CHEWING THE FAT
Assuming that you are older than 25, or even 25 and a half, have you ever come across a remarkable book or a brilliant film, rather late in life, and then gulped at the fact you might never had read it or seen it, and it was a dizzying stroke of luck the two of you ever met? It happens often enough to me, outstandingly in the case of the astonishing novel The Farm Theotime (1945), by the Avignon writer Henri Bosco, who I’d never heard of till I was in my early 50s. Likewise I was 55 before I read the genius Franz Werfel, third husband of Alma Mahler, the erstwhile wife of Gustav, an Austrian Jew with a fervent admiration for Catholicism, who wrote The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. Published in 1933, it is about the much debated persecution of the Armenians by the Turks, and was filmed by an Armenian director in 1982, two other Hollywood versions never having got off the ground because of angry Turkish opposition.
You can either choose to gasp at the fact you almost missed something remarkable, or you can as they say reframe things, and decide that the two of you, the masterpiece and you, were destined to meet, but only according to the superior wisdom of Time and Chance. I certainly think this was the case, when it came to two remarkable TV comedy series which Annie and I jointly discovered, about a year before she died of secondary cancer in late 2009. You could say two brilliantly funny TV series had the pair of us laughing our heads off, at a time, in late 2008, when we emphatically needed, by way of distraction, to be doing precisely that. Both of these series had long vanished from the screen, so you might also argue it was sheer serendipity the way that they were encountered. One was Chewin’ The Fat, an outstandingly original Scottish sketch show which ran from 1999-2002, its first year being broadcast in Scotland only. As far as I know, it was never subsequently aired, as one of those vintage back to back series, on any Sky Comedy Channel. We only learnt of it because in Leeds one afternoon, when visiting student Ione, I spotted in a charity shop an old video cassette of one of the early series. Something about the superbly stony yet buffoonish mugs of Ford Kiernan and Greg Hemphill, suggested to me these Glasgow guys might well be the authentic comic goods. The other principal star, Karen Dunbar, was on the reverse of the cassette, and though a very handsome woman, has one of those plastic faces with large eyes and expressive mouth, that can magically turn her from touchingly attractive, to something like a gawking macaque monkey in two seconds flat.
The other series was not Scottish but London Irish, which I’m sure will alert most of you to the fact I’m talking about Black Books, which partly overlapped with Chewin’ The Fat, and ran from 2000-2004 on ITV’s Channel 4. I will write about it another time, but in a nutshell Irishman Bernard Black (Dylan Moran) living in London, is the most ferociously misanthropic not to say wine-slugging second-hand bookseller in all of human history. He has Manny (Bill Bailey) as his luckless but ironically ingenious and talented dogsbody assistant, and his blithely scatty shopkeeper neighbour, Fran, as played with great panache and sympathy by Tamsin Greig. I will deliberately move sideways now to pull in Dylan Moran specifically, because he, like another massive comic talent, the Lancastrian Peter Kay, is both a successful stand-up comic, and a writer and performer of astringent comic drama. In my pugnacious yet long considered opinion, I believe both of them are far greater comic dramatists and comic actors, than they are stand up comics. Kay who knows no limits to blackness in that wonderfully mordant series Phoenix Nights, set in a back of beyond Lancashire drinking club, is by contrast prone to sentimentality and Mum and Dad veneration, in his sell-out stand up. His stand up assuredly wouldn’t offend anyone, whereas Phoenix Nights has offended both real people (for example a real fire safety officer with a similar name to a safety officer portrayed in one of the shows as having a sexual passion for dogs) and also anyone who thinks a huge inflatable Bouncy Castle that looks like a massive tumescent penis, as hired for a Phoenix Family Fun Day, is something rather well beyond the 9 o’clock watershed borderline.
