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The lost art of laughter


I RECENTLY had the luck to see Murder Ahoy! on TCM, which shows classic films on TV, aimed mainly at the over-50s. Made in 1964, it was taken from one of Agatha Christie’s twelve novels about Miss Marple, her indefatigable spinster detective.

Starring Margaret Rutherford, the eccentric character actress, it was astonishingly amusing and entertaining, at least in comparison with the usual BBC Christie adaptations, which arrive around Christmas like a dose of gout, seem interminable and never raise a smile, either from the Botoxed faces on screen or those watching at home. Rutherford’s gentle irony was a counterpoint to wilder antics from Lionel Jeffreys, Nicholas Parsons, Derek Nimmo and William Mervyn. No one apart from Francis Matthews looked attractive; Rutherford pulled extraordinary faces. She was a cousin of Tony Benn and there was an obvious likeness in her large wobbling chin and swivelling eyes.

In films, TV series and radio panel games, that uniquely British sense of humour which those actors encapsulated is rapidly evaporating if it hasn’t already evapped. We can’t blame the tensions caused by Covid; we prided ourselves on laughing through the Blitz with ITMA and the stars of the Windmill Theatre. Out of the war came a golden generation of comedians and comic writers including Peter Sellers, Tommy Cooper, Tony Hancock, Spike Milligan, Joyce Grenfell, Kenneth Horne, Frankie Howerd and Benny Hill, who is no longer mentioned, being on the proscribed list which gets longer every day.
Political correctness and market forces have combined to turn us from the best makers of comedy and drama in the world to a poor competitor. Puritanism has surely not affected us so deeply since December 1657 when Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan Council banned mince pies because they smacked of Catholic idolatry. The equivalent of that today is offending any of the ‘protected categories’ listed in Harriet Harman’s Equalities Bill amendment of 2010.

Even the most popular TV shows are affected. In Little Britain, ten years ago seen as radical, Matt Lucas and David Walliams freely put on black-face, dressed as transvestites and wore ‘fat suits’.
Lucas recently expressed the obligatory public remorse, saying that dressing as a ‘rubbish transvestite’ now seems ‘extremely insensitive’. He says they wouldn’t play black characters either. Despite that the show has now been removed from BBC iPlayer, BritBox and Netflix. You cannot get infected by its heresy even if you want to.

Even the cosy comedy Gavin and Stacey, showing working-class life in Essex and South Wales, is now on the hit-list. It was the most popular TV show last Christmas, but the BBC was bombarded by complaints from right-thinking callers demanding the show be scrapped because two characters were described as ‘Chinese Alan’ and ‘Seth, the black fella’.

The show was also accused of lacking enough ‘BAME’ actors. PC and the desire for foreign markets now means jumping on fashionable bandwagons such as colour-blind casting, so that every second face in Barry Island or under a poke-bonnet in Victorian London must be black or Asian.

British comedy is now just another term for agitprop. If you are woke you do not joke, or only about the evils of Trump, Boris and/or Brexit. But oldies who’ve survived the pandemic are obstinately still out there, providing a reactionary ‘grey’ market; BBC Radio 4 Extra, like TCM, offers classic comedy to them, preceded by warnings about the use of old-fashioned non- PC language. Even a recent episode of All Gas and Gaiters, from a popular 1960s TV series about a group of clergymen, had to have a warning about ‘the language and attitudes of the time’. Like many listeners I now play a ‘spot the offence’ game, straining to hear the forbidden words; they could possibly have been the old archdeacon saying a young lady visitor was ‘very attractive’, with a leering chuckle. More likely it was a character appearing briefly with a cod Indian accent.

Humour is now extremely dangerous stuff, as we learned from Charlie Hebdo and the recent beheading of a teacher in Paris. Outside France, his murder aroused no comment from the usual ‘social justice’ warriors. There were no calls to ‘take the knee’ in his memory. The tacit silence suggested that by showing cartoons he’d offended against a minority group and was therefore worthy of capital punishment. 

I first noticed this eradication of humour in 2012 with a BBC adaptation of Great Expectations. It had an all-star cast, including the refined and unscary Ralph Fiennes as Magwitch, cost nearly seven million dollars, and every single humorous character was removed. Even Wemmick and his castle in Walworth, with drawbridge, cannon and moat, and his old father, known as ‘The Aged’ and ‘Aged P’, had gone.  
(Referring to someone as ‘The Aged’ is of course non-PC. In 2009 the decorously named Help the Aged charity changed into the blunt ‘Age UK’.) Instead we had a lurid, sexed-up Miss Havisham, played by Helena Bonham Carter. Pip’s sister didn’t have a switch to whip him with, she wasn’t nasty, she was oppressed, and Joe Gargery was not a simpleton of comic pathos, more some kind of unfortunate proletarian. Alarmingly none of the TV critics noted the absence of comedy in this version of Dickens’s greatest novel. Perhaps we no longer even expect to be amused or have scripts faithful to the spirit of the author rather than the woke director. Pip’s class attitudes, central to the story, remained a problem which could not just be written out. As the producer Mike Newell put it, ‘Why is Pip such a little sh*t?’ He had no interest in finding out.

