Letters To A Young Comedian

Friday 15 April 2005, The Stage

On a recent visit to the RSC in Stratford I paid my money and took a tour of the house where Shakespeare was born, a tour that has been made by great luminaries of the past, including Sir Walter Raleigh, Thomas Jefferson, Herman Melville, Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, Alfred Tennyson and the Cheeky Girls.

As a man who enjoys the humble rituals of the tourist, I gazed in wonder at the bed in which the Bard was born, listened dutifully to the guides and purchased not only a mug but also a pencil from the gift shop. I then strolled around the town which has made a cottage industry of Shakespeare’s (and his wife’s) cottage and I fell to wondering when bardolatory started and what it means.

At some point after Shakespeare’s death, perhaps 50 years or more, someone must have thought: “Gosh this bloke is such an amazing writer, I’m going to have to go to the place where he was born.”

And later the people living in the house (no longer the family Shakespeare) must have noticed pilgrims turning up and thought: “Hang on, I can make some money out of this.”

There’s something touching about our human drive to make this kind of excursion, which is essentially meaningless. Do I get a greater understanding of Hamlet because I’ve seen the author’s grave? Of course not. Do I laugh harder at Brian Conley because I have been to his home town? No, I don’t laugh at him under any circumstances.

It is the pension scandals that have brought these thoughts to mind. You see, 20 years ago in a moment of irresponsibility I started paying into a pension fund. I now know I would have been better off buying booze, fags and drugs, since I have since worked out that if I were to retire at 60 I would get, tax-free, for the rest of my life about 45p a week.

So I have been wondering how I might supplement this pitiful income if I fall permanently into the file marked ‘Forgotten’. And I have remembered the spending power of the tourist, the nerd, the comedy anorak who visit sacred sites or, more significantly in this case, buy mementos.

Buried in my old piles of papers and fragments that failed to get thrown away, I realised that I have some things that might be worth money. I had a girlfriend at the BBC who years ago gave me a copy of the contract commissioning Douglas Adams to write a pilot radio show called The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

I also own various letters pertaining to my appearance in Red Dwarf (a TV programme that attracts comedy dweebs like no other), a pair of Barry Cryer’s underpants, the handwritten version of a West End play, a toenail of Caroline Quentin’s, a signed photo of Hugh Grant in cricket gear (although, granted, it’s me who’s signed it), a postcard from Julie Christie, a photo of me and Timmy Mallett, a nugget of gold that once belonged to Ricky Gervais, etc. If only there was some kind of internet auction house I could surely make a killing.

Never mind, none of it matters since even Shakespeare’s cottage will go in the conflagration at the end of the world. Meanwhile bravo, the Festival season is coming and there are new mementos to be created.

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