English wit: saucy, surreal or bathetic?

24 Feb

Is there a quintessentially English brand of humour? One we specialise in and can fairly be held to encapsulate, or at least betray something important about, our national psyche? It used to be said that our staple is saucy suggestion. It used to be said too that this links in covert manner to another alleged national trait, prudishness. The idea being that innuendo and repression are yin and yang in a unity of opposites – much as our surrealist tradition, from Georgian Molly House to Monty Python’s Flying Circus, are yin to the yang of our beef suet pragmatism.

Surrealism is an important if underacknowledged aspect of English humour, but sexual double entendre has the longer pedigree. Shakespeare seldom passed on a chance to wedge in a slice of the stuff, and what about this scene from The Country Wife, 1675? It’s ostensibly about china but we know better, as would Wycherley’s audiences a mere dozen years after the Restoration.

Lady Fidget likes to dally with a chap by the name of Horner, who feigns impotence to allay the fears of suspicious husbands when in reality he:

knows china very well, and has himself some very good but will not let me see it lest I should beg for some

Her husband has derived much mirth from Horner’s ‘affliction’ but is now alarmed:

Sir Jaspar: Wife! My Lady Fidget! He is coming into you the back way!

Lady Fidget: Let him come, and welcome, which way he will.

Sir Jaspar: He’ll catch you, and use you roughly, and be too strong for you.

Lady Fidget: Don’t you trouble yourself, let him if he can.

Later, Horner and Lady Fidget emerge from her chamber and are accosted by Mrs Squeamish. She too wants china.

Horner: Upon my honour I have none left now.

Mrs Squeamish: Nay, nay, I have known you deny your china before now, but you shan’t put me off so. Come.

Horner: This lady had the last there.

Lady Fidget: Yes indeed, madam, to my certain knowledge he has no more left.

Mrs Squeamish: Oh, but it may be he has some you could not find.

Lady Fidget: What, d’ye think if he had any left, I would not have had it too? For we women of quality never think we have china enough.

Fast forward to 1968. In Carry On Up the Khyber, the Governor of North-West Frontier Province, Sir Sidney Ruff-Diamond (Sid James, who else?) is entertained by an Indian ascetic’s contortions on a bed of nails. Until, that is, the moment comes – we’d seen it a mile off, of course: that was half the joke and the better half at that – for Sir Sidney to dismiss him:

Fakir – off!

Nowadays the gag would only work if you knew the lay of the land in the sixties. True, theatre critic Kenneth Tynan had used the f-word on TV as early as 1965 – at which a tory MP opined he should be hanged – but no way could popular culture get away with it.

And that’s the point. Wycherley was pushing at the boundaries, after the puritanical strictures of the interregnum. So too were the Carry On films pushing boundaries, in their case ones drawn up in the bleak mid-fifties. (I’m not the first to say this but it’ll stand repeating: those who judge the sixties infantile and self indulgent aren’t conducting a fair trial unless they take mitigatory note of the dreary decade that came before.) Then there was the Steptoe episode that opened with Harold and father playing Scrabble – camera zooms in on rude words in every direction – and ended with all copies of the local church rag impounded by Shepherds Bush Vice Squad, courtesy a crossword puzzle the duo of Oil Drum Lane had compiled at the request of an overly trusting vicar. Meanwhile, with the Oz Trial looking to test Britain’s vaguely worded obscenity laws (Rupert Bear ring any bells?) there was life yet in that old Edwardian standfast, the smutty postcard. One of my favourites had a middle aged woman telling her blushing companion, right outside a factory with the sign, FRED SMITH’S TOOL WORKS:

You’re a very lucky woman, Mrs Smith!

But is double entendre a predominantly English comic feature? I think not. Still less does it signify, other than at particular historic junctures, a culture of egregious sexual hang up.

Sexual double entendre is cross-cultural. Viets, hugely aided by a homophonic hence pun-rich language, are big on it. We find it in Sicilian folk and Delta Blues allusions to lemons squeezed dry … in Bossa Nova and songs bawdily ad-libbed at African weddings. You can see why. One, humans are very interested in sex: always have been; always will be. Two, signalling one thing in the guise of another is a profoundly human thing to do. What’s language, if not metaphor?

Sexual innuendo does thrive on sexual repression – the latter inseparable from private property and inheritance, so the monopoly of no particular culture – but the link is as valid when we strip out the sexual from both sides of the equation. Innuendo thrives on repression, full stop. Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, on the face of it about a witch hunt in seventeenth century Massachusetts, was written in 1953 with America in the grip of McCarthyism. Nurmuhemmet Yasin was locked up for ten years, once the Chinese authorities twigged that Wild Pigeon, 2004, was an allegory on the repression of his Uyghu compatriots.

In sum, sexual innuendo is a universal, not a definingly English trait, while ‘timeless’ English prudishness proved anything but. By the end of the sixties, we were cheerfully shedding our kit at the Isle of Wight and Monterey, and on the beaches of Greece and Goa. Let’s face it: we’re no longer known for being straightlaced in that department, and the change is not entirely for the better.

