Thursday, December 10, 2009

Advent Calendar: Day 10

December 10th: A Little Light Entertainment

One of the (several) misconceptions that people sometimes have about me -- in the unlikely event that they have any conception of me at all -- is that, as a good avantgardiste, I must surely abhor the whole idea of entertainment. Nothing could be less accurate. I think creating entertainment, in its truest sense, is perhaps the single hardest task an artist can be confronted with, and I've very seldom witnessed live performances that have achieved it. And if entertainment is a lofty aspiration, light entertainment is its peak: to entertain is hard enough, but to make it look, and feel, light is almost impossible. The lightness in 'light entertainment' is too often mistaken (not least by contemporary performers) for a lack of substance, whereas actually it's about a level of refinement and expertise. Think Donald O'Connor, Danny Kaye, Billy Dainty, Ken Dodd, Rolf Harris in his day, Tom Noddy (probably the greatest spesh act I ever saw), Gary Wilmot. Some actors who've worked with me probably still shudder to think of the number of times that in pre-show notes I've tossed about the word leggiero: a musical term, borrowed (as they almost all are) from Italian, meaning "with lightness", but also, as a word, sounding light, exemplarily so.

I'm not sure one could necessarily ascribe that sense of leggiero to all of the performers on today's playbill, though few could conceivably suit it better than Morecambe & Wise. Overseas Thompsonistas may not appreciate just how important this duo are to the British way of Christmas. Actually they're probably not any more, but they feel at any rate like part of my cultural inheritance. At their height, roughly 50 per cent of the UK population would watch their Christmas Special shows on the BBC. (That almost seems surprisingly few.) In my v humble opinion, the real genius was Eddie Braben, their writer (and Ken Dodd's at his peak), but that doesn't detract a jot from their brilliance. None of this particularly comes through the track I'm offering you here, which, having been recorded in 1964, precedes their partnership with Braben (the "Sid and Dick" to whom they refer were their then writers, Sid Green and Dick Hills) and will probably only raise a smile if you're already familiar with and fond of their work: but a Light Entertainment day would be thoroughly subsensical without them.

Some little way further down the bill we find Freddie 'Parrotface' Davies, sixties and seventies stand-up, who, when I was a kid, was the sort of entertainer you'd see turning up on cbargain-bin celebrity-driven game shows like Punchlines and Celebrity Squares, formats in which his (let's face it) rather meagre schtick worked perfectly. Eventually, at the apogee of his lugubriousness, he was cast in Peter Chelsom's Funny Bones, which is one of those movies that people who like that kind of thing really like. I'm grateful to Wikipedia (and hope I can trust its veracity on this point) for informing me that Davies now runs a wool shop in Pitlochry.

Hard, in some ways, to think of Spike Milligan as belonging to the Light Entertainment fraternity at all. His comedy was always too dark and too costly. In some ways this recording of 'Silent Night' comes close to being quite distressing, knowing what we now know (and I think almost always did) about the mental anguish he so frequently suffered. (Merry Christmas, folks!) But I suspect that productivity may have been among the least futile and mendacious consolations available to him, and that this 'Silent Night' may anyway have seemed simply like a good joke. It is a good joke, though not one that necessarily educes laughter.

And finally, the wonderful Marty Feldman, whose career took him from co-authoring the still awesomely hilarious Round the Horne with Barry Took, all the way to Mel Brooks's Young Frankenstein: a remarkable trajectory by any standards, and one that took in writing or co-writing such legendary sketches as Monty Python's "Four Yorkshiremen" and the famous Frost Report "Class" sketch with Ronnie Barker looking up to John Cleese but down on Ronnie Corbett. There is, of course, a whole genre of Christmas comedy songs dealing with the more annoying aspects of the season, but no one I think has ever captured the bottled-up world-weary quiet desperation of the family Christmas better than Feldman in this song: a perfect marriage of lyric and vocalist. The song, I think (don't quote me on this), is by the late John Junkin and composer Denis King (who wrote the themes to Black Beauty and Worzel Gummidge).

All in all, at any rate, a day of some sophisticated pleasures, I think. Certainly by comparison with what follows this time tomorrow. Dot dot dot.

Track listing:
1 Morecambe & Wise: The Happiest Christmas Of All
2 Freddie 'Parrotface' Davies: Santa Face is Bringing Me a Budgie
3 Spike Milligan: Silent Night
4 Marty Feldman: A Joyous Time of Year


simon said...

Braben was a genius, but "the real genius"? I can't begin to get my head round your reasoning there.

simon said...

... I guess there's only works of genius in the end, and it's probably never useful or accurate (although it is tempting and mostly harmless) to apply that word to an individual.
That Milligan track was amazing.
(Nobody actually thinks you're anti-entertainment surely?)

Chris Goode said...

