What I’ve been reading lately, part 19

THE COMPLETE BEYOND THE FRINGE — BENNETT, COOK, MILLER AND MOORE

I re-read this compilation of the scripts of the Beyond the Fringe sketches because I was also re-reading Roger Wilmut’s history of early British sketch comedy From Fringe to Flying Circus (see below). As with all cultural movements, it’s sort of arbitrary where one draws the line and says “this is where it started” (were Black Sabbath the first heavy metal band, or do we go back to the Kinks’ You Really Got Me?), but a fair case can be made that the 1961 revue Beyond the Fringe was really the starting point of modern sketch comedy: a show written entirely by the performers, with minimal set and props keeping attention on the words, and combining satire with surrealism.

Cast of Beyond The Fringe, by Lewis Morley, resin print, 1961. Left to right: Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller, Alan Bennett; front, Dudley Moore.

Cast of Beyond The Fringe, by Lewis Morley, resin print, 1961. Back row, left to right: Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller, Alan Bennett; front, Dudley Moore.

From this beginning, and from subsequent Cambridge Footlights revues such as A Clump of Plinths (retitled Cambridge Circus for the West End), came most of the distinctive British sketch comedy of the late 1960s, 1970s and 80s — including The Goodies and Monty Python’s Flying Circus — and later narrative comedies like Fawlty Towers and Ripping Yarns. But in truth, it’s not at all obvious from the Fringe scripts that all this creativity was waiting to burst out. It’s clearest in the work of the Peter Cook/Dudley Moore duo, which is more prone to veer off on surreal tangents than that of Alan Bennett or Jonathan Miller. But there is a distinctively upper-class quality to the performances of all four (ironically given the relatively unexalted origins of both Bennett and Moore) — which makes it all the more strange to think that Beyond the Fringe was perceived as dangerously iconoclastic back in 1961.

Well, watch it for yourself, and see what you think. It’s easier to see the influence of the performances than that of the writing, perhaps: the voice adopted by Dudley Moore’s character in the Civil Defence sketch pops up a lot in Monty Python, and Moore’s facial expressions when performing the Brecht song later in the show must have been a formative influence on Rowan Atkinson.

HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS — J. K. ROWLING

The second of the seven-book Harry Potter series suffers slightly from feeling like a bit of a re-tread of the first. But it still keeps the pages turning, and it contains maybe my favourite passage in all of HP, which I will take the liberty of quoting at some length:

Suddenly, something that was nagging at Harry came tumbling out of his mouth.

“Professor Dumbledore … He [Voldemort] said I’m like him. Strange likenesses, he said …”

Did he, now?” said Dumbledore, looking thoughtfully at Harry from under his thick silver eyebrows. “And what do you think, Harry?”

“I don’t think I’m like him!” said Harry, more loudly than he’d intended. “I mean, I’m — I’m in Gryffindor, I’m …”

But he fell silent, a lurking doubt resurfacing in his mind.

“Professor,” he started again after a moment. “The Sorting Hat told me I’d — I’d have done well in Slytherin. Everyone thought I was Slytherin’s heir for a while … because I can speak Parseltongue …”

“You can speak Parseltongue, Harry,” said Dumbledore calmly, “because Lord Voldemort — who is the last remaining descendant of Salazar Slytherin — can speak Parseltongue. Unless I’m much mistaken, he transferred some of his own powers to you the night he gave you that scar. Not something he intended to do, I’m sure …”

“Voldemort put a bit of himself in me?” Harry said, thunderstruck.

“It certainly seems so.”

“So I should be in Slytherin,” Harry said, looking desperately into Dumbledore’s face. “The Sorting Hat could see Slytherin’s power in me, and it –“

“Put you in Gryffindor,” said Dumbledore calmly. “Listen to me, Harry. You happen to have many qualities Salazar Slytherin prized in his hand-picked students. His own very rare gift, Parseltongue — resourcefulness — determination — a certain disregard for rules,” he added, his mustache quivering again. “Yet the Sorting Hat placed you in Gryffindor. You know why that was. Think.”

“It only put me in Gryffindor,” said Harry in a defeated voice, “because I asked not to go in Slytherin …”

Exactly,” said Dumbledore, beaming once more.

“Which makes you very different from him. It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

This is important stuff, convincingly conveyed in a kids’ book — one that is often written off, wrongly, as trivial. This is the kind of thing that persuades me Rowling is more than a competent tale-teller, but a legitimately important writer.

FROM FRINGE TO FLYING CIRCUS — ROGER WILMUT

A truly fascinating history of British sketch comedy from about 1960 to 1980, beginning with the Cambridge University revues that transferred to the West End (including Beyond the Fringe) and finishing with Monty Python and the Life of Brian. I first read this shortly after it came out, borrowing it from our local library. I got a second-hand copy for Christmas, and found it just as engaging as I had all those years ago, though it’s sobering to realise how many of those covered are now dead (Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Marty Feldman, John Fortune, Graham Chapman, David Frost) and indeed how old the survivors are. (The idea that John Cleese is 77 seems completely bizarre.)

