Only When I laugh

'Every comedy radio show is terrible until it occurs to enough people that actually it is rather funny. Then everyone else goes very quiet'

By Miles Kington
Wednesday 05 March 2003 01:00

In her introduction to Spike, Pauline Scudamore's life of Spike Milligan, which is just being reissued by Sutton, she says something rather extraordinary. "Perhaps the fact that I was never a Goon fan may have helped rather than hindered the writing of this book."

Now, to many people Spike Milligan and The Goon Show are synonymous, so it seems unusual for a biographer to be left cold by his main creation, but in fact there was a lot more to Spike than the Goons, and in a way she does us a service by reminding us that nothing is automatically popular, certainly not in radio comedy. I grew up with The Goon Show, and remember falling in love with its inventiveness and fearlessness. I also remember my father hating it.

"I can't see what you see in The Goon Show," he said. "It's all silly voices and stupid catchphrases. You ought to listen to some proper radio comedy. ITMA and Tommy Handley, that's the real thing."

And I did dutifully listen to ITMA, and it was all full of silly voices and stupid catchphrases, and I didn't think it was at all funny, though I enjoyed some of the other stuff around – Richard Murdoch, Vic Oliver, Jimmy Edwards and so on – without being able to tell my father so, for fear of his thinking that I was coming over to his way of thinking.

There are two lessons in this. One is that there is always a generational gap. The other is that any new comedy radio show is terrible until it suddenly occurs to enough people that actually it is rather funny, when the people who think it is terrible go very quiet. (For about 30 years, until people start to think it wasn't that good after all...)

It is happening at this very moment, as you will know if you ever listen to Radio 4's Feedback, where listeners write in with their comments on the BBC radio output, usually complaints rather than compliments. Sometimes one particular programme will get it in the neck from a whole chorus of dissatisfied listeners. But you will also know that next week there will be a rally of supporters defending the embattled programme and saying that it is the best, freshest thing since the last best, fresh thing.

So it was that last week on Feedback there was a flurry of letters attacking a new comedy programme on Radio 4 called The 99p Challenge, saying how puerile and childish it was, and I now look forward to the next edition in which people write in to say how refreshingly spontaneous it was, what a breath of fresh air, etc etc. But just in case they don't, I am going to say it now. I have heard several editions of The 99p Challenge, and I have always been left feeling much more cheerful afterwards.

And yet all that happens on the programme is that chairwoman Sue Perkins asks four comedians to rise inventively to different challenges. One day, for instance, she asked them to come up with titles of prequel films; ie, imaginary films that pre-date real films. The titles they provided were droll enough – One of our Dinosaurs is Over There, Apocalypse Soon, Schindler's To-Do List, Honey, the Kids Are Their Normal Size and Four Engagement Parties and a Doctor's Appointment – though it was probably the cumulative effect of titles from Armando Iannucci and his colleagues that made them funny.

Puerile? Infantile? Maybe; maybe not. Spontaneous? No way. No more spontaneous than I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue is. But that, of course, is where The 99p Challenge comes from – from the I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue tradition of a chairman asking four comedians to do silly things inventively. And I am willing to bet that most of those who wrote in to slam The 99p Challenge would be firm supporters of Humphrey Lyttelton and his gang on I'm Sorry, even though the latter is just as childish and silly. But I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue has now been around so long, and acquired such status that we don't call it childish and puerile any more; we call it "inspired nonsense" or "heights of lunacy", which is the old insult rephrased as a compliment.

Meanwhile, I have a shelf of old Goon Show tapes, which I treasure. Not only do I treasure them, I am careful never to play them. This is not to avoid degrading the tapes. It is for fear that when I listen to them again they will seem very silly and a childish, and to avoid hearing my father's voice in the distance saying: "Told you so..."

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