Comic Creativity

By Vestey, Michael | The Spectator, June 7, 1997 | Go to article overview

Comic Creativity


Vestey, Michael, The Spectator


We tend in Britain to take comedy and satire for granted. After all, there is and has been so much of it, in literature going back to Chaucer, Dryden and Swift, through Shakespeare and the Restoration dramatists up to Oscar Wilde and beyond, and one is only skimming the surface. This century, the comic novels of Wodehouse, Waugh, Powell and Raven have not been matched elsewhere with the exception of American writers Thurber and Mencken, and more recently Tom Wolfe, to name just a few.

This century, other forms of media, variety, film, radio and television, have feasted on this great tradition to produce their own variations of comedy, from stand-up comics like Max Miller to brilliant satirists of the Peter Cook era, comedy writers Muir and Nordern, Monkhouse and Goodwin, Barry Took, Galton and Simpson and far too many others to name. I mention this fairly obvious fact because two radio programmes of the past week made me ponder what it is about our island races that produce such comic creativity. Nowhere else in the world, apart from the United States, is the genre, particularly satire, so fertile as it is here.

You can't imagine a German Willie Rushton or a French Peter Sellers. For all the sophistication of Europe, the genius for sharp, subtle comedy and wit is missing. Actually, I've just fallen into the trap set for me by Marshall McLuhan who thought that no one nation is capable of understanding what the next finds funny, and that we British are never more serious than when promoting our own brands of comedy: `One matter Englishmen don't think is the least funny is their happy consciousness of possessing a deep sense of humour.'

He's probably right as I came over all serious when I heard the two programmes I mentioned earlier, Willie's Wake on Radio Four (Saturday) and Peter Sellers Sings on Radio Two (Sunday). In the former, those close to Willie Rushton, who died recently, talked about their friend's talents, not only as a performer on That Was The Week That Was in the 1960s and more recently Radio Four's I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue but as an illustrator for magazines, books and newspapers. Like political cartoons, much of TW3 dates, as do some of the early Private Eye records that came with the magazine every so often, and doesn't seem quite so funny as it did at the time, but the programme played a TW3 sketch of Rushton as Harold Macmillan and it still made me laugh; you probably know the one, where Macmillan calls President Kennedy and has to spell his surname before Kennedy recognises who it is. …

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