Monty Python's Flying Circus, 1972 (Photo by Don Smith/Radio Times via Getty Images)

Militant humourlessness

A pseudo-history of British comedy leaves one depressed

Artillery Row Books

A book about classic British comedy by a person who hates classic British comedy doesn’t sound like a very entertaining proposition — and, as Different Times by David Stubbs demonstrates, it isn’t.

Naturally, it took until page two of the “preamble” for Stubbs to mention he’d been to Oxford. One senses that telling a small circle of squares he too went to Oxford — and thus shares all their pretensions and conceits — is the entire raison d’etre for this strange book.

Different Times, David Stubbs (Faber, £20)

It certainly is not a history of British comedy. The list of omissions is too long for that. Many important people and works are ignored completely; many more brushed aside because they don’t align with the writer’s central hypothesis or his politics.

Harmless but significant milquetoast sitcoms like Terry and June don’t exist in this lazy, oddball venture — nor do masterpieces like One Foot in the Grave; or hugely popular, long running war horses like My Family.

The text is sour, which doesn’t help. Last of the Summer Wine, despite being the world’s longest running sitcom (I pay it more appropriate attention here) is dismissed as “not remotely funny”, written in “seaside postcard Clarkese”. Roy Clarke’s other key sitcoms, Keeping Up Appearances and Open All Hours, join the ranks of the non-existent. Galton and Simpson are criticised for not writing a black character. Eric Sykes — a remarkable talent, all the more so for being partially deaf and registered blind — is waved away as an irrelevance: his wonderful The Plank (my favourite is the Thames TV version co-starring “prejudiced” Arthur Lowe) is rejected as “a poor (English)man’s response to the much more sublime Jacques Tati”.

Too often, such Pooterisms substitute for insight.

Allo ‘Allo! is a “foreigners-are-funny caper” (is that it? Come on, its best episodes give Molière or Feydeau a run for their money). Birds of a Feather doesn’t live up to the “high comedic promise” of the sisters’ “nomenclature” (oh, get stuffed).

Are You Being Served? is not only “unforgettably bad” but sowed the “seeds of Brexit”. Yes, yes, I remember thinking, as my pencil quivered over the Leave box, it’s what Mr Humphries would have wanted.

The writing, when it’s not unpleasant, is dull. Tommy Cooper is “as exclusive a part of the British experience as brown sauce”; Benny Hill is “as British as brown sauce”; ITV’s sitcom output is “as low grade as brown sauce”. (Did good ol’ Stubbsy fancy a bacon sandwich whilst writing this?)

Part of the problem is that a genuine exploration (and celebration) of post-war British comedy would cause Stubbs’ central premise — that British culture was a wasteland of racism, homophobia and misogyny, “blighted with offensive caricatures” — to fall apart.

Over 2,200 television sitcoms have been made in this country. In that context, Love Thy Neighbour, Curry and Chips and a few other obnoxious efforts are exceptions — regrettable exceptions, but exceptions nonetheless. Take a random episode of a random sitcom produced in Britain since 1946 (Stubbs’ assertion that Britain’s “first television comedy” transmitted in 1949 is incorrect), and you’d be unlucky to find anything offensive.

Presumably, he was laughing so hard he forgot to type the punchline

Clinging to its muddled premise, the book lurches bittily and bitterly through page after page of sub-Wikipedia commentary.

Much of it is more interested in the Conservative Party than comedy. Stubbs notes in a slightly sinister “Your name vill also go on ze list!” manner whether a writer or performer held Conservative sympathies, issuing moral judgments accordingly, then moving onto his next target.

Stubbs admits that growing up he didn’t understand much of the comedy he watched, and this lack of comprehension seems to have extended into adulthood. On page 11, he gives us an example of one of his “most cherished jokes”: Mark Steel describing his perfect day as comprising “a workers’ uprising in the morning followed by a quiet drink with friends in the evening”. Presumably, he was laughing so hard he forgot to type the punchline.

In general, Stubbs only appreciates satire when he can be sure the person delivering it is on “the side of the angels”. Peter Cook — and the writers, journalists and comedians at the centre of the 60s’ satire boom — are chastised for their “flippantly non-committal” attitude to politics.

Yes, Minister was “insufficiently wounding” because Fatcha enjoyed it. The New Statesman (hardly Tory agitprop, and wildly inventive and hilarious) lacks, we are told, wit. At one point Stubbs bemoans the damage Mike Yarwood did to the socialist cause with his impressions of various union barons. (Seriously? Just ridiculous.)

Despite constant references to misogyny and bigotry, when we arrive at sections like “The Rise of Women”, Stubbs’ efforts are remarkably undercooked. Carla Lane is dealt with in a paragraph (The Liver Birds, he tells us, sustained “for several series”. It ran for ten). Man About the House is briefly discussed, as is Marti Caine — and on we go. Hugely important, uniquely powerful figures, like the agent-turned-producer Beryl Vertue (who basically controlled British comedy by about 1962) don’t make the cut.

