Thursday, 12 April 2012

Humour: It's a funny subject

Humour is definitely a funny subject, and one that is very personal to the individual. One person can be found rolling around the floor in hysterical laughter, while another person, seeing or hearing the same thing is left totally unmoved.

I like a good laugh though don't you? I'm not the laugh out loud sort of person; more the quiet inward chuckle, but I enjoy it just as much as the person who's laughter volume is turned up to 10. Television and radio laughter can be real escapism, and be the antidote to all of the serious things that happen in life - at least for a little while.

The other day I was walking past a charity shop in town, and noticed in the window a copy of the book "The Last Hancock Scripts", priced at £3.98. I couldn't resist, and I bought it.

It started me thinking about my favourite radio and TV comedies. I had fun in my mind going back to the 1950's, and I realised that there is little that I really enjoy today, and that my love affair with comedy is steeped in my history. Don't get me wrong, there are individuals today that I enjoy listening to and watching, but most, in my opinion, don't compare with the greats of the past. I decided to try and come up with five of my funniest favourites on television and radio. I'll mention them in roughly chronological order.

In 1951 an explosive event happened on British radio; a new comedy show burst on to the airwaves, called The Goon Show. It was mostly written by and starred Spike Milligan, ably supported by Harry Seacombe and Peter Sellers, with Michael Bentine involved right at the beginning. It was maniacal with its funny characters, funny voices, funny scenes and funny noises. It was a revolution in British radio comedy.

From 1951 to 1960, there were ten series of the show, roughly one a year, and a total of 223 episodes. Spike Milligan was involved in writing most of them, which when you think about it, was on average writing and performing in one show every two weeks for ten years. I loved that show and I still do, even 60 years after it was first performed. I have about 80 of the shows on old cassette tapes, and they are as fresh as they have ever been.

Also in the 1950's, to be exact 1954, what is now called a "situation comedy" was aired on BBC radio. It was called "Hancock's Half Hour", starring Tony Hancock. It was brilliant writing and performance that followed the life and views of one Anthony Hancock, a Londoner from East Cheam (though he did live elsewhere in some episodes). The radio series ran from 1954 until 1959: a total of 6 series covering 102 episodes.

Hancock's Half Hour was one of the few programmes that have been hugely successful on radio, and also when it was transferred to television. While it was still being broadcast on radio, the television series began in 1956, and ran until 1961. There were 63 episodes over 7 series, and history records phenomenal viewing figures at the time. The final series, series 7 broadcast in 1961 was simply called Hancock, because the programme's length had been reduced from 30 to 25 minutes. Series 7 was responsible for some of the best known of all Hancock's programmes. I've tried to refresh my memory over the episode called "The Lift", where I believe that Tony Hancock starred alone, and was trapped in a lift. It was a masterpiece. Two other episodes in this last series were "The Radio Ham" - and who can forget the immortal line, "It is ah not raining in Tokyo", and perhaps the classic of all in "The Blood Donor".

I'm laughing to myself as I'm writing this. My first comedy LP had The Blood Donor on one side and The Radio Ham on the other. I can still hear Hancock as he's looking at hospital posters sing, to the tune of the German National Anthem, "Coughs and sneezes spreads diseases". And who can ever forget, "Rhesus, they're monkey's aren't they?". "A pint? that's very nearly an armful". What a tragedy that as far as I can research, only 37 of the original 63 television scripts exist today. Tony Hancock may have committed suicide in far away Australia, alone and troubled, but what laughter he brought to millions.

Hattie Jacques and Eric Sykes
Eric Sykes and Hattie Jacques in 1960 starred in a comedy sit-com called "Sykes and A ..." with the object that was to cause havoc in their lives inserted in the title. (eg "Sykes and A Plank", which incidently was so popular that a silent film was later made called "The Plank" starring Eric Sykes and Tommy Cooper - it was wonderful).

Eric and Hattie played brother and sister with various mishaps occurring in their lives. The programme ran for 60 episodes until 1965. It returned in 1972 under the title "Sykes", and ran for a further 68 episodes until 1979. It was extremely popular, and would probably have gone on longer, but for the sudden death of Hattie Jacques in 1980. I loved it, and it is best summed up by one TV reviewer who wrote, "Simple, yet  richly observed and consummately performed, both series successfully managed to maintain a winning 'child-like' innocence in its central characters that endeared both it, and its core group of actors to the entire nation". 

In 1975 we were treated to the first sight of a maniacal Torquay hotel proprietor played by John Cleese in "Fawlty Towers". That year, five more episodes followed, with a further six in 1979. A total of only 12 episodes of what became a classic series, which is still revered today. I have them all on DVD, and I love them as much as I did when I first watched them, and they still make me laugh.

Finally, something from America, that had an even shorter run than Fawlty Towers; it is Police Squad! starring Leslie Neilson. You really need to have seen this to appreciated it as its non stop visual and verbal gags, delivered dead pan had me in stitches. It spawned the later Naked Gun series of films. It was shown on the American TV network ABC in 1982, and after four episodes had been aired in March, ABC announced its cancellation. The final two episodes were broadcast in the Summer of 1982. A total of six episodes for one of the funniest and creative of TV programmes. Why so few?

The reason for cancellation has become almost as famous as the series itself. The then ABC entertainment president said, "Police Squad! was cancelled because the viewer had to watch it in order to appreciate it". This has been interpreted as meaning that the viewer had to actually pay close attention to the show in order to get much out of the humour, while most other TV shows did not demand as much effort from the viewer. You can still watch episodes on YouTube, and I adored the visual and quick-fire jokes.

I'll not say which of the above is my favourite, as it changes from time to time, and they are all masters at making people laugh. We'll all have a different list, but the important thing is to place the need for laughter high up on our list of priorities. Enjoy.

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