Archive for the ‘Satire’ Category

Britain Sixty Years Ago (V): With Love and Laughter.   Leave a comment

In mid-fifties’ Britain, political satire, exuberantly popular in Georgian times, now returned in full force with the advent of the new media of radio and TV. It also featured savage cartoons in the newspapers, staged lampoons and fortnightly mockery in the magazine Private Eye. Among the two million regular listeners to The Goon Show in the mid-fifties were key members of the next generation of comics, men like Jonathan Miller and Peter Cook. The Goons passed the baton to Beyond the Fringe, which passed it to Monty Python’s Flying Circus, from where it went to Little Britain. Each generation built on the humour of the previous one, changed it and then passed it on. Peter Cook, Spike Milligan’s only rival as the outstanding comic genius of his age, sent a schoolboy script to Milligan at the BBC which was good enough for him to be invited up to London for lunch. In turn, the group of comedians who became known as The Pythons were transfixed by Cook and his friends. In the decade that they grew up after the war, Britain was still dominated by the private schools, which were often bleak institutions. The austerity years meant little heating, poor food and few modern facilities, a life conditioned by brutal customs and petty hierarchies often dating back before the Edwardian years to the founding of many of the ‘public schools’ in mid-Victorian times.

Peter Cook’s school, Radley in Oxfordshire, still ’employed’ a régime  which deployed frequent beatings, cold showers, complicated dress codes, compulsory star-jumps, thumpings with hockey sticks for minor transgressions, and a great deal of other forms of bullying, all of which went undeterred by the staff. This forced bright but vulnerable children like Cook to develop mimickry and mockery to deflect bullies. He would make people laugh so that they wouldn’t hit him. Richard Ingrams, editor of Private Eye, attended Shrewsbury School, whose new boys were called ‘douls’ after the Greek for slave; its day started with cold baths; it too had a byzantine dress code, involving different colours of scarf, tie and waistcoat, and when the whole school was sent on cross-country runs, the boys were chased by men with whips. Ingram’s humour was less about mimickry and more about writing mock school magazines with Paul Foot, son of the Labour leader Michael, and Willie Rushton. In many ‘public-private’ schools, such as at John Cleese’s Clifton College in Bristol, boys developed underground languages to cope with their aggressive, closed communities. They knew little of women, which meant that the humour that emerged from them was often ridiculously naive about sex. They were rarely politically radical, since they were from a privileged élite. Cook’s father had been a colonial civil servant in Nigeria and Gibraltar. Ingrams was the son of an eccentric banker and intelligence agent, a one-time member of a pro-Nazi Anglo-German Fellowship Society, and a Catholic mother whose father had been doctor to Queen Victoria. Both men were brought up to look down on the working classes as essentially inferior and comic. Their satire was biting, with underlying layers of anger and hurt. But it would be very public schoolboyish as well, involving much juvenile tittering and snobbery.

The brightest of these ‘boys’ then went on to Cambridge or Oxford, still then mainly male societies, and where in those days there was a direct line from the world of Oxbridge student reviews, like The Cambridge Footlights to the West End theatres. Future satirists mingled with fellow students who would go on to become politicians and business leaders. Peter Cook’s generation at Cambridge in 1957 included the later Conservative cabinet ministers Michael Howard, Kenneth Clarke (just returned sixty years later as an MP and ‘father’ of the House of Commons) and Leon Brittan, as well as various actors and impresarios. Cook’s biographer, Harry Thompson, has pointed out that:

One reason has traditionally produced so many political satirists is that its undergraduates come face to face with their future political leaders at an early age, and realise then quite how many of them are social retards who join debating societies to find friends.

