Are You Viewing Uncomfortably?
The past is a foreign country: they do comedy diferently there.
The famous British comic actor and writer Eric Sykes died last week. Sykes is probably best-known to non-British audiences from his appearances in Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines and Monte Carlo Or Bust, but he was a regular on British television for much of the 1960s and 1970s. One of his most famous sketches led to the short film The Plank which shows off his very English style of humour brilliantly.
I saw Eric Sykes live on stage* with Jimmy Edwards in their rather weird touring production of Sykes's play Big Bad Mouse. It was a strange experience, in part because of Jimmy Edwards's very caustic personality. He seemed to relish winding the audience up (the production allowed for a huge amount of ad-libbing, including a section which was basically Jimmy Edwards doing stand-up) - rather like a preview of Frankie Boyle (including the very politically incorrect remarks), though Boyle doesn't play the trombone** (which Edwards did rather well). It all made for a sometimes rather uncomfortable viewing experience, though the comic business between Sykes and Edwards was perfectly executed, and there were plenty of hilarious moments.
(** I definitely remember it as being a trombone, though his obits tell me he played the tuba and the euphonium. Perhaps that's because trombones are funnier, and he was definitely funny with it. Various other bloggers recall him as variously playing tuba and trombone in Big Bad Mouse, so evidently I just got him on a trombone night.)
One made even more uncomfortable, though, by the subject matter (insofar as anybody stuck to it) of Big Bad Mouse. Its plot can be quickly summed up as a shy office nobody (played by Sykes) who finds that he becomes irresistibly attractive to women when he is (wrongly) accused of being a local flasher.
(*Actually now I am beginning to wonder whether I did see Sykes or only Edwards: I saw the play in London which must have been between mid-1977 and mid-1981, and Sykes seems to have dropped out of the production in 1979 or 1980. If I did see him - and I'm pretty sure I did, even allowing for senior moments - I must have been seeing pretty much his farewell to the play.)
For many years I was beginning to think, from reading reviews of Big Bad Mouse online of in print, and from reading articles about Edwards and Sykes, that I was alone in the universe in finding that basic premise distasteful. Think: this is a play which finds comedic value in the idea that, to be blunt, women want to be sexually assaulted. Take this review of an amateur production, in which Bloome (Sykes's character) is airbrushed into a "womaniser", for God's sake. I am very far from being a prude, but there is a difference between a womaniser - even a serial seducer such as Casanova - and an indecent exposer, who is standing, penis in hand, at the shallow end of a deep, dark pool of non-consensual sexual acts. That a reviewer in 2011 fails to appreciate that distinction fills me with despair for our country.
Still, I'm clearly not entirely alone. This guy gets it (and that review has the longest URL I have ever had to key!) So to a degree does this one, though he rather spoils things by saying that the play could only have been written in the 1970s (it actually premiered in 1964, slightly ahead of the sexual revolution engendered by the arrival of the contraceptive pill in 1967/8).
I realise that the whole idea of "political correctness" was unheard of in the mid-sixties, when the Black and White Minstrel Show was prime time television viewing, and with The Comedians (including Bernard Manning) still a few years in the future with their mix of racist, sexist and to modern ears really quite shocking humour. But back then it seemed funny because people didn't know any better, and I'm sure the same was true of Big Bad Mouse. BBM did at least provide a framework for a couple of great comedians to do their thing on stage, and it's not Eric Sykes's fault that neither Edwards's style nor Mouse's basic premise have held up well under the weight of over forty years of social change. But there we are: things have changed, and even in the early eighties it felt as inappropriate to be laughing at sex crime as it would to have been rolling in the aisles at a musical about the Moors Murders.
Which reminds me of another 1960s comedy classic, The Bed-Sitting Room by Spike Milligan and John Antrobus. Its zany surrealistic style presaged the Pythons among others, and in many ways it's worn surprisingly well. I haven't seen it performed, just read the script, but I was brought up rather short by a stage instruction which in a modern production would probably be dropped because nobody would get it. But the play came out in 1962, and was running throughout 1963 when it would have been very topical indeed. It is simply this: at the beginning, before any of the action occurs, various drop curtains are displayed to the audience, one of which reads "Buddhists Use Esso!" Very surreal, very Milligan, but intended for an audience familiar with this image. I read the script about ten years later, made the expected connection, and felt slightly queasy about it: rather as though I'd just seen someone turn 9/11 into a punchline.