Essays: Revolting jokes |
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Revolting jokes

THE latest instalment of the feminist revue series Revolting Women (BBC2) showed distinct signs of life, which was a nice change. My own view is that there are always going to be fewer female comedians than male, because comedy is a neurotic activity and men are more neurotic, but naturally enough this line of argument is bound to be called patronising by feminists in general and female comedians in particular.

Most male comedians aren’t funny, so why should female comedians be any funnier? ‘Revolting Women’ set off as if to prove this point. The songs and sketches, all composed and performed by females plus a token male, were fully as lousy as in some regional opt-out revue in which the songs and sketches are all composed and performed by males with a token female. The idea was to reverse the usual male assumptions that underlie television humour, but the usual male assumptions underlying television humour just aren’t pernicious enough to be illuminating if turned upside down. What does Benny Hill or Dick Emery secretly believe that would stun you if revealed? Nothing that they say about knickers is going to be any more interesting if some woman comes rushing on and starts saying it about Y-fronts.

Be all that as it may, in the latest episode there was a good sketch about rape. A young man who had been robbed came into a police station manned, or personed, entirely by women. He had been beaten up and robbed. ‘You beat yourself up,’ barked the desk sergeant, ‘and come in here and say you’ve been robbed. Happens all the time.’ I didn’t exactly die laughing, but the point was made, although perhaps not as effectively as in the latest instalment of Lou Grant (Thames), in which the male chauvinist piglet reporter Rossi learned something about life. ‘Revolting Women’ has earned the benefit of the doubt, then, but one fears that everyone involved is already learning the hard way one of the great truths about humour. The script is everything, and hardly anyone can write a script. Good intentions won’t do: it takes talent, and then obsessive, life-distorting concentration on top of that.

Why have there been so few important female chess-players? Arguments about social repression have never satisfactorily answered the question. The Freudian view, summed up in a classic paper by Ernest Jones, is that the game represents a man’s oedipal attempt to kill his father, but a simpler view would suggest that women just aren’t nuts enough. The World Chess Championships (BBC2) are a case, or perhaps two cases, in point. Korchnoi is fairly obviously some sort of weirdo. We have not forgotten the poisoned yoghurt and the enemy thought-waves. But Karpov, if you look closely, is even weirder. With Korchnoi some of the obsessiveness remains unfocused and spills out in the form of dingbat behaviour, as it did with Bobby Fischer. But with Karpov it is all beamed straight at the chess-board. Get between him and it and you’ll fry.

The television channels responded to Sadat’s murder with amazing speed, although no doubt we will soon get used even to this, and expect, on the evening of any statesman’s assassination by his own troops, a full world-wide coverage plus a close-up of the riddled corpse. Most commentators deplored the abomination outright, but at least one representative of the Palestinian cause spoke eloquently against the Camp David agreement, saying that it had achieved nothing towards justice.

This was a hard argument to rebut. Nor is it certain that assassination is always a tactic to be despised. Most of us would have been glad enough to see Idi Amin killed off and if the same thing had happened to Hitler it would have been a blessing. Yet with all that said, for everyone except untold millions of Muslims it was disheartening to see a man of Sadat’s stature cut down by someone whose name will never be remembered even for that. As we go to press, the BBC and ITN are annoyed with each other about which of them had exclusive rights to the American film of the incident, but really the film shows nothing special. If you hit a defenceless man with a burst from a high-velocity automatic weapon he will probably die from the shock. It’s no great secret.

Jonathan Miller’s Othello (BBC2), from the play by William Shakespeare, received mighty competition from The War Lord (BBC2), an excellent film in which Cheston Heston, or Charlton Harlton, has his warrior’s soul tenderised by a woman. Nobody pretends that ‘The War Lord’ is any kind of substitute for a play by Shakespeare on top bardic form, but the film had the advantage of a certain unity: the writer and the director were going in roughly the same direction. In the play this was not always the case.

As the drama critic of the Sunday Times once explained to his no doubt enthralled audience, the television critic of The Observer is a bit of a simpleton when it comes to Shakespeare. It has been pointed out that I think Shakespeare goes ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum. Actually I do not think this, but I do think there are some simple things about Shakespeare that you have to get right or else the complicated things will not emerge in their full richness. First of all he must be spoken rhythmically. By rhythmically I don’t mean monotonously. Rhythm is far more than mere metre. It is possible to know everything about metre and yet write without rhythm. In this ‘Othello’ the fine Penelope Wilton, playing Desdemona, spoke rhythmically; Anthony Hopkins as Othello at least did not speak arhythmically; and Bob Hoskins as Iago spoke without any rhythm at all. The play was deprived of somewhere between two thirds and nine tenths of its forward drive.

The singers in an opera do not hang about to make points and nor should the actors in a Shakespeare play. But leaving that aside — although to my mind it is a very large item to leave aside — there was the question of why Othello looked so white. The play is replete with lines saying how black he is. He has a sooty bosom. Mr Hopkins had a suet bosom, which is not the same thing. Also lago carried on like the most untrustworthy man in the world, which made Othello a fool to trust him. Would yod buy a used handkerchief from this man? If a director ignores such elementary points there is a limit to the subtlety he can attain. In fact he will attain his own subtlety instead of Shakespeare’s. Nevertheless Jonathan Miller’s subtlety is not to be sneezed at. There were many interesting production points and everything with the possible exception of Othello’s codpiece looked absolutely ravishing.

The re-run of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (BBC2) reached the crucial episode in which we find out by flash-back that Bill Haydon turned up at the Circus knowing about the Czechoslovakian business without having been told. Either that makes him the mole or it makes me a Dutchman. So where’s the mystery? For what real tension looks like, see Blood Money (BBC1), now reaching its climax. The New Statesman’s TV critic tells us that policemen don’t really talk the way they do in ‘Blood Money,’ they talk the way they do in ‘The Sweeney.’

If you ignored the press campaign and realised that Johnny Carson (LWT) was intended only as a late-night filler rather than Parky’s nemesis, the money seemed well enough spent. Carson’s technique is a study even for those of us who would rather speak our own words, however feeble, than learn off gags cooked up by half a dozen staff writers all being fed through a vein.

The Observer, 11th October 1981