Look back in laughter

From Round the Horne to the Goons, classic radio comedies are being revived on stage. And amazingly, says Michael Coveney, it works
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Nostalgia has been the latest new comedy trend, with Geoffrey Rush treading lightly around the explosive genius of Peter Sellers in the cinema, and Rhys Ifans and Aidan McArdle summoning the ghosts of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in Terry Johnson's television biopic Not Only but Always. But the funniest and most evocative comedy event of all has been the West End resuscitation of old radio sketches from Round the Horne by a cast of complete but competent unknowns. Even more intriguing was the arrival in London last week - from the West Yorkshire Playhouse - of Ying Tong, a brilliant new play by Roy Smiles based on Spike Milligan's mental breakdown as a result of being Spike Milligan.

So, what is going on? Is this a zeitgeist thing, or simply a realisation that there are more things in comedy heaven and earth than are dreamt of in Little Britain? The touring version of Round the Horne has been selling out in huge theatres around the country, leading its director, Michael Kingsbury, to deduce that the middle-aged theatre-going audience is catching up with its own past. "After all," he says, "Round the Horne played to 15 million people every Sunday lunchtime, and most of those listeners are still alive. That show, and The Goon Show, tapped into the British psyche during the bleak post-war 1950s, and helped to redefine it through humour and irreverence."

And the imperishable, influential power of the Goons and Tony Hancock is a reminder that comedy is most effective when shared in the intimacy of a theatrical aside or a radio murmur. Hancock transferred successfully to television, but his origins were in music hall and its cultural outpost, the Bakelite wireless.

On leaving Antony Sher's lightly gruelling but undramatic National Theatre performance as Primo Levi in Auschwitz (now at Hampstead Theatre), I overheard one audience member suggest to her companion that she might as well have heard the piece on the radio. The fallacious idea that she was propounding was that radio is ideally suited to plays where nothing much happens and the sets don't matter. In effect, the opposite is the case.

Good radio drama, and especially good radio comedy, liberates the listener in the same way as Shakespeare intended his theatre to "piece out" a play's "imperfections" with our thoughts. My favourite production of The Winter's Tale was on the old Third Programme years ago, with Benny Hill as Autolycus. And when Willy Russell's heroine in Educating Rita is asked to write an essay on how to solve the difficulties of staging Ibsen's Peer Gynt, she simply responds, "Do it on the radio".

Which may go some way toward explaining why we are in the middle of a boom that reverses that overheard National Theatre-goer's cliché about radio drama and confines the wild and surreal comedy of Round the Horne to the harsh physical dimensions of the London stage. The material itself is the real joy, lovingly restored by Kingsbury and the sole surviving Round the Horne writer, Brian Cooke. A newly employed bus conductor is asked how he is getting on. "At the back of the bus, like everyone else." A doctor is asked whether he charges his patients. "No, not the ladies; I sidle up to them." Julian and Sandy, as camp cooks, have an orange spotted dick that has caused a comment or two. And if you wanted to compliment a girl on her nice legs, you might find yourself exclaiming: "How bona to vada your dally old leeks!"

The radio-ness of Round the Horne has been subtly theatricalised. Whereas in the original recordings, the actors would share one microphone, leaping up from the front row of the audience in turns, Kingsbury's cast is ranged in a line, the effect of a heightened reconstruction enhanced by the visible sound engineer, the flashing lights, the institutional chairs.

With Ying Tong, the problem of comic personality is more intrusive but, as with Round the Horne, Kingsbury has cast actors rather than accurate impressionists. Still, the premise of Roy Smiles' play is that Spike Milligan's creative association with "the Mummy's boy, the singing leek and the Peruvian from Watford" - as he calls Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and Michael Bentine, respectively - flourished at the cost of his sanity.

