David Lister: The Week in Arts

Funniest one-liner of all time? I doubt it ...
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This week there was a vote for the funniest one-liner in TV comedy history. The winner was Peter Kay for a line from his television show Phoenix Nights. The line was: "Garlic bread - it's the future, I've tasted it."

I guess you had to be there. Actually, it's not a bad line (but the funniest in TV history?!). Actually, it's not the line itself I'm concerned about. It's the "in TV comedy history" bit. Television comedy history goes back some time, yet all the top 10 winning lines - with the sole exception of one from Fawlty Towers: "Oh you're German. I'm sorry, I thought there was something wrong with you" - came from the past 15 years.

This is invariably the case in "best of all time" surveys. The memory span of respondents is woeful. Last week, Victoria Wood and Dawn French topped a "funniest women of all time" survey. Both are admirable comediennes. But did any of the Fifties and Sixties funny-women get a look in, let alone the stars of the music hall? There's a certain arrogance in such lists. Why do they seem to contain only acts that we have actually seen - and, more specifically, that we have seen in the past few months?

Some 4,000 people took part in the survey for the best one-liner in TV comedy history, yet hardly any of them had a memory or an interest in comedy that predatedI'm Alan Partridge and The Vicar of Dibley.

Best-of lists need more of a historical perspective. But even with a nod to TV history, it's doubtful that one-liners can ever really stand up when ripped out of their context. One of my favourite one-liners comes from Tony Hancock's TV spoof of Twelve Angry Men. As chairman of the jury, he makes an impassioned plea for mercy to his fellow jurors with the words: "Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?"

Well, at least it's more than a couple of years old. But it probably looks no great shakes in print. One-liners rarely do. This week's list has some that are quite funny - the priest in Father Ted saying: "I'm not a fascist. I'm a priest. Fascists dress up in black and tell people what to do. Whereas priests ... more drink?"

It has some that were funny on screen when spoken by a character we know but lose it on the page - Trigger in Only Fools and Horses saying: "If it's a girl they're gonna name it Sigourney after an actress, and if it's a boy they're gonna name him Rodney after Dave." And there are some that are for fans and fans alone - Rowan Atkinson's Edmund Blackadder saying: "He's mad. He's madder than Mad Jack McMad, the winner of this year's Mr Madman competition."

There are even some that you can't help but feel you said yourself, without ever dreaming it would win an award - Steve Coogan as Alan Partridge saying: "I'm going nowhere, Lynn. Quite literally. I'm on the ring road."

You take your choice. I can't help but feel there have been funnier lines in the dim and distant past of comedy history. The problem is that in all such lists there is no dim and distant past. History started in this decade. Hancock, Steptoe and Son, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?, Dad's Army, The Young Ones - it's as if they had never been.

Academics, parents and politicians sometimes wring their hands about the state of history teaching in schools. But the bigger problem is with TV obsessives. For them, history doesn't exist. Every week there is another "best of all time" list. And, every week, "all time" turns out to be no time at all.

Fringe benefits

How often do we read about theatre directors casting movie stars to boost audiences. Sometimes it works; this week it didn't. Susannah York, right, a star of some big films in her day, performed in Karen Blixen's play The Deluge at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe to an audience of just six people. I hate to add insult to injury, but I'm going to amend that figure to five people, as The Independent critic, who was present, doesn't technically count as a ticket-buying member of the audience.

The play wasn't on in one of the main Fringe venues, it wasn't well publicised, and in the Fringe brochure its puff over-modestly doesn't mention it has a star in the cast. So there are legitimate excuses for the poor turn-out.

Miss York's performance was apparently excellent. I urge visitors to the festival to go to see the play, and show Miss York that she is not forgotten. We can't risk one of our fine British actresses having a mid-life crisis in a cold Edinburgh hall.

* Critics covering the Santa Fe opera festival in the New Mexican desert noted this week how extraordinary it was that the weather matched the subject matter on stage. The back and sides of the Santa Fe auditorium are open to the elements; and while an opera version of The Tempest played, there was an electrical storm. The storm came back the next night for The Magic Flute, which also contains thunder and lightning.

I'm not convinced, though, that this was such a perfect match of elements and art. The Tempest does indeed have a storm at the start, but harmony is reached at the end, and some sunshine would have been more fitting. And I gather that in The Magic Flute the genuine lightning flashed for the Queen of the Night's dramatic entrance a few seconds after the recorded thunderclap. Fully covered auditoria may be so last year - but they are less confusing.