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Fawlty, Bean, Stath: We have always loved clowns so why do we pretend not to?

With the return of his brilliant series ‘Stath Lets Flats’, Jamie Demetriou has reminded us of the joy of clowning around. But why, asks Ed Cumming, are characters like Stath such a rare breed, and has the lack of clowns in entertainment led to more of them in politics?

Monday 01 November 2021 11:09
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<p>Kiell Smith-Bynoe, Jamie Demetriou and Al Roberts in ‘Stath Lets Flats’</p>

Kiell Smith-Bynoe, Jamie Demetriou and Al Roberts in ‘Stath Lets Flats’

Stath’s back! Jamie Demetriou’s bumbling estate agent has returned to Channel 4 for a third series, his hapless brilliance undimmed. His agency, Michael & Eagle, is in financial trouble, so Stath’s moved the whole office to his family home. As ever with this brilliant series, the story is almost entirely incidental to the viewing experience. It’s just a pretext for getting the merry gang into close quarters and letting them do their thing. The language in Stath Lets Flats rightly gets a lot of attention. Practically every line contains a subtle malapropism. In the first episode of the third series, landlord becomes langlord, part-time becomes park-time, Bernard becomes gurdled. Where the words aren’t wrong, the cadence is off. It’s an important part of Stath’s overall effect, which is to create a chaotic suburban fantasy world where even someone falling to their death is hilarious.

Language is only part of Stath’s appeal. The show is also unusual in being unafraid to use slapstick or physical comedy in its pursuit of a laugh. In my favourite episode, from series two, Stath falls asleep in the bedroom when he’s showing prospective tenants around a property, a moment captured in a single take. Later, when he’s driving off, he falls asleep at the wheel in the middle of the road, his body awkwardly frozen. The rest of the cast have aged into their roles beautifully, but everything flows from Demetriou’s commitment to the vision. As well as being a great writer he is a meticulous physical comedian, always trying something with his face or his body, a twitch of an eye or a lean or a gesture. If a muscle movement will add 1 per cent to the scene, the muscle moves. He is an old-fashioned clown and it’s a joy. This kind of highly distilled, 100 per cent-proof silliness looks effortless. It isn’t.

Clowns are surprisingly rare in British comedy today given how much we love them. The Pythons were basically clowns, especially John Cleese, who translated those skills into Fawlty Towers. As with Stath, the silliness of that series flows from Cleese’s gangly awkwardness. There’s Del Boy falling through the bar, an act of pure slapstick routinely cited as the greatest moment in British TV history. Coogan so inhabits Alan Partridge that his gift for physical comedy is sometimes overlooked. Reeves and Mortimer were masters of silly. Not forgetting Mr Bean, Britain’s most successful comedy export, a rubber-faced titan of clownland. With a face like that, who needs words? You’d have thought Rowan Atkinson’s garage full of supercars might have been more of an incentive to imitators, but it hasn’t happened.

What none of these things are is cool. There’s a try-hard earnestness about a clown, so desperate to please, every sinew twitching and straining for a laugh. It’s at odds with the attitude of alternative comedy, where the pose is one of laconic indifference, where entertainment and laughter are mere by-products of the show, not their entire reason for existence. In stand-up, Lee Evans and Michael McIntyre and Harry Hill are clowns, and treated with appropriate ambivalence by critics. Phoebe Waller-Bridge has smuggled her physical comedy under the critical radar with a cloak of drama, but it’s there. The clown auteur is a stronger tradition in America: think of Steve Martin, Jim Carrey or Eddie Murphy, all of whom made the move to Hollywood without compromising on clownishness.

So why are they such a rare breed in Britain? Partly it might be about the routes into comedy. Naturalistic TV comedies place less of a premium on farce. The horror and joy of The Office is how close to real life it is, and Ricky Gervais eschews clownery in his stand-up, too. YouTube and TikTok are amazingly creative forums but I wonder if honing your craft on the small screen places less emphasis on the whole physical expression than a stage performance. Where are all the young clowns?

After all, there is a risk to the British clown shortage. Without appropriate outlets for our clown-love, it seeks refuge in other locations. Politics, for example, and journalism. I don’t want to say that Brexit could have been prevented if there had been more people like Demetriou out there, but it’s worth thinking about.

If there is a long-term benefit to the success of Stath Lets Flats, we must hope it’s that a generation of performers are reassured that it is possible to have a Bafta-winning, critically lauded Channel 4 series where a key part of the act is the main character bumping into things. With sufficient clowns in the places where clowns ought to be, we’ll stop looking for them in other places. There may even be a revival of serious people in serious jobs. Our love of clowns has been powerful enough to make us love an estate agent and elect Boris Johnson as prime minister. It’s no laughing matter.

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