Fair enough -- "the real genius" is not felicitous phrasing, though what I had in mind was that almost all of their most celebrated work was done post- Hills & Green. There is this pattern all the way through their early career of them working hard but making bad calls -- the early tv was a disaster, the feature films were lousy... It was as if they didn't quite understand themselves. Had they called their partnership a day after The Magnificent Two they'd be remembered as having been a famous doubleact, like Jewel & Warriss say, but not recalled with the affection that they now are. By retuning their performing personas, Braben created the conditions for that affection to thrive, and that's where the lightness I'm talking about becomes load-lifting. Seeing that potential was probably much harder for M&W themselves from the inside, fair enough; but they must have had dozens of people on the outside who never spotted what more they could do, and Braben did.

I'm not going to agree about this genius/works of genius thing. I can understand the squeamishness about seeming to elevate individuals -- there are no individuals in the making of art. But to say "works of genius" doesn't alleviate that. Genius is at its root an embodied idea, like spirit. There's a weird slightly supernatural thing about it which is hard to stomach perhaps. But if somebody keeps on turning out works of genius, as Braben did, then I'm pretty relaxed about pointing out the trend.

The real problem (no, not "the real problem", just a problem) with the idea of genius is that it became horribly caught up in the early 20th C drive to make a science (with commercial trimmings) out of the categorical analysis of intelligence. Cut to: all those stupid eejits in Mensa.

I like how genius fits with this notion of lightness. The genie in the bottle. It's primitive, yes; but the ineffable is not a totally expired idea, I hope, not quite yet.

Anyway, glad to know you're tuning in. xx

Oliver said...

As a child I once saw a clip of a supposedly bad 70's comedian and I couldn't tell the difference between this man and the supposedly funny Morecambe and Wise. It made me realise I only thought Morecambe and Wise were funny because everyone else did. I was probably just too young but I've never been able to get into them since - or a lot of other "light entertainment" from that period - because of that.

P.s. The concept of genius is inherently stoopid and sexist.

Chris Goode said...

@ Oliver:

re 'genius':

Stoopid, OK, I don't necessarily reject that, though/because there are plenty of stoopid ideas that can be used to think with;

but I really want you to explain how the concept is inherently sexist. It's certainly used in a lot of chauvinistic ways to prop up a whole array of canonical-patriarchal bobbins, but how does sexism inhere in its premises?

Intrigued to hear more, Cx

Chris Goode said...

Or maybe (note excellent close-reading skills here) "inherently" in your comment belongs only to "stoopid"?

Oliver said...

The concept of genius is inherently sexist because it allows men to act in stereotypically "feminine" ways - irrational, emotional, etc - while still being seen as "masculine". So it relies on a sexist and limited conception of gender in order to exist. To believe in genius you need to believe that women are emotional and irrational and that these are unattractive qualities in men unless they are genius'.

Also, it would not be at all difficult to come up with a man who is stereotypically a genius. Name a female genius who is accepted as a genius the way that Einstein or Shakespeare or Picasso is. You can't, because women aren't genius'. A woman who acts like a genius is just acting like a woman and isn't special.

Oliver said...

edit: should say: "name a female who is accepted as a genius the way that Einstein or Shakespeare or Picasso is."

Chris Goode said...

Thanks Oliver.

As far as I can tell, you're actually describing the inherent problems with stereotypic thinking, which might inform all kinds of secondary judgements, or might not.

I think one of the qualities that makes up the constellation 'genius' as I would understand it is a mode of practice that entirely undermines the apparatus of stereotypification. I mean there is a sophistication of distinction -- this is part of what "elevates" the genius in one's eyes.

The challenge to name female geniuses to set alongside Einstein, Shakespeare and Picasso equally arrives kind of ready-dismantled by the conservative assumptions you're making about the authority and legitimacy of the patriarchal canon. It's not a question about genius but about consensus, as if individual approbation of an individual artist were so parlously inconsequential as to be impossible to register. If I name, say, Marie Curie, Gertrude Stein and Louise Bourgeois -- all women I'd call geniuses without much attendant anxiety -- I've said precisely nothing about some consensually formed model of genius that you seem to be aware of and that is unknown to me, except as a kind of sonar map. I mean we got here because I called Eddie Braben a genius; I'm going to guess you've never heard of Eddie Braben, and nor has Harold Bloom or any of the other grumpy old male gatekeepers. I'm simply using the word to describe a certain detectable quality of productive action; it has nothing to do with the cultural centrality of the figure I'm describing, and, as far as I can tell, nothing to do with whatever wretched patriarchal structures might secure that centrality or pretend for it some objective legitimacy.

