British Comedy

"British humour" is another way of saying in Poland that something is "not funny." But the British are proud of their humour. Its unique mixture of surrealism, satire and just plain silliness is one of things that define the British character. But, as humour - like bad wine - does not travel very well, Colin Graham gives you a guide to the things that make the British laugh.

During the 1970s, which was arguably the golden age of British comedy, sex, or rather smut, was a common feature of much of the country's humour. If you switched on the TV in the late evening, you might well have caught a clip of fat, balding men chasing attractive women, wearing very few clothes, on sped-up film, like in the old, silent movies. That would have been the last bit of the Benny Hill Show, which attracted huge viewing figures at the time. I think we can assume that the film was made faster to give the impression that fat and old men had the energy to run after young women. In reality, they probably would have fallen over with a heart attack. This was one of the main preoccupations of the show: that although older men were overweight and bald, they were more fun for sexy women to be with than younger men. Times have, of course, changed in Britain, and, for many people now, Benny Hill's sense of humour seems more sad than funny. Ironically, though you will not see The Benny Hill Show on mainstream television in Britain anymore, the programme still attracts large viewing figures in the US and mainland Europe.

In the world of cinema, the Carry On series of films matched Benny Hill's brand of smutty humour, but did so, to a large extent, in settings of popularly-known historical periods. Carry on Henry, for example, is a comic re-examination of the life and times of the English King Henry VIII, whose desire to marry, and then divorce, his wives meant he broke from the Catholic church - to establish Protestantism - showed the King to be more interested in girls than in running the country. Henry was played by the actor Sidney James, who, although quite an ugly man, was always very successful with women in the films.

Both Benny Hill and the Carry On team's versions of comedy owed their origins to the comic seaside postcards, which had been available around Britain since before the Second World War. In these sex was, of course, a major theme, but would never be openly referred to. This attitude was a very dominant part of the British mentality for most of the population, perhaps up until the beginning of the nineties, although Brits were already getting bored of the same old silly jokes in the sixties.

The words on these postcards would have double meanings, or be sexual puns. On one hand, the caption would mean something entirely innocent, but on the other, it would refer to sex. Every second joke on Benny Hill and the Carry On films would use this way of getting a laugh.

This type of British humour, however, has not stood the test of time. British people are a lot more open about sexual matters these days, and the double meaning has lost much of its comic power. When people laugh at a Carry On film nowadays; it's more likely to be because of its absolute silliness, rather than because the jokes are good. Though both Benny Hill and Carry On represented popular humour in the seventies, other TV programmes and films, which didn't at the time attract huge audiences, have proved more influential and longer-lasting.

Situation comedy

The Sitcom, born in the sixties, matured brilliantly in the seventies in Britain, and there isn't space here to do justice to all the marvellous programmes that were shown at that time. The term "sitcom", comes from the first syllables of "situation" and "comedy", and refers to a type of comic theatre on television. In fact, one of the most enduring sitcoms, Steptoe and Son, which ran from the early sixties to the seventies, used serious actors, rather than comedians, to play the main roles and was considered revolutionary for that very reason. Real theatre, for which the British have long been renowned, was married to some of the best comedy ever seen, anywhere.

Steptoe and Son is about a father and son who live together and run a rag and bone business, though it is the son who does all the work. As a result, he is constantly trying to find a way out of his situation. In one episode, he wants to become a writer, in another, an actor. All his attempts, however, fail because his father, who is very sly, wants his son to stay with him, and he destroys all his dreams. Although this probably sounds sad, the quality of the acting and the rapport between the two actors made this one of the best-loved programmes on British television.

Of all the groundbreaking comedy shows on British television during the seventies, it is probably Monty Python's Flying Circus which was the most revolutionary. It was very different from anything ever seen before. The show consisted of a series of sketches, which pushed the boundaries of logic, further than any comedy had done in the past. The Monty Python team was made up of six graduates from Cambridge University, who were brave enough to break away from the type of humour that had been common currency in Britain for decades. One of their most famous sketches was The Parrot Sketch, where a man goes to a shop to return a parrot, which, he insists to the shopkeeper, is dead, and has been since he bought it. Now he wants his money back. The shopkeeper, not wanting to part from his cash, refuses to believe this and tries to persuade his customer that the parrot is indeed still alive. In an attempt to win the argument the customer picks up the parrot and hits its head against the counter several times, to show the shopkeeper that it is now beyond feeling pain. The shopkeeper responds, "Now you've stunned it." At their best, the Monty Python team could shed light on British culture at its most ridiculous.

Though British comedy has never really achieved as much as it did during the seventies, since then it has still produced some original material. Stand up comedy has gained popularity, and a lot of clubs specialising in this have opened up around the country. Just as with the Karaoke craze, there are nights when members of the audience are encouraged to get on the stage and try and make everyone laugh. The Monty Python brand of humour can be traced in television programmes such as Shooting Stars, a spoof of a pretend quiz show, hosted by Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer. Unlike the Monty Python group, however, Reeves and Mortimer are working class and have thick, northeastern accents. One of the parts of their programme is to invite one of their celebrity contestants to participate in a game at the end of the show. Not a great deal of planning seemed to have gone into these games and one involved the singer from the band Pulp, Jarvis Cocker, wearing a crash helmet and having fruit dropped onto his head by Bob Mortimer. The first to land was a grape, the next an apple. Naturally, the need for the crash helmet was soon proven and Mr Cocker was seen wincing after a melon dived onto his head. It would be difficult to think of a purpose to this game but it was funny to watch. And that just about sums up British comedy.

Here is a typical sketch from Monty Python. It demonstrates the British love of all things silly. A man is being interviewed on British television about his very unusual physiological problem.

The Man With Three Buttocks:
a sketch by Monty Python's Flying Circus

Eric Idle: And now for something completely different. A man with three buttocks!

Host (John Cleese): I have with me Mr Arthur Frampton who... (pause) Mr Frampton, I understand that you - um - as it were... (pause) Well, let me put it another way. Erm, I believe that whereas most people have - er - two... Two.
Frampton (Michael Palin): Oh, sure.
Host: Ah well, er, Mr Frampton. Erm, is that chair comfortable?
Frampton: Fine, yeah, fine.
Host: Mr Frampton, er, vis-a-vis your... (pause) rump.
Frampton: I beg your pardon?
Host: Your rump.
Frampton: What?
Host: Er, your derriere. (Whispers) Posterior. Sit-upon.
Frampton: What's that?
Host (whispers): Your buttocks.
Frampton: Oh, me bum!
Host (hurriedly): Sshhh! Well now, I understand that you, Mr Frampton, have a... (pause) 50% bonus in the region of what you say.
Frampton: I got three cheeks.
Host: Yes, yes, excellent, excellent. Well, we were wondering, Mr Frampton, if you could see your way clear to giving us a quick... (pause) a quick visual... (long pause). Mr Frampton, would you take your trousers down.
Frampton: What? (to cameramen) 'Ere, get that away! I'm not taking me trousers down on television. What do you think I am?
Host: Please take them down?
Frampton: No!
Host: No, er look, er Mr Frampton. It's quite easy for somebody just to come along here claiming... that they have a bit to spare in the botty department. The point is, our viewers need proof.
Frampton: I been on Persian Radio, and the Forces' Network!