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Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be

The art of making people laugh is a funny – that’s to say odd – thing. Sometimes comedy gold travels well down the generations and sometimes – often to some surprise among those who were fans ‘first time around’ – it just doesn’t. Sometimes when we look back at the great comedians of the past – mind you, this can apply equally in other fields of life such as fashion or art – we begin to wonder what on earth we (or anyone) ever saw in them.

I’d guess to an extent this is because quite what tickles someone’s funny bone is a subjective thing.

One of the most successful modern comedians, Michael McIntyre, whom the younger generation of my family find side-splitingly hilarious, does absolutely nothing for me and never will.

Being an ‘oldie’, whilst retaining an inner conviction that my antipathy is justified, I also tend to put my personal aversion to McIntyre down to the fact that life moves on inexorably and (because I don’t ‘get’ him) I am probably just an old fuddy-duddy stuck in the past.

That said, some people are just naturally amusing, period.

In my own life a great example of this was Tommy Cooper.

I never met him to speak to but when I worked in ITV years ago I occasionally saw him off-duty in the Teddington Studios canteen, for example, just standing in the queue to pay for his lunch, and (I’ve never experienced this with anyone else before or since) without even trying – just being himself – he had an extraordinary natural capacity to make people laugh.  He couldn’t help it.

Others down through history have had to work at it.

We’ve all heard of ‘the tears of a clown’, the syndrome whereby those who can go out on stage, or in front of a TV audience, and seemingly have people in stitches at the drop of a hat, but who in their private lives were insecure, sad, even depressed, individuals who could barely live with themselves.

Another of my all-time favourite comedians was (and is) Tony Hancock, considered by many to be a comedy genius. Some of his radio and television shows – many written by Ray Galton & Alan Simpson who also penned Steptoe & Son – were classics. I would challenge anybody to deny that there was something special about Hancock.

When Paul Merton performed a series of Galton & Simpson classics for ITV in the mid-1990s, including several Hancock outings, it was noticeable how different and inferior his versions were to the originals. And yet, as we all know, Hancock died by his own hand in Australia, not long after he had turned 44, having split from Galton & Simpson and having tried to make the move to feature films with only moderate success.

Which brings me to Monty Python’s Flying Circus and John Cleese.

As a teenager in the late 1960s, along with my mates incarcerated in a boarding school in the countryside, I became hooked on BBC radio shows like Round The Horne – created by Barry Took and Marty Feldman, starring Kenneth Horne, Kenneth Williams, Hugh Paddick, Betty Marsden and Bill Pertwee – and I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again – starring Tim Brook-Taylor, John Cleese, Graham Chapman, David Hatch, Jo Kendall and Bill Oddie – from which later, of course, emerged such later institutions as The Goodies and Monty Python itself amongst others.

Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which emerged as a BBC television series in 1969 and ran for five years before breaking through into feature movies and other projects, hit my public school – and seemingly youth culture generally – like a hurricane.

We fans built our free-time schedules around its transmissions and began virtually learning the scripts by heart and repeating them to each other ad infinitum.

Part of its influence undoubtedly sprang not only from its anarchic approach to comedy and satire – nothing was so sacred that the Pythons couldn’t find something to mock about it which of course chimed with our 1960s anti-everything established or establishment – but from its similar approach to production.

In a departure from all known previous television-making protocols, often one Python sketch would morph into another, or indeed into nothing at all with the performers simply coming out of character and walking off the set with the cameras still on them.

On top of which, of course, there were the weird animation sequences devised by the American interloper Terry Gilliam.

For about a quarter of a century I begrudged the Pythons nothing as they conquered and then dominated the world.

Yet – and this is my point – these days I don’t ever go back and watch old Python programmes on YouTube or wherever.

Apart from anything else, I’m not sure I’d find them funny anymore. I cannot give chapter and verse on this with concrete examples, but (my impression is) that what one might call ‘Monty Python humour’ just doesn’t butter many parsnips with youngsters in the 21st Century. Nor perhaps with me either.

Whether that is because the Pythons and their style of humour were just ‘of their time’ and haven’t travelled down through the ages very well – or perhaps even because they (when you think about it) they just weren’t very funny first time around anyway, I’m not sure anymore.

What I do know is that sometimes legends of the past should just fade away – and I suggest that as much in deference to their body of work and in terms of protecting their legacy as anything else.

A stand-out case in point is John Cleese.

The latest edition of Private Eye, which I still buy regularly out of habit because it provides a modicum of amusement as I flick through it, contains an edition of The Diary of … (As told to Craig Brown), a parody article lampooning the known or perceived reputation and attitudes of a celebrity, which Brown, adopting the persona of this week’s subject, writes in the first person, looking back over the past week.

This one was The Diary of John Cleese. I have to confess it made me laugh out loud on several occasions.

Sadly, I cannot link Rust readers to the piece because it is not available on the internet, but in a quirk of coincidence that somehow seems simultaneously appropriate and bizarre, overnight I spotted two related media reports.

The first is the news that some Python ‘out-takes’ (or scripts for them) have been discovered in the archives – see here for the Press Association report as appears on the website of – THE GUARDIAN

The second is a piece by Jack Shepherd on an interview that John Cleese gave this week to Radio Four.

Cleese, who these days seems to take every opportunity he can get to air his (madcap not to say weird) views upon every aspect of life generally, has developed an uncanny ability to be boorish and unfunny to the point where every time he opens his mouth he chips another little bit away from the edifice that is his legendary status in British comedy.

Whether he needs the cash or not (as alleged, to pay off his latest divorce settlement), he seems not to care that he increasingly comes across as a goofy old misanthrope as he pontificates upon the wacky reasons why he’s now fed up with Britain and emigrating to the West Indies.

I couldn’t help feeling that, not only had Craig Brown got John Cleese down to a ‘T’ in his recent Private Eye spoof but – worse than that – these days Cleese has reached the stage either where he’s incapable of being parodied and/or he’s actually better at parodying himself than anyone else is!

See here for Shepherd’s piece as appears upon the website of – THE INDEPENDENT



About Martin Roberts

A former motoring journalist, Martin lists amongst his greatest achievements giving up smoking. Three times. He holds to the view that growing old is not for the faint-hearted. More Posts