People: Just plain and simple funny

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WITH a name like Graeme Garden, I thought there was a good chance that the droll medic, mainstay of many a radio and TV comedy programme, would be striding out along the Embankment this morning. All the more so when I learnt that the co-star (with Clive Anderson and Jeremy Hardy) of If I Ruled the World, BBC2's new Friday-night show, lived in deepest Oxfordshire.

Chipping Norton, however, sounds like the kind of place where showbiz goes to put on its green wellies. Comedian Ronnie Barker has an antiques shop there. Actors Ben Kingsley and Freddie Jones are neighbours. There's even a studio where you can edit videos. "I looked out of the window the other night," Graeme told me a little sheepishly, "and I couldn't see any beacons. I think we must be slacking."

No such charge could be levelled against Graeme. If I Ruled the World began its run last week - his first TV series since Body Matters in the 1980s. He's still a member - after 26 years - of the incomparable I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue team on Radio 4. And then there are the comic instructional films he makes on matters medical, which you won't have seen unless you've a condition that your GP thinks one of them might help to address.

So while, at 55, it's tempting to describe this as a comeback, the man forever saddled with having once been a Goodie has never really been away. He's simply waited for the fashion for his type of comedy - verbal wit allied to a singular brand of dead-pan lunacy - to come back in. As he said when I asked him exactly where we'd got to in comedy trends - ironic, post-modern, post-post-modern or whatever - "I think maybe we've gone back to just 'funny'." There's also the return to what Graeme calls the "Alastair Sim syndrome - someone who looks dignified while doing jokes. The classic example would be the two Johns [Bird and Fortune] on the Rory Bremner programme."

Humour and medicine run in the Garden family. "My dad was a surgeon who was also a very funny speaker." Graeme spent the first four years of his life in Aberdeen, then moved to a village in Lancashire, "and gradually worked my way south".

He first came to prominence in I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again, the 1960s radio comedy classic that marked the beginning of a long association with John Cleese and can justifiably claim to have helped inspire Monty Python's Flying Circus. And it was around this time that Graeme got to work with Orson Welles. That's probably worth repeating. Graeme Garden worked with Orson Welles.

"I'd been doing a show with Tim Brooke-Taylor called Broaden Your Mind, and my agent got a call from someone who said they were Orson Welles's assistant. Welles was in London, he said, making a television series, and wanted us to work with him. I remember we went along to a flat in St John's Wood thinking this was just someone larking about, and there he was.

"The show was something like 'Round the World With Orson Welles', and he wanted to do some sketches with us. We went off to shoot at Ham House in Richmond, and I remember thinking, 'How appropriate'. I was all dressed up as an 18th-century butler, complete with wig. Then, on the way, Orson decided he wanted breakfast, and we stopped at the Dorchester. I had to go off to the loo, and when I came back the restaurant was so full I couldn't see Orson anywhere. There I was, wandering up and down in full costume, and suddenly this great voice boomed out, 'Graeme Garden, stop cruising!' He was delightful."

THEY may be stopping us getting any tickets for the World Cup, but it seems that French opposition to Franglais is destined to be swept aside. The latest example is provided by The Full Monty. In French cinemas the film has been playing under the title Le Grand Jeu - this, in spite of the fact that there is, I'm told, an equivalent French expression for the term, which is Le Complet Veston. The origin of the "full monty" is disputed, but many people will tell you that it refers to the suit that demobbed soldiers were given at the end of the Second World War. So Le Complet Veston fits, as it were. Now the guardians of the French language are paying for their obtuseness. Cinema-goers are simply ignoring the title of Le Grand Jeu. For them, the only question is, "Avez-vous vu Le Full Monty?" One-nil!

Goodbye to the first of its kind

IN THE week that we are celebrating the 65th birthday of Michael Caine, I feel it appropriate to bring you a "not many people know that" item. I am indebted for it to Mr Noel Moore, who as the Secretary of the Decimal Currency Board in 1969 oversaw the introduction of the original 50p piece.

You will be aware that yesterday was the last day on which the coin was still legal tender - from now on, only the newer, smaller 50p can be used. In wishing to mark the demise of the old 50p, I approached Mr Moore for a tribute, and came away intrigued and enlightened. The term "equilateral curve heptagon" will, I trust, be enough to catch your attention. It refers not just to the fact that the coin had seven sides - the first such coin in the world - but that its breadth still remained constant at all points. Since it's the breadth of a coin by which vending machines "read" them, that was rather important. But at the same time the seven edges made it distinctive, and immediately identifiable by touch. Damn clever, these coin people.

Not that it stopped people taking against the 50p, replac- ing as it did the much loved 10-shilling note. "We were rather taken by surprise," Mr Moore told me. "We'd done a lot of research and nobody objected very much, but the uproar started once it was actually in people's pockets." No doubt they failed to appreciate the finer points of its equilateral curve heptagonness.

Oh, and many happy returns to Michael Caine.

I WAS all ready to put my critical faculties on hold and try very hard to respond to Mr Blair's Millennium Dome rallying cry last week - until I heard him declare that the Dome would be "the envy of the world". It wasn't the concept that I objected to, hard though I find it to believe that many foreigners will look on and wish that they had a Millennium Dome of their own. It was his choice of words. Hadn't I heard them somewhere before?

As with the contentious "Dreamscape" element of the Dome, the subject of a threatened trademark dispute, someone else, I'm afraid, had got there first with "the envy of the world". Obviously nobody in the Government has much interest in Radio 3, because the widely publicised history of it that came out only just over a year ago to mark its 50th anniversary was titled ... yes, The Envy of the World.

The old Third Programme had been thus described in 1957 by a Cambridge University academic, Dr Peter Laslett. The words had a ring to them, they weren't forgotten by the people at Radio 3, and when Humphrey Carpenter sat down to write the book of the network, he knew he had a ready-made title. "It does seem an odd coincidence," he told me last week. "But I'm not quite sure whether the Millennium Dome is the equal of Radio 3."

The system takes its cut

AS IS widely known, Customs and Excise is a constant source of information and entertainment. Its "VAT Notes No 41997" contains a sharp entry about khat, the leaf much loved in Arabia and east Africa, where it turns on millions who chew it or use it to make tea. Now our authorities have been seriously turned off it. Until 1 February this year supplies had been zero-rated for VAT: as a herbal stimulant, it was defined as a food product. No longer. "In the light of evidence suggesting that khat is being increasingly used as a stimulant drug, it is not regarded as a food produce and is properly standard-rated." Where have they been?

WHAT to do on National Marmalade Day, I wondered last week. "Jam in as much as possible," suggests A Essex-Carter of Northallerton. Or perhaps go round singing "Obla-Di, Obla-Da" (John McDonough of Bristol). We should toast them both.

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