Comedy / Give us a twirl: British comedy of the Forties, Fifties and Sixties threw up some unlikely heroes. Mark Wareham watched the video highlights

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The Independent Culture
In the early 1940s, the idea of a British comedian taking the stage without a moustache was inconceivable. Nowadays, it would be the equivalent of a movie producer trying to put together a Hollywood blockbuster without a budget. No moustache, no show. Where would the laughs come from? It wasn't necessary for the comedian to be funny, but he did have to cover his face with as ridiculous an expanse of upper-lip growth as possible.

The moustache had always lent itself to sending up the classic butt of English humour, the French; but a newcomer to the international political stage, sporting a severely clipped toothbrush under the nose, had now made it permissible for the Germans to be included within the compass of mustachioed mirth. Eddie Gray, who went by the stage name of 'Monsewer', was one of the finest moustache humorists. He spoke nonsense French with a trace of German gibberish, but more importantly, sported several extravagant and much revered sets of whiskers, one of which, with its loops, curls and twirls resembled nothing so much as a kind of hairy Spaghetti Junction.

It was absolutely vital that the moustache be only very loosely attached, thereby giving the impression of being on the verge of collapse and rendering the comedian twice as funny. A wiggling moustache could bring down even the most po-faced of houses. The tricky part was not to lose it completely, since if it ever did fall off, you died. No moustache, no show.

By the 1950s, moustaches were indeed being dropped by many of the acts. In their stead, came another comic fail-safe. . . the wife. Harry Worth: 'My wife, good woman, honest woman, respectable woman. . . it's very monotonous.' Mike Winters: 'How's that pain in the neck?' Bernie Winters: 'She's gone to live with my mother.' Ted Ray: 'I'm suffering from matrimonial indigestion. My wife doesn't agree with me.' And on and on until finally, a decade or so later, she was usurped by the mother-in-law.

Alternative cabaret lore has it that late 1970s / early 1980s crowds were the great abusers, but early comedy audiences were no pushover. The odd flying beer glass at the Comedy Store would have done little to impress Frankie Howerd. He once had a ship's rivet thrown at him. 'If it had hit him,' remembers Max Bygraves, 'it would have killed him.' Roy Castle recalls a rowdy Glasgow Empire rabble at a gig with Jimmy James when they were supporting Slim Whitman in the 1950s. 'They started hissing all the way from the Royal Circle to the stalls. 2,300 people. Then the slow clap began. We went through an 18-minute spot in 4 minutes without leaving a word out. We came off and had to pass Slim's dressing room. He came out in his shirt and said, 'Hey, what's going on here,' and Jimmy James said, 'You are'.'

Similarly, when the new-wave comedians of the late Seventies first let fly their four- letter expletives, they never knew the debt they owed to dangerous Frank Randle. Barred from club after club in the 1940s for use of blue language, Frank thought he'd stumbled on a foolproof way to swear on stage without winding up the management. First he would write 'F' on a blackboard, and his stooge would say, 'Why d'you write 'K' up there?'. Frank would reply, 'Why is it every time I write 'F', you see 'K' '. For that he was thrown out of the theatre at Blackpool and barred for an entire summer season. Frank was so annoyed, he hired a plane and bombed Blackpool Tower with toilet rolls.

Thereafter, things became easier, though there were hiccoughs. Michael Bentine recalls a turbulent Goon Show. 'They once gave us an audience of 150 nuns. Milligan walked on and said, 'Jesus Christ'. At the end of the show the floor was covered in beads. They'd broken every rosary in the joint.'

By the time the 1960s came round satire was all the rage, but, reckoned Roy Kinnear, for most comedians it was just a pretext for getting away with naughty stuff. 'With satire, you can say 'bum', 'poo', anything. What satire amounts to is an agile mind saying 'Take yer knickers off'.'

Golden Years of British Comedy 1940s, 1950s & 1960s, Vision Video 3 x 60 mins pounds 10.99 each

(Photographs omitted)