Three Months in a Brown Paper Bag in a Septic Tank(Before Monty Python)

In late 1969 I watched the first TV series of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” with my Mum. Dad was more vocal about things he disapproved of on the idiot box. “Top of the Pops” was never not interrupted by “I can’t hear the words” & “Is that a boy or a girl ?”. While I struggled not to fall off the sofa in convulsions of laughter Mum’s silence was only interrupted by regular tutting. That was OK, an example of the “generation gap”. I was 17, living in the swingingest country in a dynamic decade, Mum was ancient…36 ! Anyway, don’t you hate it when old people think they are down with the kids ? As my sides were splitting over Bicycle Repair Man, Nudge Nudge & Arthur “Two Sheds” Jackson, Mum was wondering quite what the world was coming to.

Monty Python is now regarded as a high watermark in comedy (not just British), a ground-breaking New Wave of hilarity. My friends & I had an interest in any seriously funny business & the series was a much anticipated collision of talents who had already been making us laugh for some time.

Despite the increasing hegemony of television the BBC, the monopoly provider of UK radio, continued to commission popular comedy programmes. I was too young for “The Goon Show” but Spike Milligan’s anarchic tomfoolery was built to last & still around.         The interest in political satire, sparked by the decrepit Tory government of Harold Macmillan, had been past my bedtime but Peter Cook & Dudley Moore seemed to be the funniest men in Britain.  They had come to notice in “Beyond the Fringe”, a tremendous success, a merging of the best talent from Oxford & Cambridge university revues. Comedy became a career option for graduates of these establishments & the Beeb eagerly signed up the next generation of side-splitting scholars.

Image result for i'm sorry i'll read that againWhen the 2nd series of “I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again” moved to the Light Programme from the Home Service (I know…what the…!!) in 1965 it soon became essential listening.Satire was played out, we had a new Labour government, the first for 15 years, & it wasn’t only comedians who were cutting them some slack. The young cast of “I.S.I.R.T.A” reverted to their teenage Goonery & spliced it to the iconoclasm that Britain was getting pretty good at in the mid-1960s. The new rules were that there were no rules &, often, no punchlines. In the helter skelter of hilarity the stand out was John “Otto” Cleese. His parody of the oleaginous “bubonic plagiarist” (©P. Cook) David Frost nails the vacuity of the chat show format. Frost was not the last self-obsessed, talking loud saying nothing, TV host to prosper in the US.

Image result for john cleese ronnie barker ronnie corbettIt was on the BBC’s “The Frost Report” that we first got to see the 6’5″ Cleese in our telly. Sketches with, in descending order of height, Cleese & the two Ronnies, Barker & Corbett were the stand out in a successful series. Frost’s production company (he was always a busy…) assembled Cleese, his writing partner Graham Chapman &, from “I.S.I.R.T.A”, Tim Brooke-Taylor for 1967’s “At Last the 1948 Show”, a mix  which included older university revue stuff & sketches which would later be used by Python. The cast was completed by the “lovely” Aimi McDonald (& she was) & Marty Feldman who had a reputation as a writer, for Frost & “Round the Horne”, a very popular radio series, not as a Image result for marty feldman 1948 showperformer. Marty had much more going on than the bulging exophthalmic eyes that gave him a face for comedy. He roughened the intellectual edges of the others & brought along his own brand of mischievous anarchy. The ramshackle improvisation & corpsing in this cross-dressing cop sketch still makes me laugh out loud. “…the 1948 Show” replaced “Ready Steady Go” as the must-see TV show, another night that I was on my quiet, best behaviour so that bedtime came a little later.

Meanwhile at teatime, children’s TV was getting more interesting. “Do Not Adjust Your Set” ran for 2 series from December 1967 to May 1969. Eric Idle (Cambridge), Terry Jones & Michael Palin (both Oxford) were touting their sketches around to the successful comedy shows already mentioned & were enthusiastic about writing & performing their own show. They were joined by Denise Coffey & David Jason ( as not-so-superhero Captain Fantastic), later to find his own place in the British comedy pantheon. Neither lampooning the worthy but patronising tropes of British children’s TV  (& about time too) nor being funnier than other comedy for kids was particularly difficult but “Do Not…” did both with imagination & energy. It was an opportunity for the 3 young writers to find out what worked & what didn’t. I was of an age where kids’ TV was no longer interesting but this was a reason to rush home from football practice, ask my sister & 3 brothers to move on over & let me watch my show.Then we all had to hush up while Dad watched the News !

Related imageFor the musical interludes, direct from “Magical Mystery Tour”, the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band were now sending up their novelty trad jazz roots, dropping the Doo Dah & becoming the funniest rock group on vinyl. A regular TV slot & a free rein allowed them to develop their visual style & expand their audience. By the end of 1968 “I’m the Urban Spaceman” was in the UK Top 5 & we were rolling around to the classic LP “The Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse”. In the second series the guy who contributed short illustrative inserts, Terry Gilliam, a young American, was given more to do. “Beware of the Elephants” (with the UK’s most prominent racist, Enoch Powell, promoting sludge that keeps everything “white, white, white”) is perfectly Pythonesque. We all know now that the world is a better place for having Gilliam around.

Image result for monty python“Monty Python’s Flying Circus” was not something completely different for us 16 year olds who liked to laugh. It was a merger of talents who had been making us do that very thing for some time & was eagerly anticipated. I guess that we thought that this new troupe would attract a cult following (that would be me) before the BBC decided that it was just too silly & pulled the plug. It really did not take long (Episode 8, the Dead Parrot sketch, Ep 9 the Lumberjack Song) before British youth were committing this funny business to memory & knowing that it was built to last.20 years later, on a quiet Mayfair street, on a quieter Sunday morning, I met John Cleese & he politely acknowledged my rather effusive greeting. I didn’t ask him to do a Silly Walk or perform the Gunfight at the OK Corral in Morse Code, just paid the respect & thanks due to a Comedy Don.

