Tom Sutcliffe: Dramatic pause that says so much

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I found myself wondering the other day what it is about a stutter that gives us pleasure. The prompt for this thought was Radio 4's new dramatisation of I, Claudius, which opens with a very famous stammer – the nomenclatural block that occurs almost every time the main character attempts to say his own name. And listening to that clicking block, with its echoes of Derek Jacobi's famous performance, I was uncomfortably aware that pleasure was some part of my reaction.

"Uncomfortably" because since I, Claudius was first broadcast in 1976 the politics of the stutter has changed substantially. You can measure the distance we've travelled, in fact, by contemplating the difference between Jacobi's stutter – a kind of grace note on the character that may even have operated as a badge of his decency and the stammer that Colin Firth deploys in The King's Speech, a film in which the impediment is recognised as a genuine affliction, not just a novelty of speech. Along the way between those two waypoints all kinds of things changed. The comedy stutter – Ronnie Barker in Open All Hours, say, or Michael Palin in A Fish Called Wanda – became impermissible and people who stutter far more forthright about the fictional treatments of the difficulties they suffer.

Understanding that it's not all right to mock anymore doesn't really help with understanding why it was thought funny in the first place though, or why a stammer has so often been associated with verbal wit (think of Patrick Campbell and Kenneth Tynan as just two examples). In the case of the latter question it's possible that the ailment is the cause and the wit the end result. In other words, you can imagine that someone with no difficulty with words but some difficulty in getting them out will place a very high premium on making them worth listening to once they arrive. Like the origin myth many comics offer for their talent – in which comedy is a protective shell acquired in childhood – the wit of someone who stutters could conceivably be a compensatory talent, a way of underlining that it is worth waiting for what they have to say. But it surely works the other way round too – the pause, and our uncertainty about how long the pause will last, giving an extra topspin to the line when it finally hits us. And, to put it heartlessly, something similar is happening in the crude old comedy stammer. It's a device for teasing us with delay, offering the first letter of a word so that we start to fill in the blank for ourselves (often pruriently, in a certain kind of stuttering joke) and then supplying one we hadn't thought of at all.

There is nervousness in there too, though, or at least a recognition of how stressful this situation might be in real life (where a stammer will often induce a kind of sympathetic paralysis of speech in the listener too) and how free of anxiety we are observing from a distance. We laugh, oddly, out of a kind of relief that we don't have to do anything to help, which is scarcely admirable, but then our funny bone has always been an oddly shaped structure. And I think relief plays some part in the pleasure the impediment gives in more serious kinds of drama and narrative. The film critic Philip French, who has a stammer himself, once wrote a long essay for Encounter on "The Stammerer as Hero", noting how fashionable this trait had been in the Sixties and pointing out how the stammerer often represented "a man of peculiar integrity opposed by silver-tongued frauds". Perhaps captivation would be a safer word to substitute for "pleasure" here, though, because what I want to suggest is that we are particularly gripped by such moments, and the metaphor of being gripped is a clue as to why. A scene in which a man stutters will only rarely involve banal utterances, so there's a sense of catch-and-release in such moments, a tension between the urgency of what's being said and the difficulty of saying it which is suddenly unlocked by speech. The stutter – paradoxically – allows us to understand the power and the pleasure of fluency far better than fluency can. As a shortcut to a cheap laugh one hopes that it has disappeared forever. But as a way of reminding an audience that ease of speech can't always be trusted and that it should never be taken for granted I doubt it will ever fall out of fashion.

Enter here at your own peril

I'm pleased to see that Tate Britain is reinstating the Millbank portico as the main entrance to the gallery, having a fixed aversion to the one on Manton Street, where you descend a level first before entering at the side of the building. This isn't because there's anything wrong with the interior once you get inside, or with the access that space gives you to the temporary galleries or the café. It's just that the Manton Street entrance has the most infuriating staircase in London – possibly even the entire country. The cadence of the steps is such that, unless you perform a skip and a jump on each tread, you lead with the same leg every time you step down. Added to which, the riser is rather shallow, so you find yourself forced into a lurching gait, like Igor, the lab technician in the Frankenstein films. And yes, it's true that the Millbank steps rise up like the North face of the Eiger, but even that steep ascent is preferable to the Manton Street Shuffle. Perhaps Tate could earmark just a little of the £45m it is going to spend on the Tate Britain revamp to fix the problem created by the last fix.

Why over-acting's a mug's game

I was mugged the other night. It happened during a performance of Peter Hall's production of The Rivals and the guilty man was Ian Conningham, who plays Captain Jack's lairy manservant Fag. He didn't take anything of value from me – unless you count my good temper – and he didn't lay a finger on me, so I don't suppose I have any remedy in law. But I would like to have a moan about it. I use the word "mugged", of course, as a rare transitive form of the verb "to mug", meaning, as the OED put it, "to pull a face, esp. in front of an audience or camera, to grimace; to overact". Conningham, in playing Fag, was taking absolutely no chances that we might miss the fact that his character is a bit of a rogue. I can't be sure that he actually winked at us at any point but then, in a metaphorical sense, his entire physical performance was one giant wink – underlining stressed words with hand gestures, swaggering his shoulders and generally semaphoring every nuance of the lines in a way that killed all nuance dead. It's tantamount to coming to the front of stage before he starts and saying "I think you may be a bit thick... so I'm really going to spell things out for you".

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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