characters, sweiry words and button pushing jokes that got knowing laughs – eg – James to his missus – “all I got with you was Orkney and Shetland”. James III was presented as an anarchic guy pissing round, like Russell Brand and the play was as intellectually light-weight.
The staging of a high wall with a tier of benches for the meetings of the Three Estates was rather grand and looked promising. Then it began. A red-haired laundry maid tells a bloke that she’s heard James the King is gorgeous. Then discovers she is in fact speaking to James. Squeaks from the maid, and his wife tells James that he’s been doing his man of the people act again. This was the first ten minutes, with dialogue so self-conscious, slack and banal I wanted to leave at that point. At the interval my friends and I discovered that we were all having a bad time, and what the hell was everyone laughing about? But we hung on to the end, and that’s when we got to the worst part of all – cringe-making, boag-inducing awful – a final speech from Queen Margaret who has become regent and tells the Scots lords (who rhubarb aye, aye) that she is a rational Dane from a rational country and they are heaps of manure, but aren’t they a lovable lot, and Scotland could be a nation again, and never fear for the future – in short a party political broadcast for the Yes side of the referendum. Oh how the audience loved it- tell us we are rogues with a bad attitude but lovable and we’ll lap this like Irn Bru.
There are other shows dealing with this matter of Scotland, all pro-independence, which is to be expected as Yesses are full of vision and enthusiasm and poetry, while Noes are grumpy. I did stumble on a comedian, Erich McElroy The British Referendum. He’s an engaging American guy, a naturalised Brit, who is evidently put out and a little puzzled that his newly adopted country could lose one third of its land mass. With some easy laughs comparing British talking head politicking and American raw gun-shooting advertisements, he did get a few digs in the referendum’s vitriol, with pictures of what a nationalistic country looks like (ie an American flag-lined street). And facetiously warned Scotland that the USA could have interesting designs on an oil-rich country with no defences. There were a few Noes in the small audience, relieved that someone was speaking to them.
The late Robin Williams was, by all accounts, a good guy. He was certainly on our side:
Guest post by Robin Carmody
One of the most important aspects of the Yewtree reckoning is this:- during the 2000s decade, a whole style of humour which peaked during the 1970s and had been deprecated as sexist was rehabilitated and sold to a new generation by a questionable set of “refreshingly politically incorrect” (their words, not mine) comedians and comedy writers/performers. A certain set of people could barely control their relief and joy at it. Yewtree denialists on anorak forums almost always revered Lucas & Walliams, Jimmy Carr et al for “bringing back proper comedy and pissing off those Leftie do-gooders”.
It is the main reason for the recent upsurge of blatant, casual, unthinking sexism in universities and colleges. For most of its audience, its supposed inverted commas no more existed than they would have done for most of the Benny Hill or ‘On the Buses’ audience the first time round. But even beyond that, Yewtree must surely mark the end of it, because it makes the original 1970s stuff seem nastier and creepier than ever and thoroughly justifies everything that was felt about it on the broad Left of British humour during the 1980s. It’s as if several key figures of 1960s/70s rock music had been found out just after Britpop, only a lot worse.
Sorry folks: I missed the 50th anniversary of Peter Lorre’s death (23rd March, 1964).
I feel a particular closeness to this great character-actor, because he was one of the film stars that my dad (like many people of his generation) did impersonations of (the others, in my Dad’s case, being Sydney Greenstreet, Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney and Walter Brennan):
Here’s Lorre in a typical role
Here’s his best ‘serious’ performance in Germany before he fled fascism for the US and ended up in Hollywood::
…and my personal favourite:
Finally: the ultimate accolade:
… here ’tis:
A A Gill on Autobiography by Morrissey
THE SUNDAY TIMES
AS NOËL Coward might have said, nothing incites intemperate cultural hyperbole like cheap music. Who can forget that the Beatles were once authoritatively lauded as the equal of Mozart, or that Bob Dylan was dubbed a contemporary Keats? The Beatles continued to ignore Covent Garden, and Mozart is rarely heard at Glastonbury; Dylan has been silently culled from the latest edition of the Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry in English.
The publication of Autobiography was the second item on Channel 4’s news on the day it was released. Krishnan Guru-Murthy excitably told the nation that Morrissey really could write — presumably he was reading from an Autocue — and a pop journalist thrilled that he was one of the nation’s greatest cultural icons. He isn’t even one of Manchester’s greatest cultural icons.
This belief in high-low cultural relativity leads to a certain sort of chippy pop star feeling undervalued and then hoitily producing a rock opera or duet with concert harpsichord. Morrissey, though, didn’t have to attain the chip of being needily undervalued; he was born with it. He tells us he ditched “Steve”, his given name, to be known by his portentous unimoniker because — deep reverential breath here — great classical composers only have one name. Mussorgsky, Mozart, Morrissey.