Wilmut is an excellent writer, surveying all the relevant background without getting bogged down in side-quests, and illustrating the qualities of the various performers’ writing with numerous transcripts of important and overlooked sketches. I am delighted to find — literally just now, as I am writing this — that he also wrote a book about the British alternative comedy of the 1980s, Didn’t You Kill My Mother-in-law?, which I have just ordered a second-hand copy of for 77p plus postage. Truly we live in the future.

As a result of reading this, I re-read The Complete Beyond the Fringe (see above) and for the first time The Goodies’ Book of (Criminal) Records (see below); and I watched the recordings of Beyond the Fringe and How to Irritate People, and have started going through all the Monty Python’s Flying Circus episodes from the start. It’s good to be reminded of all this good stuff from time to time.

THE SHEPHERD, THE ANGEL, AND WALTER THE CHRISTMAS MIRACLE DOG — DAVE BARRY

A pleasant enough, but frankly insubstantial, short story packaged as a novel. There is little enough about that is specifically Dave Barry-esque, and I’m not sure I would have bothered with it had it not been by an author whose other work I love.

It’s an account of a childhood Christmas from the perspective of a ten-or-eleven-year-old boy, and the substance of it is pretty clearly autobiographical: the viewpoint character’s initials (DB for Doug Barnes) match Barry’s; it takes place in Asquont, NY, whereas Barry grew up in Armonk, NY; Doug has a brother called Stuart, while Barry’s is named Sam; Doug’s father has the same mechanical ineptitude as Barry’s. I’d be interested to know how many of the other characters are thinly disguised version of real people that the young Barry knew — I suspect several more.

GIFT GUIDE TO END ALL GIFT GUIDES — DAVE BARRY

The very last of Dave Barry’s sole-authored books that I read, and the least interesting — though the format more or less guaranteed that it would be, which is why I held off from buying it for so long. Good for a laugh or two here and there, but really only for completists.

THE GOODIES’ BOOK OF (CRIMINAL) RECORDS — TIM BROOKE-TAYLOR, GRAEME GARDEN AND BILL ODDIE

A very strange book, essentially a compendium of fairly random comedy material squeezed into an overarching narrative whereby the various sections of the book are exhibits in a trial for libel that the Goodies are bringing against the publishers of their first book The Goodies File — which they allege was not by them and misrepresents them. The material varies wildly in quality, some of it feeling very much like it was written for their show but rejected. Enjoyable to dip into, and very nicely produced, but rather exhausting to read straight through.

George and Joe and Jack and Bob — Andrew Rilstone

In this forensic but playful dissection of the Star Wars films (the six of them that existed when this was published), the rather oblique title refers obviously to George Lucas and Joseph “Hero’s Journey” Campbell; and rather less obviously to Marvel/DC writer/artist Jack Kirby and Nobel laureate Bob Dylan, who both come into the latter stages of the argument.

The first half of the book is, beyond all doubt, by far the best thing I have ever read about Star Wars: literate, thoughtful, funny, suitably sceptical but at the same time still enchanted by the films and the phenomena that they spawned. (C. S. Lewis would say that Rilstone is re-enchanted.) What I mean is that, while he has a clear head about what the films are not — great art, for example — he doesn’t allow those negative perceptions to spill over so that they prevent him from seeing what they are — great myth, for example. In my experience, that is very rare in writing about Star Wars: most critics are either fanboys or iconoclasts.

The heart of the book is the section “Little Orphan Anakin” (pages 42-74), consisting of six parts:

  • 4. The Mask of God
  • 5, Daddy, Daddy, You Bastard, I’m Through
  • 6. The Hero with At Least Two Faces
  • 1. Attack of the Cloned Reviews
  • 2. Questions, Questions, Too Many Questions
  • 3. A Certain Point of View

His contention — to disgracefully over-summarise — is that the six pre-Force Awakens films are really nine films: the original trilogy as we first saw it, the prequel trilogy, and then the original three again, but this time seen in the light of the prequels. Far-fetched? Over-stated? Well — get your own copy and see what you think.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban — J. K. Rowling

By general consent (including mine), the film of Prisoner of Azkaban is the best of the eight in the Harry Potter series. Partly that’s because of its distinctive visual style, breathless pace and careful trimming of material from the book. But most fundamentally, it’s because it’s based on, I would argue, the best of the seven books.

By this third book in the series, Hogwarts has started to feel like a real place inhabited by real people, rather than the slightly cardboard-cut-out aggregation of Magical Places And People that inhabited the first two books. While the details of how magic is done in this universe remain vague and rather trivial (“Riddikulus!”, “Expecto Patronum!”), it makes just enough sense to hold the story together. And since that story is coherent and well told, and about people who we have come to care about, the book is gripping.

