- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 14, 2002

A GREAT, SILLY GRIN: THE BRITISH SATIRE BOOM OF THE 1960S
By Humphrey Carpenter
Public Affairs, $27.50, 391 pages, illus.


Well over a century ago now, Oscar Wilde said that the Americans and the British were two peoples separated by a common language, and his crack (I won't say bon mot definitely wrong language) continues to be invoked to this day. Still, as with most pithy generalizations, there are limits to its applicability, and this past March 27 provided an example when the British comedian Dudley Moore and Milton Berle, the American one, died on the same day.
Humphrey Carpenter's latest book, "A Great Silly Grin: The British Satire Book of the 1960s," may not on the face of it seem of much interest to an American readership, but in fact the British comedians of those years, albeit it mainly an Oxford and Cambridge crowd who succeeded by taking their undergraduate comedy public, were in part inspired by American comics like Mort Sahl performing at San Francisco's hungry i. There were too Lenny Bruce, Mike Nichols and Elaine May on this side of the pond to give the Brits ideas for their new medium.
Not only that, when Peter Cook, later Dudley Moore's comedy partner, found premises at 18 Greek Street, Soho, in London (it had been the Club Tropicana, a strip joint) for the club that became The Establishment, he was recalling his time in Berlin, famous since the Weimar years for its satirical revues. Further back than that, in Wilde's prime, there had been the 1881 opening of Paris' Chat Noir, then Barcelona's Els Quatre Gats in which the young Pablo Picasso had a hand.
So this is a British story, but one with wider cultural interest than one might at first imagine, and the show "Beyond the Fringe" was a Broadway success and first played in America here in Washington on Sept. 8, 1962.
Actually, the "satire boom" that included "Fringe," the shows at The Establishment (being a private club, the public theaters' risk of censorship by the Lord Chamberlain, which lasted until 1968, did not apply), the British Broadcasting Corporation's "That Was the Week That Was" and "Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life," the early years of Private Eye magazine (still publishing and the only survivor of the satire boom), didn't last long.
By 1966 when David Frost's "The Frost Report" got going on British TV, the times had changed. Shows like "Monty Python's Flying Circus" which debued in October 1969, involved similar comedians, including John Cleese, but marked a turn away from satire toward surrealism. The two short series of "Fawlty Towers," another Cleese marvel, in 1975 and '79, were something else again. These programs were a far cry from the debut of "Beyond the Fringe" in Edinburgh circa 1960 with Jonathan Miller, Alan Bennett, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. (A ghost from the satire boom still making us laugh today would be an actor such as Rowan Atkinson.)
Mr. Carpenter takes his British story back to the "austere drabness of the postwar years," a world of Lyons restaurants and not much more for most people when the writer Doris Lessing arrived from Africa in 1949. As one of Mr. Carpenter's sources told him, you bought the clothes your parents thought you should wear, and for the young authority was challenged only at one's peril.
Then in the mid-1950s, coincidentally (or not?) the turnaround moment in the British economic picture, things began to change, first with the so-called Angry Young Men. Kingsley Amis' "Lucky Jim" came out in 1954, John Osborne's play "Look Back in Anger" opened at the Royal Court Theatre in May of '56, John Braine's novel "Room at the Top" was published the next year and Alan Sillitoe's "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning" appeared in '58. In 1959 Mesopotamia satire magazine began its publishing run.
During the same years, there was the Suez crisis, and the Aldermaston marches against the atomic bomb got underway. National Service (the British military draft) became a factor in throwing together young men from different social classes and opening a lot of eyes in the process. Advertising and consumerism became a target for eager critics.
The outlook of Jimmy Porter in John Osborne's play speaks both for the tenor of the times, as seen by many young people, and a temper that remains pervasive throughout much of the British populace at the beginning of this new century: "Nobody thinks, nobody cares. No beliefs, no convictions and no enthusiasm."
On this foundation, a nexus of undergraduates getting their start in the Cambridge Footlights Club and Oxford University Dramatic Club built what was to become the 1960s satire boom. Some were from well-to-do backgrounds, others like Alan Bennett, from Leeds in Yorkshire, and Dennis Potter from the Forest of Dean, came up to university with the conscious intent of savaging the establishment with their lower-class iconoclasm.
Dudley Moore, born in Dagenham near London into a working-class family and cursed with a club foot, transcended inauspicious beginnings by making the school bullies laugh and so disarming them, and then winning an organ scholarship to Oxford's Magdalen College.
In a final chapter, "Curtain Call: Where Are They Now?" Mr. Carpenter, runs through the list of his young men and women (prominently Eleanor Bron from The Establishment cast, and Millicent Martin, singer in "That Was the Week That Was") to see where they have landed. David Frost, argued to be the most ambitious of the lot, now is Sir David; others still are directing, performing, or gone off into the sober professions or a branch of commerce. Far too many are dead, most recently Dudley Moore and most conspicuously Peter Cook, of drink, who was reported by one friend as simply having grown bored with it all.
Did the satirists make a difference? It would seem so, though their contribution to the present state of British culture, spirit or what have you, should not be exaggerated. Obviously their shows and publications weren't the only thing going on during the early 1960s and since that time. Some veterans and others among Mr. Carpenter's sources believe the satire game has gone too far, creating an industry leading to the subversion of everything.
Michael Frayn's comment speaks for many, if not all: "I think we who were involved with 'satire' in the 1960s may all have been partially responsible for the fact that there is now a tone in a lot of the press of a permanent sneer at almost everything, which is very depressing."
Mr. Carpenter's book, the reader should be warned, is exhaustively informative the many pages run on, show by show, turn by turn which makes for a dense read. It took many hours to get frae end to end. The politics that include dueling with B.B.C. management, newspaper editors and office-holders at Westminster are engaging enough (Edward Heath spoke of "the death of deference."). But the endless to-and-fro struggles between the various players, for example the fun-loving Richard Ingrams and soberer Christopher Booker at Private Eye, seem at this distance in time more for the record and future researchers than for the general reader.
Mr. Carpenter, nevertheless, is to be credited with painstaking research and writing a history of the British satirists that will be the standard work for years to come.
In the end, the satire boom seems to have centered on Harold Macmillan, who succeeded Anthony Eden as prime minister after the Suez fiasco, beating out R.A. "Drab" Butler. The satirists moved on to guy Harold Wilson after his election in 1964 they were not ideologues but Macmillan seems to have been their butt above all others, as he tried to lead a Britain in decline, rocked by Suez, the Profumo scandal and so much more.
The book's illustrations include a photograph of the aging prime minister looking ridiculous, sitting astride a children's miniature train at a Conservative Party rally. But his good grace and sensibility shine out, for all the impersonations and depictions of him as a doddering, out-of-touch old buffer representing what had used to be the ruling class. When there was talk of official action against the satirists, Macmillan wrote the postmaster-general at the time, Reginald Bevins: "I hope you will not, repeat not, take any action about That Was the Week That Was without consulting me. It is a good thing to be laughed over it is better than to be ignored."



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