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.
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