Slumped in front of the TV last night, watching an extremely talented National Youth Orchestra coping with some very challenging orchestral scores, we were happy to give them full marks for their interpretation of a piece by an obscure Polish composer who was quite evidently a lifelong victim of some painful internal ailment. However, we welcomed the sense of light relief brought on by the Dad’s Army repeat which followed this visit to the Proms.
And that made me think about comedy in the present day . . .
Much criticised, especially by old fogies like us, the comedy we are offered today doesn’t often hit the spot in the way comedy once used to. Now, again I could be accused of drifting into nostalgia, but not so. Apart from the fact that it is deeply irritating that everyone over forty is immediately labelled a nostalgic romantic, those of us over this age have a wide spectrum of experience. In the same way that we can remember what real food tasted like (where so many people today have tasted only what is available in the supermarket) we can also remember the way real comedy used to make us laugh.
I happen to know that Dad’s Army is one of those old-fashioned comedy shows that can make young people laugh today. The question has to be asked: why would anyone who has never had any direct experience of the Home Guard find it amusing to see these characters dressed up as soldiers and getting into all sorts of trouble? It would seem that the answer lies in the word ‘character’. The people we see in Dad’s Army – the pompous local bank manager and his intellectually superior chief clerk, the morbid Scottish undertaker and the ancient veteran turned village butcher – are characters that we know, and we can identify with them, whether or not they are dressed up as soldiers. Captain Mainwaring is exactly the same person in his army uniform as he is in the suit he wears at the bank. He is the same person who taught me maths at school, and he is the same person whom each of us might have seen at any given time in a different guise. In other words, he is an essential human character, and that character comes through whatever clothes he might be wearing and in whatever social role he is fulfilling.
These days, however, there are fewer ‘characters’. The man who runs the game stall at the Farmer’s Market, who is conspicuous by his eccentricity, is one of the last of a dying breed. He is a real old-fashioned rural rustic, and a comedy writer would find endless material in developing him as a character. There are hardly any rustics like him now. All the farmers have been to Agricultural College and all their labourers are wise in the ways of the corporate-consumer-media world in which we live. Cloned and categorised, we are all expected to behave in pre-ordained ways in order to make the practice of profitable commerce more predictable. Everyone is connected via mobile phones and the internet, and everyone is watching the same Hollywood films, soap operas, reality TV shows, and listening to the same music all over the world. Homogeneity is what defines us today, as eccentricity, local culture and traditions and that innate desire to be different is quietly eroded by the invisible yet powerful forces of commercial enterprise.
In a world like this, what chance has a new comedy writer to come up with something that will really make us laugh? We laugh loudest at ourselves, at our human quirkiness, our human failings, our little inadequacies and our individual eccentricity. With all these erased, what have we left? Not a lot really, and it’s no laughing matter.