I'll accept, without question, that the productive space within mainstream culture in which the public aspect of an artist's work is undertaken is very inequitably freighted against women, and that you're therefore more likely to hear a man than a woman referred to as a genius. But this arises out of a baser capitalist inequity that may perhaps inhere in the whole matrix through which our value relations with artistic and, as per your extension, scientific practice are contingently shaped. To suggest that sexism inheres in the kind of value judgement I'm making here about Morecambe and Wise's scriptwriter -- about whose behaviour, stereotypical or otherwise, I know very little -- is to suggest that that capitalist inequity is coterminous with the entire project of sharing art: which is both demonstrably factually untrue and a politically disastrous (mis)apprehension.

Other than that, I agree with you. x

Chris Goode said...

I should add that it's really not that important to me to call anyone a genius, it's not a hugely important or noble piece of critical apparatus, I won't do it again if it annoys people this much! I'm not defending its use so much as trying to engage with what underwrites these objections to it. It's like somebody next to you at the table complaining that ketchup is racist.

Actually I think it could be argued that ketchup is racist: though not, I think, inherently so. x

Oliver said...

Apologies Chris, I wasn't taking you to task for using the word genius, I said what I said in my p.s. to (good-naturedly, I hope) torpedo a discussion, about genius work versus genius person and so on, with the idea that the concept of genius is worthless because it's - in my thinking - sexist. It wasn't my intention to accuse you of sexism. Sorry about that.
On whether the concept of genius is inherently sexist or just sexist I should perhaps clarify that by inherent I didn't mean that anyone who uses the words becomes sexist, at least no more so than living in a society that is, broadly speaking, sexist makes one a sexist. I feel like I'm back-pedalling here so instead of twisting myself up I'll just say that it is taking the concept of genius seriously (not something you did in your post) is what I object to, and I felt that the comment discussion could have turned that way. In a broader way of looking at things, it's not the practise of casually calling someone, male or female, a genius that I object to - especially as all that means usually is that one admires that person or their work - but taking the concept of genius seriously. I think that, as a concept, "the genius" is a man who is allowed to - and is celebrated - step outside of limited gender restrictions and embody qualities that when they are stereotypically associated with women are considered bad.

It wasn't my intention to police your - or anyone else's for that matter - use of the word "genius". I just wanted to point out that I think the concept is stupid, something I expected to be uncontroversial.

Chris Goode said...

Hey Oliver,

no, it's cool, man, really, I'm glad of the conversation. In all sorts of ways I think I probably am sexist, above and beyond my (blandly) inextricable and semi-conscious complicities with the structures that encourage me to be so. And I want very much not to be, of course, and so I'm more than happy to be called on stuff. But in this case I couldn't quite see where you were coming from or what you were getting at. I think actually the points you make about the license that's often conferred on artists (in quite a trivial way) to circumvent the most orthodox stringencies of gender-typical behaviour are pertinent, and worth sounding, and I might have found their proximity easier to comprehend if we hadn't been talking in the first place about Eddie Braben as opposed to, I dunno, Salvador Dali.

So, thanks for the clarification and the contribution, and no offence was caused or taken here I can assure you. I entirely approve of this sort of exchange -- more, at any rate, than I encourage the attempted torpedoing of other people's conversations on the pre-emptive basis that they might be about to take a bad turning... ;)

Interesting how "stupid" doesn't set the alarm off, but "sexist" does...

Thanks again, & all bests


Jonny Liron said...


Tom Noddy said...

Chris, you wrote "... Donald O'Connor, Danny Kaye, Billy Dainty, Ken Dodd, Rolf Harris in his day, Tom Noddy (probably the greatest spesh act I ever saw), Gary Wilmot."

That's some rich company that is.

I'm glad you put me on BEFORE the animal acts.

Chris Goode said...

@ Tom Noddy:

Tom, I'm so incredibly touched and elated that you dropped by. I feel like I learned more about performance from watching you when I was a kid than from seeing any amount of classical English theatre subsequently.

Great to see from your web site that you're still going strong and having fun. I can't tell you how good it is to know that you're out there.

Truly, my heartfelt thanks.


simon said...

I should really say belated props for name-checking Braben in the first place, Chris. When I found out their patter was the work of a third person "real genius" was certainly a phrase that sprang to mind.
And I saw Tom Noddy on television very recently. I think it was a "magic" night on channel 4, an old Paul Daniels clip. It was perfection. More props.
And my catcha is

danbye said...

The last note Brecht (that other genius underfamed for entertainment value) pinned to the noticeboard at the Berliner Ensemble before his death (horribly misquoted from memory):

"It must be performed with lightness, like passing tennis balls across a net".

Cad Delworth said...

Yes, 'A Joyous Time Of Year' was indeed penned by John Junkin with music by Denis King (as was the B side of the single, entitled 'The B Side,' a paean to how once can do anything on the B side of a single because no-one will listen; it includes the memorable line 'hypnotising earwigs with a billiard cue').
I can be sure of this because I still own the (UK) Decca single!