Back in the Fifties, it was possible for a single TV sitcom to capture 92 per cent of the small-screen audience; 92 per cent? It sounds astonishing to us now. The idea of so many people watching the very same comic gags at the very same time. Those fabled water-cooler, coffee-machine chats about what was ‘on’ last night no longer happen. Offices have lost their communal buzz, and are often as dead quiet now as a funeral parlour. No more telephone calls, as everyone is texting. No need to talk to anyone, you just email. Nothing to talk about, because we’re all listening, watching, playing something different. No wonder we have a coalition government. There’s just no chance for any single party to be heard, or seen, by sufficient numbers to have any impact.
Huge audiences, though, were captured back in the 1950s and 1960s by Lucille Ball, the red-headed American comedian, star of shows like I Love Lucy and The Lucy Show, who influenced Tony Hancock, Roseanne Barr, French and Saunders, Miranda Hart. The shows have long ended, but there’s still an annual Lucille Ball festival in her hometown of Jamestown, New York, as we discovered on Barbara Windsor’s Funny Girls, an engagingly nostalgic series (produced by Susan Marling) on great American female comics (Radio 2, Tuesdays).
Nine hundred lookalikes paraded down Main Street, Jamestown, in Lucy’s trademark red hair, red lips, polka-dot shirts on what would have been Ball’s 100th birthday (she died in 1989). Why was she so successful? Barbara Windsor reckoned it was because she was funny and sexy at the same time. But I loved her shows as a kid because she was such a great female role model, in spite of appearing to be nothing more than a browbeaten wife and useless at everything.