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Boys Will Be Girls

Footlights! A Hundred Years of Cambridge Comedy by Robert Hewison (Methuen, 1983)

The English are not at their best, although they may well be at their most characteristic, when they go on a lot about the dear old days at school or the ’varsity. Not even the inspired Cyril Connolly could get his tongue far enough into his cheek to be anything more tolerable than stomach-turning about Eton. George Orwell, who had been there too but thought it was possible to have a life afterwards, was surely right to tell him to come off it. Even if there were room for doubt in this matter, however, there can be no question that an ex-Colonial transplantee who happens to have done some of his growing up in an English school or university should be slow to bring forth his cosy reminiscences, and very slow to hand them over to anyone else. So when the author of this book about the Cambridge Footlights approached me, in my capacity as one of the club’s numerous surviving ex-Presidents, I imitated the action of the clam. Judging from the relative sparseness of the acknowledgments list, a lot of other alumni did the same thing, for whatever reasons. Probably they were just being cautious. For a professional performer after a certain time, every interview he doesn’t give counts as a victory, on the principle that the label you help them lick is the one that will stick to you longest.

Nevertheless, or perhaps therefore, Mr Hewison has produced a respectable book: sensible, well-researched and solid enough to be unexciting. If the publishers thought they were going to get the kind of sputtering firework that one of David Frost’s script associates might help him deliver into a tape-recorder, they haven’t. This is a book meant to be read and even kept. Indeed, it might have more keepers than readers, since a probable majority of buyers will be the people mentioned in the appendixed lists of club committee-members, tabulated on an annual basis. An ex-Junior Treasurer or Falconer from the late 1960s now sweating it out in front of a computer terminal in the City will be able to look up his own name and remember when he suffered from a different, sweeter form of nerves — trembling on the bench beside the little stage in Falcon Yard as his time grew close to go on and do a sketch. He never really got the laughs, but he learned how to stay alive under the lights. Most important, he discovered for certain that his path lay elsewhere. By finding out what he wasn’t, he started to find out what he was.

But if Mr Hewison had confined himself to such a typical non-story his book would have been for subscribers only. Understandably he puts his emphasis on those who made names later on. It is a seductive emphasis because whereas later on their various relationships and interlockings tend to be evanescent, circumstantial, conjectural or non-existent, early on, as he tells it, they seem to have hung out together in groups of a dozen at the minimum — generation after generation of tight little cliques busily revolutionising the comic heritage, usually as a reaction to what was supposedly achieved by the clique on whose heels they were treading. Since Mr Hewison went to Oxford and was thus never a Footlight himself, his success in making himself familiar with this snug little world is doubly remarkable. Only a man of scholarly temperament could have squeezed along these burrows, although it might be remembered that the same could be said about the author of Watership Down. There are commendably few factual errors, and the sole really glaring one is an editorial slip on page 151, where the photograph captioned ‘Germaine Greer, 1965’ is of a happily unfamous girl called Sheilah Buhr. I was ASM for the touring company of that year’s May Week revue (its title, My Girl Herbert, was, alas, my suggestion) and can remember Sheilah well. A Canadian graduate student of high intelligence and angelic temperament, she was a typical Footlight in that she was just passing through an amateur dramatics phase on the way to the real world.

But as Mr Hewison well realises, in this club it is the untypical club-members who make the news. Nobody outside Cambridge would give the Footlights Dramatic Society a second thought if it were just an end in itself. It is as a means to an end, a launching-pad for showbiz careers, that it provides copy. Yet here again, the average showbiz career launched from this well-illuminated facility is less likely to achieve orbit than to make a small splash not very far down range. The truly productive Footlights years start comparatively recently, in the early 1950s, but even when considering this undoubtedly busy period Mr Hewison is obliged tacitly to admit that there are only a few real inventors to conjure with. The media dominance exercised by ex-Footlights over the last two decades — it is now coming to an end — had as much to do with run-of-the-mill administrative careerism as with inspired performance, especially in radio. So Mr Hewison finds himself talking about trends and movements, and indeed with reference to the earlier years there is nothing else to talk about, since the real inventors can scarcely be said to have existed.

From the 1880s right through until the post-Second World War National Service years widened the intake, raised the age and lowered the voice of undergraduates, the Footlights was concerned almost exclusively with make-up and drag. Faced with this fact, which the photographs and song-sheets would not have allowed him to shirk even if he had wanted to, Mr Hewison forgivably drifts into relativism, a version of the developmental fallacy by which it is held that what we now regard as the undergraduate sense of humour had to evolve from small, questionable and perhaps not very funny beginnings. In the cold eye of history this assumption has not much substance to it. Hollywood silent-film comedies which are as funny now as they were at the time were being created while the stars of the Footlights were putting on their lipstick, climbing into their frocks, and singing arch little numbers that all too often, by no paradox, poked dismal fun at the idea of providing equal opportunities for women. The Viennese cabaret world produced such great minds as Karl Kraus, Egon Friedell and Alfred Polgar while the stars of the Footlights were putting on their lipstick, climbing into their frocks and singing arch little numbers aimed at European intellectuals. While Carole Lombard was making Twentieth Century, the Footlights stars were still putting on their lip-stick, climbing into their frocks and swatting each other with their handbags. While Rosalind Russell was making His Girl Friday, they were still at it.

