Monday 14 March 2011

So Seventies

Last night, I finally got round to watching Part 2 of The Story of Variety with Michael Grade. Part 1 was excellent, interesting and surprising - full of stuff about the thousands of variety acts criss-crossing Britain to play the hundreds of variety. Part 2 was a little bit rubbish and covered the well-trodden variety acts who ended up on TV. Twenty minutes on Morecambe and Wise isn't really necessary given the dozens of docs they've been covered in before.

Why did they include all that footage of Morecambe and Wise? Because they know we love it and never tire of it. And Tommy Cooper, Ken Dodd and all those old-fashioned acts that are still funny, partly because they're so beautifully crafted, and also because they are experienced. But their comedy is universal and timeless.

I mention this because it struck me that one criticism levelled at shows like Mrs Brown's Boys is that they are so dated, and so seventies. That was the over-riding complaint on Twitter as the show was first broadcast. It's in some of the reviews too, but the point is not whether or not Mrs Browns Boys is so seventies - but the question 'Why is this a bad thing?'

Mumford and Sons are, essentially, a folk band. Aren't we done with folk? Isn't that so 1670s? Apparently not. Some people love them - and now they are popular, some people have decided to hate them. But why hate them? Because it's folk? Not really. Music combines old and new. Why is comedy different?

Specifically, comedy from the seventies is still shown on television very regularly today. Cable channels are full of it. At Christmas, they still repeat Morecambe and Wise. So why is it bad if, comedically, something seems very seventies? Certainly comedy has moved on for some people. Our tastes change. But comedy itself hasn't progressed. Just moved in a direction we call forwards because that's the way it looks from where we're standing.

A show is no better or worse for harking back to the old days or having a feel of a by-gone era about it. Miranda has attracted praise for being old-fashioned. But that is precisely the reason that some people hate it - or more specifically say daft things like "I shouldn't like it but..."

Mrs Brown's Boys
While we're on the subject of Mrs Brown's Boys, I should declare an interest in that I know the producer and the script editor, so use that to filter whatever I say on the subject. But I'll say this: I wasn't expecting to like the show given that I don't find drag especially funny, and the style of humour is not to my taste at all. I watched it out of professional interest and courtesy, and discovered I liked it much more than I thought I would. I don't love it, because it's not my thing. And yet, I laughed out loud several times - significantly more times than I did at cooler, hipper Channel 4/BBC2/BBC3 shows we could mention that pride themselves on being very now. I don't care what people say: Taizering yourself by mistake is funny:


  1. Oh man, that 'essentially' made me so cross. In all the 'essential' ways, Mumford & Sons are not a folk band at all. They've stolen folk clothes, robbed the music of its politics, its link with folk concerns, and instead written about themselves in the same moaning, tedious way as every other popular band around at the moment. The mandolins are neither here nor there.

    On your general point though, it is baffling how a culture so in love with the Beatles or Abba or whoever could use a whole decade as a term of criticism. But on the show in question, I suspect what they mean is that they've outgrown the travesty of the feminine that is a man in drag.

    Also, I reckon Morecambe and Wise reruns tend to exist for people who were there at the time. I'm not convinced that they're picking up new audiences, or that a young audience would respond well to anything like it, whatever their trendy protestations.

  2. It is strange. I watched Mrs Brown's Boys for about 30 seconds, laughed out loud, told my wife what a funny line it was, then switched over. Not planning on watching it again. You writers probably hate people like me.

  3. A mate recommended I watch episode 3 of Mrs Brown's Boys on i-player. I'd never heard of it so gave it a go. I thought it was hilarious and, yes, I laughed out loud. Told the person I'm co-writing a sitcom with and she said, "Oh no! That's rubbish - aimed at teenagers. It's not at all funny." Oh dear. I'm way past being a teenager. But I still like it. It's fast and it's funny. The clip above proves it.

  4. I hadn't seen Mrs Brown's Boys, and indeed the taizer thing is funny, but I couldn't help noticing that the two main jokes that preceeded it are very old indeed. "Two more drinks and I'll be under the host" is, I think, Dorothy Parker, and "can't remember who gets tied up" has been gracing the front of a birthday card for years. As a novice sitcom writer I assumed it's frowned upon to use jokes you didn't write, is that naive? Can I relax about being terrified that someone's heard something I say before?