I believe most contemporary UK stand up is severely constrained, because it is either derivative observational humour, or more often boom-boom one-liners, and with an occasional fusion of the two, as per taking a poke at some lame politician or easily slaggable TV celebrity, or even a rival stand up comic. Of course years back, satirising real personalities on TV was absolutely proscribed, which meant the one liner and the observational gag, inevitably ruled the stand up roost. Really gifted observational comics stood out a mile, and the Glaswegian Chic Murray(1919-1985) was one who was able to elaborate a surreal and wholly bizarre fantasy, as in the famous ‘Woman with the Long Nose’, meaning she who was attending the same Kirk wedding as Chic. She turns the wedding hymn book by means of her outsize conk, and picks up a cake off the reception floor with her freakish hooter, a cake that sly Chic himself would love to have purloined. It is partly a matter of perfect comic timing, and partly the way Murray itchily and subtly moves his neck, and lifts his fat chin, before delivering the next outlandish wildness. Needless to say the hard-won virtuoso mechanics of timing and minutiae of facial gesture and the like, have all but disappeared off the contemporary comic’s agenda. The four letter word substitute as narrative comma, is only one raw indicator of an essentially cloud cuckoo land idleness in the blissfully wishful-thinking approach to one’s chosen comic art.
The sociology of stand up comedy changed dramatically I would say about 30 years ago, when people like Ben Elton of Saturday Night Live, ushered in a whole school, nay a nationwide university, of 30 plus young folk, who decided if they lapped up a few simple how to do it primers, they could be just as funny as the next. It was the equivalent of a thousand hopeful tyros who knew nothing about musical notation, deciding they were going to be if not at the top like Mozart, at least jobbing composers, and bugger the astronomical odds. In the old days you could count the number of TV stand ups on one hand, whereas now they are as legion as the stars above, and with Edinburgh Comedyfest prepared to give the whole frenetic population an annual much feted outing. The sheer increase in quantity, is obviously consonant with the fact that the vast majority of them are conspicuously unfunny. Their observational humour, such as it is, is jejune, time limited and banal, and amounts to something that any moderately bright 12 year-old could expound, if they had 5-10 minutes to think about it. Worse still, there is an excess of what Vladimir Nabokov would have denounced as ‘topical trash’, meaning laboured gags about contemporary TV and political personalities, who thank God, come and go like the wind, and will mean nothing to anyone in 20 years time. For confirmation of this, simply go to the Complete DVD of Monty Python, and the only unfunny things there, are the references to minor 1970s cabinet ministers, who no one but the likes of me can possibly remember. I can vividly remember Michael Stewart, the scared little Labour Foreign Secretary of 45 years ago, if only because in the Oxford Union in 1970, I watched Christopher Hitchens vituperating against him for being pro-Vietnam, and meanwhile a few fearless balcony activists were actually dangling an executioner’s noose over the poor little guy’s head.
By contrast, in true and pungent comic drama (as opposed to lame and ersatz comic drama, and its bedfellow the limp one liner) we get the comedy of pain, distress, humiliation, unendurable frustration, even grief, writ large. All of these faithfully rendered painful emotions, are capable of inducing an obverse emotional response, of what we might as shorthand call ‘a belly laugh’. This is precisely because the laugh comes from the belly or the guts, whereas in limp comic series and tawdry boom-boom one liners, the nervous chuckle as opposed to the visceral laugh, comes from about one cubic inch above the tonsils. The comedy of the latter, such as it, is cerebral, meaning it is thought-driven, not guts-mediated, even if the actual content is truly brainless and jejune. The profound and ever watchable comedy of Black Books, Phoenix Nights and Chewin’ The Fat, and ground-breaking predecessors like Steptoe and Son, comes from the fact they courageously treat of human passions and emotions that are usually either very uncomfortable, or downright painful, sometimes truly tragic. Only think of Brian the Phoenix Club owner’s wheelchair disability and the fact that he becomes doubly incontinent when he accidentally locks himself in his house overnight. Or of Chewin’ The Fat’s Karen Dunbar as the painfully lonely village shopkeeper, desperate to have any kind of friend, meaning feverishly yet hilariously inviting absolutely any of her customers home, to have one of her sadly untouched collection of ‘individual trifles for one’.