His most pooterishly embarrassing piece of intellectual social climbing is having this autobiography published by Penguin Classics. Not Modern Classics, you understand, where the authors can still do book signings, but the classic Classics, where they’re dead and some of them only have one name. Molière, Machiavelli, Morrissey.
He has made up for being alive by having a photograph of himself pretending to be dead on the cover. The book’s publication was late and trade gossip has it that Steve insisted on each and every bookshop taking a minimum order of two dozen, misunderstanding how modern publishing works. But this is not unsurprising when you read the book. He is constantly moaning about record producers not pressing enough discs to get him to No 1. What is surprising is that any publisher would want to publish the book, not because it is any worse than a lot of other pop memoirs, but because Morrissey is plainly the most ornery, cantankerous, entitled, whingeing, self-martyred human being who ever drew breath. And those are just his good qualities.
The book falls into two distinct passages. The first quarter is devoted to growing up in Manchester (where he was born in 1959) and his schooling. This is laughably overwrought and overwritten, a litany of retrospective hurt and score-settling that reads like a cross between Madonna and Catherine Cookson. No teacher is too insignificant not to be humiliated from the heights of success, no slight is too small not to be rehashed with a final, killing esprit d’escalier. There are pages of lists of television programmes he watched (with plot analysis and character criticism). He could go on Mastermind with the specialist subject of Coronation Street or the works of Peter Wyngarde. There is the food he ate, the groups that appeared on Top of the Pops (with critical comments) and the poetry he liked (with quotes).
All of this takes quite a lot of time due to the amount of curlicues, falderals and bibelots he insists on dragging along as authorial decoration. Instead of adding colour or depth, they simply result in a cacophony of jangling, misheard and misused words. After 100 pages, he’s still at the school gate kicking dead teachers.
But then he sets off on the grown-up musical bit and the writing calms down and becomes more diary-like, bloggish, though with an incontinent use of italics that are a sort of stage direction or aside to the audience. He changes tenses in ways that are supposed to be elegant but just sound camp. There is one passage that stands out — this is the first time he sings. “Against the command of everyone I had ever known, I sing. My mouth meets the microphone and the tremolo quaver eats the room with acceptable pitch and I am removed from the lifelong definition of others and their opinions matter no more. I am singing the truth by myself which will also be the truth of others and give me a whole life. Let the voice speak up for once and for all.” That has the sense of being both revelatory and touching, but it stands out like the reflection of the moon in a sea of Stygian self-justification and stilted self-conscious prose.
The hurt recrimination is sometimes risible but mostly dull, like listening to neighbours bicker through a partition wall, and occasionally startlingly unpleasant, such as the reference to the Moors murderers and the unfound grave of their victim Keith Bennett. “Of course, had Keith been a child of privilege or moneyed background, the search would never have been called off. But he was a poor, gawky boy from Manchester’s forgotten side streets and minus the blond fantasy fetish of a cutesy Madeleine McCann.”
It’s what’s left out of this book rather than what’s put in that is strangest. There is an absence of music, not just in its tone, but the content. There are emetic pools of limpid prose about the music business, the ingratitude of fellow musicians and band members and the lack of talent in other performers, but there is nothing about the making of music itself, the composing of lyrics, the process of singing or the emotion of creation. He seems to assume we will already know his back catalogue and can hum along to his recorded life. This is 450 pages of what makes Morrissey, but nothing of what Morrissey makes.
There is the peevishness at managers, record labels and bouncers, a list of opaque court cases, all of which he manages to lose unfairly, due to the inherited stupidity of judges. Even his relation with the audience is equivocal. Morrissey likes them when they’re worshipping from a distance, but he is not so keen when they’re up close. As an adolescent he approaches Marc Bolan for an autograph. Bolan refuses and Morrissey, still awkwardly humiliated after all these years, has the last word. But then later in the book and life, he does exactly the same thing to his own fans without apparent irony.
There is little about his private life. A boyfriend slips in and out with barely a namecheck. This is him on his early sexual awakening: “Unfathomably I had several cupcake grapples in this year of 1973… Plunge or no plunge, girls remain mysteriously attracted to me.” There is precious little plunging after that.
There are many pop autobiographies that shouldn’t be written. Some to protect the unwary reader, and some to protect the author. In Morrissey’s case, he has managed both. This is a book that cries out like one of his maudlin ditties to be edited. But were an editor to start, there would be no stopping. It is a heavy tome, utterly devoid of insight, warmth, wisdom or likeability. It is a potential firelighter of vanity, self-pity and logorrhoeic dullness. Putting it in Penguin Classics doesn’t diminish Aristotle or Homer or Tolstoy; it just roundly mocks Morrissey, and this is a humiliation constructed by the self-regard of its victim.
