Terence Blacker: Yawn! Another tale of the tragic funny man

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The Independent Online

Here they come again, the tragic comic gang. There is Tony Hancock, of course, and our old friend Frankie Howerd. Absent this time around are Kenneth Williams and Spike Milligan, and the ghost of Peter Cook is being given a well-earned rest, but while there are TV commissioning editors eager to give us new versions of the old stories, they will all be back. Meanwhile any scriptwriter worth his salt will be working on Benny Hill, Marty Feldman, Tommy Cooper or Bernard Manning.

Every time another play, biopic or drama-doc about a sad comedian comes off the production-line, the same tired question is asked: what made men with the gift to bring happiness through laughter so miserable in their own lives? Here is another, rather more interesting question: why do we care? This need to be told over and over again that a funny man was really not funny at all, but an alcoholic/ cheapskate/ bully/ depressive/ pervert reveals more about us than the subject.

The series of one-off plays starting this week on BBC4 will revisit the shambolic lives of Hancock, Howerd, the two lead actors of Steptoe and Son and Hughie Green. Presented under the title The Curse of Comedy, it might just as well have been called The Lure of the Cliché. At a time when interesting plays are almost impossible to find on TV, the only projects that appear to get through on the nod are warmed-over versions of the tears-of-a-clown story, set in the world of British showbusiness over the past 50 years.

These plays provide a sort of comfort food for viewers too discerning to watch reality TV. Ordinary, unfunny people are reassured by the terrible mess that the extraordinary and the funny so often make of their lives. The story of sad, dead comedians provides a much-needed final act to the morality plays enacted for us by the famous in their private lives.

We would probably need to turn to Dr Oliver James, who has once psycho-analysed the entire nation, to explain why it is specifically the agony of funny men which provides middle England with a tingle of pleasure. Perhaps it reflects a distrust of the subversive power of humour.

But there is something desperately predictable about these stories of frustration and vanity. As well as soothing viewers like a strong valium, they provide actors with the perfect opportunity to turn in the kind of performance which is now most likely to win awards – that of imitating real people. Recently, the creation of stories, involving the invention of characters, situations and resolutions, has seemingly become too arduous for many writers, directors, actors and audiences. It has been easier to borrow from real life and allows actors to show off. Soon David Walliams will get the chance to do a Frankie Howerd turn just as Michael Sheen did Kenneth Williams and Rhys Ifan did Peter Cook.

Naturally The Curse of Comedy will be carried along on a breeze of friendly publicity. Real life, the chance to draw lugubrious conclusions about what exactly went wrong with the dysfunctional star in question, is always easier for a journalist to write about than something dauntingly fictional.

No doubt this great, lazy tradition will continue, and ambitious young writers will already be anticipating subjects of the future. Ken Dodd must surely be troubled. Barrymore will be a gift. What about John Cleese or Barry Humphries? Somewhere in the private world of most comedians, a searingly honest biopic will be lurking.

Katie's lesson for children

Becoming an author of heart-warming stories for children is a well-tried route to public respectability. Years ago, it worked for the Duchess of York. Then Madonna had a go. Yet neither of those great authors has achieved the breakthrough that Katie Price managed this week.

Already Britain's most successful ghostwritten writer, the surgically enhanced former glamour model has now moved into the "kidlit" business. One of her first books is on the shortlist for Richard and Judy's Children's Book of the Year.

Did she write it? Does anyone care?

Today's children will be learning early an important lesson from Katie: Life is all about marketing.

* For all the talk of citizenship tests for new immigrants, there has been remarkably little discussion of the kind of questions which should be asked of those who wish to live in Britain.

There will be stuff about the rules of cricket, for course, but the test should surely include reference to public figures who sum up the mood of contemporary Britain. For example, what is a Lembit Opik? Or, how can a weather forecaster become famous? The answers to these questions might bewilder the newcomer. Opik is a Lib Dem MP who looks like Mr Bean's less amusing older brother. The famous weather forecaster is Sian Lloyd who has the charm of a cardboard cut-out. They were an item. Then they weren't. Two semi-celebrities became famous for not getting married. Now, the weather forecaster has written a book. The story of Lembit and Sian, a tale of politics, TV and exhibitionism, will tell the new arrival almost all that needs to be known about his new homeland.

terblacker@aol.com

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