Desperate loneliness as a profound comic motif, started off in the early 1960s with senile, sneering Albert Steptoe, London rag and bone man who was dressed always in funereal black, and so poor he had only a horse and cart to do his rounds. His 39 year-old bachelor son Harold, is desperate to break away from the humiliating business, but his Dad is terrified of being left alone, and pace Samuel Beckett’s eternally bound Hamm and Clov, does everything he can to subvert his son’s quest for independence. When it first appeared in the early 60s, Galton and Simpson’s Steptoe and Son, introduced the truly radical and very frequently uttered swear words ‘bleeding’ and ‘git’ in lieu of the unspeakable ‘bloody’ and ‘get’. You have to remember at about the same time popular situation comedy was of the most anodyne and lifeless mediocrity, almost exclusively about middle class mores, mostly expressed as sotto voce tetchiness, in affluent suburban London. Bumbling Harry Worth of the eponymous show was the dozy old hapless bachelor ruled by his aunt who thank God we never saw, and Terry and June was about a niggling couple where his beloved golf and her womanly fussiness provided laughs that were of anywhere but the belly, and neither be assured were they of the suburban London genitals. The existence of a thing called sex as acknowledged in TV comedy, only became a reality once Steptoe and Son began to depict what it was really like to be a desperately sex-starved rag and bone man touching 40, and whose Dad messily ate his supper stark naked in the tin bath, in the very sitting room where infuriated Harold was trying to do his arduous courtship.
Chewin’ the Fat, like the more recent Little Britain, and unlike Black Books, was a series of formula comic sketches that were repeated every week but with fertile minor variations. It is proof of their excellence, that these sketches could bear such frequent repetition. They could only be so, because they were of both great originality and great imaginative intensity, and with a radical shock value that often comes of breaking all genteel, or even notionally quite justifiable taboos. Monty Python which first appeared on TV in 1969, led the iconoclastic way here, since when the genie has never been put back in the bottle, though not always with the same sense of integrity or creative honesty. The point to stress though, is that the taboos in both Python and Chewin’ the Fat and for that matter Little Britain are taboos contingent on character-rooted comedy. They are not just gratuitous and directionless four letter words, or a kind of rough and foul-mouthed evocation of sexual libertinism or gratuitous obscenity.
There were about 40 repeated sketches over the three years the Scottish show was broadcast, and perhaps the easiest way of discussing a selective handful, is by looking at them thematically rather than individually.
Depiction of bracingly coarse sexual behaviour, of highly captivating frankness
Karen Dunbar regularly plays Betty the Auld Slapper, interviewed by Scottish documentary TV for her pungent memories of WW2 in Glasgow. Limping on somehow into her crumpled 80s, instead of Dad’s Army salt of the earth reminiscence, she concentrates exclusively on her memories of snorting, panting back alley sex, as encouraged by the wonderful laxity of wartime morals. Facing the camera, she sits with her legs wide open, all her octogenarian underwear shamelessly on display, as she describes hitching her skirt up in the often freezing cold, and those memorably well-hung soldiers on leave and laughing ARP boys, who she hungrily and fearlessly took to herself. At one point the greatly exasperated interviewer, played by Greg Hemphill, asks her does she really have no memories of wartime other than crude sexual experiences, whereupon she indignantly replies, ‘Yes of course I…ah well actually, no I don’t.”
Annie, a lifelong feminist, watched all this in stitches, and afterwards we debated the delicate boundaries of taste at stake. Aside from anything else, it is still barely acknowledged that many very elderly people have considerable sex drives, and in addition enjoy reminiscing about their gripping love lives of up to 70 years earlier. Compay Segundo of the Cuban Buena Vista Social Club with his sexy flat cap, was vigorously womanising at 91, and there is plenty of testimony that both nonagenarian and centenarian women and men, are still going at it like rabbits over in the Isle of Ikaria in the North Aegean. Google Ikaria and Sex and The Elderly and you will have an agreeable and even hope-filled education.
Of a similar but even more shocking ilk, is where Karen Dunbar runs a hotdog van, and is approached by two cheeky small boys, both of whom giggle and gleefully shout at her, Show us your fanny/pussy! That kind of outrageous scenario has of course happened in real life Glasgow to numerous women numerous times, and with the women angrily threatening the atrocious kids, and the urchins duly scuttering off. But instead of bawling at them, Dunbar paradoxically does as bid, and lifts her skirt to reveal her naked genitals, precisely as demanded. Cue the kids’ foul little mouths dropping open in sheer panic, rather than the anticipated ecstasy. Here again it is the Zen-like subversion that is the painfully comic key, and the same surely applies in real life when a woman is required to respond to lewd cat calls from obscene adult males. Give them what they ask for, and offer to have public sex with them on the spot, and of course they will shit a macho brick and run for the distant hills.
