Sunday 25 November 2012

The Golden Age of Comedy Records

Some thoughts on British Comedy (circa '59-'61) occasioned by the listing of four comedy LPs on one-for-every-fair-and-rainy-day, my little eBay trading post -

‘The Blood Donor’ (Hancock, NPL 18068) is immortal, but  do writers Galton and Simpson have to be so cruel and pitiless while dissecting the petty vanities, hopes and fears of one ineffectual little guy. Poor Tony Hancock is so vain he wants a medal for donating blood; he’s a casual racist, bragging of his pure British stock, and crows in conceit when he finds he belongs to a rare blood group. He’s also self-pitying (“A pint, but that’s an armful!”) and cranky (“it might be a prick to you, but it’s life and death for somebody, mate”). 

The humour of Hancock’s Half Hour is savage. And bitter too, as you’re expected to mock the pretensions of this poor, self-deluded fool. But why shouldn't Hancock wish to improve himself with Bertrand Russell or escape the rat-race to fulfil his creative potential (as in the feature-length film, The Rebel)? 

Tony Hancock’s genius was to instil dignity to the character. His identification was so complete that the comic creation and the actor/comedian actually shared the same name, blurring the boundary between fiction and reality. There was always a clear delineation between Phil Silvers and Sgt Ernie Bilko, even if one was self-evidently a projection of the other. But Hancock wasn’t allowed that fig-leaf, even as Galton and Simpson heaped weakness and misfortune onto his frail psyche. His end was tragic. Remember the suicide note? “Things just went wrong too many times.” There’s a pithy summation of the human condition for you. 

Which is why the laughs of ‘The Blood Donor’ don’t come cheaply. 

But at least there are laughs, which is more than can be said for Peter Sellers. 

Some of the good points of Songs for Swingin’ Sellers (PMC 1111)and Peter and Sophia (PMC 1131). Ah, Matt Monro does a nice Frank Sinatra impersonation on the former. Sophia Loren is thankfully under-used on the latter, and the co-credit was presumably just a gambit in Seller's vain wooing of the Italian starlet. The funny Clousseau voice first appears on ‘Shadows on the Grass’ (from Swingin’ Sellers), that’s if you think French accents are inherently funny. The latter sketch is written by, and co-stars, the wonderful Irene Handl, who brings a bit of humanity to (another) study in self-delusion. There might actually be a real person in there. 

And because a lot of the material spoofs the contemporary music scene, it acts as a vivid snapshot of its time, blithely evoking trad jazz with ‘Ukelele Lady’ (and borrowing the Temperance Seven to do it), and targeting skiffle with ‘Puttin’ On the Smile’, although the irritating Lonnie Donegan defies parody. 

And, ah, that’s all the good points. 

Well now, The Goons. We’re back in drab, grasping, penny-pinching post-war England again, redeemed by a sense of the absurd, albeit tinged with desperation.  The Goons were (are) worshipped by jazz musicians for the way they used sound to suggest 101 impossible things before the inevitable moment when Eccles got "drownded in the water". But ‘Tales of Old Dartmoor’ and ‘Dishonoured’ (The Best of the Goon Shows, PMC 1108) seem ill-supplied with sonic and engineering innovation, and Ray Ellington and Max Geldray have been excised from the proceedings altogether. Talk about mean-spiritedness.   

(I guess I'm not alone in my opinion: nobody's bidding on them.)  


  1. Not sure how this affects the theory, but 1961 was the year of "Ernie....Fastest Milk-cart", "My Boomerang won't...". It was also the span of years when Rolf's "Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport" entered the country - hopefully some media figures whose reputations remain intact sufficiently to become absorbed into the folk-culture.

  2. Hey heynonny, surely Ernie the Fastest Milkman in the West was closer to 1971? And Rolf Harris, well, no scandal attaches to Rolf that I'm aware of. I might reserve him for his own blog entry, due to the impact of 'Two Little Boys' on the contrasting destinies of me and my brother when we were two little boys, and beyond. For now, I shall only say that I was gobsmacked by the wit and cleverness of ‘The Court of King Caractacus’ when Graeme Jebb sang it at Oddfellows once, before I remembered it was by Rolf Harris.

  3. Suitably reawakened to the chronology, I realise that I may have mistakenly associated it with schoolboy mimicking my then, strong Hampshire accent, rather than cross-desk mimicry, in my early career in the Civil Service. One record that was from 1960 was the "Folk Song" from Bernard Cribben which in my opinion rivals "Right Said Fred" as records that deservedly stand up as comic creations that have a continuing cultural pertinence. "The Court of King Caractacus" is a favourite of mine, along with "Nick O'teen and LK Hall".

  4. Apologies again, that should be "Bernard Cribbins".


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