[17 July 2002]
“One can say that satire postulates an ideal condition of man or decency, and then despairs of it; and enjoys the despair masochistically.”
“The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.”
A few years ago, having arrived in London, I was introduced to the managing editor of the renowned Literary Review, who after our meeting and referring me to several contacts, kindly offered to introduce me to “Bron.” Bron, the nickname of the legendary editor in chief of LR, was Auberon Waugh, son of the famous writer Evelyn Waugh, and himself a distinguished (and notoriously hilarious) humorist and man of letters. Nervous about our introduction, he quickly put me at ease with a charming joke, and offered to write me a letter of introduction to a leading literary magazine—an act of unexpected generosity that I have found inherent predominantly amongst the British.
More than a year ago, I heard about Waugh’s death—a sad fact which served as a reminder of the various deaths of Britain’s satirical geniuses: amongst them, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, masters and forefathers of the genre who by bidding farewell to the world, were taking an important piece of history with them.
So how did a few former Oxford and Cambridge undergraduates come to define the satire movement? In A Great, Silly Grin: The British Satire Boom of the 1960s author Humphrey Carpenter painstakingly details the rise of satire and its leading figures.
The British are natural wits to begin with. Their command of language (which varies from North to South, from Scotland to Northern Ireland to Wales) cleverly displays an inherent talent for irony and understated sarcasm. Even a conversation with the shopkeeper around the corner or one of London’s infamous cabbies is guaranteed to leave you admiring the British gift of gab.
So it seems natural that a few students Alan Bennett, Jonathan Miller, Dudley Moore, and Peter Cook (brought together by John Bassett who produced the revue) performed a hilarious revue, “Beyond the Fringe,” at the Edinburgh Festival, and as a result of their success, kicked off the “satire boom.” From Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and his Conservative party to the media to sexual politics of the times, everyone and everything received a quick-witted jab from the gang of four, who catapulted to fame and fortune soon thereafter.
In August of 1960, Peter Lewis wrote in the Daily Mail:
“It [“Beyond the Fringe”] is the creation of four mobile, deadpan, young men of Oxford and Cambridge extraction who are in private life a doctor, scriptwriter, historian, and musician. . . . These four high priests of parody make most professional comedians look ham-handed and vulgar. . . . If the show comes to London I doubt revue will ever be the same again.”
And come to London it did. As Lewis prophesied, revue had been changed forever. According to journalist Michael Frayn, the arrival of the revue on the West End signaled “the official opening of the Satirical Sixties.” Satire was in, and couldn’t have happened at a more appropriate time when post-War London was revamping itself into “Swinging London.”
Carpenter explains the gradual transformation of satire as Cook and co. went on to establish a comedy club, The Establishment, on fashionable Greek Street, inviting performers including America’s Lenny Bruce to perform and shock the audience. In addition, the BBC jumped on the satire bandwagon by airing the show That Was The Week That Was (TW3) which introduced additional talents such as David Frost, and also inspired an American version.
The irony was that, as with The Establishment club, the objects of mockery (the well-to-do fashionable set) were also its audience. Given the number of Kensington (a fashionable affluent London suburb) residents who attended the club, the Evening Standard commented that: “These are the people he [Cook] aims to attack, not to make laugh.” But as Carpenter elaborates, “Satire’s audiences have always tended to come from the very section of society that is being satirized.”
Given the success of TW3, which brought in an average of three million viewers, satire came to rely heavily on politics as a crutch. Though it aimed to remain apolitical, there was no doubt that the members of the satire club were mainly to the left of center (at least for show; a few were actually Tories), and therefore relished the idea of attacking the reigning Conservatives. However, even Prime Minister Macmillan, a constant source of attack on TW3 once wrote to the Post Master General, claiming: “I hope you will not, repeat not, take any action against That Was the Week That Was without consulting me. It is a good thing to be laughed over - it is better than to be ignored.”
Though satire may not have crumbled the foundations of the nation’s elite and the bourgeoisie, it certainly shook it, as satirical publications such as Private Eye also appeared on the scene, dishing the dirt on everyone and everything, thereby causing the occasional ruckus and inspiring various libel suits.
The “boom” which Carpenter refers to also led the way for other talents such as Willie Rushton, Auberon Waugh, Richard Ingrams (main players at Private Eye) and the likes of John Cleese, Michael Palin, and Trevor Jones (again Oxford and Cambridge students) who started as sketch writers and eventually went on to produce the immensely popular Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
The irony is that the movement was originally established by the Oxbridge set who were, in effect, members of “the establishment” (a term coined by journalist Henry Fairlie which refers to the societal elite). However, by the late 70s and 80s, comedians like Ben Elton and Harry Enfield arrived on the scene, thereby breaking through the Oxbridge stronghold on the movement and the medium.
Gradually, as satire went through phases of first being shunned, then re-emerging in a different form, (Spitting Image, for example, a show starring puppets that caricaturized the Royalty and politicians was immensely successful) the womanizing Dudley Moore had found success as a Hollywood actor starring in films such as Arthur; Cook, undoubtedly the most talented of the original group, seemed to disappear to the background yet still held on to his shares of Private Eye; David Frost (now Sir David Frost) found fame and fortune on both sides of the Atlantic; and British television churned out a series of new shows, all laced with satire.
A Great, Silly Grin achieves the remarkable task of explaining what really happened to a group of comedians who came to define their era. Anglophiles will inevitably relish the cast of characters and the inside story, and everyone else should read the book to understand the history of what makes us laugh so heartily today, courtesy of a few satirical geniuses, a few of whom are sadly no longer. As a nod to Mr. Carpenter, I would like to borrow the words of another comic giant, Bob Hope: Thanks for the memories.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/great-silly-grin/