COMEDY / The triumph of Hope over adversity

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The Independent Culture
'ME, GEORGE BURNS and a couple of older fellas; we get together every Saturday night and try to get in touch with the living.' This is one of approximately 12 jokes Bob Hope delivers to the Royal Albert Hall in the course of his hour on stage. For most of those in attendance, this works out at more than pounds 2 a gag, but no one is complaining. The presence of the old master is enough. And if most of his material has to be fed to him by his piano player, that is nothing new either: learning lines was never a priority with this patron saint of the autocue. 'What comedian,' Hope is once reported to have asked, 'is going to give up playing golf for a script?'

His short, sprightly bursts of stand-up (and sometimes sit-down) comedy are punctuated with long film-clip compilations of past career highlights, projected on to a large screen above the heads of the New Squadronaires Orchestra. His commentary on these is recorded, not live, so there is a weird reality lapse where the real Hope rasp fades into the taped Hope rasp. 'Since he made his first appearance he's been constantly in motion,' chirrup the singers on the soundtrack, 'subscribing to the notion that where there's life there's Hope.' Given Bob's legendary affinity for combat zones - established on his first Forces show, when he got so many laughs he thought his fly was undone - this might be more appropriately rendered as 'Where there's armed conflict and the imminent threat of violent death, there's Hope'.

All these years of blurring the distinction between trooper and trouper do not seem to have diminished his love for the stage. As his opening song (yes, he sings) 'I'm Available' makes clear, this man would still play the opening of a packet of crisps if the money was right. Hope's vocal range is not what it was, but anyone who hit puberty before the Russian revolution can be forgiven for that. 'Ninety-one and 85,' his wife Dolores reminds us, as he proves himself magnificently incapable of remembering the words to 'Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree', 'so don't expect too much.'

The singing voice of the long-suffering Mrs Hope - who looks like Barbara Bush's most elegant aunt - is in fact still in good order, and her 'It Had to Be You' has a real twinkle in its eye. When the two of them do 'It's Delovely', with Bob singing the first word of each line, there is even a flash of that effortless mid-song repartee that made him and Frank and Gene and Bing the four coolest men in the world.

Bob Hope was always older than he had a right to be - playing the romantic lead with Natalie Wood and Eve Marie-Saint when he should have been their father - but his audience is younger than anyone would have dreamt. Some are there to see our own old-fashioned song and dance funnyman Brian Conley, who does a lovely turn from Me & My Girl but falls victim to a heckler of rare acuity: when Brian asks the audience to suggest impressions for him to do, a mighty voice booms down from the balcony, 'a comedian'. Most, however, have come to pay tribute to a pioneer post-modernist: perhaps sensing that without Bob Hope and the Road movies and Son of Paleface, there would have been no Bob Monkhouse and also no Wayne's World.

Sue Lawley was not the only one to take refuge in patriotism this week. In From the Ridiculous to the Paranormal, an autobiographical one-man show at the Lyric Theatre, The Goon Show founder Michael Bentine referred to being born English as 'first prize in the lottery of life'. His wartime experiences at least - after being refused entry to the RAF 11 times on account of his half-Peruvian parentage, Bentine was arrested as a deserter; he then contracted typhoid, typhus and tetanus as a result of a bungled inoculation - would seem to suggest otherwise.

Bentine's capacity for laughing in the face of misfortune is the stuff of legend. He now has cancer, and describes this as his farewell appearance, and yet there is not a moment of sadness or self-pity in his two-hour performance. Setting aside the deranged invention which made his Potty Time television series a gateway to surrealism for so many Seventies children (well, this one anyway), Bentine focuses on often equally remarkable true-life reminiscences, and leaves the stage with a grin. Goon, but not forgotten.