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‘The Vicar at the Window Sponging his Aspidistra’: Comedy in High and Low British Culture

« Voici le prêtre à la fenêtre qui nettoie son aspidistre » : la comédie dans la culture populaire et la culture d’élite britanniques
David Quantick

Résumés

Cet article s’attache à démontrer que l’une des spécificités de la comédie britannique réside dans l’humour lié à la satire de classe. L’auteur propose un parcours entre comédie populaire et comédie d’élite, en passant par des observations sur le surréalisme, entre autres. Il conclut sur les pouvoirs fédérateurs de la comédie.

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Figure 1. There’s the Vicar at the Window Sponging his Aspidistra

Figure 1. There’s the Vicar at the Window Sponging his Aspidistra

Consent from the Donald McGill archive: http://www.donaldmcgill.info

1I have taken the title for this paper from a classic seaside postcard by the British comic artist Donald McGill and I have done so for three reasons: one, it is my favourite seaside postcard joke, two, it perfectly illustrates the nature of class mockery and sex comedy in British humour—and what else is most of British humour but class mockery and sex comedy?—and three, it enables me to refer to the work of George Orwell, who was despite his reputation as a proper novelist also fascinated by high culture and low culture.

2Orwell wrote several essays about high and low culture. He wrote about everything from children’s authors (the boys’ public school writer Frank Richards) to comic authors (the great P.G. Wodehouse, a benchmark writer for every brilliant British writer from N.F. Simpson to Jonathan Coe). He wrote about notions of Englishness and he wrote about seaside postcards. He noted the two main categories into which most of them fell—sexual humour, the war between the sexes—and he then said this:

What [these postcards] are doing is to give expression to the Sancho Panza view of life, the attitude to life that Miss Rebecca West once summed up as ‘extracting as much fun as possible from smacking behinds in basement kitchens.’ The Don Quixote-Sancho Panza combination, which of course is simply the ancient dualism of body and soul in fiction form, recurs more frequently in the literature of the last four hundred years than can be explained by mere imitation. It comes up again and again, in endless variations, Bouvard and Pécuchet, Jeeves and Wooster, Bloom and Dedalus, Holmes and Watson. […] Evidently it corresponds to something enduring in our civilisation, not in the sense that either character is to be found in a ‘pure’ state in real life, but in the sense that the two principles, noble folly and base wisdom, exist side by side in nearly every human being. If you look into your own mind, which are you, Don Quixote or Sancho Panza? (165)

3I would go further and say that this duality is only one of the two-sided coins which make up British comedy. But first I’d like to address Orwell’s Quixote/Panza duality.

4Traditionally, low comedy has been used, sometimes jarringly, as comic relief in works of high culture. It is marvellously done in Chaucer’s satirical poetical Canterbury Tales, where the beauty of Chaucer’s poetry and the elegance of his portraits of a group of pilgrims sit next to descriptions of foolish old men kissing young girl’s bottoms.

This Absalom did wipe his mouth all dry;
Dark was the night as pitch, aye dark as coal,
And through the window she put out her hole.
And Absalom no better felt nor worse,
But with his mouth he kissed her naked arse
Right greedily, before he knew of this.

Aback he leapt - it seemed somehow amiss,
For well he knew a woman has no beard;
He’d felt a thing all rough and longish haired,
And said, ‘Oh fie, alas! What did I do?’ (93)

5In Shakespeare, we see the serious higher figures mocked by the lower orders. The porter in Macbeth, bringing double-edged comedy to a very dark play. The endless Fools, reminding kings and lords that they are nothing. The low balances out the high. It suggests that low and high, lord and fool, arse and poetry are all part of the nature of the universe. We are all Sancho Panza and we are all Don Quixote.

6But come the nineteenth century, and there seems to me to be a new division between the two. In Britain, this is best illustrated by the rise of what we might call middle class arts. Victorian culture veers towards a celebration of conformity. Charles Dickens sentimentalises the poor as much as he criticises their living conditions. Punch—one of the first and most important humour magazines—establishes itself with a middle class readership who famously love their Queen but fear their servants. And with the invention of the bourgeoisie comes a new word, bowdlerisation. Named after Thomas Bowdler, who deleted passages from Shakespeare he considered unsuitable for children, bowdlerisation is a kind of censorship which removes anything sexual or vulgar from entertainment.

7The nineteenth century was the century of censorship, but censorship does not erase sex and vulgarity, it just moves it to one side. And this is where humour comes in. The lewd line is replaced by a wink. More is suggested by an allusion than a direct reference. And thus was born a great British tradition with a French name—the double entendre.

