Tom Sutcliffe: 'You stupid boy' spoke volumes

The week in culture

I found myself wondering how catchphrases work the other day, prompted in part by the death of David Croft and the efficiency with which just a few words – "Don't panic!" say, or "You stupid boy" – could summon up a whole set of affectionate memories. There seems to be an insufficiency of means and an over-supply of effect here. After all, you'd be hard placed to argue that there's anything inherently memorable about these words set in this order, in the way that a single line of Shakespeare can be memorable. Out of context they're nothing. If someone had never seen Dad's Army, then Captain Mainwaring's exasperated utterance would look like nothing at all – just a flat, uninflected insult. Unimaginative even, given that rebuke can take far more florid forms. And yet something about these phrases lifted them above the oblivion that almost all language is doomed to. What exactly is the trick they're pulling off? I wasn't sure I could say. And then Robert Peston, the BBC's business editor, came to my assistance.

He didn't know he was doing it. He thought he was tweeting about the Bank of England's Financial Policy Committee statement on Wednesday. "Bank of England orders banks to boost capital & liquidity to protect against shocks," he wrote, "but not to do so if this chokes off econ recovery. Doh!" And, in just four of the 140 characters that Twitter restricts you to, he'd added about a paragraph's worth of explication and added meaning – at least for anyone who's ever regularly watched The Simpsons. "Doh!" surely qualifies as the shortest great comic catchphrase ever – so sub-verbal that you could argue that it doesn't count as a catchphrase at all. I'm not sure what else you'd call it, though, since Homer's repeated exclamation of dismay at the mismatch between his intentions and recalcitrant reality does everything that a catchphrase should do. It makes you laugh at the memories of previous uses, and it compresses a universal human experience into a compact space.

Without those last four characters, Peston's note on the FPC statement would have been a much duller affair, simply pointing out an internal contradiction. With it, you got the engaging mental picture of one of the nation's most important financial institutions as a bumbling mid-western dolt, always arriving at the problem in a scheme or enterprise a couple of beats too late. "Doh!", as it's used here, is a perfect shorthand for the painful truth that most of our catastrophes are self-inflicted... and sometimes unavoidably so. That's what's so wonderful about it as a gag, I think. It isn't just that Homer yells in pain when something goes wrong. It's that it has dawned on him just too late that his previous action can't be recalled or that he's missed an obvious catch. Like Homer's other trademark noise – the liquid gargle of reflex appetite he emits when he thinks of ham hocks or doughnuts or beer – it gives voice to something that everyone understands.

Not all catchphrases do that, obviously. Some of them are just the verbal equivalents of badges for fans to stick on their lapels. Others allow the witless – infuriatingly – to take a cheating short-cut to comedy (think of someone adding "Nudge, nudge, wink, wink" to any statement of even mild ambiguity for a mental picture of that process). But when they really take, it's often because they offer a shorthand for a more complicated and hard-earned comedy. "You stupid boy" does that, summoning as it does all of Arthur Lowe's magisterial impatience, which, as anyone who's seen the original comedy knows, begins at a simmer and gets worse with every passing second. And while there's nothing in the words "you stupid boy" that convey a sense of deferred explosion, there is in the catchphrase. It doesn't just register a five-second moment; it describes a whole character and the time that it's taken us to get to know him. "Don't panic!", uttered in tones of helpless agitation, does something similar. It beautifully pins down the deep comedy of our attempt to act as rational beings while the screeching chimp inside all of us bounces off the walls of the cage. And it briefly pins it down, most importantly. The catchphrases that stick are miracles of miniaturisation – which is why they can be handy on Twitter. They make you laugh, in part at least, because you can't quite believe so few words could stand for so much.

Kevin Smith takes care of his own business

I'm looking forward to Kevin Smith's Red State, partly because I saw a pretty seductive trailer for it at the cinema last week. John Goodman? Racks of automatic weapons? A Waco-style fundamentalist with a taste for human sacrifice? That's my Friday night sorted. But it's also because, despite the fact that I'm one of the enemy as far as Smith is concerned (critics and journalists featuring on his ladder of creation some way below the herpes virus), I'm rooting for him to succeed in taking on the standard business Hollywood model. Smith himself colourfully denied having any commercial or business ambitions when he showcased his film in Sundance at the beginning of the year – "I never wanted to know jack shit about business," he said, "I'm a fat, masturbating stoner. That's why I got into the movie business." But his decision to side-step the usual distribution routes, go without a multi-million dollar marketing budget and get his film out through special screenings and digital sales, is genuinely interesting. British audiences won't get the Q&A screenings, which to my mind is something of a blessing (I'd pay a premium not to be lectured at by Smith afterwards) but it may well be part of his calculation that a successful release in an overseas market will ripple back and help publicise the film in America. So, do your bit for the quite hefty little guy and buy a ticket. You're hitting back at the guys who sold you Transformers 2.

An inventive new sketch show

It's never too late to acquire another piece of arcane aesthetic vocabulary and my most recent acquisition is ekphrasis, the graphic verbal description of a visual work of art. I picked it up at one of the National Galleries playgroups for grown-ups – a talk and draw session at which you can combine a bit of sketching (they supply the materials) with a bit of fine-art education. In this case the assembled audience (rather larger than the 40 they say they can cater for) was given the task of sketching two works of art solely from spoken accounts from Ben Street and artist Aliki Braine. In the first case we worked from descriptions of Bacchus and Ariadne's meeting on Naxos, and in the second we were given a kind of verbal recipe, reduced to geometrical instructions and precise picture proportions, for Thomas Jones's oil sketch A Wall in Naples. The ekphrasis for what I produced myself would run something like "cack-handed scribbles", but it was an engaging way to spend a lunchtime. The next event – part of next months Big Draw events – uses Rubens's The Brazen Serpent as a model and promises to help participants loosen their drawing technique "using long pieces of dowel". Arrive early if you actually want to draw, but that one sounds as if it might be quite fun for spectators as well.



t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
    Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness