The Magazine

Fawlty Humour

The limits of British satire.

Sep 30, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 03 • By BRIAN MURRAY
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A Great, Silly Grin
The British Satire Boom of the 1960s
by Humphrey Carpenter
Public Affairs, 400 pp., $27.50

THE HIT REVUE "Beyond the Fringe" opened in London in 1961. Humphrey Carpenter, then fifteen, attended the show with his father, a bishop in the Church of England. Carpenter recalls that his father "was laughing as helplessly as everyone else." And Carpenter--who describes himself as a largely obedient schoolboy, "fairly conventional in my outlook"--found himself transfixed and transformed: "My world turned upside down."

"Beyond the Fringe" was highbrow vaudeville written and performed by four Oxbridge students in their early twenties: Peter Cook, Alan Bennett, Jonathan Miller, and Dudley Moore. The show, Carpenter writes, "systematically mocked everything that the British had held sacred since time immemorial." And it played a key part in sparking the 1960s' "satire boom" that Carpenter entertainingly chronicles in his new "A Great, Silly Grin."

"Beyond the Fringe" wasn't entirely original. British humor had long specialized in targeting cant and pomposity (think only of Dickens). And during the 1950s, the BBC radio's "Goon Show," featuring Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers, offered a similar mix of wit, impertinence, and whimsy. But "Beyond the Fringe" was more directly political, mocking not only such hallowed institutions as the Royal Family and the Church of England but living politicians--particularly Harold Macmillan, the patrician prime minister who came to represent, for the young at least, all that was outmoded and inept about a Victorian Empire that was finally shrinking to size.

Much of "Beyond the Fringe" remains funny today. In the monologue "Take a Pew," for instance, Alan Bennett assumes the part of a fatuous cleric sermonizing dubiously on that most uplifting of Biblical verses: "My Brother Esau is a hairy man, but I am a smooth man." In another, "The Heat Death of the Universe," Jonathan Miller drolly recalls purchasing pants from the Lost Property Office of London Transport--an act involving "a certain amount of fastidious conflict with my inner soul as I was not very keen to assume the trousers which some lunatic had taken off on a train going eastbound toward Whitechapel."

IN WHAT PROVED to be the show's most controversial sketch, "The Aftermyth of War," the Fringe troupe ridiculed cliched dramatizations of World War II, in which the "humble little people of Britain" endured the "gathering storm" and the "turning tides" of the conflict with unflagging pluck and endless pots of tea. At least one critic thought it "vaguely indecent for twenty-year-olds to be making fun of Battle of Britain pilots."

But in the early 1960s, indecency and irreverence were becoming common comic fare as younger performers--infants or children during the Blitz--came to the fore. Fifteen years had passed since the war ended, and for most Brits the years that followed had been drearily difficult, an interminable wait in an endless queue. By the late 1950s, however, a decade of rationing and rebuilding was finally ending and the promise of prosperity loomed. Leisure time grew and the entertainment industry expanded rapidly--helped in part by vast advances in global communication.

Thus the working-class Beatles and other pop groups--the most visible representatives of the New Britain, stylish, upbeat, and hip--turned first to American models: Elvis, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly. And, no less inevitably, as Carpenter reveals, clever university lads like Miller and Cook found inspiration in the "new American humor" of, among others, Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl.

Bruce and Sahl broke the mold in several ways. They were monologists, not joke tellers, and they wrote their own material. Bruce, the most influential comedian of his era, was the anti-Jack Benny, displaying an open contempt for authority and an unhidden interest in sex. Although less profane, Sahl was no less the studied outsider, ridiculing politics and politicians with bitter glee. Sahl's caricature of President Eisenhower as a golf-playing dullard almost certainly inspired the similarly dismissive impersonation of Macmillan in "Beyond the Fringe."

THE BRITISH SATIRE BOOM continued with varying degrees of success for much of the decade. In 1961, Peter Cook opened "The Establishment," a "satirical nightclub" where Bruce himself appeared in "his usual mood of tormented derision," as the influential critic Kenneth Tynan admiringly pointed out. "Private Eye," a national humor magazine, was launched in 1961. Edited by Richard Ingrams and Christopher Booker, among others, "Private Eye" (which is still being printed) offered far more bite than its more-venerable counterpart, the now-defunct "Punch."