Book Review: A GREAT, SILLY GRIN: THE BRITISH SATIRE BOOM OF THE 1960S
A Great, Silly Grin: The British Satire Boom of the 1960s
Humphrey Carpenter ~ 2000/2003
Public Affairs/Da Capo
British comedy and the varities of its sources of humor are regarded as an autonomous subgenre by many in the United States. Whether or not this view is correct (and indeed, Humphrey Carpenter addresses it with breadth and deft analysis) seems inconsecquential next to the larger question of "How did comedy (in Western industrial nations) manage to transcend the grim limitations of a staid post-war culture and form a key element of worldwide rebellion?"
Carpenter's narrative goes a long way into explaining how a relatively isolated movement in comedy, part and parcel to broader trends in a culture ready to burst, had a profound effect on the people of its day and formed a bedrock foundation for later expressions of satire, parody, and its bretheren. Long before the stylized burlesque of Saturday Night Live
(1975 - present) on one side of the Atlantic and the madcap surrealism of Monty Python's Flying Circus
(1969 - 1974) on the other, a group of young men from a variety of societal vantage points formed a new kind of revue, first presented at the Edinbrugh Festival as Beyond the Fringe
in 1959. British stage comedy had long been dominated by light cabaret, the most challenging and out-there examples of which were found in the private "smoker" revues at Oxford and Cambridge that brought acidic wit and scathing humor to a select, very homogenous, and largely drunk audience. Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett, and Jonathan Miller augmented this tradition by blending the sophmoric humor of the past with pointed, controlled, and darring political satire that spoke directly to the moment. Their success at Edinbrugh set-off a "satire boom" that tested the long standing cultural institutions of censorship, libel and slander. Revues were just the beginning: the satircal rag Private Eye
, a fashionable club called The Establishment, the controversal BBC show This Was the Week that Was
, and some landmark cross-pollination with performers from the United States (Lenny Bruce in particular) took comedy in many new diretions. The resultant legacy paved the way for the proliferation of comedic expression of the next few decades - some, including Carpenter, would suggest an abundant over
-proliferation - and allowed most of the personalities involved to have meaningful careers in television and film.
Carpenter knows the bold task before him: rescue an under-researched period of British cultural history from obscurity, in the process convincing many of its principle players that their achievements were far more significant than even they thought, all while staying within the confides of defensible scholarship. For the most part, he does a wonderful job. The stories of how satire rose and fell are mostly culled from anecdotal chimings by the comedians under scrutiny, but at times their memories leave cloudy pictures of what really happened. In the end, the possibilities of satire are but one part of a larger matrix that included the literature of the "Angry Young Men," the films of the (confusingly, perhaps unfairly named) British New Wave, the fallout of cultural revolutions of various stripes, and a general youthful world-view that supercedes the dreary past. His defense of the histories of the satirists against, say, the filmmakers (toward the end of the book) seems a little unwarranted. He need not question the value of his work, but rather, if any major criticism could be levelled against it, could have continually weaved a broader cultural web instead of leaving it all for the end. Recommended reading for persons interested in British cultural history, the history of comedy, and narratives of success in the arts.