A potted history of bellowing on the box

From Alf Garnett to John Sweeney, why does the sight of people SHOUTING in TV shows make us laugh?

Patrick West
Columnist

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Like many other souls, I found the scene of the BBC reporter John Sweeney interviewing a Scientologist with a certain degree of enthusiasm to be hilarious. Yet contrary to the widely held assumption that he ‘erupted in a fit of uncontrolled rage’, as the Guardian put it, I can’t see that Sweeney lost his temper. If you examine the coverage of the scene made famous on YouTube, you see that halfway through his hollering, he swiftly lowers his voice calmly to ask his victim if he understands what he is saying, only then to resume his roaring. As Sweeney later explained, he learnt this device while playing a sergeant major for a theatre production as a youngster, and he was merely acting, trying to provoke a reaction.

Like Dolan Cummings, I was less interested in the subject matter that suggested Scientologists are slightly creepy and sinister. It brought to mind Louis Theroux’s interviews in which he revealed that the Hamiltons are somewhat unbecoming, that Jimmy Savile is a pitiful and unlikeable fellow, or that Americans who hide out in bunkers in Montana, collect bazookas and have swastikas tattooed on their foreheads tend actually not to like homosexuals and black people. Likewise, this Tuesday’s Panorama said little most of us didn’t already know about Scientology.

I was more interested as to why I nearly soiled myself at Sweeney’s performance. It seems strange that when people shout on television it is a source of amusement, but when we observe an individual yelling in the flesh, it makes us uncomfortable. What’s more, should we shout at people like Scientologists? Some might argue that shouting is a display of passion and contempt for organisations that may have a malevolent effect on the vulnerable. Others may contend that shouting is a childish, emotive method of attack, for those unable to assemble a rational method of countering the claims of others and who seek to silence and censor instead.

Television is rich with amusing loud people, old and new, real and fictional. The highlight, for instance, of the 1960s television comedy Till Death Us Do Part, was invariably when Warren Mitchell’s pontificating Alf Garnett, having been taunted by Anthony Booth’s character, launched himself into a furious tirade against immigrants, the trade unions and Harold Wilson. A little later we had Vyvian from The Young Ones, who accompanied his outbursts (that against The Good Life being his finest hour) with acts of mindless violence. Or Stephen Fry’s brilliant portrayal of the Duke of Wellington in Blackadder The Third, in which, having repeatedly punched and kicked Baldrick, is asked by Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder:

‘Tell me, do you ever stop shouting and bullying the lower orders?’

Wellington [shouting]: ‘NEVER! There’s only one way to win a campaign: shout, shout and shout again!’

Blackadder: ‘You don’t think inspired leadership and tactical ability have anything to do with it?’

Wellington [pauses, thinking]: ‘NO! It’s all down to shouting! [roars] BAAA!’

More recently, we had Dom Joly’s character from Trigger Happy TV, who, with his enormous mobile phone, answers it to yell ‘I’m in the library!’ And, of course, let us not forget the character most famously prone to displays of hysteria, Basil Fawlty, whose name speaks, or shouts, for itself.

In other mediums of fiction, the most memorable episodes are those that portray the raised voice, such as Captain Haddock issuing torrents of florid profanities in the Tintin books, or Brian from the eponymous 1979 Monty Python film, who comes to his wits’ end at his followers thus:

‘I’m not the Messiah! Will you please listen? I am not the Messiah, do you understand? Honestly!’

Girl: ‘Only the true Messiah denies His divinity!’

Brian: ‘What?! Well, what sort of chance does that give me? All right… I am the Messiah!’

Followers: ‘He is! He is the Messiah!’

Brian: ‘Now. FUCK OFF!’

Real-life loud characters can look ridiculous on the screen, too. This is part of the reason many of our forefathers failed to take Mussolini and Hitler seriously, for these voluminous dictators seemed so absurd – which is why even today the style of the Fuhrer’s speeches remains a source for parody. The British National Party’s former leader, the late John Tyndal, was similarly mocked for his plummy accent and his hysterical rantings, while Ian Paisley in his heyday became an invaluable source of material for mimics. It is also why re-showings of Kevin Keegan’s ‘I’d love it’ outburst aimed at Alex Ferguson still raise a smile.

Yet when you hear someone raise their voice in your proximity, however, even when it is not directed at you, it can be disconcerting, even alarming. When a person shouts there is always the implied threat that violence might follow. I can only surmise that when it takes place on the screen, we are distanced from a real or fictional event, and thus the risk of assault is removed. Much comedy is about laughing at the misfortune and humiliation of others (Basil Fawlty took recourse to shouting when something, as it always did, went wrong), which is why it can be funny when other people fall over or hurt themselves. Upon this one premise was an entire programme based: Jackass.

This was why Sweeney’s performance hit the funny bone, and because his victim deserved it. But I don’t think recourse to raising one’s voice is the correct form to approach those with whom you disagree. In the case of Scientologists, or any individuals who hold bizarre and superstitious views with such vehemence, it is, in any case, a waste of time, because they are not going to change their minds. Shouting is a poor substitute for thinking and reasoning, and just as it implies violence, it also implies censorship. Let’s leave hollering for the actors. They usually do it so much better, after all.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV columnist.

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