Tears of the clowns

BBC4’s season, ‘The Curse of Comedy’, labours an old point about the depressive tendencies of comedians, but the end result has been excellent.

Patrick West
Columnist

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The BBC has stumbled onto what it presumably thinks is a brilliant discovery: that people who are funny on TV or the stage are actually unhappy in real life.

Clap clap. Well done. The Corporation is only a hundred years behind Sigmund Freud who pointed out the same thing. Hasn’t the BBC ever heard the joke about the person going to the psychiatrist saying he’s depressed, and given the recommendation ‘go and see the clown Grimaldi’, to which the patient replies: ‘but I am Grimaldi’? Hasn’t the Corporation heard the maxim that those who laugh at life do so because they think life’s a joke? As so often with the BBC, when it seeks to be ‘challenging ‘ or ‘controversial’ or ‘ground-breaking’, it is merely being derivative.

BBC4 is currently running a season of biopics called ‘The Curse of Comedy’. We have had a (rather good) programme about Peter Sellers, portraying him as a lonely, angst-ridden stereotypical Jew who would prey on people’s wives. Then we had a biopic of that well-known miserable neurotic, Kenneth Williams, and shortly we will be reminded of how Frankie Howerd was tormented by his homosexuality.

This week, the subject matter was the lives of Wilfrid Brambell and Harry H Corbett, better known as Steptoe and Son. Set in west London, Steptoe and Son ran for eight series from 1962 to 1974, portraying two rag-and-bone men, father and son, who lived together and, as a consequence, were always arguing.


Wilfrid Brambell as Albert and Harry H Corbett as Harold

The claustrophobia of the show was palpable. It was also the main reason why it worked: people stuck in close quarters, and at their wits’ end, are always funny. Laughter is a nervous reaction to an unsettling situation, or to sorrow, or to a sense of unreality.

This atmosphere of meaninglessness and claustrophobia is an old formula in TV and cinema comedy. Think of Basil Fawlty stuck in Torquay having to wake up each day to a harridan of a wife and a stupid Spanish waiter, of the Royle family forever watching television in their sitting room in a terraced house in Manchester, of Blackadder surrounded by idiots for over four centuries, or of Withnail and Marwood, who whether stuck in Camden or Penrith, still have nothing to do but bicker – until Uncle Monty turns up.

The best tragic-comedies, like Steptoe and Son, always involve two men who get on each other’s nerves – but who secretly are fond of one another. Think Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in the 1968 film The Odd Couple; George Cole and Dennis Waterman in the 1980s television drama-comedy Minder; Laurel and Hardy; Jeeves and Wooster; Father Ted and Father Dougal; even Asterix and Obelix.

Steptoe and Son was very much of this genre, and BBC4’s The Curse of Steptoe excellently, albeit implicitly, explored and explained the format of the two men who, bound together, both love and hate each other. There was the customary observation that Steptoe and Son owed a great deal to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, which also had two borderline vagrants doing nothing stuck in a pointless existence. But Vladimir and Estragon were rather different to Albert and Harold Steptoe. Beckett’s protagonists didn’t hate each other, which is why Waiting for Godot is so depressing; Steptoe and his son did hate each other, which is why the programme was so depressingly hilarious.

In The Curse of Steptoe, Jason Isaacs as Corbett (and Harold) was superb, the tormented actor who always wanted to play Shakespeare, but for posterity would always be known as the person who said ‘You dirty old man!’ Phil Davis as Brambell (and Albert) was amazingly faithful to the original, disgusting, gurning character, and to the actor that played him.


Jason Isaacs as Corbett and Phil Davis as Brambell

I hadn’t been quite aware that Harry H Corbett and Wilfrid Brambell came to despise each other so much. The programme posited that it owed to a sense of disappointment with their careers. Yet it should have been taken onboard that nearly all actors, and indeed creative types of all description, whether they be artists, actors, journalists, novelists, philosophers, feel that their careers have been a failure. We all want to be Vincent Van Gogh, Laurence Olivier, Bernard Levin, Charles Dickens, Friedrich Nietzsche, but none of us will ever be. And I bet even they thought they could have done better. I’m sure, too, that Aristotle is still spinning in his grave, annoyed by the fact that Brazilian footballers aren’t named after him but Socrates instead.

To be creative, artistic and amusing, one must, I’m afraid to say, have an element of melancholy in oneself. BBC4 maybe overdoing the ‘comedians hate life’ aspect a bit, and it may be an unoriginal point that they are making, but it’s still a valid one. And I’d much rather be with people who are funny and depressive and who think they are failures than with those who are hubristic, who (often misguidedly) consider their careers a triumph – and who would be intolerable company as a consequence. Want some names? Well here’s some examples: Tony Blair, George W Bush, George Galloway, Arthur Scargill, Jeffrey Archer, Tony Benn, Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Jacques Chirac.

Can you recognise the connection? They’re all politicians. And they’re all dirty old men.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV reviewer and an obituary writer for The Times (London). Visit his blog here.

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