There’s not many men round here who’ve still got their Meccano sets, you know! (Liz Smith)

Image result for liz smith hard labourI first became aware of Liz Smith, who died this week aged 95, in 1973 when she starred in “Hard Labour”, a BBC TV drama directed by Mike Leigh & produced by Tony Garnett. The weekly “Play for Today”, like its predecessor “The Wednesday Play”, was a forum for many emerging British talents. The strand encompassed a wide variety of styles & subjects. It was the hard-hitting & effective social realist themes, a development from kitchen sink dramas of a decade earlier which often provoked controversy. “Hard Labour” was Leigh’s first TV play, it employs his improvisational technique to achieve a naturalism & a bleakness unleavened by the humour to be found in his later work. Mrs Thornley, harassed by her husband, patronised by her middle-class employer & offered no solace by her religion, is a study in isolation & limited communication. Liz Smith was outstanding in the part & she broke our hearts.

Image result for liz smith i didn't know you caredThere’s very little of “Hard Labour” on the Interwebs so let’s move on a couple of years to her next starring TV role. “I Didn’t Know You Cared” was a sit-com adapted from his own novels by Peter Tinniswood. It ran for 4 series from 1975-79, another slice of Northern life, this time across the Pennines in Yorkshire. The Brandon family were a wonderful parade of absurd characters, the men cloth-capped, gloomy & cynical, the womenfolk keeping a close eye on them & their faults. It had a terrific ensemble cast, was tougher than the long-running “Last of the Summer Wine”, with the gentleness & acerbity of Alan Bennett. At the heart was Liz Smith’s Mrs Brandon, hen-pecking, haranguing & hilarious, nailing some of the best lines of a very good bunch. Some right old toot from the same period is now recycled on the nostalgia channels with no sign of this classic British comedy.

Ms Smith was in her fifties before this acting thing really took off. Her talent to portray the slightly mad but always likeable Grandma found her plenty of work in film & TV & she quickly became a very recognisable character actor. Her cinema work included Lindsay Anderson’s “Britannia Hospital”, Ridley Scott’s debut “The Duellists” & she was Lady Phillippa of Staines in Viv Stanshall’s brilliant “Sir Henry at Rawlinson End”. She was perfect for the BBC’s adaptations of Dickens & appeared in Michael Palin’s “Ripping Yarns” classic episode “The Testing of Eric Olthwaite”. It would be 1984 before she gained recognition from her peers for her talents.

Handmade Films, a British production & distribution company, was formed by George Harrison when his Monty Python friends were struggling to finance “Life of Brian”. The story goes that George had to mortgage a house but I don’t think that he ever went short. In the next decade Handmade were involved with many fine British films. “A Private Function” (1984) is as close as this to the gentle, eccentric comedies made by Ealing Studios in the 1940s & 50s. Alan Bennett was an international success in 1960 with “Beyond the Fringe”. He continued to act while becoming better known as a writer for TV & theatre. This was his first screenplay, perhaps having less substance than his plays but no less lacking in the acuity Bennett has for language & the intricacies of social interaction & manners.

Image result for liz smith a private function“A Private Function” is set in post-Second World War Yorkshire when food was still rationed. The social climber Joyce Chilvers (Maggie Smith) is determined to make her mark in the town & intends to drag Gilbert, her chiropodist husband, (Michael Palin) along with her. A pig, being illegally fattened for a municipal celebration is kidnapped by the Chilvers & hilarity ensues…really it does. Along with the great writer & the two illustrious principals the cast involves an overflowing National Treasure chest. Denholm Elliott, Alison Steadman, Pete Postlethwaite & others all do their distinctive thing while Liz, as Joyce’s mother, driven mad by the smell of the secret pig, thinking that perhaps she could be the source of the odour, won the BAFTA for Best Supporting Actress.

Image result for liz smith a private functionLiz continued to do the work, adding value to whatever she appeared in. In 1998 she was cast as Nana Norma in Caroline Ahern’s comedy “The Royle Family”.By this time she was 76 year’s old & the nation’s favourite grandmother, perfectly cast in a series which, along with Ricky Gervais’ “The Office” & Steve Coogan’s “I’m Alan Partridge” injected new energy & raised the standard of British situation comedy. “The Royle Family” was sometimes a kitchen sink drama but it was mostly on the living room sofa in front of the telly. The skillful characterisation, the pacing, the natural humour & affection made many people suspect that Aherne had placed a spy camera in their own homes to obtain material. This clip, from the 2006 special “The Queen of Sheba” where the new baby is introduced to the bedridden Nana will moisten the driest of eyes. A starring role in the UK’s most popular comedy brought Liz Smith even wider recognition &, in 2007, a British Comedy Award for Best TV Comedy Actress.

Liz Smith was born in my hometown in Lincolnshire. She’s from the Crosby area up in the north of town. She attended the secondary school which, years later with a change of name, in a different building became my school. That may be why, even in those early days  before I knew of her origins, I found her performances to be so convincing. She reminded me & so many others of our own grandmothers except that perhaps my Nana Daisy actually knew her as young Betty Gleadle. Sad events have made this appreciation into an obituary & that’s a pity. It’s OK because I am reminded of the talent of Liz Smith by the old ladies I talk to at the bus stop, in the market & around my estate. For these women, who have lived through some times, have seen & learned some things, Liz Smith represented.