The Pariah: Scribblings from a Confederacy of Dunces


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British Comedy Confidential

Most people that know me, believe me to be a despicably sour-faced fruit, a man rendered world-weary by his mid-twenties - a sort of emotional black hole for light entertainment. These people, I dare say, are very much correct - I am that man. So, it probably has never dawned on them, that I was once very much worse than this...

(I may come across as sometimes harshly over-critical, especially when confronted by the likes of Jeremy Clarkson or Richard Madely, which I actually think is fair game. These are a duo of unsophisticated, smug-faced tools that lead happier, more content lives than I do - and, y'know, sometimes it hurts).

Anyway, my apologies, I digress - as I was saying, ten or fifteen years ago I was a disgracefully dour young chap. From the outset, it might have appeared I had it all - ladies, limousines, milk stout, an enormously disproportionate head....and yet, deep down, I was an angry young man.

Like many of my feckless generation, I spent the lion's share of my youth passively watching the television set.

Many a happy day was spent breathing in stale air, watching Monkey, before dodging out to the garden and attacking my elder brothers with Bamboo canes. But then, suddenly, as the eighties really took off, prime time television became incredibly poor. All this, at a time when I was growing hairs, experiencing 'young man's cramp' (sometimes at the most undignified of times) and 'having feelings'...It was all pretty harrowing, as you might imagine. 'Turn that tat off', I'd shout, with an uneven gutteral drawl, as my poor put-upon mother sat down to watch yet another Anton Rogers comedy, or Lesley Joseph vehicle...

It all made an indelible scar on my childhood. But, I guess, much like most things during that God-awful decade, these shows thickened the skin and helped me confront the evils of the world face on. In short, they made me the bitter, twisted man I am today...

EDWARD HIGGINS retreats into his own little world.

Last of the Summer Wine



Get this, it's the North of England, perpetually the day after a storm, and the cobbles are still wet. Not so much grim, as like a feature length Hovis advert.

A bunch of old men (one of which is as close to being a tramp as makes no odds) traipse around the hills, looking confounded and hatching pointless schemes.

Meanwhile, a bunch of butch old women in pinnies and hair-rollers, complain about them; and are then routinely devastated about the state of their own floors.

Each week some tea will be served in a shop.


If you enjoying the comedy pratfalls of a pensioner inexplicably rolling down a grassy knoll in a wheelbarrow each week, then you've come to the right place. That's pretty much all that happens.


It suffers from the same curse as Dad's Army. If you cast a bunch of old men in your comedy, you're lucky if they'll all make it to the second series, never mind the ten-year reunion. Over the years, various replacement actors have been forced to jump into dead men's Wellingtons to keep this rot going.

The BBC tried to combat this problem once and commissioned the spin-off The First of The Summer Wine, which involved a trio of young (and presumably work-shy) men traipsing around the hills, looking confounded and hatching pointless schemes. It didn't really take off. Why? Well, because young men in wheelbarrows, that just isn't funny...

'Allo 'Allo



Hilariously, it's German occupied France.

Come Back Mrs.Noah-star Gordon Kaye, plays a café owner and balding, gay lethario. He is called Rene Artois (like the lager, you see? Thats got to be racist).

His wife is apparently so bad at singing that the café patrons routinely fill their ears with cheese, rather than hear her.

The waitresses (one of which is a midget), prove too old for the sexy French maid outfits they wear. They are also enormously (- and bafflingly) attracted to Rene, and continually harangue him for sex in cupboards.

Various cheery Nazi types regularly patronise the café as well. One is fat and one is gay.

An English spy dresses up as a local policeman, however his poor grasp of French leads inevitably to cursing. He is also well known to the Gestapo and the resistance.


The 80's were a bad time for the BBC commissioner in charge of comedy. Apart from Only Fools and Horses they really have a lot of success. (Some people will tell you that the John Cleese vehicle Fawlty Towers is the best comedy ever made - but this is palpable nonsense). However, I'd still like to meet the man that thought he'd save the day by commissioning a comedy about Nazi Germany. A man of vision, it turns out...

You do get to see Helgar's knickers each week, which I must admit, I enjoyed as a young man. However, after about 15 years even this became less appealing.


