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A genius

I think I must share a similar taste in humour to blogger Clive Davis. Like Clive, I cannot see what is so funny about Ricky Gervais, the man who gave us the spoof TV show, The Office, and does standup. He leaves me completely cold. On the other side, Clive is a Peter Sellers fan and so am I. Sellers’ reputation has been a bit trashed of late, by this scathing biography in particular and in a recent rather cruel film starring Geoffrey Rush but despite his real or alleged personal shortcomings, he towers above most of the so-called comic actors of today, with a few exceptions.

Clive has a picture taken from I’m All Right Jack, which ranks alongside Dr Strangelove – the Cold War movie of Stanley Kubrick – as probably one of the sharpest pieces of movie satire since the war. The film was made in the mid to late 50s, around the time of the Suez crisis, when the government was led by men of such standing as Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan. Manchester United’s Busby Babes had entered the European Cup only to be cruelly cut down by the Munich air crash. The Soviets had launched the Sputnik satellite. Ike was in the White House. Ayn Rand had completed Atlas Shrugged. The Hungarian uprising of 1956 had been mercilessly suppressed. These were, in retrospect, times that shaped much of our lives today.

In some ways the 1950s were quite a good time in Britain, as this recent book demonstrates. Crime was much lower than today. Grammar schools enabled bright working class children a chance to get up the educational ladder. The Tories ended rationing – “Set the People Free” – while Elvis, Chuck Berry and the rest of them began to come on the airwaves and push aside the stuffier fare. Certain aspects of life were still far less liberal than today, such as laws on divorce, homosexuality and censorship, although arguably free speech was actually more widely respected than today (I suspect some commenters will agree with that).

And there was the Goon Show, the brainchild of comic genius and all-round nutter, Spike Milligan. Sellers was one of that show’s brightest stars and later built a career in films, some of them of mixed quality. But Sellers’ brilliant portrayal of an ultra-leftist trade unionist in I’m All Right Jack is the pinnacle, in my view. He played opposite Terry Thomas (“what a fwightful shower!”), cast as the cynical factory manager, and Ian Carmichael, as the upper-class twit sent to work in the company. And in a strangely modern twist, young Richard Attenborough plays a shady businessman cutting arms deals with Arab states (nothing much changes, does it?). As a final twist of genius, that old news hand, Malcolm Muggeridge, is cast as a tv current affairs host.

The film beautifully captures the prevailing view of the ‘enlightened classes’ at the time, which was that Britain was not ‘modern’ or ‘efficient’ enough, and that what was needed to solve this state of affairs was a more meritocratic, technology-driven business ethic. This proved in fact to be the wrong diagnosis, an essentially corporatist one. The problem with the sort of world lampooned in this film was not that Britons were inherently lazy, stupid or venal; no, it was that much of Britain’s industrial vigour had been sapped by decades of rising taxes, regulations, and the not-exactly-trivial business of two major world wars. It was not until the failed experiments of Harold Wilson in the 1960s that people realised there were no technological, managerialist fixes to Britain’s economic stagnation. The ‘fix’ was in drastic cuts to marginal tax rates, deregulation and removal of trade unions’ privileges, starting with the closed shop.

I have heard it said that Sellers’ portrayal of a trade unionist was so good that it greatly annoyed much of the left. If that is so, he deserves a vote of thanks for sending up a destructive attitude so cleverly. If only we had someone of Sellers’ genius to send up the intrusive state of today.

21 comments to A genius

  • RAB

    Apparently Arthur Scargill, the Miners Union leader, well known for his ready wit and adroitness with a quip, saw I’m all Right Jack and thought it was a documentary.
    He was so taken with Sellars character, Fred Kite, that he modelled his whole persona on him.
    I totally agree Johnathan. Sellars was a very strange person in real life, but this does not detract one iota from the magic he conjoured up on screen. It seems par for the course for comic genius. Look at Milligan, Emery, Cooper, Hancock etc.
    The more sane they tend to be, the less funny they are. Hence Ricky Jervais. I loathed the Office, but liked some of the ideas and subversion of the images of the guest stars in Extras.
    The genius of Sellars is that he played Kite straight. Not a flicker of a smile. He did it in Heaven’s Above too, where he plays the do gooding new Vicar, who trys to take Christ’s message literally. To disasterous consequences.

  • Finally, someone else who shares my apathy towards Mr. Gervais. For me, watching the Office is akin to watching a tumble weed roll across an arid land scape as a curch bell tolls in the background.

    I can’t say I’m a fan of Peter Sellers, however. For me, the best British comedy has got to be, of course, Monty Python, but also Fawlty Towers and Withnail & I.

    I’ve often wondered if the Pythons had a conservative streak to them, what with sketches like the self-defence class and the army being intimidated by the mafia.

