The process by which a public entertainer - a comedian, say - evolves over time into one of the nation's sacred cows is both mysterious and revealing. When we needed the reassurance of a funny-uncle figure, we turned to Eric Morecambe and Tommy Cooper. There was a moment when, more surprisingly, Spike Milligan was briefly elevated to the sacred herd, and there are dismaying signs that the doggedly loveable Billy Connolly may be heading in the same direction.
The most reliable way of judging a comedian's progress is simply to turn on your TV over the Christmas break and count his or (unlikely) her appearances. By this criterion, a startling national favourite has emerged over the past two years. In 2003, there were signs that Peter Cook and Dudley Moore had posthumously taken on the role of seasonal favourites, an alternative version of Morecambe and Wise, but it has been this year when the adulation has reached a crescendo.
Not only was there a dramatised version, written by Terry Johnson, of the relationship between Cook and Moore, but there were also two full-length documentaries about them. In one, we were told yet again about how Pete and Dud became the sozzled, foul-mouthed Derek and Clive and, in the other, some deservedly forgotten TV sketches were dug up and interspersed by comments from the usual giggling celebrities.
Then there was the ultimate accolade. In one of those lazily produced Channel Four compilations - bung together a few old clips, make a list and pad the whole thing out with interviews with pipsqueak media wannabes - 300 comedians were asked to vote on the greatest comic talent of all time. Cooky landed the Number One spot.
No one could take seriously a list of top comedians that put Phil Silvers and Mel Brooks 20 or so places below the world's unfunniest man, Harry Hill, and had no place at all for Sacha Baron Cohen or Jim "Nick Nick" Davidson. On the other hand, when a gaggle of comics and TV executives decide that a man of talent, but not genius, is a seasonal favourite and all-time comedy champ, then something interesting is going on. It is not that Peter Cook's material that has come into its own over the past year or so, but the fact that we have changed as an audience.
Here there is reason for hope. Although Cook conforms to the celebrity prototype of the brilliant, self- destructive, screwed-up comic, it is the material for which he was responsible that resonates both with his fellow comedians and, more importantly, with the rest of us. It is no accident that it is the ruder sketches, notably the dialogues between Derek and Clive, that are most widely praised. At a time when those ominous terms - "taste", "moral values", "public decency" - are apt to loom up in any discussion over what should be broadcast, comedy of the healthily offensive kind is in retreat. With a new sensitivity to religious feelings, the forces of censorship - soft-voiced, concerned - are gaining in strength.
In America, on the back of their electoral triumph, organisations working under such innocent-sounding names as the Parents Television Council and the Traditional Values Coalition are running well-funded campaigns of protest to stamp out the slightest hint of indecency - a mild swearword here, a briefly exposed nipple there - from national TV. The chilling effect on what is broadcast is already being felt: on Veterans Day last year, over 60 stations decided not to risk running the film Saving Private Ryan because it contained inappropriate language.
In that context, it is no surprise to hear that our own moral guardian, Mediawatch-UK, is protesting against the BBC's laudable plan to broadcast Jerry Springer - The Opera, nor to hear the predictable objection of its director that "license fee-payers do not expect the BBC to be pushing back the boundaries of taste and decency in this way."
This license fee-payer does, and so, I suspect, do those people for whom Peter Cook's foul-mouthed dialogue about a visit to the Pope, while it may not be the most hysterically funny sketch of all time, represents an important kind of freedom. At a time when a government minister is mealy-mouthed when asked to condemn religious violence that closed a play in Birmingham, and when, as in the case of Chris Morris's brilliant Brass Eye series, genuinely provocative comedy is pilloried by press and politicians, it is precisely the job of broadcasters to push against boundaries when justified by the quality of a programme.
Just because something shocks does not mean we should be protected from it; indeed, it is the sign of a healthy, confident religion that it can rise above the laughter of non-believers. It is true that the broadcast of a musical in which the figure of Christ is represented by a coprophile nappy-fetishist with gay tendencies may well breach certain standards of taste, but it will also be a celebration of the right of performers and writers to offend.
As the success of Peter Cook has shown, there are millions of people out there, a genuine silent majority, for whom that right is important.Reuse content