On re-reading it this time (for the third or fourth time, I think) I was struck by how very good Rowling is at foreshadowing, dropping in the crucial clues that would let a clever reader guess the twists but without telegraphing “here comes a clue”. Rowling gets some criticism for her weakness as a prose stylist — not wholly unfairly — but she really is masterly at constructing a plot. It also helps that Prisoner is the book in which the previous generation (Harry’s parents, and their friends and enemies) start to become important, something that lends an extra depth to the unfolding narrative.

All in all, a fine book. The greatest compliment I can pay Prisoner is that the moment I finished it (some time around midnight, as it happens), I wanted to go straight onto Goblet of Fire.

WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE WORLD — G. K. CHESTERTON

A good book to avoid for anyone who is not already familiar with, and sympathetic to, Chesterton. His dissection of the then-modern world (published in 1910) is as usual both brilliant and funny, and contains much that is eminently quotable. But it’s overshadowed by some attitudes that now seem appallingly blinkered — not least, Chesterton’s position that women should not vote. His reasons are chivalrous, and not without some rhetorical force, but monstrously patronising. (I won’t do him the disservice of trying to summarise his argument here: it would only make you angry and I wouldn’t like you when you’re angry.)

I’ve said in the past that I always enjoy Chesterton’s books more on the second read than on the first; What’s Wrong with the World is the dishonourable exception to that rule. I think it may be the only Chesterton where I was relieved when I reached the end.

BUT! Don’t let that put you off Chesterton. Go and read The Man Who Was Thursday (which you can get for free from Project Gutenberg). DO NOT READ ANY SPOILERS. You’ll thank me.

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9 responses to “What I’ve been reading lately, part 19

  1. If I may venture a recommendation, Harry Potter and the Method of Rationality (http://www.hpmor.com/) is probably the most highly entertaining book I’ve read in a while. It’s also likely to be different from anything you’ve ever read. It’s not much like the real Harry Potter however.

  2. Hi, Nicolas. I read Methods of Rationality a couple of years back, when it was still a work in progress. I thought the first few chapters were absolutely brilliant, but it got increasingly didactic and repetitive as it progressed — certainly by the time the chapters had titles like “The Stamford Prison Experiment: Constrained Cognition, Pt 8”. Still, now that the book is complete, I might give it another go.

  3. I did read some Harry Potter at one point, but I found Rowling’s prose painful from the outset. I stopped around the end of the third book, and I don’t regret having done so. I know just enough about Harry Potter to function in the modern world.

  4. Funny how Rowling’s books take different people so differently. I certainly won’t disagree with you that he prose is often clumsy — certainly reading her and (say) Le Carré in a single session gives you whiplash! But for some people (me included) the actual story is more than enough to keep coming back for.

    (I could say much the same about Agatha Christie.)

  5. Ha, funny because I did the exact same things: read some part of it (a third? of the final length) when it was coming out, then come back to it last year and re-read it through.

    I also remember thinking that I got a bit meandering on my first way through, but that impression was much less marked during the re-read (it’s not really a re-read, but you understand me). I think not spending weeks away from the characters helped. The author also did some editing, although I’m not sure to which extent.

    Anyhow, it does get better, and with more things happening, it feels much less didactic.

    I’m also a fan of classical Harry Potter. My main concern with it nowadays is how full of holes the plot is. HPMOR surely didn’t help with that. But even before, some flaws are painfully obvious: Why the elaborate scheme to teleport Harry to Voldie when the fake Fol-Eye could probably have done something much easier? Why didn’t the kids consult a Dumbledore portrait or photograph in book 7 to get all required answers? Leaving aside the general obvious stuff that wizards are comically ineffective in handling the Voldemort and death eater threat.

    Still, the story pulls you in (it’s how I can best describe it) regardless.

  6. My favourite bit of “plot-holing” is that Rowling needs to invent an entirely new form of magical transport almost every volume in order to get out of a problem with a previous one, but which creates entirely new problems subsequently which aren’t properly resolved. But once you have apparation, floo powder, portkeys, the Knight Bus and actual flying (let alone a flying car!), it definitely becomes increasingly silly.

    (In passing, I tended to agree with Tom Holt who once said that JK Rowling was the third best writer of Harry Potter fiction working today. Certainly there were works in the various fan-fiction sites that are astonishingly good. But HPMOR rubbed me up the wrong way a lot. It is a very cute idea, but executed far too clunkily.)

  7. Pingback: History of botany and warnings for Trump: What I’ve been reading lately, part 1 – Ian Medeiros

  8. Pingback: What I’ve been reading lately, part 22 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  9. Pingback: What I’ve been reading lately, part 24 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

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