Comedy grab-bag

Five entries from the world of light entertainment make up today’s post.

Peter Cook’s 75th birthday, had he lived, was marked at the BFI Southbank by a compilation of his work – some sketches with Dudley Moore, spoof interviews on the Clive Anderson Talks Back show, performing as James Last on Saturday Live, and a revealing, unbroadcast interview with Bernard Braden from the late 1960s. Cook in his prime was bright, witty, and devastatingly attractive, and even as he declined on a personal level due to alcoholism and unreliability, he still had flashes of greatness – and this celebration of his life and work was a measured tribute to a great talent.

The 50th anniversary since the first broadcast of That Was The Week That Was (aka TW3) was celebrated at the BFI Southbank in style, with a two hour retrospective of the best moments from the 1962-3 run, introduced by its presenter David Frost, followed by a couple of panels reflecting on the times of the show and how freedom of expression has moved on (or not) since the days of TW3. Millicent Martin’s musical performances reflecting news of the day (illegitimacy, racism, the assassination of President Kennedy) were clearly defining moments at the time, and the minstrel chorus led satirical swipe at the Mississippi lynch mobs still packs a punch today. On the first panel were Lance Percival, a key performer in the show; Gerald Kaufman and Christopher Booker, writers for the show, and – by Skype – Millicent Martin, now based in Los Angeles. Some light-hearted debate about who wrote the ‘Silent MPs’ sketch was balanced by a more in-depth reflection on the power of satire to strike at the establishment. Clips from TW3 of cartoonist Timothy Birdsall poking fun at Harold Macmillan, or Bernard Levin grilling Charles Forte about the state of catering across the British Isles, showed a more serious side to the show, balanced by the more comedic contributions of Roy Kinnear, Kenneth Cope, and William Rushton. The second panel, with Rory Bremner, Ian Hislop, and John Lloyd, was overbalanced somewhat by Hislop’s attack on the sentiment of the Kennedy special, rebuffed to some extent from Christopher Booker and Herbert Kretzmer, both commenting from the audience.

Hislop was in evidence again at the National Theatre in the Private Eye Live event, which – with the help of John Sessions, Jan Raven, and Lewis Macleod – poked fun in their intimitable style at the great and the good. A spoof of the proceedings at the Levinson enquiry, a few obituaries courtesy of EJ Thribb, and a couple of parodies from Craig Brown were the highlights of a tight set which pleased the fans.

Christmas came to the BFI Southbank again for Camp Christmas, a pair of Christmas turkeys from the 1970s. In 1979 Dame Edna Everage introduced Abba, The Jackson Five, Boney M, Leo Sayer, and some ice dancers, out in Switzerland. Dreadful fashions and a certain air of embarrassment all round led to a show very much of its time! This was followed by the Crackerjack Chrismas pantomime from 1974, which was Aladdin, with Dana as the innocent princess, Peter Glaze and Don Maclean as Twankey and Wishee, clowning as ever, Deryck Guyler as the policeman, Derek Griffiths as the evil uncle, and Richard Wattis, that peerless comedy actor, as the Emperor. Music, bad jokes, and a few mentions of light entertainment performers we now see in quite a different light made for an entertaining hour, of sorts.