Art à la carte

The first time I was ever invited to a book launch, many years ago, I was an innocent. I was so innocent I even read the book beforehand, the one that was being launched. I imagined everyone would be discussing it. I still remember the name of the book that we met to celebrate. It was The Business of Music, the life story of Ernst Roth, who had fled Nazi Austria and become a top British music publisher.

I asked the first person I met: "So, what did you think of the Roth book, then?"

"Oh, it's the Roth party tonight, is it?" he said. "I go to so many, I can never remember which one I'm at."

Then he looked at me in what I thought was awe, but I now realise was scorn.

"Do you mean you've read the book? Good God."

You never learn. Last Tuesday I did it again. I went to London to the launch of another book, a Cassell publication called British Comedy Greats, a lively collection of essays on (almost) everyone you might hope and expect, from The Goon Show and Flanders and Swann through Monty Python to The Young Ones and I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue. This time I had also read the book previously. Well, I had no choice. I had to write the introduction, so I really needed to read in advance what I was writing about, even though I realised when I got to the party and met some of the writers (Arnold Brown on Victoria Wood, Joseph Connolly on Hancock, and Fergus Fleming on the Goons) that I now couldn't remember a word of what they had written.

Nor, I realised, as I roamed through the book on the train home, could I remember what I had said in my own introduction. So I reread my words with interest. I agreed with a lot, though not all, of what I said. But I was mortified to find that at no point had I attempted any definition of British comedy, or to work out what made it different from other kinds of comedy. Still, the more I read of the book (it was a long train journey home) the more I realised that the other writers had done it for me.

It was striking, for instance, how many of them traced modern comedy back to ancient roots. Blackadder, says Sarah Gristwood, goes straight back to Sellars and Yeatman (and even further back to Jane Austen's comic history of Britain). Douglas Adams's Hitch-hiker's Guide is deeply rooted, says Michael Bywater, in PG Wodehouse. Look for Stephen Fry's roots in Oscar Wilde, says Oliver James. (Well, that's not quite what he says. Look for Stephen Fry's roots in his rivalry with his father and closeness to his mother, he says, but then, the same is also true of Oscar Wilde.)

And Rowan Pelling, in her piece on the Carry On school of film-making, says Carry On films are Donald McGill postcards turned into cheap movies.

In fact, she goes further and defines British comedy. She says: "British comedy rarely aims for sophistication and succeeds best when it is silly and surreal, like Monty Python or Eddie Izzard, or silly and smutty, like Benny Hill and Kenny Everett." The French, she says, may have wit, but humour is where we score. "The broad sweep of British comedy is far better represented by Sid James and Terry Scott than by Noël Coward or Oscar Wilde."

If that is true, and I rather think it may be, it would explain why British comedy produces so little in the way of one-liners. We are very good at ludicrous situations, and families locked at war with each other (if Jean-Paul Sartre had been English, he would probably have written Huis Clos as a sitcom, not as a three-hander set in hell) but if you look through anthologies of wisecracks, it's the Americans who win out every time, and that's maybe because the Americans have a far richer Jewish tradition than we have, and Jewish humour is good at the one-liners.

That's it. The trouble with British comedy is it's not Jewish enough. Personally, I blame Ernst Roth. Ernst Roth? Oh, he was an Austrian Jew who came over here and made the mistake of rising to the top of the music publishing business. If only he had gone into comedy ... Actually, I've got a copy of his life story somewhere, if you're interested. Called The Business of Music. Almost mint copy. Get in touch if you're interested.

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