The case, still superficially plausible as swinging sixties gave way to alternative seventies, for seeing bawdy double entendre and sexual repression as definingly English was blown out of the water long ago. So where does that leave us in the search for a quintessentially English humour? We still have the surreal, and can make a strong argument for a leading role here, but it’s on the intellectual fringe. Only rarely – Kenny Everett’s the exception that proves the rule – does it go mainstream. Monty Python never did, and while Reeves and Mortimer are sometimes touted in this respect, their forays into the surreal were never more than that.

A stronger case can be made for the Englishness of bathos, and not just because we coined the term. Try these opening lines to The Canterbury Tales:

Later in the Prologue, Chaucer will introduce his pilgrims as they leave Southwark. From high and low estate, they are bound in common purpose; visiting the shrine of the martyred Thomas Becket. To pass the time on the road it’s agreed each will tell a story but first Chaucer sketches them out, one by one. Spot the bathos – not that he’d have called it that; the term first appears in the title of an Alexander Pope essay of 1727 – in his depiction of the cook:

Long before Sir Sidney Ruff-Diamond and Carry On, Sid James was best known for puncturing Tony Hancock’s flights of rhetoric with laconic bathos and that inimitable cackle. In his less abrasive way, and minus the dirty laugh, John Mesurier’s Sergeant Wilson would do the same for Arthur Lowe’s Captain Mainwaring. Alan Bennet is steeped in bathos, while camp comedy from Frankie Howerd to Julian Clary has paired it with double entendre every step of the way.

Sometimes it’s all just too much. When I get over my aversion to Bennett’s downbeat bathetics I enjoy him, but that’s despite not because of them; it’s because he’s very good, not because I’m drawn to that keenly observed but sluggishly mordant view of the world. The same goes for Jo Brand, and a big chunk – too big if you ask me – of contemporary comedy. Don’t get me wrong. My gripe is not with bathos per se; just when its batteries are low.

And when it’s too predictable. There’s a comedic nicety here. The cheerful vulgarity of lewd innuendo lends a pantomime quality, honed by hallowed tradition. The moment a fakir appears in a Carry On scene it’s a question of when, not if, Sid James will exploit an inoffensive Indian word’s close homophony with a forbidden Anglo-Saxon one. Our anticipation’s a big part of the fun but it doesn’t work – for me at any rate – that way with bathos, and the difference has to do with the latter’s downward effect on energy levels. Bathos can be exquisite, but a lighter touch is called for.

Back to the substantive point, though. We can make a strong case for bathos as our definitive comedic form. It captures the best of us – or the best of our ideas of us – as in the sang-froid that insists on finishing off our game of bowls, even as the perfidious Spaniard sweeps up the Channel. And it captures the worst of us, at least in our current state of lost identity: steeped in irony and mistrust (sometimes laudable, sometimes not) of Noble Sentiment; too often unable to step up to the plate for the big occasion. Those gut-filleting world cup penalty shoot outs for instance …

In sum, salty double entendre is big in English humour but only because it’s big in all cultures. We can make a tighter case for owning comic surrealism but it’s largely the preserve of those in little boxes on the hillside. It’s the send-up and shoot-down of bathetic wit that comes closest to capturing the soul of Englishness.

For the time being at any rate,

* * *


Thanks to Trisha, whose comprehensive thespian past takes in William Wycherley and other Restoration Comedy.

Also to Peter Ackroyd’s Civil War – despite its title as much about the Stuarts on both sides of the Interregnum and a skillful, always highly readable blending of the realpolitik of the day with its art, science and philosophy.

And to my A-level English teacher John Wyman – dubbed ‘Bill’ of course on account of the bass player who in 1969 hadn’t yet, in Keef’s bathetic words, “left the greatest rock’n roll band in the world to run a fish and chip shop”. It was the late John-Bill Wyman of Firth Park Comprehensive who guided me to, and for a while through, the sparkling wit and humanity of Geoffrey Chaucer.

Lastly Chris Parish for insightful comments, not least on English understatement. I kick self; just posted on Wodehouse so no excuse. There’s zero sexual innuendo in Jeeves, zero surrealism, a little bathos … and understatement in spades. (Bertie to Aunt Dahlia: “what you’re overlooking – perhaps because I haven’t told you – is that a snag has arisen which threatens to do our aims and objects a bit of no good”.) There’s also that subversion, in Bertie’s mix of elegant prose and dim reasoning, of the all-wise first person narrator: seen too in Watson’s accounts of Holmes’s sleuthing and the decent but painfully unaware John Shuttleworth. I just purchased Chris’s well received book, Being British for reading tomorrow as my plane leaves Heathrow for Delhi.

One Reply to “English wit: saucy, surreal or bathetic?”

  1. The Carry On “fakir” joke isn’t as good as Clive Dunn referring to “the old fakir” in “Dad’s Army”. The former works but is a bit contrived – nobody would say “Fakir off!” The latter sounds almost exactly like its obscene counterpart.

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