  • “…There is no me. There used to be, but I had it surgically removed…”

    RAB: not just on screen. Remember his renditions of the Beatles’ songs? Pure genius, if there ever was one.

  • Another film and also a favorite of mine was “An Angry Silence” that saw manipulation of the events by a remote union elite and the vicious victimisation of an individual who did not wish to dance to the same tune.

  • Underrated comedy genius?
    Alec Guiness(White Suit, Ladykillers)
    Interesting points about British Industry in the sixties; I worked with the Ideologically Cleansed survivors of Handley-Page Aircraft in the 80’s.
    Fred Handley-Page(‘Sir Frederick’) founded the company in his garage in about 1910, a bit like Gates and Jobs.
    In 1966-67 there was a big meeting with Wilson and his henchman Tony Benn; they were all told to prepare to be turned into a nationalised corporation.
    Fred more or less told them to Fuck Off.
    In 1968 HP was building the Jetstream feederliner.
    They forward-bought large quantities of Reynolds alloys in the US.
    Then Wilson devalued the Pound against the dollar by goverment decree, and HP had cash-flow problems.
    No problem; the ‘Jetstream’ had a large USAF order as a casevac transport, and HP had a lucrative contract with MOD to turn Victor bombers into tankers.
    On hearing of the cash-flow problem, ‘national interest’ was invoked and the contract frozen.
    They couldn’t even finish the USAF prototype(with Air-Garrett engines, later adopted for the ‘BAE Jetstream 31’) and the company went bust.
    Their entire 60 year design archive was found in a garage(back to square 1) and rescued by Cranfield College of Aeronautics, along with three complete Jetstreams.
    Cranfield spent ten years curing a few aerodynamic efficiency issues, and the jigs for the new engines were gobbled up by BAE.
    Anybody feeling sick yet?

  • RAB

    Oh absolutely Alisa!

    The Richard the third rendition of Hard Days night
    was magnigicent! Produced by George Martin too!
    One of the main factors for the Beatles working with Martin was because they loved his work with Sellars on comedy records for EMI.
    I was born in 52. Depending on how the thread goes, I may be back with a few insights into a Britain that has all but disappeared now.
    Like having to break the ice on my gramps false teeth mug of a morning, before he could put his choppers in.
    No central heating back then see!

  • Glad to hear I’m not alone on Gervais…

    Re the critical response to “I’m All Right, Jack”, there did seem to be a party line in the reference books I used to pore over when I was a teenager int he 70s. I don’t think the Boulting Brothers ever received the credit they deserved for that sequence of state-of-the-nation satires they made in the 1950s.

  • Julian Taylor

    Just read the IMDB cast list for I’m All Right Jack and it certainly does read like a roll call for Britain’s 1950’s best: Ian Carmichael, Terry-Thomas, Peter Sellers, Richard Attenborough, Dennis Price (Kind Hearts and Coronets), Margaret Rutherford, Irene Handl, John Le Mesurier, Kenneth Griffith, Malcolm Muggeridge to name but a few. I wonder how much influence the movie had upon David Frost’s later That Was The Week That Was, which also dealt with class issues via comedy.

    I feel that Ricky Gervais lost the plot after The Eleven O’Clock Show and my opinion has alway been that he’s something of a curate’s egg – i.e. great in parts. Having said that his series Extras was so spot-on cringeworthy as to make me laugh myself silly recalling assistant directors , casting directors and extras who act exactly like that.

  • “If only we had someone of Sellers’ genius to send up the intrusive state of today.”

    The modern state defies satire. Not even Sellers could have done it.

  • RAB: I was born in 60 (ouch…), but I am not British, so many of the names would not register with me:-(. My 13 years old son is a huge fan of Sellers, BTW.

    While I am at it: who can tell where the quote in my previous comment came from?

  • Alisa-Woody Allen?

  • Falius

    Alisa: That would be this [YouTube clip of sellers on the muppet show]

    I still think he was never as good as when he was bloodknock or bluebottle.

  • Falius

    Before someone points out the obvious flaw in my last post, I humbly withdraw it (cant edit it away, unfortunately). I cite momentry insanity and change my answer to ‘Sellers on the muppet show’. Thankyou

  • Good post Jonathan. Right up my street.

    The Boulting Brothers were liberals in the classic sense. In addition to technological progress, The message of “I’m alright Jack” was supposed to be a pox on both your houses – unions and management – but Sellers’ performance was so great it was widely seen as an anti-union film. The highest box office of 1959 as it happens.

