Comedy impressions

A friend was trying to remember what the Benny Hill music was called. “Yakety Sax,” I told him, with my head in my hands. Sorry: it’s in your head now, isn’t it? Whether you dislike it or hate it, that music is in your head and you’re thinking how painful it is that Benny Hill comedies were always about him chasing women in speeded-up videos. I know you think that because everyone thinks it, except perhaps for Anglophiles in America who for some reason see Benny Hill as archetypal British humour.

The thing is, he was. I don’t mean for those Yakety Sax videos and I am not trying to be revisionist and claim there was a lot more to Benny HIll – but there was a bit. I used to write a television history column in Radio Times magazine which meant spending a gorgeous lot of time in archives and finding unexpected things. Such as Benny Hill before the speeded-up videos.

Those were always written archives like Radio Times’s own issues but at some point, once I knew Hill had done more, I remember finding footage of him somewhere. And it was funny. Just a very short sketch where a reporter and an IRA informant are in a TV studio: the informant is supposed to be in darkness to protect his identity but instead the reporter is.

That’s all. Must’ve lasted only moments and the overt comedy was in the IRA guy’s reactions, his realisation. I remember it being a nice piece of acting, actually, a comedic double take that was laced with a bit of fear. Very nicely, that acting was from the guest actor playing the informant: Benny Hill himself kept a straight face. That’s pretty good: the star and possibly also the writer of the sketch giving the laugh to the guest.

I remember, too, that the comedy was really Benny Hill mocking television conventions, maybe even taking a poke at the media’s coverage of serious events. It wasn’t The Day Today but it was clever enough stuff and I believe Benny Hill did a lot of this. I can’t be sure because so little of his work is easily available but then that’s for a reason.

At some point in his career, Benny Hill found this Yakety Sax format and that was that. It’s our fault, really: we must’ve responded so much and liked it so much that he kept doing it.

We should all do things that get into everyone’s heads, we should all create work that lasts, though it would be nice if it were work that people liked remembering. I think Benny HIll effectively erased his comedy career by these speeded-up videos.

I wonder if he knew.

I wonder if any of us can imagine what impression will survive of us. I don’t expect to be remembered after the end of this sentence but equally, I wonder if any of us can imagine what impression we give people now.

I keep thinking about how Benny Hill is never repeated in Britain, I keep thinking about how I’m mostly fine with that, yet I also keep hearing how popular he is outside the UK. True, I hear that less and less – he died in 1992 so over 25 years since his last work – but I hear it.

I’m not claiming some statistically valid example here but it seems to me that the people who mention Benny Hill are all outside the UK and they are all either fond of him or at least not wincing.

I keep thinking of this outside opinion and particularly of how things are seen from other countries. How in one place or in one group of people you can be so caught up in opinions or issues that the rest of the world sees completely differently.

Yes, I keep thinking of this because of the idea of Britain leaving the European Union. My niece, working in Luxembourg, tells me that people keep asking her why David Cameron is campaigning to leave the EU. He isn’t, he’s publicly on the side of staying in, but that’s how he’s seen overseas.

Then people who are in favour of leaving the EU act like anyone else gives a damn. I bet most Americans are completely unaware it’s going on at all – why would they? – and I understand that across Europe the attitude is like, whatever, stay or go, Gallic shrug, get on with it.

You’re thinking I’ve taken a left turn since Benny Hill and you’re sure that I’ve done it to argue that the UK should stay in the EU. Actually, I do very much believe that and I am very much angered by the Brexit arguments and not just because I loathe that new word.

But my point really is a writing one: you can’t control what other countries think of your work, you can’t control what other people think of you – and you shouldn’t try.

I think it’s a shame that Benny Hill erased his reputation here and maybe he didn’t have to do that Yakety Sax thing so very often but he did it and he made an impact. We should all have people trying to remember the name of our theme tune a quarter of a century after our death.

A natter of life and death

That’s all, just a natter and a blather. In the run up to a general election, my mind wanders around more than ever and chiefly it’s focusing on, grabbing on to, just about anything except politics. Just possibly not today.

I do remember my family worrying that I had no interest in the news when I was growing up. They’re sick of me now: I read hundreds of articles a day through my RSS reader and they aren’t sure what RSS is or why I like it so much. But, grief, the ability to just check out the headlines on your phone while you wait for the kettle to boil, it is beyond handy. I could go to each news site in turn on the phone’s web browser but what am I, a barbarian? The news comes to me, all of it, from everywhere.

