Magazine article The Spectator

Forgotten Laughter

Magazine article The Spectator

Forgotten Laughter

Article excerpt

The Radio Times now lists 72 channels, and that's not all of them. No wonder television has to feed on itself, like a hungry tigress scoffing her cubs. In particular, it devours the past, so this week we had a Morecambe and Wise evening on BBC2, starting with the Christmas show from 1976, a third of a century ago. These shows got peak audiences of 28 million, inconceivable now, and just as French education ministers can allegedly tell you what every child in the country is studying at any moment, programme controllers could sigh with pleasure and know precisely what flickering image was in front of more than half the population. They riveted the nation, in Bagehot's sense: they tied us together. Rich and poor, intellectual and uneducated, viewers in Thurso and Penzance, old and young - everyone loved Morecambe and Wise, and those who didn't think they were all that wonderful kept quiet because what else would you talk about on 27 December?

I had forgotten how many layers of nostalgia were involved. Obviously, the 1976 show brought memories to anyone over the age of, say, 40. But the whole structure of the programme was based on the then ancient music hall, with random musical interludes among the funnies, some left alone, others ruthlessly spoofed by Eric and Ernie. Many of the jokes - this particular one was not scripted by Eddie Braben, who gave them their best-ever line (the pair are about to share a chaste bed, in itself a reminder of their early days in cramped theatrical digs, when a police car goes past with its siren wailing. 'He won't sell much ice-cream going at that speed, ' says Eric) - were dreadful. ' 'There's much less of it about this year.'

'Money?' 'No, your hair.'

The worst: 'It makes my Christmas present to you look paltry.'

'All right, you pluck it and I'll eat it.'

Even the dreadfulness of the gags was a tribute to their own past, when audiences would have relished this thin gruel. But now we have five channels more or less entirely devoted to comedy, nobody needs such stuff.

We can look back to a time when we had nothing other than bad jokes, and counted ourselves lucky: I don't know, you young people today with your edgy cosmopolitan humour and gags about handicapped babies and shagging people's grand-daughters, you don't know you're born. …

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