Although I have lived in the United States, acquiring a US social security number, a clapped-out Chevrolet and an enduring affection for Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, and although I have crossed the Atlantic at least 50 times, either for holidays or on writing assignments, I unfailingly find myself disorientated by the way in which everything, from the language to the simple light switch, at first seems so very much the same as in Britain while, on closer acquaintance, being so very different.
Last week, in New York City with my family, I experienced another manifestation of this same-but-different syndrome. We went to a matinee of the Broadway show Wicked, which in most respects was just like attending a matinee of a successful musical in the West End: the same crush in the foyer, the same excited hubbub, the same inflated prices at the bar.
But a Broadway audience emotes in a quite different way to a West End audience. Throughout the show there were ripples of applause when something nice happened to someone good, or something horrid to someone bad, and at the end, there was a rapturous standing ovation, which we joined principally because it was the only way we could see the stage. While we were clapping, my wife Jane leant over to me and made the perceptive observation that it would take Sir Larry's last night to produce an ovation on this scale in the West End. And then something else unexpected happened. Although the applause showed no sign of petering out, the leading lady, Ana Gasteyer, suddenly stepped forward and called for hush. American Equity was collecting to help Aids sufferers, she said, and members of the cast would be circulating in the lobby with buckets. If everyone in the audience gave $20, that would mean $40,000 raised in just one afternoon. Renewed applause. Twenty dollar bills were then fished out of pockets and purses, and everybody filed out of the auditorium.
Although we duly coughed up, Jane and I agreed afterwards that we felt mildly miffed by this turn of events. It was unsettling to see the leading lady stepping out of character quite so soon. For more than two hours we had been led to believe that she was the Wicked Witch of the West, yet she was thrusting reality at us after less than two minutes of our appreciation. Also, we felt vaguely indignant at being strong-talked into shelling out more money on what had already been a staggeringly expensive afternoon, even for such a deserving cause.
Here, too, there are fundamental differences between us and them. Americans are more charitable than we are, and it all begins with the tipping system. At most restaurants we went to, there was a note printed on the bill - sorry, the check - explaining that 18 per cent of the total is considered an appropriate gratuity. But sometimes the 18 per cent was included as a service charge, and still the check arrived with a space for a gratuity. On one memorable occasion, the check came with the service charge included, a space for a gratuity, and a further space marked "additional gratuity". Yet none of the waiters had given me a head massage. Just how good does service have to be to pay for it three times over?
Still, I try, when I am in America, to tip like a Yank and not a Brit. This is because in 1980 I worked as a humble bagagiste - a bag-carrier - in a Paris hotel. I know what it is like being on the receiving end both of American munificence, and British parsimony.
Don't make me laugh with this nonsense
On Saturday I foolishly sat through the latest of Channel 4's 100 greatest ways of filling an evening's TV schedules, The 100 Greatest Comedy Films. I knew I would be outraged, and so I was.
Life of Brian was top, which I couldn't quibble with, but then came Airplane, Shaun of the Dead, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, and South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. No Chaplin or Keaton, no Capra or Wilder or Woody Allen. Channel 4 defends this nonsense by saying that it was a public vote, but the public can't be trusted with such matters.
In 1996 I was on a panel charged with drawing up a shortlist of the greatest BBC sitcoms ever made. We were told that at least one of them had to be contemporary, which is how Men Behaving Badly got the public nod ahead of Fawlty Towers, Porridge and Steptoe and Son, to the embarrassment even of Simon Nye, its creator.
* Just to return to the special if somewhat confusing relationship between Britain and America, children all over our green and pleasant land will tonight be trick-or-treating, turning up on doorsteps wearing grotesque Hallowe'en masks and expecting a fun-sized Snickers bar in return, at the very least. It is fashionable for my generation to sneer at this invasion of Americana, while waxing nostalgic about the very English but now obsolete charms of Mischief Night, on November 4, when bangers were shoved through letterboxes or paper bags filled with dog poo placed on doorsteps, then set alight. The miscreants then rang the doorbell and ran away, watching gleefully as the unfortunate resident came to the door and stamped out the fire. On balance, it's probably better to invest in a bag of fun-sized Snickers bars.
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