There are myriad RSS newsreaders, by the way, and they’re available to you on any phone. I have an iPhone and swear by one called Reeder.

I also swear at a lot of the news I read. Maybe that’s what my family doesn’t like. But the consequence of RSS, swearing and – okay, okay – getting older is that I have never been so politically aware.

And therefore so politically depressed.

There is no party I want to vote for, no person nationally or locally that I want to see in power. No one. Well, I do delight in Nicola Sturgeon but I don’t know much about her nor is it physically possible to vote for a Scottish party here in England. She does just tick two boxes that make me happy: for one thing she’s an adult woman where the other leaders feel like schoolboys. For the other, the concept of Scotland being decisive in this general election is dramatically exquisite to me because of the previous bollocks about whether the country should split from the UK or not.

Don’t get me wrong, I still don’t know what I think about it leaving, I just see that I was right about what would happen if it stayed. Specifically if it stayed because of the promises made to it. I’ve written before about how England, UK and Conservative promises to the Scottish people sounded like a pissed boyfriend vowing to be better from now on. They never are, you know they never are, and these promises never would be, you knew they never would be. I barely listened to the promises: I knew they’d vanish after Scotland agreed to give it one more go.

Now, maybe – maybe – that boyfriend is going to need a favour.

I’m not usually right about politics yet sometimes it is obvious and I think unfortunately the obvious stuff is always bad. Prime Minister David Cameron made a comment recently about how abhorrent an idea it is that Scotland could have sway over the whole UK, that decisions made in one part of the nation could affect everyone. He makes decisions in one part of the nation that affect everyone. He makes those decisions in one room. It’s the Cabinet, which curiously enough seems to be the extent of his care when we’re not near an election: does policy X or Y personally benefit and profit someone in the Cabinet? Then we’ll do that.

You see how easy it is to be cynical? I’m not convinced it’s possible to be anything else at the moment. For the first time in my life I do see the logic in not voting at all. Our democratic system is arguably built to favour the incumbent, it’s certainly built to support the system itself and the furtherance of the status quo. I can see the argument that voting is supporting a system that feels theoretically right but practically broken.

In other words, I can see that voting only encourages them.

Nonetheless, I will vote. I cannot do anything else. Cannot.

This may seem a somewhat un-topical reason but amongst everything I think about democracy, amongst everything I want to see happen and everything that I fear will instead, I have to vote because of the Suffragettes.

Don’t get me started on the idiocy, the shameful idiocy that women haven’t just always had precisely the same right to vote as men. Don’t. I’ll go off on one about how human beings can so often create society structures that speak of equality and fairness, that have laws and standards and decency but also a giant bloody hole in them. Democracy for all, oh except women. Treat your neighbour as you would want them to treat you, oh except if they’re not the same sex, religion or race as you, then it’s fine, do what you want.

That’s not me going off on one, by the way. Me going off on one about this is a seven-hour lecture.

The Suffragettes did not support the system, they changed it. Think how impossible that seems now and dial back a century to how even more impossible it must’ve been then.

The system we have now is materially better than it was. Look at Nicola Sturgeon again: one hundred years ago she wouldn’t have been allowed to vote, now she’s head of a political party. Things are actually better. Genuinely, truthfully better.

Just don’t look at the standard of lying we get from politicians today. If I can see that this claim doesn’t match that claim – and doesn’t even come close to this fact – then the standard of pork pies is so low as to be insulting. If you’re going to tell me bollocks, at least put some effort into it.

And just don’t look at any debate, certainly never tune in to Question Time which has become about as bad as Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Parliament.

I’m going to vote but it will be for my best guess at the least worst option available and I have little confidence that I’ll get it right.

I’d like to see a Suffragette-level shake up of the system. But I’ll settle for us reevaluating Eton. We keep saying that’s a great school because we keep being told it is by our politicians who chiefly all went there.

A bastion of British education.

Schools are supposed to form you into an adult. Eton takes the child, makes a schoolboy, and stops. You can name politicians you like, you can point to adult and responsible things they do, but still when you hear them talk and argue, when you see what they do, what they achieve, the word that comes to mind is only similar to bastion.