It could be added that the same could be said of those joining theatrical societies and satirical magazines. At Cambridge, Cook simply transferred his monotone sketches about the Radley School butler to his new environment and eventually had half the undergraduates mimicking him and repeating his one-liners. Cook found his voice as a schoolboy and maintained the same deadpan drawl at Cambridge to Edinburgh’s Beyond the Fringe review, to London, New York and global success. Similarly, Ingrams and Rushton transferred their jokes and cartoon characters to the pages of Private Eye. There were, of course, many other comics and satirists from other backgrounds, including Alan Bennett, the Yorkshire grammar school boy and Dudley Moore, the working-class boy from Dagenham who became the other half of the comedy duo with Peter Cook in the TV series Not only… but also… There was also David Frost, the son of a Methodist preacher from Kent. But it was the dominant personalities of Cook and Ingrams which gave them so strong a hold over the satire boom which began in the second half of the fifties. If Cook had any politics of his own, they were difficult to discern, and always took second place to a good punchline, though Fluck and Law, who went on to create the latex satirical puppetry of Spitting Image, were socialist friends of Cook. At the time of the satire boom itself, there was no organic link between the left of British politics and the wave of comedians, mimics and journalists who tore down the facade of Tory Britain towards the end of their thirteen years in power. There could not have been, since too many of the satirists were public schoolboys,  getting their revenge on the nation’s authority figures for the way they had been bullied. Macmillan for them was the image of the head of a decaying prep school, but Labour was also worthy of snobbish ridicule – full as it was with lower middle-class and working-class people with funny accents and petty, mundane concerns.

Ian Fleming was also a fine example of how the British society was tightly twisted at the top. He was yet another Etonian, and yet another character who flitted between journalism, intelligence and high society. From a Scottish banking family, he had tried Sandhurst, foreign correspondence – including in Stalin’s Moscow – and the City, before joining Naval Intelligence during the war. There his wild schemes for sabotage and dirty tricks were widely considered more fit for novels. After the war he ran a network of foreign correspondents and tried to work out ways of moving out of the dreary reality of austerity London. He eventually built a house in Jamaica, then still a colony, which he called Goldeneye. It was here that the Edens fled after the Suez Crisis to recuperate. In different ways, all these people, from Nöel Coward to the newspaper barons, Hugh Gaitskell to the Flemings, were struggling with time warp lives and challenged patriotism. Morals were becoming more fluid and new kinds of pleasure were seeping in. Gaitskell in particular was able to appreciate Fleming’s books, writing of the Bond books in the New Statesman that:

I am a confirmed Fleming fan – or should it be addict? The combination of sex, violence, alcohol and – at intervals – good food and nice clothes is, to one who lives such a circumscribed as I do, irresistable.

There’s probably no better testimony to the way in which the austerity years gave way to the affluent society. James Bond became one of the most successful if mildly ironic symbols of recovering British pride after Suez. From Russia, with Love, first published in Britain in April 1957, is the fifth novel by Fleming to feature his fictional British Secret Service agent. Fleming wrote the story in early 1956 at his Goldeneye estate in Jamaica; at the time he thought it might be his final Bond book. The novel deals with the East–West tensions of the Cold War, and the decline of British power and influence in the post-Second World War era.

Fleming’s sketch showing his concept of the James Bond character.

From Russia, with Love received broadly positive reviews at the time of publication. The book’s sales were boosted by an advertising campaign that played upon a visit by the British Prime Minister’s visit to Fleming’s Goldeneye estate. Fleming’s first work of non-fiction, The Diamond Smugglers, was also published in 1957 and was partly based on background research for his fourth Bond novel, Diamonds Are Forever. Much of the material had appeared in The Sunday Times and was based on Fleming’s interviews with John Collard, a member of the International Diamond Security Organisation who had previously worked in MI5. Even before they were transformed into the endless films, the novels provided a glorious fantasy for a nation in trouble, and in his earlier Bond stories Fleming worked to satisfy the almost pornographic lust of the British for the richer, more colourful consumer culture over the Atlantic. But though Fleming was a connected member of the élite, and had pictured his hero as an Old Etonian, it was a Scottish working-class body-builder, Sean Connery, who was chosen to play him in the first films. After that, Bond became, ironically, something of an outsider figure in the popular imagination, which perhaps helps to explain his endurance as a British cultural icon. Fleming’s original establishment character might not have appealed to a mass film audience in the more egalitarian atmosphere of the sixties.

Source:

Andrew Marr (2007), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

 

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