Saturday, June 7, 2008

No culture for old men?

This is a major moment in British cultural history.

Forget Britain’s Got Talent, as brought to you by the makers of The Sun Revolves Around the Earth and George Galloway’s Got a Point.
Just look at this line-up! They’re coming out of hiding! Not individually - all at once! Not sheepishly - defiantly and proud!

Two friendly novelties (Brotherhood of Man and Jimmy Cricket), three great acts (Frank Carson, Paul Daniels and Cannon & Ball), and The Krankies - all touring the country together on a bill called the Best of British Variety Tour.
That's what it is, and it is offering you a choice, almost certainly for the last time.
As Janette Krankie puts it: “If this doesn't work then variety is definitely dead.”
Make the most of that sentence: it's unlikely I'll ever begin one with "As Janette Krankie puts it" again.

The most successful revolutionary movements know that you take the culture first, and they didn't come much more successful than alternative comedy. Hugely popular stars found they had to reaudition for their own jobs, apparently to see if they were as funny as Keith Allen or Jenny Lecoat, and most failed.
The majority shuffled off quietly, a few hung on, and a few collaborators tried desperately to ingratiate themselves with the fascists, only to be treated with even more vicious public disdain.
There is simply no question that Benny Hill, not a great comedian but a very popular one, was hounded to depression and death by heartless, mainly talentless bullies with - for the first time in British comedy history - no knowledge of or affection for the entertainers they grew up with. These comedians - whose self-designation of 'alternative' was pretty much the only funny thing about them - instead set out to destroy the careers of men like Hill, in a sustained campaign of intimidation and invective. Ben Elton has come to be regarded as the figurehead of this movement, which is unfair in the sense that it lets too many others off the hook but not at all unfair on Elton: the smug prick drove Hill to an early death. “Why do they hate me?” Hill used to ask his friends, in pathetic bewilderment.
The worse thing is that they claimed to have moral objection to his work. Watch his old shows now and they'll break your heart: they're not all that good - they never were - but their innocence and the man's manifest desire to please contrast horribly with the bilious, hate-filled variety we must endure today. And these latter were instituted on a wave of moral indignation that dared accuse Hill of bigotry!
Hill was kicked out of Thames Television without even an explanation. But we know why. Don’t pretend you can’t remember Elton on Wogan explaining exactly why: because he chased girls around parks.
This ludicrous booby went on to explain how this no doubt served as inspiration for sex attacks (which, you'll notice, have vastly decreased, along with the objectification and sexualisation of women generally, now his idiot friends are in charge of the telly).
But now banish from your mind that image of Elton's face - sorry I put it there, actually - and let in the fresh, stale air.
This line-up is how our culture might have remained if the alternative revolution had not happened: Frank Carson, as funny as Ken Dodd when the wind's behind him, Cannon & Ball, now, whatever you thought of them in their heyday, a really strong act, and Paul Daniels, easily the best tv magician I have ever seen. (With all due respect to David Nixon, whom I've only ever seen on What's My Line?)
Most of these stars avoided the direct goading that murdered Hill, and were simply banished. The one with the most scars and cause for bitterness, I suppose, is Paul Daniels, who has seen himself usurped by amateurs in not one field but two: comedy (at which he is genuinely gifted) and magic (at which he is genuinely peerless).
Daniels is one of those figures, like Noel Edmonds or Hughie Green or Jeremy Beadle, that we are supposed to violently hate, and so do. We don’t know why, it’s just enough that our leaders tell us it is so.
(Don't get me started on that revolting hypocritical volte-face when Beadle died: so much praise, so much acclaim, so much warmth... and all of so much use to him in his grave.)
These poor old sods are the end of the line of the variety tradition, the great tradition, the ousted tradition, the line that feeds back straight to the music halls.
Looking at Bobby Ball's immensely likeable 64-year old face you cannot help feel sad for what has been lost: it’s like we got Eric Morecambe at ATV and then at Thames, but missed out on the BBC years in between.
God alone knows what they might have achieved if we had all been allowed to grow old together, and the act was fine tuned to our tastes the way Eric & Ernie’s was. It’s not a good idea, actually, to think too long about how much we have lost - and how little we were offered in return - when the alternative coup banished the variety tradition to the theatrical wilderness.
But is it a wilderness? Only to the lazy. Cannon and Ball would say, quite rightly, that they weren’t kicked out of anything: they still work, as they have always done, 46 weeks of the year, and if we can’t be bothered to meet them halfway, there’s plenty of other people who can.
But really, this is all about telly, not because it is more important but because it is (relatively) permanent, central to the lives of the people and, God help us, the most accurate barometer there is of the public taste. And between 1990 and 2005, none of these people would be allowed anywhere near it.

So who’s missing? Well, obviously Syd and Eddie should be here, but we’re too late to reclaim them as they are no longer working together. (Little now tours the Christian circuit - apparently there is one - with a surprisingly competent solo act, but it wouldn’t have been right here: it’s both or neither, alas.)
Viewing it purely as a variety bill, too, one senses the absence, first, of a more laconic stand-up to balance the frenetic Carson - Lennie Bennett or Tom O'Connor would have been nice - and perhaps of some character comedy (I don't warm to the Krankies), which underlines the most significant absence: Russ Abbot.
Legitimate star of musical theatre or not, Russ belongs on this bill: along with Daniels he was the most singularly gifted of the stars whose jobs were stolen in the putsch, is most likely the one who would have otherwise matured into our best and most beloved tv comic, and he really deserves the top slot here.

So it's really up to you.
Frank Carson is 82. Paul Daniels and Tommy Cannon are both 70. True, none of these acts are Max Miller or Arthur Askey or Morecambe & Wise.
But considering the neglect into which it has fallen, the great tradition could be in worse shape.
A gesture this most definitely is, a call to friendly revolution, and it does seem to tap into something in the air just now.
Without quite realising what they have lost or how they lost it, people do at least seem to be slowly waking up to the fact that what they’ve been landed with instead is better sold in sacks at garden centres.
And these performers, all of whom bring not just themselves but a whole world of associations, of memories of how television once worked, are asking you to reconsider that deal you once accepted: no more Cannon and Ball and Paul Daniels, no more Russ Abbot, no more comedy that tries to make you happy, no more talent honed for decades before it is deemed fit for the mass home audience... in exchange for what?
Basically for Peter Richardson.

Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?