Essays: Jokers at work |
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Jokers at work

IT WAS a good week for watching veteran comedians at work, although a brief but murderously funny monologue by a talented newcomer called Geoffrey Rippon left everything else looking a bit tired. Deader in the pan than a poker-player’s corpse, Rippon feigned to believe that the London motorway box, far from injuring amenities would actually improve them.

To get this dazzling comic turn into the Nine O’clock News was an inspired management feat which must surely signal a giant plus in this versatile entertainer’s career. Geoffrey Rippon is in ‘Strap my hands behind me: I’m an emu’ at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket.

The other stuff looked pale beside that, but some of it was still pretty interesting. Snapping unexpectedly out of its unplumbable slumber, Omnibus (BBC-1) watched Morecambe and Wise prepare a show. With two weeks of work to look at, the investigators didn’t come up with as much fascinating technical lore as you might have expected, and the unusual footage of the two magical men in the hard slog of invention was eked out with some very usual interviews, in which we learned once more that the writing was everything and that the public has a right to refuse to be bored, etc. Most of this unimpeachable information had long ago been elicited by Michael Aspel, Michael Parkinson and other Michaels too numerous to identify.

What we couldn’t get enough of, however, was the old-time ad-libbing the duo fooled around with in between bouts of vivifying Eddie Braben’s rather average (for him) script. ‘Feller next to me,’ burbled Ernie, distractedly lamenting an abortive fishing expedition, ‘he caught five.’ ‘He’s got hooks.’ There’s no way of knowing whether these sudden-death comebacks of Eric’s originate from the top of his head or the deeply buried memory banks of Bartholomew and Wiseman’s primeval grafting, but either way it happens like lightning. Ernie ‘Fourteen I was, with a suit that didn’t fit.’ Eric : ‘Either of us.’ Love it. Could listen to it all night.

Failing adequate supplies of persiflage, it would have been nice to see more — and from closer up — of how producer John Ammonds selects cameras. The programme inadvertently gave the impression that this mostly happens in the studio, but reality dictates that the producer must be thinking about his camera-script from the first days of rehearsal. As always with such investigations, one ends up wanting more information than the investigators feel obliged to supply. Still, the excitement of television came across — it’s a marvellous set of trains, no question. And the two top men are still the two top men.

Into the air-space vacated by the double-glazed Nana Mouskouri (Show of the Week, BBC-2) bounded Spike Milligan — One Pair of Eyes succeeding one pair of glasses. On the twin subjects of his own depression and the world’s wrong, Spike has racked up a lot of tube-time in recent months, and the attentive viewer has been prone to experience a draining sensation known in forensic circles as the law of diminishing returns. Preparing to watch, one’s admiration was tempered with trepidation, lest this revolutionary of the comic spirit should lapse into the tangle of self-regard beginning at the far side of every identity crisis. Panic’s over, chaps: he was on lilting form, even in the serious bits. ‘There might be great yards of boredom,’ he confided, ‘starting from now.’ But there were not.

Particularly engaging were (a) the subversive confession that he smokes pot in old churchwardens (b) the cowboys-and-Indians routine with the kids, who must be harbouring the potentially ruinous delusion that everybody’s father is as entertaining as theirs, and (c) Mrs Milligan, who made the rest of the week’s beauties look manufactured. Spike and Peter Sellers (the latter sporting that terrifying Stahlhelm he adopts when the world is too much with him) talked about the suicide of friends. An affecting moment, although one hesitates to encourage our most creative comedians in their melancholy, the emotional area in which their judgement is most likely to go awry. The comedian’s anguish springs, in my belief, from the fact that he alone is continually tormented with a vision of the human spirit in a condition of happiness — a vision which he is also alone in being unable to regard as blessed. Embarrassing revelations tend to follow automatically, unless checked by sound advice.

There wasn’t much of that around in Granadaland when some demented planner decided to bank-roll an opus called A Point in Time, written and directed by Carlos Pasini — who hails from Argentina, but who would appear to have put in an unconscionable amount of voluntary labour soaking up the European cinematic heritage, with special emphasis on Fellini’s and Buñuel’s less gifted imitators and a passing obeisance to such monuments of tat as ‘The Saragossa Manuscript.’ When the young hero (Christopher Neame) was drawn corporeally into Bosch’s ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’ anything could have happened, and didn’t.

Instead, a great load of old guff built up on the horizon and proceeded to rain kitsch. For his unclad self-control while being worked over by the radiantly naked Vanity, Love and Lust (and six nicer knockers you wouldn’t see on the doors of half a dozen houses) young Neame deserves a special award: perhaps some kind of splint would be appropriate. Unfortunately the girls soon vanished, to be replaced by squads of bemused extras. Apart from the solemn foolery, what was really staggering in this piece was the assumption that Hieronymous Bosch had failed to exhaust his theme, and would benefit from some up-dated assistance. Bad news.

Tuning to Love Story (ATV) with the anticipation always aroused by the prospect of watching the Top Skater, Denholm Elliott, one was saddened to find him devoting most of his energy to holding off the script’s banality with one hand while he supported the inexperienced Tracy Hyde with the other. Ah well, you cannot win them all. Inexperience was likewise the mark of the BBC-1 Play for Today, an ex-Edinburgh Fringe two-hander written and presented by John Burrows and John Harding. Called For Sylvia, or The Air Show, it was for the birds, or the last gasp.

The idea — a dreamy recollection of a previous generation’s heroic Battle of Britain afflatus — was first rate, but the necessary sensitivity to the weight and balance of past utterance just wasn’t there. If the authors would care to purchase a copy of ‘Forty Years On,’ they can immediately fall to the task of finding out how these things are done.

The Observer, 25th February 1973