So two days ago I saw David Cameron, and it got me thinking about how, although I hate to say it, I kind of admire the way he really does cycle to work without much fanfaranade and brouhaha. Just so I could get the words fanfaranade and brouhaha into this paragraph.
Today, I saw Eric Sykes on the same road. It’s near Orme Court where he and Spike Milligan used to have their writing base, and which also served as a base for such other uniquely British comic greats as Tony Hancock, Frankie Howerd and Johnny Speight. For all I know, Eric Sykes could still be working there, churning out golden comic prose for today’s lesser comic mortals, with Spike Milligan in the corner acting as a kind of stuffed muse.*
What will be his legacy as a comic writer? He’s one of those ‘forgotten’ comics – not celebrities, but comics, the kind who work in the engine room of comedy, much as copywriters are often described as the engine room of accounts. I’m not sure I personally like that description applied to myself – it smacks too much of the sinister mechanic in Das Boot – but when Eric Sykes’s time comes – which won’t be much longer by the looks of things, bless him – it will be headline news.
So he was, maybe still is, a great comedy writer. What is comedy writing? Why are some things funny? And why do the really funny things keep getting funnier the more you think about them? I think it’s multi-layering. You can, if you want, get a laugh out of saying ‘bum’ or ‘knob’, but that’s just one ‘hit’. You can gurn and grimace and get a similar effect. But I think real comedy writing takes character and situation and overlays one on top of the other.
A colleague said she’d seen Alan Rickman coming out of Happy Snaps once (another Harry Potter link there). Another’s response (who is also a copywriter): “Hmmmm…… me with beard, me without beard, me looking snide, me looking sarcastic, me looking evil. Excellent, excellent.” This email made me laugh out loud, which emails seldom do. It just gets funnier the more you think about it.
Now the idea of Alan Rickman coming out of Happy Snaps is of itself risible. But when you then take the characters he plays – vain, egotistical, slightly sinister – and overlay that onto the situation, that’s real humour. It’s a collision of parody and reality. Perhaps that’s also why Spike Milligan stole the show in The Life of Brian.
* A little more research reveals that, despite the very strong ties between Sykes and Milligan, and between Milligan and Monty Python, he never worked with the Pythons. In fact, he disliked them: he was often quoted as saying that although Monty Python was brilliant it marked the start of a decline in comedy. And, in a delicious twist of irony, it turns out their office is next door but three to the local Opus Dei headquarters. Does Eric know? Perhaps he should be told.