We Brits never tire of reminding ourselves that we’re world leaders in having a sense of humour and we’ve now even got something called “the Gold TV Comedy Audit” to remind us of our past national triumphs in hilarity, as the Express revealed earlier this year:
“DON’T tell him, Pike!” and “I know nuh-thing” are among Britain’s favourite comedy oneliners, critics have revealed.
The classic Dad’s Army line – uttered by Captain Mainwaring (Arthur Lowe) after Ian Lavender’s gormless Private Pike has been asked for his name by a German prisoner – topped a list of iconic gags from hit shows like Blackadder, Fawlty Towers and Absolutely Fabulous.
It was a pretty funny line back in the day, but it feels as if, somewhere along the way, we’ve forgotten why it was so funny.
The joke works on at least three levels. First, Captain Mainwaring contradicting the whole point of his own order was a witty, compact logical absurdity, in the paradoxical tradition of Lewis Carroll’s word games. Second, it’s part of a comedy of manners – if this was just some random character slipping up on a metaphorical banana skin it would have been slightly amusing verbal slapstick, but it became properly funny because of the pomposity and self-importance of the character who was falling flat on his face. But the slapstick element of the situation also worked in its own terms, too – watching people bumbling about and doing something really badly can be genuinely hilarious in itself, which is why fail memes are a thing.
The thing is, on any of those three levels, the joke is only funny because we, the audience, can see the absurdity of the situation. The characters on the other side of the fourth wall are oblivious to their own logical inconsistencies, character quirks and ineptitude. The writers, actors and audience are sharing a joke at the expense of the characters. Admittedly, in this case, it’s quite a gentle joke – Dad’s Army was always about affectionate mockery – with the possible exception of all-purpose killjoy Warden Hodges, most of the characters were essentially likeable, if very silly. But it’s only funny because we have a sense of the ridiculous which is lost on the characters.
We’ve been exposed to this sort of comedy for so long that you’d think that nobody on these islands could fall into the trap of parroting logical absurdities, getting puffed up with self-importance, or making a chaotic hash of things without some memory from Dad’s Army, or Blackadder, or Fawlty Towers, or Python, or whatever, popping into mind and prompting some thought along the lines of “Hang on, this is just getting silly.” But no, at least for influential people making some of the most important decisions in our national life, there is no fourth wall. Our chief Brexit negotiator, David Davis, isn’t watching Captain Mainwairing and laughing at him. He is Captain Mainwaring, blissfully unaware of his own logical inconsistencies, pompous bluster and incompetence…
“You’ll find it difficult sometimes to read what we intend, that’s deliberate, I’m afraid in negotiations you do have constructive ambiguity from time to time.”
…or maybe, as Cliff Taylor has suggested, he’s channeling Blackadder’s cheerful, but turnip-brained, sidekick, Baldrick:
If there is a cunning British plan in the background here it is being particularly well concealed. Britain’s Brexit secretary David Davis said “creative ambiguity” was needed during a negotiation and that London could not show all its hand. But this looks more like Blackadder than Machiavelli.
London must know that the rest of the EU will not allow it to simultaneously leave the EU, retain the benefits of free trade within Europe and also be able to negotiate new trade deals with other countries such as the US, Latin American and Asian countries and so on.
In political terms this is firmly in the cake-possession-and-eating department. In economic terms, the key problem is that Britain wants to trade freely and without barriers with the EU, while at the same time striking its own trade deals with other countries.
Even when the mockery is affectionate, you’re supposed to laugh at these characters, not become them. It’s kind of the point of comedy. If you don’t get that, you’re suffering from a sense of humour failure that leads to some very dark places indeed, as the consistently excellent Flipchart Rick has just pointed out:
I said years ago that if we ever had an authoritarian movement in Britain it would not have uniforms, goose-stepping marches and torchlight parades. It wouldn’t be that interesting. Ours would be a shabby poujadism, led by golf club bores, residents’ association busybodies and parish Pol Pots.
The boorish self-righteous know-all is a staple of British comedy, perhaps because every neighbourhood has at least one. It’s easy to imagine Terry Medford, Martin Bryce, Warden Hodges and Reggie Perrin’s brother-in-law Jimmy in your local UKIP branch. Basil Fawlty would have joined in the early years but left once they started letting in riffraff like Eddie Booth and Alf Garnett. But at least in the comedies even the most dislikable characters had some redeeming features and, in the end, they usually got their comeuppance, their own puffed-up stupidity eventually bringing about their downfall.
Alas, in 2017, this once-ridiculed tendency in our national culture is now calling the shots. As Rafael Behr said last week, to the rest of the world, Britain now looks urbane but unhinged. Sitcom characters, only without the comedy…
You should definitely click through and read the whole thing (as well as Rafael Behr’s bleak but brilliant polemic on the subject).
Welcome to the UK, the looking-glass kingdom of backwards Karl Marx, where history repeats itself first as farce, then as tragedy.