8You hear it mildly at first, as in the Marie Lloyd song, ‘She sits among the cabbages and peas’. You see it get more daring in seaside postcards—‘Do you like Kipling?’ ‘I don’t know, I’ve never been Kippled!’ And it reaches full fruition in the work of comics like Max Miller.

9Max Miller was working in the last days of full-on censorship. His act was immaculate in its simplicity: he would come on stage with two books, each ostensibly containing two sets of jokes. The Red Book, it was understood, contained jokes suitable for family consumption. The Blue Book was, as the word ‘blue’ suggested to Miller’s audience, full of the most obscene gags imaginable. Miller would then say to the crowd, ‘Which d’ya want, the red book or the blue book?’ It’s doubtful that any Max Miller audience ever asked for the red book.

10Miller was a genius of double entendre. I shan’t quote more than one gag here, although I’d like to do so all night, but I will just recount this one. This story was allegedly the one that got banned from the BBC and was equally allegedly the result of a wager, in which Miller bet someone that he could get an obscene word onto the radio. It goes like this:

A man goes for an eye test, and the optician asks him to read a row of letters on the chart. ‘ADXK’ reads the man. ‘That’s wrong,’ says the optician. The man reads the line again. ‘ADXK,’ he says again.

‘No,’ says the optician, ‘It’s ADXF. Why not try again?’ The man does, and again he reads ‘ADXK’ instead of ADXF. The optician stops the test. ‘What’s wrong?’ says the man. ‘Well, it’s all fine,’ says the optician, ‘Except that where I see F, you see K.’

11Low comedy, the Sancho Panza factor, began to approach its final frontier in the 1960s with the Carry On film series. Much loved by millions, these films began as fairly innocuous farce comedies. They were part of a wave of light-hearted, not especially vulgar movies as disparate as Dirk Bogarde’s Doctor films and the gorgeous anomaly What A Carve Up! which acted as partial inspiration for Jonathan Coe’s novel. But the Carry Ons were the first films to really push the barriers of sex comedy and lavatory humour. Sometimes it can feel depressing that as the 1960s introduced new freedoms around the globe, as the rest of the world embraced new sexual attitudes and a general relaxing of the restrictive, pre-war mores, as France gave the world the new wave and America questioned the war in Viet Nam, Britain’s response was a series of films in which middle-aged men called Sid Boggle lusted after girls half their age. The Carry Ons adhered strictly to the seaside postcard grails of toilet embarrassment, battleaxe wives and sexual frustration, but at a time when these were becoming to seem slightly dated.

12It is at this point that I’d like to sidetrack to a little known duality of British high and low comedy—something which I’m sure exists in every country in the world but was almost deliberately heightened in the UK—that of the comic divide between the North and South of England. For this insight I’m indebted to an excellent book by Tony Hannan called On Behalf of the Committee—A History of Northern Comedy, which tells the story of the often separate evolution of comedy in the North of England. Hannan details the differences between the two regions—how the South, which is more affluent than the North, and thus favours a more sophisticated humour, is also seen as harbouring a more cynical kind of humour, whereas the North, being perceived even by its natives as poverty-stricken, favours a more direct down-to-earth comedy which is often extremely sentimental in the classic working-class mode.

13This divide is very important to British comedy, perhaps because it gives it greater variety. If you’re tired of the Southern cynicism of Max Miller, or in more recent years the heartlessness of Ricky Gervais, there’s always the gormless Northern comedy of George Formby, the fireside warmth of Gracie Fields and in modern times The Royle Family, a northern series in which every character, no matter how vulgar or foul-mouthed, turned out to have a Heart of Gold.

14Even as we speak the BBC has just put out, quite literally back-to-back, two prime time sitcoms which exactly illustrate this point. Cradle To The Grave, based on the autobiography of popular London personality Danny Baker, shows its Cockney characters as smart, devious and inventive, even sophisticated despite their circumstances. It’s followed immediately on our screens by Boy Meets Girl, a comedy set in the North of England which ostensibly deals with very modern transgender issues but is in reality a classic Northern comedy vehicle for down-to-earth sentiment.

15Mentioning the BBC brings to mind Hannan’s most telling manifestation of the North South divide, which is the fact that traditionally the BBC, despite its official status as a national broadcaster, is the voice of Southern England while the commercial station ITV is Northern. This is partly the fault of the BBC’s obsession with posh, Southern-sounded RP or received pronunciation which makes everybody sound like they went to Eton, and partly because the great powerhouses of Northern television are traditionally Granada (based in Manchester) and the self-explanatory Yorkshire TV.