In an interesting review of Orwell’s public school memoir Such, Such Were the Joys, in today’s Graun, Francis Wheen is quoted on the subject of the disintegration of the Socialist Workers Party:
“[T]he party’s leader Alex Callinicos, grandson of the 2nd Lord Acton, was educated at a top private school and another senior leader, Charlie Kimber, is the Old Etonian son of a baronet. Also prominent in the brouhaha has been Dave Renton, an Old Etonian barrister related to a former Tory chief whip: ‘It sometimes reads like a conversation between Old Rugbeians and Old Etonians about the main British Trotskyist Party. It’s quite bizarre’.”
This reminded me of the latest cartoon strip from the pen that brought us the fabulous Billy Delta of Red Friars. This follow-up is not, perhaps, quite as hilarious (in part because the main characters are less well-known, and the plot-line more convoluted), but it’s still a good sectarian chuckle…
Above: Class Monitor Tim is showing the new boy Cuthbert Cringe-Renton around the school.
And on a (very) loosely related theme, for anyone with a lot of spare time there are tons of bulletins from the last four conferences of the American ISO (former comrades of the SWP), on this site: http://thecharnelhouse.org/2014/02/07/international-socialist-organization-2014-convention-bulletin/
David Rich has a very good, and very depressing article on Dieudonne and his kind:-
“Making common cause” between Holocaust deniers, neo-fascists, the pro-Palestinian left, and the revolutionary Islamists of Iran is precisely what Dieudonné has spent the past decade trying to achieve. Originally from the political left, he has moved via anti-Israel rhetoric and the fascist Front National (FN) to the establishment of his own Parti Anti Sioniste (PAS, or Anti-Zionist Party). Alongside him in the PAS is essayist and filmmaker Alain Soral, who underwent a similar journey from the Marxist left to the FN before finding a political home with Dieudonné.
There are not many political movements that can embrace the neo-fascist right, the anti-capitalist left, and Iranian revolutionary Islamism. Dieudonné is close to FN leaders—Jean Marie Le Pen is godfather to one of his children—while also attracting fans who consider themselves to be left-wing radicals. He was a guest in Tehran of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and received Iranian funding for a film project. Historically, movements that successfully pulled off this kind of balancing act have tended to rely on anti-Semitism as their glue, expressed through the lingua franca of conspiracist anti-Zionism, and PAS is no different.
Strikingly, for a party that calls itself anti-Zionist, PAS’s political program makes no direct mention of Israel or Palestine. This is parochial, patriotic anti-Zionism, in which Zionism is portrayed primarily as a subversive, corrupting presence in French society.
Radio 4’s The Report had the journalist Helen Grady interviewing Dieudonne’s friends and followers. Sometimes they said “Zionist” where they obviously meant “Jewish” and sometimes they said, “I’m not antisemitic but Jews run everything”. Also, Dieudonne gave them the thrill of saying, or just hinting at, the forbidden. – not just “you don’t say that” but “you can’t say that” because it’s illegal in a state with laws against Holocaust denial. This was interpreted as special treatment for Jews while other minorities are fair game.
I was sorry the reporter didn’t ask them to explain who these Zionists are and what are these utterances that are so dammed by the laws – not that I agree with Holocaust denial laws or anti free speech and expression laws in general. In fact I would like to know how much these laws exacerbate the sense of resentment that is one of the emotional bases of Fascism. Certainly breaking them, or hinting that you were, gave the audience a lovely outsider frisson.
Some of these gagged folk came from immigrant communities – their parents from North Africa say – and they had good words to say of the Front National – at least they’re honest when the rest are hypocrites.
It was your worst gibbering blog thread taking flesh, with hideous whiffs of the 1930s, in all their bizarre irrationality.
Rich concludes with a warning for those who think It Can’t Happen Here:-
. .it would be complacent to assume that Dieudonné’s anti-establishment appeal, expressed through angry, transgressive satire and political stunts, could not find a British audience. The personal followings of Nigel Farage MEP and George Galloway MP demonstrate the appetite in the UK for charismatic, populist anti-politics. .. A Francophone comic with a taste for the surreal is likely to have trouble finding a mass audience in Britain; but his populist anti-politics, carrying a coded anti-Semitism and transmitted via social media, may have better luck in finding an audience..
