Letters To A Young Comedian

Friday 7 January 2005, The Stage

This New Year I have made nearly 14,000 resolutions and have thus far kept only one. I have resolved to cut down on appearances on TV where I pontificate earnestly about comedy and comedians. Currently every channel seems to be churning out Britainís best comedians programmes and depressingly I seem to be on all of them, burbling away like a well-lunched Sheridan Morley.

I apologise to any readers who had to endure my smug gob during the Christmas period, I promise you I am trying to fight this terrible addiction. Iím sorry, Iíve seen a TV camera. I have to go and talk about Frankie Howerd.

Oh thatís better. Even allowing for the plethora of new avenues of information it seems that interest in old or dead comedians has never been greater.

Comedians of course have always written or ghost-written their autobiographies. Theyíre sure to have met interesting or famous people, have some funny stories and most can point to some depressive crisis which feed the publicís favoured view of comics as talented but miserable. The autobiography is just another gig.

What seems new though is the portrayal of real comics in films and theatre. If Terry Johnson hasnít written a play about you youíre no-one. The very least you should aim for is being recreated in a play at the Edinburgh Fringe. (In fact I now remember that I can make this claim. A couple of years ago there was a play at the Festival called Whatever Happened to White Dog Shit? - an old joke of mine - which, I am told, featured a character loosely based on myself. Is this right? Will someone write and tell me? Probably not).

There have been shows portraying Groucho Marx, Kenneth Williams (several in his case) Charles Hawtrey, Tommy Cooper, Morecambe and Wise, Round the Horne, the Goons, etc. Anyone looking to leap on this jolly bandwagon might seek out comics who havenít been done, eg Benny Hill, Bob Monkhouse, Robin Day.

The most written-about comedians of late has been Peter Cook. In books, plays, documentaries, on radio and TV, he has been right royally revered. There is no doubt that Cook was a formidable comic but he didnít really do enough to be considered great. And what he did often had a snobby tone. He is celebrated beyond his status, I believe, because a lot of powerful critics and writers who were a bit weedy at public school are all secretly in love with him. They wanted to be him because he had an effortless ease to his work and because in his prime he could pull anyone. He was very cool indeed.

Iím rather pleased to be swimming against the tide here. Itís interesting to challenge the orthodoxy, although I note that last week I was a talking head on a programme in which I sang the great praises of Peter Cook. Wouldnít it be boring to be in Barbados this January?

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