Comics always had problems, which is why they were comics in the first place. Michael Kingsbury is fond of quoting the late veteran actress Athene Seyler, who said that good comedy required a bad disposition. So it was odd to find Richard Ingrams complaining in print that people were obsessed with the wretched private lives of the great comedians. This background to comedy genius has been a constant factor in the way we now look at the sad decline of Peter Cook, the tragic, alcoholic suicide of Tony Hancock (aged, incredibly, just 44) and the sexual and social insecurity, with moving hairpiece, of Frankie Howerd, as itemised in Graham McCann's splendid recent biography. These guys, we now realise, were working out some sort of deep post-war angst through their comedy, which was pitched at the mainstream culture while redefining it. And the terms of reference were universally shared.

Toward the end of the run of Hancock's Half Hour on radio in the late 1950s, they announced a major international festival of the arts to follow those of Edinburgh and Salzburg in the Scouts' hall in East Cheam. One of the playlets performed by Hancock, Sid James, Bill Kerr and Hattie Jacques was Look Back in Hunger by a writer called John Eastbourne. Hancock's bolshie hero was offered a cup of tea: "Tea? The panacea of the working class, you make me sick... the whole country is stained in a tea of apathy." He was then told to shut up and put on his trousers: "No, I want to be different!" protested Hancock .

John Osborne's Look Back in Anger (1956) was spoofed but also acknowledged as part of a shared cultural inheritance and innovation. The comedy of Hancock tuned into the culture of the nation, and did so, week after week, for a decade. Osborne's new "modern sociological drama", a theatre that would relaunch the career of Laurence Olivier in The Entertainer in 1958, was regarded by the real "national theatre" - the BBC-appropriated vaudeville - of Hancock and Co as a sham to be mocked, but a recognisable sham none the less.

This crucial split between art and popular culture has bedevilled us ever since. Fragmentation is the word. There was once a shared national enthusiasm for music hall and pantomime. When Ian McKellen as Widow Twankey at the Old Vic declared (with reason) that she was "a very foolish, fond old woman", we were ushered into the world of King Lear, and the actor's imminent assault on that inevitable peak; McKellen's Twankey might still prove to be the greater performance.

It is well documented that Peter Cook and John Cleese "bunked off" school to listen to the Goons. The bizarre narratives of Round the Horne certainly owe a great deal to The Goon Show, as indeed has every comedy phenomenon since, from Beyond the Fringe and Monty Python's Flying Circus to The Fast Show.

But whereas the current Round the Horne is a glorious, celebratory revisitation, Ying Tong avoids quoting any original material and, in reconstructing The Goon Show, as Kingsbury says, "right in the middle of Milligan's marbles", questions the value of comedy achieved at such a price. Which is one way of defining a tragedy and examining ourselves.

Ying Tong is subtitled "A Walk with the Goons" and comes with the author's thanks to Terry Johnson, the playwright whose 1998 play at the National, Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick, started the latest phase of theatrical comedy writing through the echoing memory of past performers. The oddest aspect of that play's first night was the presence in the stalls of a real-life Barbara Windsor cackling at her own onstage persona (brilliantly played by Samantha Spiro), a sort of ultimate alienation effect, unimaginable in the theatre of Bertolt Brecht. But I took Miss Windsor's delight in the play to signal both the authenticity of Johnson's portrayal and the quality of his writing, for the character took on a comic life of its own - as did Johnson's portraits of Kenneth Williams and Sid James - beyond the shared expectations of the name and outline.

Hancock, of course, has been a subject for dramatists for even longer. There were at least two stage shows in which he figured in the early 1970s. But the miserable denizen of 23, Railway Cuttings will walk abroad once more, courtesy of Roy Smiles' next play, The Lad Himself, which is set, Kingsbury tells me, in limbo, " which is the only place, a sort of waiting-room, where we can pose the sort of existential questions we need to ask". Casting is not yet announced, but I can imagine Michael Gambon making a very good stab at Hancock's hilarious and baleful astrakhan-coated despondency...