16Sometimes the two meet. One example would be the superb Henry Pratt novels by David Nobbs, where the hero finds himself torn between Southern public school and grim Northern town. Another came in the 1970s television series Sez Les, where on occasion the superb Northern comic Les Dawson—a literate figure but self-consciously rooted in the humour of 1930s Northern acts like Norman Evans—would team up with, of all people, the Southern, Cambridge Footlights graduate John Cleese. It was a brilliant combination of talents and one I shall come back to.

17That North South duality has given British comedy much of its character, and it has also helped to emphasise the difference between so-called high and low comedy—although surely nothing can be lower than the 1948 Mancunian Films comedy Holidays With Pay, which features a scene in which a comedienne called Rita Young mimics the speech of a deaf woman and the star Frank Randle can’t understand her. But it does blur and is itself blurred by another duality in comedy, one which represents the most famous chasm in British society, namely class.

18There cannot be a more class-obsessed country in the world than Great Britain. Even countries with a more developed or stratified class system—like, say, pre-war Japan or India during the Raj—are not as obsessed with it. You don’t get Japanese writers going on endlessly about the difference between samurais and peasants. And yet in Britain we are determined to never stop talking about it. The moment you get off the Eurostar someone will race up to you with a photograph of our current Prime Minister and his rival the Mayor of London dressed up as members of the elite Bullingdon Club. Pop fans never tire of complaining that our charts are apparently full of public school boys. It seems that class divides are as powerful now in Britain as they have ever been.

19Which is at least good news for comedy. Ever since Punch began to delineate the sinews of class back in the nineteenth century, great comedy writers have been observing the horrors of class distinction. The Grossmiths with their brilliant Diary Of A Nobody perfectly captured the day to day miseries of middle class London life in the 1890s. Oscar Wilde satirised and surrealised the discreet hells of upper class life in The Importance of Being Earnest. And there has never been a better summary of the idiocy of manners and politeness than the Punch cartoon known as ‘the curate’s egg.’ Asked by his bishop if he minded being given a boiled egg which had gone off, the young churchman in the cartoon replies, ‘Oh, no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!’

20The humiliations of the middle class are a very specific part of British comedy. As well as Punch with its servant problems and the Grossmiths with their dissections of middle class life, this particular strain of British comedy has gone on and on. Sometimes it’s awful—the long-running situation comedy Terry and June, about a middle-aged couple whose sole problem seemed to be that Terry’s boss might come to dinner and they had nothing in, was so bad that it was the probable cause of all class hatred in the UK in the 1970s. Sometimes it’s just nasty—in works like Meantime and Abigail’s Party, the feted film director and promoter of improvisation Mike Leigh seems to be driven by a deep loathing of middle class aspirations that’s as snobbish as any would be aristo—certainly he is the first person since Ian Fleming to make a snarky point about the correct way to serve red wine (that said, he can be brilliant and even affectionate and his TV play Nuts in May is well worth tracking down).

21And sometimes comedy about the middle classes can be transcendent. I’m thinking of two series in particular, both from the 1970s. David Nobbs’s The Fall And Rise of Reginald Perrin took the existential crisis of a middle class and middle-aged man and made it a universal cry for sanity in a mad world. It’s one of the funniest and the saddest programmes ever made. And Dick Clement and Ian LaFrenais’ series Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads?—a Northern exception to the Southern BBC comedy rule—looked at the end of traditional working class Britain and the beginning of the new aspirational culture of the 70s and mocked them both in equal part. Middle class Bob may be comical in his tiny new house with his wine and cheese parties but at least he’s the future, not like his pathetically reactionary mate Terry.

22Jonathan Coe is an admirer of both these works (and these writers), so much so that he has worked with them to adapt his works for radio and television. And their talent as observers of the class-bound, culturally-unconfident British has influenced him on more than one occasion. I am now going to quote one of my favourite passages from his novel, The Rotters’ Club. The scene is a restaurant in the 1970s where union representatives are being taken out to dinner, an unfamiliar experience for them:

‘On this occasion,’ said Jack, ‘that’s exactly where you’re wrong. You’re all here as my guests, and you can order anything you like. The tab for this is being picked up by the British Leyland Motor Corporation, so expense is no object. Go for it, chaps. Let your imaginations run wild.’