Like Miss Marple, Dickens usually arrives on TV at Christmas, appropriately as he and Prince Albert largely invented it. To make sure we don’t continue to enjoy this, like the white reactionaries we are, the original stories are now unrecognisable. In A Christmas Carol last December we didn’t even get Jacob Marley’s face on the door knocker. Episode one was the most watched TV show of that week with 7,330,443 nostalgic viewers. The next episode failed to register in the top 15 BBC1 broadcasts with 1.4million viewers.

If the aim was to sell it to America, that failed too. ‘A series designed to alienate the Dickens brand’s traditional core audience’, wrote the Hollywood Reporter. Another US critic called it a ‘dispiriting adaptation, short on joy and very, very long on purgatorial slogging’. Critic Nick Allen wrote: ‘Approximately three joyless hours of watching an adaptation try to justify its edginess.’ Despite all the expensive famous faces, another critic remarked on its ‘unrelenting dourness’.

Oliver Cromwell approved of ‘dourness’, but could not have guessed what effect advanced capitalism would have on public service broadcasting. Humour doesn’t necessarily translate and the BBC can no longer take creative risks. Instead there is an endless attempt to assess what customers might want to buy. You’ll never see a wobbly face like Rutherford’s in the leading role now; what counts is what they like in Beijing and LA.

Last winter the BBC gave us Christie’s The Pale Horse, starring the beautiful Rufus Sewell, appearing several times without his shirt, and even more pulchritudinous Kaya Scodelario. Everyone dressed as if they were off to a Buckingham Palace garden party. It was adapted by Sarah Phelps, who is best known for her work on EastEnders but has also adapted five Christie novels for the BBC and two Dickens series, although she spoke about never having read him.

Along with the visual opulence there’s usually graphic violence. Phelps described her version of The Pale Horse as ‘a shivery, paranoid story about guilt and grief and what we’re capable of when we’re desperate.’ 
One critic commented on its ‘brutal thrills’. The Telegraph said Phelps was chucking the ‘rat-filled kitchen sink into this rewrite of Agatha Christie’.

If Dickens’s comic pathos is no longer PC or a safe bet to sell abroad, it’s even more of a risk to try sustained mordant irony. In September ITV produced The Singapore Grip, from J G Farrell’s 1978 satirical novel, part of his Empire Trilogy lampooning British colonialism. His slant was entirely lost on the British East and Southeast Asian Media Advocacy group (BEATS) who beat up ITV calling the series ‘harmful’ and ‘deeply upsetting’.

‘The Black Lives Matter movement has placed this country’s problematic view of its own colonial legacy firmly under the microscope,’ they wrote pompously. ‘In this context an expensively mounted TV adaptation of Farrell’s novel with colonial Singapore as its exotic backdrop is a kick in the teeth to the UK’s East and Southeast Asian community. The adaptation could have taken a more enlightened perspective in keeping with the progress that’s happened in the half century since the novel’s publication.’

They wanted a version made to suit their specific identarian agenda and also called for inverse racism. ‘Even the cynical desperation and callous decadence of Farrell’s Caucasian characters is bled out in favour of jauntily forced, comedic indulgence,’ wrote BEATS, ‘presenting this traumatic period of Singapore’s history as little more than breezy and inconsequential.’

Let’s have no ‘comedic indulgence’ from ‘Caucasians’, surely an odd word to choose now that ‘Negroes’ is forbidden. In October, Samantha Price, head of Benenden girls’ boarding school, got into deep trouble after she told pupils that Black History Month was originally known as Negro History Week. She faced a backlash from pupils who claimed that the word ‘negro’ is offensive and has apologised. 

BEATS had a point about ‘inconsequential.’ Compared with the book, the series was bland. The novel ends bleakly with the hero starving in a Japanese PoW camp; on TV we saw him and his friends toiling in a paddy-field looking well-fed and cheerful. Obviously ITV didn’t want to offend the Japanese, who are now regarded as victims of American war crimes and a major market for British TV. Most of the activists listed on the BEATS website are Chinese, and no one wants to risk offending them either.

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Jane Kelly
Jane Kelly
Jane Kelly was a journalist with the Daily Mail for fifteen years. She now writes for the Spectator and the Salisbury Review.

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