Friday 4 March 2011
Brian Viner: Laughter can be a local delicacy, too
We all know, or think we know, that nationalities differ in terms of what makes them laugh. And of course we British pride ourselves on having a superior sense of humour than the Germans (especially the Germans), the French and even the Americans, who are said to lack our acute ear for irony, although if television comedy ever produced two greater deliverers of the ironic quip than Seattle psychiatrists Frasier and Niles Crane, I can't think of them. Nope, not even Terry and June.
Whatever, I have lately been pondering a more localised version of this phenomenon. Can it be that the sense of humour varies not just from country to country but, within our own country, from region to region? I have evidence that it does, based on the experiences of Pentabus Theatre Company, the small troupe of brilliant actors who have, these past five weeks, been touring England in the stage adaptation of my book about moving from the city to the sticks, Tales of the Country.
The tour began in Herefordshire on 28 January, and having passed through Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Dorset, Somerset, Northumberland, Durham and Shropshire, concludes tomorrow evening at Plumley Village Hall in Cheshire. On the whole, the many funny lines (and in writing that I blow not my own trumpet but that of Nick Warburton, the accomplished playwright who did the adaptation) have been uproariously received everywhere, and yet the actors have noticed some distinct anomalies.
For example, the lovely Sarah Stanley, who plays my wife Jane, has an exchange, with the fellow from whom we buy our house in Herefordshire after leaving London N8, about notable topographical features of the Welsh Marches. There being two nearby hills called Lord Hereford's Knob and Myarth, she asks him whether he has ever climbed to the top of the former (he says he has, many times), and then she saucily adds, "but you've never been up Myarth?" No, he says wistfully, regrettably he never has.
This got a big laugh everywhere except Northumberland, where there was audible disapproval. And while I wouldn't want to give the impression that the show is bottom-fixated, there is another line in which Charlie Buckland, who plays me, utters the word "arseholes". Apparently they loved that in Northumberland and everywhere else, except Yeovil in Somerset.
Disappointingly for my theory, Charlie thinks there's more to it than geography. He reckons the warmth of audiences is literal, that people sitting in a cold auditorium take longer to warm up emotionally as well as physically, and points out that, even indoors, it was decidedly chilly up north. But I'm sticking with the beguiling idea that folk are slightly primmer in Northumberland and Somerset than in Shropshire and Dorset, and can also cite as evidence something John Cleese said to me in an interview 10 years ago, surely proving that even along the south coast, senses of humour vary from place to place.
"I never thought it was funny," the great man said of Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks. "We did it on the stage tour in Southampton where it laid a total egg. Imagine walking round like that and not getting any laughs? I said to the other guys, 'this doesn't work,' but they persuaded me to do it the following night in Brighton, where the audience roared with laughter and my heart sank. I was saddled with the bloody thing. It's probably why I've had to have a hip replacement."
Even this defeat wasn't as bad as Belo Horizonte
How is a proud Englishman meant to respond to profound sporting humiliation, of the kind visited upon our World Cup cricketers on Wednesday by one of the game's minnows, Ireland? I'm never quite sure. Should I roll my eyes or bang my fists? Congratulate my Irish friends or avoid them?
I suppose we all respond in different ways, but, among those of us who passionately follow England in a range of sports, what you won't find any more is the reach-for-the-smelling-salts disbelief that greeted the news, almost 61 years ago, that the USA had defeated Tom Finney, Stan Mortensen, Billy Wright, Alf Ramsey and the rest of our boys in the football World Cup, astoundingly winning the game 1-0.
That was, and remains, England's ultimate sporting humiliation, and the Brazilian city where it happened, Belo Horizonte, is still an entirely apt synonym for being knocked flat against all the odds.
But there have been enough assaults on our pride since that summer's day in 1950 to instill in all of us the cynical conviction that there is no surer thing in international sport than that England will, occasionally, contrive a terrible, resounding pratfall.
A book that will remain unwritten
A fortnight ago in this space I wrote about my new friend Derek Brown, an illustrious former foreign correspondent hoping to find a publisher for the biography he was planning of Percy F Westerman, the prolific writer of adventure stories for boys.
I confessed to Derek, and again here, that I had never heard of Westerman. Letters and emails came raining in, some expressing amazement at my ignorance, and others welcoming Derek's project. Among them was a note from a non-fiction editor at Macmillan, who said she liked the sound of a Westerman biography, and could I put her in touch with Derek? I passed this on, and he was duly thrilled.
Yet shortly afterwards, a week to the day since I first met him, I heard that Derek had suddenly and unexpectedly died, aged 63. For cruel improbability, fiction has nothing on fact.
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