Forgotten heroes of comedy from the days when fame faded
Something rather magical happened in the summer of 2012. Suddenly, the most famous people in Britain were actual achievers. The Olympians who were officially and confidently dubbed ‘Our Greatest Team’ were proper heroes. Oh, certainly since then they have embraced the fame game with appearances on ‘Celebrity Juice’ and Virgin Media adverts but so what? They earned it.
Undoubtedly more than the glut of reality stars who trundle from one Love Island to some Ice rink before taking to another Ballroom Dance floor, all for simply getting drunk and punching out a journalist after escaping the Big Brother house.
Fame can be a blessing and a curse. Once you get it, you are addicted to it. People will do almost anything to hold on to it, particularly if they know in their heart of hearts they never really deserved it in the first place. You can stick your name on a clothes range without designing it or a perfume without concocting it. You can even write a book without your fingers once touching a keyboard. If your fame is strong enough and your management canny enough you can become a millionaire before the glitter rubs away like pumice.
In terms of comedy, the remit is fairly straightforward. If you make enough people laugh, your fame is assured. Even if that laughter is nervous – yes, Frankie Boyle, I’m looking at you, or awkward – hello and rest in peace, Bernard Manning. An audience latches on to someone they like. If, limpet-like, that devotion never lets go well, chances are, you’ll be in the mythical Comedy Hall of Fame: a permanent place at the top table of titters.
Still, once the beloved comedian finally runs out of live material, why is it that some are lauded forever more and others simply left to paddle in the shallow waters of our memory? The likes of Kenneth Williams and Frankie Howerd & Tony Hancock are seldom away from a terrestrial repeat screening or ‘Unforgettable…’ style documentary retrospective. There are books written about them. Even major television dramas are made about them attracting stars with big acting chops like Michael Sheen and David Walliams and Alfred Molina.
However, while Morecambe and Wise are rightly paraded as the ultimate telly Uncles, particularly at Christmas, Flanagan and Allen barely get a slice of the rabbit pie. Keeping the home-fires burning throughout the war years does not, it seems, equate with spreading sunshine throughout the 1970s. Or how about Stan Laurel? Thin-faced mooncalf with a raised bowler-hat and an immortal scratch of the head. Show his photograph to children in a playground and they will know him. They may not get his name but they will point and nod. A fame not bestowed on thin-faced, ashen clown Larry Semon. Director, producer, writer, star comedian and, more over, the original Scarecrow in the very first big screen presentation of The Wizard of Oz. The supporting role of the Tin Man was played by a certain Oliver Hardy.
Even the faintly bad boy clan of retro comedians such as the relentless unpleasant Charlie Drake hardly make a dent on the comedy heritage of the 21st century. A massive star of small status, Drake starred in the ratings winning situation comedy The Worker and was showered with huge budgets for big wide-screen, colour and guest star-laden comedies that are rarely, if ever, shown. Now, if there had been a Celebrity Big Brother back in the 1980s he maybe, just maybe, remembered more widely today. For all the wrong reasons, of course.
So why is it that some of the best-loved and most successful comedians get forgotten? For some it is obvious. A legendary music hall character comedian like Sid Field was cited by Hancock, Morecambe, Hill, Cooper and just about everyone else as the best of the bunch. The great pity for Field was that he was dead at the age of 45 in 1950. Television would have been his natural home. As it is, all that remains is a handful of films that fail to capture his stage magic. For others, their greatest glory is simply deemed unfit for broadcast in 2012. Indian-born actor Michael Bates applied the boot polish to play Rangi Ram in the David Croft and Jimmy Perry situation comedy It ‘Ain’t ‘Alf Hot, Mum. Patently this is not the done thing.
A few short months ago the BBC decreed that the series would never be repeated. A brilliant comedy characterisation, lost up its own dated point of reference. Others like Harry Worth and Arthur Haynes have just been lost in the shuffle. Worth’s comedy was the gentle art of the absurd. Haynes, with pin-sharp scripts from Alf Garnett creator Johnny Speight, was pithy and confrontational. Both are still very funny and both have great swathes of repeatable television material in the archives.
It just never got repeated.comedy, Frankie Boyle, Morecambe and Wise, olympics, paralympics, Stan Laurel
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