The anti-establishment comedian who thinks all political institutions are a waste of time is Russell Brand, but to do him justice, he is nothing like as malevolent as Dieudonne, and I can’t see him doing Holocaust jokes or chumming up with David Irving. I can’t see him getting in bed with UKIP either, which is the closest thing here to the Front National. I don’t keep up with popular culture, and there may be obvious candidates for the Dieudonne role that I’ve missed.
Respect was a party that pulled in some of the political groups that are attracted to Dieudonne:- the pro-Palestinian Left and Islamists, and no doubt Holocaust deniers would pop up in such a crowd. Gilad Atzmon would be the obvious entertainer, but he’s not a man of any great charisma or the popular touch. However, it’s hard to think of the neo-Fascist right finding a home there, and Respect is now mostly a fantasy in Galloway’s head.
I was going to put a question-mark at the end of that headline, but on reflection decided not to. I think we can be unequivocal about this.
When I was a callow young Trotskyist and James P. Cannon fan, older, more experienced comrades told me that Cannon’s organisation, the American SWP (no relation to the Brit group of the same name) had gone off the rails very badly in the 1950’s, when Cannon began to take a back seat and handed the reins over to lesser figures like Joseph Hansen. Evidence of this petty bourgeois degeneration, I was told, was a ludicrous faction fight over the question of women’s cosmetics that threatened to tear the SWP apart. In the end, good ol’ James P. came out of semi-retirement to bang heads together and tell Hansen and the comrades to get a grip and stop arguing about such irrelevant nonsense. Anyway, that’s how I remember being told about it.
As you can imagine, I never (until now) took the trouble to investigate the matter in any detail, but if you’re interested, quite a good account is given here, and you can even read some of the contemporaneous internal documents here, if you scroll down to No. A-23, October 1954. On the other hand, like myself when I was first told about the Great Cosmetics Faction Fight (GCFF), you may feel that life’s too short…
The point being, that I’ve always carried round in the back of my mind a vague recollection of the GCFF as a prime example of petty bourgeois leftist irrelevance, and probably the most ridiculous and laughable left-group factional dispute of all time.
The recent row within the International Socialist Network, resulting in the resignations of some of its most prominent members, makes the SWP’s GCFF look quite down to earth and sensible. If you ever wanted an example of why serious, socialist-inclined working class people all too often regard the far left as a bunch of irrelevant, posturing tossers, this is it. Don’t ask me what it’s all about, or what “race play” is. Comrade Coatesy gives some helpful background here and here. More detail for the serious connoisseur (aka “more discerning customer” wink, wink, reaching under the counter) here and here.
I’ll simply add, for now, that this preposterous business does appear to be genuine (rather than, as some might reasonably suspect, an exercise in sitautionist performance art and/or anti-left political satire) and is also one of those rather pleasing situations in which no-one in their right mind cares who wins: both sides are unspeakably awful self-righteous jerks. Actually, the ISN majority strike me as, if anything, even worse than Seymour, Miéville and their friend “Magpie” – if that’s possible. Still, it’s hard not to endulge in just a little schadenfreude at the discomfiture of Richard “Partially Contingent” Seymour, a character who’s made a minor career out of sub-Althussarian pretentiousness and “anathematising” others on the left for their real or imagined transgressions against “intersectionality“, and now falls victim to it himself.
Those who live by intersectionality, die by intersectionality.
Or, as Seymour himself put it in his seminal postgraduate thesis Patriarchy and the capitalist state:
“My suggestion is that as an analytic, patriarchy must be treated as one type of the more general phenomena of gender projects which in certain conjunctures form gender formations. What is a gender formation? I am drawing a direct analogy with Omi and Winant’s conception of racial formations, which comprises “the sociohistorical process by which racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed, and destroyed … historically situated projects in which human bodies and social structures are represented and organized.” This is connected “to the evolution of hegemony, the way in which society is organized and ruled,” in the sense that racial projects are linked up with wider repertoires of hegemonic practices, either enabling or disrupting the formation of broad ruling or resistant alliances. A gender formation would thus be a ’sociohistorical process’ in which gender categories are ‘created, inhabited, transformed, and destroyed’ through the interplay and struggle of rival gender projects. From my perspective, this has the advantage of grasping the relational, partially contingent and partially representational nature of gendered forms of power, and providing a means by which patriarchy can indeed be grasped in relation to historical materialism.”
Today is Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day.
Here she is, playing and singing ‘This Train': the sound’s a bit low, so you’ll need to listen carefully. But I’ve chosen this clip because it gives some wonderful glimpses of the Sister’s facial expressions and her great comedic sense – as, for instance, when she gestures towards the piano player at the part of the lyric about “whisky drinkers”:
She could almost make me a believer.