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MONDAY 20  MAY 2024

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Don’t laugh, but Generation Sourpuss is ruining comedy by taking life too seriously 

Somehow, we have spawned Generation Sourpuss. These moaning minnies glue themselves to roads, occupy universities and lend their rage to lost or dubious causes.

 

But they never laugh. Why is that? Well, one reason is that they take life – and themselves – so seriously. Another is that they are almost contractually bound not to utter a titter.

 

Once you join X or Instagram, there are certain obligations. You may not laugh because anything that makes you laugh is sure to be frowned on by the Twitterati. Even comedians.

 

Don’t laugh at him, he’s a white, middle-aged man. Don’t you see, you’d be condoning white privilege!

 

Don’t laugh at him, he’s Jewish. Do you want to go on the next march for Gaza, or not?

 

And certainly, don’t laugh at her, she identifies as a woman – no attempt whatever at gender fluidity. Her preferred pronoun is “she”, for God’s sake.

 

No, po-faced misery is the only safe, socially acceptable stance in their world. Perhaps Generation Sourpuss was what John Cleese had in mind when he expounded at the weekend on the current dearth of mirth.

 

Cleese, 84, a Monty Python veteran as well as star and co-writer of TV’s Fawlty Towers, grumbled at the lack of good sitcoms on the telly now. Back in the early Nineties, he said, there were “30 rather funny comedies”.

 

But said Cleese: “Whenever you are doing comedy you are up against the literal-minded, and the literal-minded don’t understand irony, don’t understand metaphor and don’t understand exaggeration.

 

“That means if you take them seriously, you get rid of a lot of comedy. Literal-minded people can only have one interpretation of what is being said.”

 

Cleese, who was promoting his upcoming Fawlty Towers stage play in London’s West End, is a Marmite character and there are those who see him as a reactionary curmudgeon – too rich, too Right-wing and too many ex-wives.

 

But he is one of Britain’s finest funny men, both as actor and writer, up there with my favourites, Tony Hancock, Peter Sellers, Tommy Cooper and Billy Connolly.

 

He knows his stuff and he is right about this. Imagine if the writer Johnny Speight took a script for a pilot of Till Death Us Do Part to TV executives now. He’d never make it past the secretary.

 

The show had plenty of fierce critics – Mary Whitehouse, for one – during its BBC heyday from 1965 to 1975. Alf Garnett, the main character played by Warren Mitchell, was a sweary, Right-wing, racist East End docker who clung to outdated values and mocked his son-in-law as a “Scouse git”.

 

Cleese said: “I remind you of Till Death Us Do Part. People were laughing at the wonderful central performance. Roaring with laughter at  him, not with him. But there were also people who were saying: ‘Thank God these things are being said’.”

 

Certainly, writer Johnny Speight meant us to laugh at the buffoonish Garnett. But the character was too much for Whitehouse, a woman devoid of irony.

 

All humour is of its time and Cleese put his finger on it when he spoke of a new TV version of Fawlty Towers he is writing with his daughter. “We have never tried to update Fawlty Towers,” he said. “We are doing it in the Seventies because that is when those attitudes were.”   

 

Cleese is right too about those TV sitcoms of the Nineties. Remember Absolutely Fabulous, so revered it had its own nickname, Ab Fab? It starred Jennifer Saunders as PR hustler Eddie; Joanna Lumley as Patsy, a permanently sozzled magazine fashion director; and Julia Sawalha as Eddie’s sweet, neglected daughter Saffy.

 

Eddie and Patsy guzzled vodka and champagne (Stoli and Bolly), snorted cocaine and got into terrible scrapes, while trying to lead Saffy astray to such an extent that it was borderline child abuse.

 

Some of the lines written by Saunders are priceless.

 

Eddy: Patsy hasn’t eaten since 1974.

 

Patsy: There was that crisp.

 

As well as Ab Fab, Only Fools and Horses was in its brilliant prime; Father Ted was the utterly bonkers newcomer; One Foot in the Grave was making an unlikely star of Richard Wilson as Victor Meldrew; Bottom was slapstick with a dark undercurrent; and laddish behaviour was explored in Men Behaving Badly.

 

Would they – could they – be made now? Well, nobody is, especially not the BBC, which seems to be staffed entirely by Generation Sourpuss.

 

The trouble is, these great shows all had a target, a fall guy, someone at whom you laughed. And that’s not allowed any more.

 

*Cleese’s play Fawlty Towers, adapted from three episodes of the sitcom, opens at the Apollo Theatre on May 15.

 

*****

 

Karaoke, the latest nail in the coffin of the great British pub.

 

Apparently, kitchens are going the way of snug bars and hand-pulled bitter as landlords seek to cut costs and maximise income. In their place, karaoke rooms, where show-offs and attention-seekers sing off-key versions of Dancing Queen and Bohemian Rhapsody.

 

One landlord in Hackney, East London, said his energy bills had tripled and he couldn’t any longer afford the cost of chefs and servers, so he shut the kitchen and turned it into a karaoke room, holding 10 people and charging £59 an hour midweek and £89 at weekends.

 

I don’t blame him. Beer’s £6 a pint round my way. If there are two of you and you have a pie with it, you don’t get out for under 20 quid. The hospitality industry is on its knees.

 

If you have any Tory instincts, Rishi, it’s time to tap into them and ease the crippling tax burden. Otherwise, you’re condemning me to listen to endless renditions of Sweet Caroline on the rare occasions I can afford to go out for a drink.

 

*****

 

It was Tony Blair who set a target of sending 50 per cent of young people to university. Dumb idea.

 

Most of us were simply not brainy enough. The only way Blair’s ambition could be achieved was to lower academic standards.

 

In my day, six per cent of school-leavers progressed to uni (and I wasn’t among them). They were the cream of the academic crop and as such earned a free education. No tuition fees, nothing.

 

Now, tertiary education is big business with students paying more than £9,000 a year on tuition fees and the same again in some cities for their accommodation. By the time they leave, with no guarantee that their studies will gain them a better job than their peers, they can owe upwards of £50,000.

 

Contrast that with university vice-chancellors, who often make £300,000 a year, with at least six on £500,000 including bonuses and the top prof at Imperial College London raking in more than £700,000. It’s a racket.

 

A new book called The Secret Lecturer is lifting the lid on the whole rancid caper. Students, the writer says, are seen as “customers we cannot afford to upset”. And so, they gain higher grades and get away with plagiarism.

 

“Nobody is allowed to fail,” he adds. On one course, two-thirds of the students emerged with Firsts. The author describes a colleague as “an unapologetic grade inflater, awarding Firsts to submissions that are as coherent as Shane MacGowan after a four-day bender”.

 

And those vice-chancellors? “The further up the university hierarchy you look, the thicker the people get. It’s like a parody of Darwinian selection – survival of the dimmest.”

 

Still think it was a good idea, Tone?



RICHARD DISMORE


7 May 2024