Miles Kington: How to exploit a niche in the humour market

In every generation there has to be someone who collects the funny things children say

There is a man called Gervase Phinn, who often pops up on radio programmes quoting funny things that children have said. He is or was a schools inspector in Yorkshire, and has published books, usually with the word "dales" in the title, which are chock full of funny things done and said by children which he has either witnessed or had reported to him.

I was listening to him on Quote Unquote on Radio 4 the other day, and was amazed by the ingenious way in which almost every question he was asked seemed to lead to an answer involving something funny said by a child or other character in a school in Yorkshire, from one of his books.

In the final round of questions, for instance, all the guests were asked which clichés they found most annoying. In his answer, Mr Phinn managed to quote five malapropisms committed by a character named Connie in a book of his, some of which were quite funny (eg "I'll burn that bridge when I get to it") but none of which had anything to do with annoying clichés.

I am not knocking this. Well, I am knocking it a bit, because after a while children's quotes get tiresome no matter how funny they are, but I have nothing but applause for Mr Phinn in seeing a market opportunity and grasping it with both hands.

In every generation there has to be someone who collects the funny things that children say and the mistakes they come up with, and make a living out of it. When I was young there used to be an American broadcaster called Art Linkletter who did this, in a book called Kids Say The Darndest Things!. I never saw him broadcast, but I have a notion that his conversation also might have centred, Phinn-like, on the darndest things that kids say.

More recently it was the actress Nanette Newman who took up the baton and ran with it for a while, with a Little Book of Kid's Talk and Small Talk. She seems to have diversified, however, because she also published The Cat Lover's Coffee Table Book and That Dog.

Art Linkletter, I notice, also diversified. He completed his task of bringing us the darndest things said by kids with The Secret World of Kids and Kids Sure Rite Funny! A Child's Garden of Misinformation (which sounds like one of those dreadful compilations of exam answer howlers ), but then he moved on to grown-ups with Women Are My Favourite People and Oops! Or, Life's Awful Moments, and then graduated through the age scale to Old Age is not For Sissies: Choices for Senior Americans. I imagine he passed away before he could compile Dead Funny ...

It's an honourable tradition, though, this appropriating of a small niche market and harvesting it as ruthlessly as possible. For a long time now the News Quiz on Radio 4 has been using humorous cuttings sent in by listeners - I enjoyed one personal ad read out last week, appealing for the return of a pet cat, "of a nervous disposition, answers to the name of 'Boo!'" - and when Barry Took was chairman of the programme, he used to collect them for reuse. He was a very funny man in his own right, so he had no real need to, but I remember that when he was called upon to speak publicly he would sometimes pull great sheaves of these cuttings from an inner pocket and read them out to great effect.

In which he was following another well trodden tradition. For years the New Statesman has been printing that kind of cutting in its This England section. And years ago there was a man called Denys Parsons (anyone remember him?) who put out books of collected odd and mad cuttings from the press. I think one of the earliest ones was illustrated by Ronald Searle and was called It Must Be True, It was In All The Papers, which is virtually the same rubric used by The Week today for its collection of odd and mad stories from round the world, except that they say tabloids instead of papers.

More of this tomorrow, including the big question: can Gervase Phinn be his real name?

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