Wednesday 17 November 2010

A Busload of Quakers

‘Pigs n Spivs’ is the title of Ep 2 of series 2 of Hut 33 (now on iPlayer here) I'm not convinced this is the best title,since it implies that there is more than one pig and one spiv in the episode, when there isn’t. There is one spiv who sells our starving codebreakers a job-lot of bacon. Which is still in pig form. Unfortunately, they discover the origins of this pig and could be in serious trouble.

The difficulty in writing Hut 33 is always finding our characters things to do that the audience can understand, since they don't really have a hope of comprehending the actual codebreaking part of their work. I've read several books on the subject and I struggle to retain the necessary information in my head simultaneously to put it all together. The chance of doing this and getting laughs is almost impossible. Episodes about codebreaking in Hut 33 are fairly rare.

This is why the theme of Pigs and Spivs is shortages and hunger. It's something that we can all identify with and get our heads around. Food was in short supply for the whole war and an unpleasant reality for all but the wealthiest. World War Two ration were meagre. Most of us today could eat their weekly ration in a day. So it's good to keep coming back to that.

Quakers, Baptists and Jokes

There is one other point of minor interest on this episode. Hopefully my explanation of it will give a small insight into how you sometimes make a joke fit the context. I spotted a comment on someone’s blog about Hut 33. (Clearly during the original Radio 4 transmission of Hut 33, I’m regularly googled ‘Hut 33’ in order to find out what people think of it). This blogger, a wife of a Baptist minister, blogged about her irritation that the writer of Hut 33 seemed ignorant of certain religious groups and their drinking habits. This is particularly poignant as I am not ignorant of certain religious groups, since I cheerfully belong to one myself (yes, I'm a Christian. There. I've said it) and I studied theology at University, so I know a bit about all this stuff.

The joke in question is Archie’s joke in response to his discovery that the pub has completely run out of alcohol. He says “So we’re now standing in the world’s first teetotal pub. We expecting a bus-load of Quakers?”

The audience, as I hope, laughed at this joke. But, in a sense they were wrong to. The blog pointed out that it is Methodists that refrain from drinking, not Quakers. I knew that. Honestly, I did. But I chose Quakers for the joke because I knew it would work. Why?

Shared Knowledge
Comedy relies on shared knowledge and simplicity. If the audience have to think about a joke for too long, or are unsure about any part of it, they can’t laugh. And they don’t laugh. Simplicity and clarity is everything. This partly explains why people get upset about stereotypes. They are a reality in comedy because it relies about compressing information and leaving plenty of things unsaid. (eg. Cab drivers are racist. Builders are Polish. Rich people are dim. In fact, when one breaks a stereotype, that in itself can be the starting point for a sitcom eg. one of the first women vicars in The Vicar of Dibley. The joke was, at the start, 'it's a woman! And not a man! You know, like a normal vicar would be.' I over-simplify naturally. But that's stereotyping for you.)

In this case, I chose Quakers because I’m not sure how widely know it is that its Methodists don’t drink. It’s also the case that many Baptists don’t drink either. How widely known is that? Less so now than before. I judged that the audience would have no problem believing that Quakers don’t drink – partly because in my mind there seems to be some kind of overlap between Quakers, Puritans and the Amish, at least in terms of their public perception. In reality there are vast differences between these groups of Christian believers. The puritans in particular were a remarkable bunch of Christian folk who were nothing like the the adjective named after them - 'puritanical'.

Returning to the joke in question, we have to bear in min that this was a joke for 2008. So I chose Quaker. Even though the joke is set in 1941, when the vast majority would have been clear that Methodists don’t drink.

Add to the equation the fact that characters are the creations of writers – and do not represent the views of the writer, or share their factual knowledge. So Archie, Charles and the team, and especially Josh, say plenty of things that are wrong, or grammatically incorrect. They hold religious, social and political views that I do not. It seems obvious to point this out, but occasionally one needs to.

Incidentally, the Quaker website says:

One testimony that Quakers have had to give careful thought to is our testimony on moderation. In the nineteenth century Quakers saw the bad effects that drink and drunkenness had in society. Along with other Non-conformist Christians they campaigned against alcohol. Many Quakers were active in the Temperance Movement - a movement of people who "took the pledge" (promising that they would never drink alcohol) as a witness against the evils it caused.

So I wasn't that far off anyway, was I?

The tricky part is where joke reinforce stereotypes that are unfair, oppressive or nasty. There, my friends, we have to use a thing called judgement. And then your producer will probably thumb through the BBC Producers Handbook Guide (Vols 1-9) and then just delete the joke.


  1. Of course, ' a busload of Quakers' sounds a lot funnier than 'a busload of Methodists'.

    If religious groups are going to give themselves comedy names then they have to expect to be used in sitcoms from time to time.

  2. Speaking of stereotypes - when I read your comment about being a Christian I (as an atheist) thought "hmmm, how can an ignorant and naive religious person understand and write good comedy". I promise I will keep listening to your sitcoms though :-). Perhaps this is the time to introduce a new comedy about the first atheist vicar?

  3. I must admit despite knowing a fair amount about religon (because I'm an atheist.....) that I missed the quaker comment. Still thought it was funny. On another note you may be pleased to here that both my children are addicted to Hut 33 (age 13 and 9) and as a result have requested we visit Bletchley Park. Hopefully more episodes soon

  4. Thanks for your kind words, Gavin. Really glad you like the show. If you'd like more Hut 33, could you let Radio 4 know this? I think they may have gone cold on those draughty Huts.