Roy ordered fillet steak and chips, Colin ordered fillet steak and chips, Bill ordered fillet steak, chips and peas, and Jack, who went to the South of France for his holidays, ordered fillet steak with chips, peas and mushrooms on the side, a touch of sophistication that was not lost on the others. (17)

23Mockery of the middle classes (and there are so many shows I could mention in this context, most of them made by the BBC in the 1970s and 1980s) is a staple of sitcom. The middle classes have borne it pretty well, perhaps because we are both the prime makers and prime consumers of sitcom. And despite the fact that we are perceived as being rootless, having neither the ancient traditions of the aristocracy nor the noble savagery of the poor. We are also considered to be upwardly mobile, snobbish and—pertinent to my final point—without a culture of our own. I want now to look at the whole issue of culture itself, culture which has everything to do with the class system and yet can sometimes exist outside it.

24I have talked a great deal about low culture in comedy, in part because most entertainment is low culture, whether it’s TV talent shows, or DVDs of filthy comedians, or popular music. The idea of high culture in comedy could be seen as slightly contradictory. So much so that when I interviewed the British comedian Stephen Fry—a fascinating figure who is taken for a member of the establishment when his background is much more diverse that that—and I asked him about the apparent grip on certain aspects of entertainment that alumni of Oxford and Cambridge seem to have, his response was to say something to the effect that people from Oxbridge who go into entertainment are in fact looked down on by the real Establishment who would presumably rather that they became spies or stockbrokers.

25But there is high comedy. Much of it isn’t very funny—you see it in novels that have been nominated for literary prizes, or in stage plays which are described as ‘hilarious’ by reviewers but don’t seem to have any laughs. And some of it is great. I’ve already mentioned the surreally philosophical plays of N.F. Simpson. We could also mention the angry comedy of B.S. Johnson. The best moments of Monty Python and the more ambitious parts of Alan Bennett.

26And there are others. Chris Morris’s astonishing black comedies Jam and Brass Eye. Armando Iannucci’s political comedy The Thick of It. Kate Atkinson, which for me is at its best when it’s not literary. Jonathan Coe—whose combination of wit, emotion, political comment and poetry marks him out as one of the best writers in the English language right now. Jeanette Winterson, the only literary author to be influenced by Victoria Wood and Angela Carter. Film-makers like Ben Wheatley, who take elements of 1970s popular culture and make it into art.

27High comedy I would define as comedy for comedy’s sake. Comedy that doesn’t feel the need to leapfrog off other’s people’s work or be grimly topical or lazy. Comedy that’s sometimes about comedy. Comedy that’s so funny it might not be funny at all. Just as gourmets will consume food which is about to rot because it’s a connoisseur’s treat, so comics will tell each other jokes which are only funny because they’re almost not jokes. Here’s one now, generally attributed to the brilliant standup Eddie Izzard.

Two old friends meet up and one says, so what are you up to these days?
And the other says, I keep bees.
You keep bees?
Yeah, says the first.
Wow, how many bees have you got?
I’ve got about ten million.
You’ve got ten million bees? That’s a lot. Where do you keep them all?
In a hive.
A hive? Is it a very big hive?
Not really.
So—you’ve got ten million bees in a hive?
Yeah, fuck em - they’re only bees.

28Not for everyone, that. But trust me, it’s art. And it’s also an example of the cross-over zone between high comedy and low comedy, between high culture and low culture, between that middle class vicar sponging his aspidistra in the window and between Sancho Panza smacking behinds in basement kitchens.

29High and low comedy, unlike other high and low aspects of culture, get on well together. I mentioned Les Dawson and John Cleese earlier, the flat-capped Northern anarchist and the university educated surrealist working together brilliantly. I could also mention the surrealism of Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer, who come from no tradition but reflect both the Footlights comedy of Monty Python and the variety style of Morecambe and Wise. Monty Python themselves famously transcended their university roots to become not just well-known in the UK but world-famous. Modern acts like The Mighty Boosh draw on this particular heritage as well, one which draws a straight line through the most popular radio act of their time, The Goons, back through the aptly-named Crazy Gang and into who knows what mists of time, what mute inglorious music hall acts of the past.

30I am referring to a kind of comedy outside class, outside high and low culture, outside even vulgarity (well, one that encompasses the astonishing obscenity of Derek and Clive, the dark side of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s spirals of absurdity). It’s surrealism and it’s a very British kind of comedy, even if it does have cousins in Europe and America. Surrealism crosses boundaries, never goes away and secretly informs everything.