For a good decade and a half, it relentlessly repeated the same gags - 'My ticky ticker!', 'Listen very carefully, I shall say this only once..', 'Good Moaning!', 'Hail Hitler - club!', ''Tis I, LeClare', 'You stupid woman, can you not see...' It goes on. And, to be honest, they really weren't that good to start with.

Keeping Up Appearances



Working-class girl makes good and is then ashamed of her poor relations. Yes, what worked as social realism in the 60's, became the stable diet of all bad female-led 80's comedies (Under the Thatcher administration, poor people were considered inherently mockable).

Each week, a dizzy, bicycle-traveling vicar unexpectedly calls around to Hyacinth Bucket's (Patricia Routledge) semi-detached house, on the very day that her slobbish, singlet-sporting brother and his despicable harridan wife have also decided to visit.

As you can imagine, this stuff writes itself. There are a number of excellent running gags, the classic being Routledge's rage at various surly workmen, when they refused to pronounce her surname incorrectly. This is hilarious, and constitutes 75% of every show's jokes. Routledge also does some classic looking-startled-and-starring-over-bush work. Nice.


Well, Keeping up Appearances was one of only two shows that gave a British audience a chance to see an old lady's pants. And now, due to Michael Barrymoore's set of party-hardy indiscretions, it is the only one with a possible new series in the pipeline. However, unlike Barrymoore's: My Kind of People where the old lady's gusset was constantly changing (depending on which provincial town Barrymoore was gracing), in Keeping up Appearances it is always Routledge's baggy pants on display. And it's not the sort of thing you want to look at when you're eating a Yorkshire pudding.


Take the actor from an Alan Bennett monologue, dress her up in flowery nylon and outsized knickers, then stir in some poor-quality slapstick humour and some dreary finger wagging about contemporary British society...on the face of it the ideal ingredients for a comedy. I am ill equipped to answer why it doesn't work.

Set in middle-class, middle-England and starring a middle-aged woman, why does Keeping Up Appearances seem so darn average?




You know what the plot is - if only in the dark recesses of your mind.

The action centres on the Boswell family, living in recession-hit Liverpool of the 1980's. Can't you tell its going to be good already?

There's Ma Boswell (Brighton Belles star, Jean Boht. Brighton Belles, anyone?). She sits in the kitchen having serious discussions about Catholicism and her children's futures. (Incidentally, this isn't funny for me on another - more personal- level - this being exactly what my Mother does).

Ma Boswell has four sons and a daughter. One of the son's (played by Peter Howlett, later director of the God-awful Paltrow yarn, Sliding Doors) is successful and wears leather. He says 'Gleetings' and waves around mobile phone the size of a horse. He also has a jag and is able to afford to have his roots bleached every week, despite being a regular down the unemployment bureau. He is, I guess, supposed to be the Fonz, to the other son's Ralph Mouths.

The other boys are guileless, work-shy fools.

The daughter is ugly, and wants to be a model (- if you recall, she wants to be in 'da glossies'). You'd think that sooner or later someone would tell her, wouldn't you? But, no. And so, the torture continues.


You'd be hard pushed to find one, even on an ironic level.

Johnny Cash once sang: 'There's something in a Sunday that makes a man feel so alone'. And damn it, he was right.

You might put this down to the stench of lamb fat twisting thickly through the air, or the dawning realisation that the weekend has come to an end. But, for me, all this pales into insignificance, when I'm confronted with the feeling of unadulterated horror that only the Bread theme-tune could ever bring to the mind. I'm not joking here - when I was at school, it used to make me physically sick.


Carla Lane writes it. The 80's brought us many marvels, sure enough: the mendacity of the government, the fluorescent socks (from the down the market), the flourishing career of Keith Baron...

But for every up there must surely be a down.

Having successfully ruined Sid James' career with Bless this House, which she took over in it's final years, and spent too much time focusing on the grown up hippy son. The dying acts of which can be summed up with the following:

HIPPY SON: 'Hey, Dad,  can I have some more money for new love beads, man?' 

SID reacts.

She moved swiftly onto her own baby. Coming up with Butterflies, which involved bell-haired 'funny woman' Wendy Craig looking pissed off in a kitchen and Geofrey Palmer walking in a park, whining about dentistry.

But it was with Bread that she really surpassed herself: ten years of urban decay, ten years of kindly Liverpulians duped by worldlier (but less soulful) creatures, ten years of domestic turmoil, ten years of occupying a quarter of Sunday night's television output...

It was ten years too long.