There is no reason to think that the Footlights would ever have grown up by itself. It was a 100 per cent reactionary institution until forced to change by a changing world, and even then it changed as reluctantly as it could. Nor is there any reason to believe that an intelligent onlooker would have found the goings-on particularly funny, although he might well have found them stylish. Norman Hartnell designed some very pretty dresses for The Bedder’s Opera in 1922. There are illustrations to show what he looked like wearing them. He was particularly seductive in an off-the-shoulder number with roses appliquéd at the bustline and scattered randomly over the flounced skirt. Cecil Beaton’s personal outfit for the 1925 revue All the Vogue, on the other hand, is a severely simple basic black high-neck jersey cocktail frock worn with a single choker of huge pearls, a lustrous lip job and a marcelled wig even more convincing than Hartnell’s. Fashion papers such as the Sketch regularly ran spreads of the Footlights transvestites in those years. IN A WEDDING GOWN OF LACE: MR D. F. CARY AS THE BRIDE. The body copy explained that:

the ‘ladies’ of the cast, who include a most attractive beauty chorus, are a really elegant ‘bunch’ ... at first sight, no reader will observe that these charming ‘ladies’ are really members of the sterner sex, for at Cambridge men undergraduates always play the women’s parts.

In this atmosphere, which prevailed until sanity at last got a look-in after the Second World War, the occasional member of genuine literary gifts — Malcolm Lowry is perhaps the most distinguished example — would scarcely have been able to make much of an impact even if he had felt driven to. Mr Hewison drums up what excitement he can out of the high professional standards set by Jack Hulbert in 1913, when the immense success of Cheer-Oh Cambridge at least ensured that the frocks of the future would be deployed with a quasi-professional swish. But Hulbert’s professionalism had little to do with content. He just had a glossier way of being mindless, and the club was soon back under the influence of its long-lived master spirit H. Rottenburg, whose giftless song-sheets, when I read through the club’s much-depleted library forty years later, still had their power to induce despair. (Mr Hewison gallantly eschews all reference, incidentally, to the time-honoured rumour that the Footlights’ archives were left in the back of a taxi by David Frost during the expensive year when he functioned as the club’s secretary.)

Robert Helpmann choreographed all the Footlights revues in the late 1930s. Things picked up under his regime to the extent that the chorus line, instead of being Dadie Rylands protégés dolled up in point shoes and tutus, were rugby-players dolled up in point shoes and tutus. The sketches were innocent of all mention of Hitler but that wasn’t entirely the fault of an epicene, style-mad, arrogantly snobbish and incorrigibly anti-intellectual tradition. There was also the Lord Chamberlain, who exercised what amounted to a political censorship of the theatre right through until the late 1960s — one of the chief reasons why television was eventually able to suck theatrical revue dry and spit out the pips. One feels, however, that even if the undergraduate writers had been free to say what they liked, they would not have said much. The dons held sway, and the theatrical dons — less powerful in my time, thank God, than they had been — were intent on keeping undergraduate humour up on its high heels, where they supposed it belonged. There is always the possibility that all the swooping and posing was shriekingly funny to watch, but Richard Murdoch, who was up in 1936 and much later made a solid contribution to the British humorous tradition with Much Binding in the Marsh, looked back on his Footlights days with a nostalgia well tempered by a sense of proportion. He said that they weren’t as good as they thought they were.

It was different after the war, although not immediately, because for some years the drag artistes were still in control. If a real woman got through the doors it was only as a guest — a fact which remained shamefully true until the precociously capable Eric Idle, President in 1965, finally managed to repeal the exclusion laws. Germaine Greer duly became the first woman elected, playing Gertrude Lawrence in a Noël–Gertie colloquy featuring the present writer as Noël. (As you might imagine, she stood out from the cast.) Before that, such an inventive woman as Eleanor Bron had to be content with guest status. The lads weren’t going to give up their boas and beads if they could help it.

The revues of the early 1950s which featured Jonathan Miller still had their quota of rouged youths. But at long last the IQ level of the Footlights rose into triple figures. Successively on to the scene came such butch illuminati as Miller, Michael Frayn and Peter Cook, with results that Mr Hewison obviously finds it much less uncomfortable to write about, even if it simultaneously becomes more difficult to trace the thread. These were and are real individuals, less easily subsumed into a trend, either at the time or in retrospect.

