David Randall: Is 'variety' not quite Ma'am's cup of tea?

Why light entertainment so rarely gets a gong
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The Independent Online

Funny things, honours. We know they're nonsense because Michael Martin went to the House of Lords while Winston Churchill was a mere knight; George Orwell and T S Eliot went to their graves untitled, while the likes of Nicolae Ceausescu were covered in the crimson satin and silvered baubles of the Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath.

Long-serving hospice nurses, lollipop ladies, and lifeboatmen get the most minor and trivial awards, while schmoozers, party donors, and time-serving civil servants walk away with far higher species of flummery. (It used to be said these titles were recompense for their low pay as public servants, an argument that does not survive even the merest glance at their present salaries and pensions. Apply the same logic to nurses, and they'd all receive hereditary titles, plus the lands to go with them.)

Yet knowing the honours system is entirely without value as a measure of worth does not stop one feeling somehow cheated by it. After all, if we're going to have such a scheme, (with, these days, political leaders using it to demonstrate their populist instincts), why are there such glaring omissions? And not just of individuals, but of entire classes of person?

I refer, of course, to the lack of a knighthood for Bruce Forsyth in particular, and the paucity of them for the inhabitants of the pantomime, variety and music hall stage in general.

It is curious that men and women who have given pleasure to millions for decades at a time should be ignored, while pen-pushers (some responsible for infamous cock-ups – witness this year's Queen's Police Medal for Cressida Dick of De Menezes shooting fame) go garlanded and hoorayed on to our national honours board.

And this deep-seated prejudice against the halls has been in full operation for many years. To name but a few legends of light entertainment who have gone untitled: Dan Leno (a comedian so popular that the crowds at his funeral stood three deep for nearly four miles to see his cortege pass); Marie Lloyd (50,000 turned up at her send-off); Max Miller (reluctant to ever buy a round, but he left his home to St Dunstan's); Tommy Handley; Will Hay; Kenneth Horne; Tommy Trinder; Ivor Novello; Tony Hancock; Flanders and Swann; Arthur Askey; Eric Morecambe; Ronnie Barker and Joyce Grenfell. If only they'd been Olympic cyclists.

And what, for the generation still lighting up faces from John O'Groats to Land's End and beyond, would be more satisfying than if it were Sir Ken Dodd, Lord Ronnie Corbett, Sir Bruce Forsyth, Lord Hudd of Croydon, Baron Sykes, and, perhaps most deserving of all, Dame June Whitfield? Why, if variety titles were handed out with the abandon of those showered on actor laddies, every one of the Krankies would be in the House of Lords.

But entertainers' titles remain few: Sir George Robey (belated, just before his death in 1954), Sir Harry Secombe (more a tribute to his Goon Show connections with Prince Charles, and hosting of saccharine religious programmes than to his old comedy shaving routine), Dame Gracie Fields (another disgracefully delayed honour), and Sir Harry Lauder. Er, that's it.

The only consolation is that, in the end, posterity supplies a lasting riposte, having the satisfying habit of erasing titles, and leaving people with the honest names they carried through the useful part of their lives. Thus will history acknowledge the Earl of Stockton, Lord Tweedsmuir, Earl Attlee, Baroness James of Holland Park, and the Earl of Avon only as Harold Macmillan, John (The Thirty-Nine Steps) Buchan, Clement Attlee, P D James, and Anthony Eden. No more supreme warranty of the irrelevance of honours could be devised.

Better, then, to be a humble member of the Grand Order of Water Rats than a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath. Less social prestige, perhaps, but more fun.