Volcanic Intensity As You Have Never Yet Seen It
Ford Kiernan, who was born with a sombre old man’s face and looks fat even though he is not obese at all, is engaged on some finicky manual work of minute precision. In one episode, his alter ego, aka Ballistic Bob, is a chef who is placing glace cherries on dozens of small cakes, whose decorative icings all rise to a peak. From the very start the first cherry rolls back down, so that BB grins and tries again. And again. And again. His face at length cracks, and then the demented rage begins to fume, and after the tenth vain attempt, Ballistic Bob simply goes berserk, starts to scream like a lunatic, and pulverises every single cake to oblivion.
There is also a virtuoso duo of demented intensity in the form of Bob and Alan, two truly manic assistants in a Glasgow electronics store. Sales pitch, including succulently impossible guarantee promises, is an understatement, as they jointly drown the wide-faced customer with electronic arcana, largely of their own fantastic invention. To make things all the more surreal and truly insane, Kiernan and Hemphill both have hacksaw haircuts and psychopathic protruding dentures that make the pair of them look like razor sharks. Finally, to add insult to injury, they wheedle the customer’s name out of them, and pun ever more insultingly with febrile speed and synchronised ingenuity on the increasingly more ludicrous name.
Frankly, I have never seen anything like it in terms of ingenious word play, lunatic and nightmarish personas, blisteringly fast improvisation, and all round fearless effervescence. It makes the over-revered Spike Milligan look arthritic and direly unimaginative, when it comes to flawless speed of delivery, and Marty Feldman almost wholesome, and like a retired and beaming Rotarian treasurer, when it comes to gratuitous and manic and very sinister bullying, and in this case all done as a brilliantly coordinated two-hander.
What I am saying is that the insane yet immensely disciplined comic energy, and the imaginative precision here in Chewin’ The Fat, are, and please forgive the facile cliché, literally beyond praise. Kiernan and Hemphill and Dunbar and their two regular comedian supporters Paul Riley and Mark Cox, truly are in their risk-taking and boundary-breaking vigour and insouciance, beyond ordinary merit and beyond ordinary indicators of recognition. They are quite simply too good at what they are doing, and there behold is a truly fascinating paradox to play with. Just as Monty Python was way too brilliant for the astonished world of 1969, and the Pythons were far too massively munificent at what they gave as comics, so these Glasgow geniuses, from 1999-2002, gave at least twenty times as generously as you would expect.
To that extent they are doubtless paying the price. The Pythons have stayed in permanent currency, I think, in part because they speak in received English, albeit their ventriloquial powers in working class Lancs and Yorks truisms, and in parodied Aussie and Yankee argot, are generally flawless. The Chewin’ The Fat comics are hampered by the fact Glaswegian accents can surely thwart international TV sales, as they doubtless did with the matchless Rab C Nesbitt, and with that other excellent Scottish series of surreal sketches, Absolutely (1989-1993). Meanwhile the legions of derivative and truly adolescent UK stand ups, effortlessly hog the airwaves, and every night of the week on BBC2 and Channel 4 you can enjoy these Masonic gnomes and pixies on their jaunty little elbow-nudging quiz shows. They all laugh volcanically at each other’s gags, and they all laugh most democratically at their own gags too. They know less about visceral and truly passionate and truly enduring comedy, than they do about the phonetics and grammar of Old Vandalic or Old Gothic or Old Hittite. With no struggle whatever they rise to the very top of C4 and BBC2 , while Dunbar, Hemphill and Kiernan are, and I stop now to worry and wonder, are doing God knows what nowadays.
Not to worry though. What endures, endures. It is all, as I said, about the leisurely and therefore frustrating dynamics of Time and Chance. We meet these things when we are ready for them, and more crucially they meet us when it is deemed that they are just as ready for us.
NB. All 4 of the Chewin’ The Fat series, plus 6 Hogmanay Specials, can easily be obtained second-hand on Amazon etc. both as DVD and in some cases video cassette.