Trend-conscious our author nevertheless remains, but no doubt it was inevitable. In this context you can’t not talk about Beyond the Fringe, TW3 and Monty Python, even when the relevance of the Footlights is marginal. In Beyond the Fringe only two of the four writer-performers were ex-Footlights; TW3 was largely cast from unknown faces in Spotlight; and Monty Python was an ex-Cambridge cum ex-Oxbridge combination put together at the BBC after its respective contributors had graduated through several other television shows each. But such facts, as Mr Hewison sighingly concedes, are too complicated for the average showbiz journalist to grasp, so the story is always written as if the trends came out of the universities instead of, as happens in reality, going back into them.

Usually it takes years on the outside before an ex-Footlight, or an ex-anything else, is in a position to influence anybody. Jonathan Miller, who arrived on the university stage as a fully formed intellectual, was so much the exception that he is unmanageable even as a paradigm case. He was telling jokes about Bertrand Russell at a time when the undergraduate audience scarcely knew who Bertrand Russell was, so it is no surprise to read here that he consorted with his fellow Footlights only when performing, and never came near the club at any other time. Mr Hewison’s own choice for the nonpareil Footlight is Peter Cook, a judgment from which there is no reason to demur. At the time Cook’s originality must have seemed devastating, and if it looks less formidable to hindsight, that might only be because his epigones have been talking in funny voices ever since. Later on, John Cleese made an almost comparable impact, in the sense that he, too, had clearly got his originality fully worked out in advance.

But for everyone else, humour was a craft to be learned, even if the talent was unmistakable. Indeed, it can be said that the realisation of the necessity to learn is one of the marks of talent, even for the genius, who seems so advanced only because, a critical capacity being part of his gift, he has managed to learn on his own. For most practitioners, collaboration and competition aren’t just a help, they are a necessity. This necessity the Footlights in modern times provided, especially during that period when the club possessed its own room above MacFisheries in Falcon Yard, an alley off Petty Cury which has since passed into history along with the smell of the fish, the whole area having subsequently become an antiseptic shopping mall.

Mr Hewison is very good on the Falcon Yard club-room for a man who can’t have spent much time there unless he came via Bletchley in a baby carriage. With two smoking concerts a term it would have been an intensive school for performers anyway, but the real fanatics were in there every afternoon working on sketches and songs. On smoker nights, with the audience hanging off the walls, the disco in the Yacht Club above shaking the ceiling and the smell of mackerel rising inexorably from below, you could go on and click or you could go on and die. If you died, you could give up or try again. If you went on trying again, you might find out something about putting words in the right order.

For those who never subsequently made their mark as professional performers, how to put words in the right order was the most valuable lesson they took away. Mr Hewison sensibly disavows the obligation to analyse the whole field of recent British humour, but he might have made a little more of what undoubtedly has been an influence stemming directly from the Footlights: the writing and production of situation comedy. He talks a lot, as he was bound to do, about what happened to the writer-performers, but tends to lose interest when they do more writing than performing, or more producing than writing. Jonathan Lynn, for example, is duly credited as a fill-in cast member for the Cambridge Circus touring company, but there is no mention made of the writing he has done for Yes, Minister, which is on a level with that of Clement and la Frenais. Humphrey Barclay is credited for Cambridge Circus but not for his career as an executive producer. In every ex-Oxbridge group which has made it big in professional light entertainment there are at least a couple of performers who could be replaced. Some have been just plain lucky, and some of those know it. But there is nothing iffy about writing or producing a hit sit-com. It is a craft, and it should be noted that some of the most gifted practitioners started learning it at Cambridge, by finding out the hard way that if you say things in the right order you get a laugh and some spare time in which to nut out an improvisation, whereas if you say them in the wrong order the laugh doesn’t come, there isn’t time even to breathe, and you sweat right through your off-white shirt into your badly chosen dinner jacket.

Unbeatable training, but Cambridge was never the only place where it could be obtained, and nowadays there are performers arriving from all directions — a much healthier state of affairs. Footlights might just conceivably have produced Victoria Wood, but it could never have given the world Tracey Ullman. Current undergraduates in Footlights might copy Twentieth Century Coyote, but it is extremely unlikely that they would take such an original approach by themselves. Oxbridge undergraduate humour is essentially a second-hand response to experience. It might eventually lead to longer-lasting things, but in almost all cases it starts slowly. It takes a literary turn, ensuring that its perpetrators have a lot of self-consciousness to get out of their systems before they go on to discover, if they ever do, that, like any other form of poetry, humour taps a deep instinct. But since for just that reason the comedian must go to school, and since the Cambridge Footlights has always been a school of some kind even when preponderantly concerned with the waxing of legs and application of false eyelashes, Mr Hewison has a story to tell which repays his efforts, and which even non ex-Footlights Committee Members might just possibly like to hear told.

London Review of Books 1–14 September, 1983