His exploration of Black British comedy is even thinner.

This surprised me. Although he chides the “deadeningly unfunny” Spike Milligan for being too preoccupied with race, Stubbs is obsessed with race, so I thought he might have done his homework here.

Trailblazing sitcom writer Trix Worrell — who surely must be name checked in a history of British comedy — is ignored. Felix Dexter forgotten. The Real McCoy left out. Ram John Holder and Gina Yashere and Danny John-Jules passed over.

For a subject Stubbs claims to feel so strongly about — and is supposedly so sensitive to — it’s plain odd. His penchant for moral judgement veers into even more uncomfortable territory when he wonders if the much-loved Charlie Williams “‘h’intergrated” [sic] a touch too much”.

Whilst much is brushed over or unmentioned, a few shows instead command excessive attention. Fawlty Towers receives its own episode breakdown, including details of the artists’ fees. Blackadder is similarly treated (though Curtis’ equally-if-not-more popular Vicar of Dibley is dismissed, in the same breath as To The Manor Born, as “Midsomer sans murders”).

Both Farty Towels and Blackadder are important shows — but much of this feels like padding: our author ticking up the word count by listing everything he can remember about things he’s actually watched. That said, Fatty Otters doesn’t entirely escape Stubbs’ red pen. “Whilst the major’s errant lines are easy to excise,” he notes, “Manuel is more difficult to do away with.”

The key issue, I think, is that Stubbs is never really honest about what he or his book actually are.

This is a man who believes he’s lived large chunks of his life under “far right” regimes. He believes that “the conservative leaning of British comedy” manipulated people into voting Conservative. The comedies of the post-war era were a kind of propaganda, gaslighting the masses into undermining their own interests.

This is simply untrue.

Whilst popular comedy was, and still tends to be, mildly culturally conservative, that’s because it’s reflecting how we view ourselves, what we want (love, friendship, marriage, etc) and the way we organise our society. When we look at the values of the average Labour or Tory voter, they are remarkably similar. In this territory, popular comedy can bloom, because the majority can navigate it.

Stubbs, on the other hand, sits outside this consensus. He is obsessively political, regarding all who might disagree with him as either stupid and easily influenced (by Mike Yarwood, even, or the staff of Grace Brothers) — or evil. This makes him almost uniquely unsuited to navigating the shared space, as opposed to ideological “safe space”, of popular comedy.

Take his own example: the Mark Steel joke he adores. He adores it because it speaks to him, reflects him: but deploy it at a recording for a popular sitcom, with a “normal” audience, and it would be met with silence. Dish up characters and jokes rooted in our shared experience, as the sitcoms he so often brushes aside do, and the laughs will flow.

Stubbs is the working class champion who hates working class humour

When Stubbs finally arrives at the comedies he unquestioningly enjoys, it is all achingly predictable: The Day Today. Jam and Blue Jam. Stewart Lee (whom Stubbs heaps praise on for being brave enough to tackle “UKIP, Islamophobia, Brexit”) is, we are told, “unmatched as a comedian in the twenty-first century”. Perhaps. The average person, though — the average, to use his own performative Oxbridge Sayle-ese, “worker” — wouldn’t be interested.

We are left with nothing more than a selection of puzzling ironies and contradictions. Stubbs is the working class champion who hates working class humour. An impeccable class warrior, he favours a comedy industry controlled by bourgeois graduates. The high priest of kindness, he is himself unkind. Stubbs finds cruelty and prejudice everywhere, yet never in himself.

By the end, I almost felt sorry for him — almost. It must be so grinding to always sit outside the joke: to feel the need to berate your fellow citizens for their “over-emphasis on humour”, when other nations might use the time we spend joking to organise a revolution. (To be fair to Stubbs, of the things he might be accused of, spending too much time laughing doesn’t feel like one of them.)

I couldn’t help exclaiming an “Aww” when he suggested The Young Ones is the place to start today’s yoof off on British comedy.

It’s imprinted on him because that’s when he was young — discovering his first love and punk music, readying himself to take the fight to Fatcha from the walled gardens of his Oxford college. The Young Ones is interesting — but it’s dated, dated in a way much of the more universal comedies from that era are not. (The subsequent work of its stars is mostly wonderful, though. Kids, start there.)

This is a lamentable book: a history without history, an argument without evidence. A book about warmth and joy, without any warmth and joy. A book that unlike all those lovely British comedies — from Summer Wine to Birds, from Sykes to Red Dwarf to My Family and beyond — doesn’t bring us together, but cleaves us apart.

Different Times’ price has been cut on Amazon — but it’s still more expensive than a pack of Andrex Quilted. Or a crate of brown sauce.

Avoid. Watch a jolly sitcom instead.

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