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Lords of laughter

Great actors and great sportsmen now almost expect a knighthood. Why are great comedians limited to lesser honours?

1 January 2011

12:00 AM

1 January 2011

12:00 AM

What do the following comedians have in common? Morecambe and Wise, Ronnie Barker, Frankie Howerd, Bob Monkhouse, Peter Sellers.

They’re all dead, yes. But something else. None of them was knighted. Instead they were all made OBE, an honour Michael Winner once charmingly described as ‘what you get if you clean the toilets well at King’s Cross station’. Still, they did better than Les Dawson, Tony Hancock, Tommy Cooper and Peter Cook. Those four got nothing.

I find this curious. In most cases, at least. Hancock died a bit too young (suicide at 44), and accepting anything from the honours system would have turned Cook from satirist to court jester, in two ways a fool. But the rest? These men entertained millions, and yet the automata in charge of doling out titles apparently treated them as though they were cheery amateurs rather than masters of their art. Perhaps the automata, being automata, have no sense of humour, a suspicion reinforced by the knowledge that in 1999 they awarded the CBE to Lenny Henry.

When the New Year’s Honours were announced, no one expected a knighthood for Bruce Forsyth, Billy Connolly or Eric Sykes (all CBE), or a damehood for Victoria Wood (also CBE). Consider how rarely the higher honours go to comedians, and how often they go to dramatists and non-comic actors. Sir Arnold Wesker, Sir David Hare (establishment-savaging left-wing playwrights do love a title), Sir Ronald Harwood, Sir Peter Shaffer. Or Sir Ben Kingsley, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Sir Derek Jacobi, Sir Antony Sher…

Enough lists. We see the problem. The automata are evidently under a common intellectual delusion: that humour is frivolous, and that the serious must be taken seriously.

Where does this delusion come from? Presumably to the humourless, laughter seems an unworthy, trivial response to the miseries of life. They think the correct response to those miseries is to ponder them extremely earnestly, as if this will somehow solve them. Such people are never entirely happy unless they’re frowning.

Perhaps they assume that drama is harder to write than comedy. I don’t think you need to have written either yourself to see that this is false. It must, at a guess, be harder to write a competent comedy than to write a competent drama because often a dramatist’s subject matter will do half his work for him. Say he writes about poverty, or alcoholism, or loneliness in old age. The result, if he’s even moderately gifted, is almost bound to be moving to some degree — not, or not only, because of his skill as a dramatist, but because the topic itself is moving. To write about death and make it sad does not take talent. To write about death and make it funny — that takes talent.

The humourless don’t grasp this, which is why the top acting awards so frequently go to those who have played the mentally ill or the victim of some historic atrocity. The judges seem to imagine that to make an audience feel unhappy is a titanic achievement, as if most people by nature were cloudless optimists on whose lives unhappiness scarcely intrudes.

In any case, the best comedies are nearly always tragedies. Not tragedies in a classical sense, but tragedies in a human one. Steptoe & Son, Hancock’s Half Hour, Fawlty Towers, The Office: they’re about people who are wretchedly and eternally trapped, whether by social class or family or their own ineradicable ineptitude. Why is the best Black- adder series Blackadder Goes Forth? Because, by some miracle, it extracts hilarity from the trenches.

As well as tragedies, these great comedies are farces, at least in the sense that they demonstrate the absurdity of both human behaviour and fate. Farce may be a pejorative term, but in the end farce reflects life more truthfully than any other art form, because life itself is farcical. Even the cruellest, least funny elements of it can be farcical. A relative of mine is undergoing chemotherapy for a brain tumour. The doctors have given her pills to stop her vomiting. The trouble is, she keeps vomiting them up. There’s nothing amusing about that. But it is farce. It’s the dark, heartless irony of the universe.

Dark, heartless irony is the key of all those great sitcoms I mentioned. Two of them, incidentally — Steptoe & Son and Hancock’s Half Hour — were written by the same duo: Ray Galton and Alan Simpson. Both OBE. Nothing higher.

It’s not just the honours system that undervalues comedy. Comic actors tend not to win Oscars. Comic novelists tend not to win the Booker: just three — Kingsley Amis, DBC Pierre and Howard Jacobson — in 42 years. (Amis, as it happens, did get knighted, in 1990, although this was probably more for being noisily pro-Thatcher than for writing funny books.) Perhaps the arts are ruled by a junta of the humourless, who think making jokes is easy. They should try it.

Comedians might not care. After all, they get plentiful other rewards — sex, money, fame. But they’re needy and neurotic (that’s what made them want to be comedians in the first place), and so, in return for a career devoted to mocking vanity and self-importance, they ache for a trip to the Palace and a title to impress waiters with. Look at Forsyth. Time and again journalists ask him whether he’s upset not to have been knighted, and time and again he puts an unconvincing brave face on it. ‘If [the CBE] is as far as it goes, that’s as far as it goes,’ he said on Piers Morgan’s chat show last March. ‘A knighthood would be nice for the family, though.’

If they give him it now, after all his years of public hoping, it will probably be more out of pity than admiration. Poor old Brucie, they’ll think. Here, have a prize. You know, like on one of your silly TV shows.

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