Miles Kington: Tipsy butler served up a slice of comic history

Most of the people who run TV are in their twenties or thirties and have no memory or sense of history

Last week I indulged in a fit of nostalgia for "Dinner For One", a very funny 18-minute-long sketch featuring Freddie Frinton as an increasingly drunken butler, which I saw once on a borrowed VHS and had never seen again. In this I am not as lucky as the Germans, who see it regularly and religiously every New Year's Eve, whereas I, limited to the output of the unimaginative British television industry, will probably never get the chance to see it broadcast at all.

Still, I am lucky in having some assiduous readers out there, ever eager to educate me. Mr Wort of Chesterfield, for instance, writes to tell me that it is not just the Germans who are luckier than us. "I have seen 'Dinner For One' four or five times in Switzerland, where it is standard Christmas fare - yes, Switzerland! - and it is eagerly anticipated there every Christmas."

Mrs Carter of Surrey says the same is true of Norway, where it is shown ever year at New Year's Eve (except one year, when there was nearly a riot).

Even the workforce of The Independent has come to my aid. Sub-editor Liz Durno tells me, unexpectedly, that in her native South Africa it is also shown every year at the festive period.

Kindest of all was reader S Breuer of Lancaster, who says: "My wife has relatives in Germany and a few years ago we spent some time with a cousin in Berlin, where part of the entertainment was showing us the film. Since we made the appropriate appreciative noises, a few weeks later a videotape arrived containing the film. I would happily lend it to you to show to your son, but I will need a mailing address to send it to. Incidentally, I don't think it is that funny ..."

And he did rashly send us the tape on loan and we did sit down and watch it, and we all thought our benefactor was wrong, and that it was very funny, nay, a mini-classic. But still the funniest thing about it is that the Swiss and the Norwegians and the Germans and the South Africans (and hundred of other nations, for all I know) know this film backwards, while the British, who gave birth to it, have no idea even of its existence.

By itself, this does not matter much, but reader Bob Fox of Dorset sees it darkly as part of a larger pattern, part of the refusal of the BBC and ITV and media generally to honour the existence of a tradition of British comedy harking back to music hall and variety. He wants to know why we never get to see the great old acts on TV, everything from Billy Dainty's dancing to Morris and Cowley's cricket sketch ...

Well, the short answer to this is that even if footage exists, most of the people who run TV seem to be in their twenties or thirties and have no memory or sense of history (which is why they nominate as Grumpy Old Men people who are barely middle-aged), while most of the people who watch it are over 50 and are therefore horrified by what the twenty-year-olds give them to watch, and, even more, by what they are not given.

And my own answer is that although I have never heard of Morris and Cowley, I did once as a lad, many years ago, see Billy Dainty in pantomime in Liverpool, and I remember that he was wonderful. As with Freddie Frinton in "Dinner For One", simply the way he moved was hilarious. And of how many modern comedians can you say that? When has anyone ever raved about the way Ross Noble moves, or Eddie Izzard's walk, or Ardal O'Hanlon's glide? How many young comedians today do anything funny?

Roy Hudd put the same thing another way when he said that today's comedians write all their own material and do it very well. As creators of verbal humour, they are streets ahead of the old guys, who bought and stole and borrowed material, but didn't create it much. Where the old guys won out was in actually being funny. When an old-timer like Max Wall or even Tommy Cooper came on stage, people started laughing before a word had been uttered. Nobody ever laughed at Ben Elton before he opened his mouth. (Pause for heckler to shout: "Or after, either!" )

More of this tomorrow, unless something more interesting comes to mind.

Comments