    Honestly I don’t know how it was recieved on the left. I was going to suggest ‘The Angry Silence’ a few years later caused a lot more consternation because a) it was a direct attack on the extremes of unions and b) it was jointly produced by Richard Attenborough who was a declared leftie. Doesn’t he sit on the Labour benches in the Lords? Incidently Attenborough’s film production partner was Brian Forbes, a declared conservative.

  • RAB

    One of the sheer blisses of the 50s
    I miss most, is a blazing coal fire!
    To have a good book, the radio on
    your legs up over the mantlepiece
    toasting till they are blotchy red and white
    in front of the best Welsh coal that bubbled
    and oozed bitumen that exploded into volcano like eruptions and lava flows.
    The shapes, the faces the imaginings…
    There is nothing in this world that aids contemplation better than a coal fire!

  • I’m American, but was born near Liverpool in 1953, and lived in England for several years when I was young. *Loved* the Goon show as a child (mostly the Telegoons, actually), then acquired several of the radio show LPs in the 1970s. I also lucked into a roommate back then who was familiar with the show and could do most of the voices.

    I still love the show, and have introduced it to several people. A few years ago, the son of one of them got together with a friend and did “What time is it, Eccles?” at his high school’s talent show.

  • RAB

    Good for you Wheels!
    Let’s spread the word a bit more.
    If you all google up the BBC Radio Player
    Scroll down to Comedy and Quizes,
    There you will find a plethora of comedy delights from the 50s and 60s to the current stuff
    Including the Goon Show, Round the Horne, Hancocks Half hour, Steptoe & Son…
    Enjoy Y’all !!

  • llamas

    I distinctly recall that a TV broadcast of ‘I’m All Right, Jack’ in the UK in the late 1970’s was postponed until after an upcoming election because it was felt to be too overtly political in nature.

    In the 50’s and 60’s, the Brits had a particularly-well-developed ability to poke fun at the wilder excesses of their unusual labour environment. I recall a lovely bit of black comedy which imagined an argument breaking out among soldiers standing in the water waiting to be evacuated from Dunkirk – can anyone else with a better memory place it?

    But that tradition got well-and-truly poleaxed in the late 60’s, as successive Labour governments in perpetual thrall to a handful of powerful unions and their ‘block votes’ managed to eviscerate the economy. See Pietr’s post above, regarding Handley-Page, and then multiply a hundred-fold, from TSR-2 to the auto industry to the shipping industry to the coal industry, there wasn’t a UK industry strong enough to withstand the destructive forces of the UK Labour movement, and suddenly, jokes about the excesses of labour-union idiocy weren’t funny anymore.

    It’s hard for outsiders to understand just how daft the UK labour movement was at that time. I well, well recall seeing a shop-steward at British Leyland being interviewed on TV, during one of the seemingly never-ending strikes which crippled them. The subject was the inflexible work rules which the labour unions insisted upon, and the interviewer allowed as how the highly-successful German auto industry had developed some different ways of working which improved production and profits, and wouldn’t that be something to at least consider?

    ‘Not bloody likely!’, replied our hero. ‘We beat the Germans in two World Wars, they don’t have anything to teach US about how to build cars!’

    Note the total absence of any meaningful UK auto industry today, directly traceable back to this sort of thinking.



  • RAB

    I remember back in the 70s that British Leyland were going to try their hand at corporate sponsorship.
    They were going to sponsor showjumping but on the condition that the name British Leyland was incorporated in the name of the horse.
    There was this great cartoon, the tag line of which was-

    Oh dear! that’s 4 faults. The back right leg appears to have fallen off British Leyland Morris Prancer the 3rd

  • Peter(Lock City)

    I notice that the last entry on this thread was all of 13 months ago. I happened to chance on it because some genius in England made a statement about the English working class. It is a sociological statement.
    That being the reason because there are so few working class of any higher IQ. It is a waste of time putting them in University. I hastily posted a rebuttal on a rather conservative American web site.
    Thus using Google to find working class genius, brought me to this thread. I was born 1931 in London, and Canada bound in 1955. Worked at the EMI Hayes Middlesex.
    Ah yes, the BBC. Rays a Laugh, Life with the Lyons, Bloodnock and Henry and so on.
    Even the Weston Brothers. “We couldn’t care less chaps- we could’ care less”. Next, To the tune of “Red Sails in the Sunset”. (Whoops temporarily forgot the lady). The Piddingtons. Australian couple who could communicate without any electronic aids. (Nobody found out, as far as I know, how they did it). Dictated by mind control, an entry in an encyclopathedia. One party in Blackpool Tower, the other in a small aircraft flying overhead.

    Elsie and Doris Waters -“Let’s all be good Elizabethians”. This after the coronation.
    Raymond Glendenning and his phoney commentaries, juiced up to keep the interest. Television film of the Turpin -Robinson championship boxing match two days later, proved that.
    Anyway, memories galore