31Maybe surrealism will be here long after the topical gags and the satirical attacks are forgotten. When all the catchphrases are buried and the epigrams forgotten. Certainly there will always be room for pratfalls and for the silent comedy that is the true international humour.

32From a vantage point in the era of Netflix and Amazon Prime, it’s hard to see where British comedy is going. Despite all the claims, technology still hasn’t eradicated all the barriers between us. We are all of us on Twitter but not all of us are looking at the stars. People make their own jokes for YouTube and a thousand other channels. Censorship doesn’t exist at all on vast swathes of the unregulated, unedited net. You can say what you like and show what you like, and it shows.

33America still predominates in British culture, and it will do so for a long time to come. This may not be a good thing in some areas, but in comedy it’s been not only healthy but a two-way street. We keep sending them our comics and they don’t seem to mind.

34The rich British comedy heritage ebbs and flows. We’ve made some of the worst comedy films of all time and some of the best comedy TV shows. We have brilliant writers and great performers. Whatever the future of British comedy is, so long as Britain and British society continue to be absurd, surreal and full of contradictions, it’ll always have something to talk about.

35Most of all, comedy unites us, wherever we are. High and low, coarse and refined, literate and vulgar. And it is with this in mind that I’d like to end with a well-known passage from one of my favourite novels. The book itself, Jonathan Coe’s The House of Sleep, is a hypnotically beautiful story, a mingling of melancholy and emotion that’s a powerful work of literature. The passage I am about to read, however, is not. It’s filth. It’s based, comedy fans may note, on a classic British TV sketch from the show The Two Ronnies. All I’ll say here is that this paragraph purports to be an extract from a film producer’s memoir, and that the footnotes to his reminiscences have been accidentally transposed—with disastrous consequences. He begins by talking about his golf club…

This club, the flagship of my chain I might add, has already played host to some pretty distinguished visitors, and boasts among its attractions no fewer than two rather challenging eighteen-hole golf courses (Footnote 3—A placid respectable Thameside suburb of London, just south of Richmond).

Those studios remain close to my heart in other ways, too, for it was at Twickenham, only a few years ago, that I first met my lovely (fifth) wife Marsha, who was filming there at the time. Now a distinguished actress, of course, Marsha is delightfully candid about her earlier career, and has never made any secret of the fact that she started out in the business by starring, under my own direction, in a series of sex movies. (Footnote 4—Much praised, recently, by Denis Thatcher, who said that they had given him ‘six of the most enjoyable hours of my life.’ His wife Margaret later joked that he was ‘stiff for hours afterwards.’) What many people don’t know about her, though, is that she is also a deeply religious woman, and a devout Catholic. Among the most prised possessions in our library are several books recommended to her during an audience with Pope Paul VI, who said that they were among the most inspiring and influential works he had ever read. (Footnote 5—Their titles, for the record, were Wet Knickers, Pussy Talk and Cream on my Face.) (270–271)

36And after that, there is really nowhere to go. Even Donald McGill would have blushed.

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Bibliographie

Chaucer, Geoffrey, The Canterbury Tales (1400), ed. J.U. Nicolson, Mineola, New York: Dover Publications Inc., 2004.

Coe, Jonathan, The House of Sleep (1997), Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1998.

Coe, Jonathan, The Rotters’ Club (2001), London: Penguin, 2008.

Hannan, Tony, On Behalf of the Committee—A History of Northern Comedy, Leeds: Scratching Shed Publishing Ltd., 2009.

Orwell, George, All Art is Propaganda. Critical Essays, ed. George Packer, Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 2008.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. There’s the Vicar at the Window Sponging his Aspidistra
Crédits Consent from the Donald McGill archive: http://www.donaldmcgill.info
URL http://ebc.revues.org/docannexe/image/3320/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 40k
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Référence électronique

David Quantick, « ‘The Vicar at the Window Sponging his Aspidistra’: Comedy in High and Low British Culture », Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 51 | 2016, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2016, consulté le 22 août 2017. URL : http://ebc.revues.org/3320 ; DOI : 10.4000/ebc.3320

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Auteur

David Quantick

David Quantick is a comedy writer and broadcaster. He has written for such television programmes as Veep, The Day Today, Brass Eye and The Thick of It. As a radio writer, he created Radio 4’s series One and Radio 2’s The Blagger's Guide. He also writes short films, comics and e-novels and is the author of How To Write Everything, a book about writing. His most recent novel, The Mule, was published in 2016.

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Études britanniques contemporaines est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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