Funny. Business. A review of Spike & Co by Graham McCann
Spike & Co. by Graham McCann.
Hodder and Stoughton, 2006, 438 pages.
I’ve been a fan of British comedy for as long as I can remember. I recall watching Hancock on Australia’s ABC when I was quite young. I’ve listened to the Goons off an on for thirty years. I think Peter Cook was probably the most brilliant comedian, well, ever. But even the work of the very best inevitably dates. I watched a Best of Ronny Barker recently, and was surprised at its reliance on ‘tits & bums’ for humour.
Hancock and the Goons remain funny, but a bit of cultural awareness about their time and place is rather helpful. The book provides that, but that is not its purpose.
This book is essentially a biography of an organisation; Associated London Scripts, formed by Spike Milligan, Eric Sykes, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, and home to them and many other very fine writers, not all of comedy (they include Peter Yeldham from Australia, and Terry Nation, still most well-known for inventing the Daleks). As such, it gives brief biographies of the key players, in varying degrees of depth depending on how central they are to the ALS story. Apart from the principals — the four writers noted above plus Johnny Speight — we find out about Frankie Howerd, Tony Hancock, Hattie Jacques and a raft of British actors and comedians. The key dates are from the end of the war through to the mid sixties.
They key outputs are legion, but the main ones between them shaped postwar English comedy more strongly than any other single factor apart, perhaps, from the BBC itself. And I do not exclude Beyond the Fringe or the Pythons. These outputs are:
The Goon Show (and the rest of Spike’s oeuvre)
Hancock’s Half Hour (on radio and TV)
Steptoe and Son
Till Death Us Do Part
ALS shows cover the bases from polished mainstream comedy (Sykes and a…) through the social commentary of Speight’s Till Death Us Do Part, which challenged rules on content, to The Goon Show which challenged every rule — content, structure, logic — and even seemed to invent new ways to make you laugh. Galton and Simpson’s best work is like Harold Pinter but ‘with fewer pauses and more laughs’ and is fine work by the purest standards of screen storytelling, comedy or not.
So that’s the content, more or less. The book itself is highly readable, amusingly written (as well as conveying amusing stories) and well structured. It roughly divides into two sections (1) the people and (2) the outputs, and each of these major parts is cut up, effectively, into `Milligan’, ‘Sykes’, ‘Galton and Simpson’, ‘Speight’ and ‘the rest’. It works pretty well.
To use a reviewer’s cliché, this is ‘an essential book for fans of British comedy of the 1950s’. It perhaps could place the work in a slightly wider context — at times it feels likes only these guys were writing comedy in Britain in those days — and it perhaps ‘sells’ the ALS contribution a little hard at times, such that I began to wonder ‘Really? Did they really change the world of comedy that much, or is this a sales job?’ I mean, I know these were all great comedy writers (as of this writing at least Galton and Simpson are still with us, I hasten to add), but they weren’t the only game in town.
But it is a minor cavil. The book is fun; it kept me reading into the night. It is casual and readable but authoritative. And it shows you where Seinfeld came from — it is essentially Hancock’s Half Hour (the radio version) moved to TV in America and the 1990s. Hancock even has an episode ‘A Sunday Afternoon at Home’ which is clearly the prototype ‘show about nothing’, with four characters getting on each other’s nerves while stuck inside a flat…
Now I must go out and write my script. Well, perhaps not. Stone me, what a life.