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Artillery Row

Bring back bawdiness

Bawdy humour and the pantomime go together like sausages and mash, whatever you make of that banger

Last weekend, I ventured to the Oxford Playhouse to watch their seasonal pantomime, Robin Hood. The near-capacity audience were all masked but (helped by the reasonable bar prices and the absence of social distancing) displayed jocund spirits as they sang along with the cast, vigorously booed and hissed Gareth David-Lloyd’s estimate Sheriff of Nottingham and shouted the time-honoured “Oh, yes, he is! Oh, no, he isn’t!” responses at Friar Tuck. Two hours passed in a flash; I could happily have stayed for two more.

It was all good clean fun, with some welcome attacks on our Prime Minister, but what struck me about writer-director Steve Marmion’s show was a determined absence of the innuendo and double entendre that I associate with panto. Granted, Friar Tuck donned festive drag for the usual complicated plot purposes so that he could style himself the Dame, and there were the usual energetic shouts of “He’s behind you!” at an appropriately farcical juncture, but there was none of the adult-pleasing bawdiness that I have long associated with such festive frolics. It was a far cry from Julian Clary, resplendent in campery at the London Palladium, as he declares that he is “ten miles from London, with no sign of Dick” (Whittington, d’accord) and that he “enjoys being taken up the Shard”. Only a joke about “a deck being covered in seamen” did not make the final show.

In fact, bawdy humour and the pantomime go as well together as sausages and mash, whatever you make of that particularly firm banger. There is a fine line between the successful application of saucy end-of-pier humour, of the kind that George Orwell delighted in when writing his essay about “The Art of Donald McGill”, and the groan-raising pun. Then there’s the riskier, near-the-knuckle style of Clary-esque humour, which led the Guardian’s theatre critic to comment in 2019, of the Goldilocks and the Three Bears show, that “younger audience members are likely to find much of the script incomprehensible… a warning on the theatre’s website that some material ‘may not be appropriate for everyone’ hardly seems sufficient to cover references to pubic lice, S&M and Viagra”.

Ross asks, only semi-jokingly, “Are we still on?”

Clary, as ringmaster-in-chief of national smut, has long occupied an ambiguous place in public consciousness. On the one hand, he is an actor and author of some note, who will be spending 2022 lurking backstage in a revival of Ronald Harwood’s play The Dresser. He has also, like so many of his peers, diversified into writing children’s books: the difference between Clary and countless others is that he is a gifted storyteller whose success with these mighty organs is deserved.

Yet I fear for any inquisitive child who is drawn into YouTube to see clips of the nice man who wrote that lovely book, because they are likely to come across his most notorious hour. At the 1993 British Comedy Awards, a refreshed Clary, introduced by a smarmy Jonathan Ross, announced, of the leaf-encrusted stage set, “It’s very nice of you to recreate Hampstead Heath for me here…as a matter of fact I’ve just been fisting Norman Lamont there.” The gasps of appalled, delighted laughter from the audience all but drowned out Clary’s peerless follow-up joke: “Talk about a red box.” Ross, all too aware that the outrage had gone too far, asks, only semi-jokingly, “Are we still on?”

It did not help Clary’s career, with articles in both the Sun and Daily Mail condemning him and demanding that he be removed from the television. His lazily appointed status as “the new Kenneth Williams” never quite recovered. Still, as Clary remarked in 2014, “It was quite a well-constructed joke…taxi drivers still say, ‘Oh, remember that night?!’ I know when I die, that’s what people will quote.” Yet the joke’s out-and-out filth, hugely entertaining though it undoubtedly was, goes against the finest traditions of English innuendo. Had the joke been toned down a couple of notches, but the implication remained the same, it would have been less calamitous for Clary’s reputation, and would have rightly taken a similar place in the annals of anti-political humour.

It is important to remember what bawdiness is, and isn’t. It is the humour of Shakespeare, Chaucer, Fielding and Frankie Howerd. It is not the more debauched and overt antics of Jim Davidson or Bernard Manning. It elicits its effect and impact from implication and suggestion, rather than the explicit statement of the obscene, and should ideally work on two, quite distinct levels. It is the comedy of I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue and Humphrey Lyttelton remarking, of “the lovely Samantha”, that “Samantha tells me she has to nip off now as her trusted aged gardener is coming round to identify the mysterious trailing plant that’s growing in her privet. Obviously she’s keen not to miss him if there’s a chance she may have an Old Man’s Beard in her bush”. It is the wit of Roger Moore’s 007 announcing that he is “keeping the British end up”, while in flagrante. It is Uncle Monty in toto. It is the flared nostril and raised eyebrow of Kenneth Williams, rather than the more sinister come-hitherdom of Charles Hawtrey. It is — or was — the jokes at the pantomime that the adults roar at, while their children remain bemused.

Frowning on this humour as discriminatory is a thorough misunderstanding of it

Perhaps most gloriously of all, it can be found in the plays of Joe Orton. I still remember the quivering delight of the audience at a production of Entertaining Mr Sloane, as they thrilled to a speech from Ed, a middle-aged scoutmaster whose deeply closeted attraction to the titular Sloane (“women are like banks boy…breaking and entering is a serious business”) is expressed by his talking pompously about his friendship with an anonymous “matie” when he was younger. As the innuendo about how “I put him to one side, which was difficult, because he was alluring” built, so did the anticipation. It finally exploded at Ed’s revelation that “I got a grip on myself and turned my back on him”. It was, and is, some of the finest comic bawdiness I can remember, and all the funnier for being presented in the straightest of fashions.

Alas, few contemporary writers seem prepared to take on such subjects. (I was actually surprised, given current mores, that the Dame in Robin Hood was still allowed to drag up.) We live in an age now where this kind of humour is frowned upon as being homophobic, sexist, racist or somehow exclusionary and discriminatory, which is a thorough misunderstanding of its purposes and effect. The whole point of British innuendo — something largely unique to the English language, rather than the American or Australian derivations thereof — is that the joke is bound up with a whole series of understandings as regards class, social background and education, which is why it is, or should be, amusing.

But now, with the potential for enormous offence to be taken (whether full-frontally or from behind) growing by the minute, the era of good-natured bawdiness has been subsumed to that of the new moralising. This is not just a shame for our drama and its practitioners, but for society as a whole, as we revel in the witlessness of Mrs Brown’s Boys and its ilk instead. So it is up to the likes of me to take pen firmly in hand, hold my nerve, and hope that this particular discharge hits the desired spot. As the actress once had it with the vicar.

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