Brought up short.
The first and last word on Arthur Askey, British comedy film star of the ’40s, belongs to Alexei Sayle ~
“Remember, people once laughed at Arthur Askey, and history has proved them wrong.”
I decided to give Arthur a try, having procured by nefarious means a copy of BEES IN PARADISE, which the esteemed Val Guest directed, co-scripted, and wrote the lyrics for. An air force crew bail out over an uncharted island where they find a civilization ruled by women, where men are routinely sacrificed two months after wedding one of the local beauties. Plus, everybody’s always singing. I’m not sure which of the two qualities makes the place, ironically named “Paradise,” less appealing.
The crew consist of Peter Graves — not that one. This one is an amicably hopeless actor, always smiling, whatever the scene, who was also a baronet, which must have been nice for him; Max Bacon, an overstuffed and very Jewish malaprop; Ronald Shiner, a standard-issue cocker-nee cheeky chappie; and our Arthur.
With the body of a ten-year-old and the head of a maths teacher, Askey is a strange looking fellow, but not in a way that immediately inclined me towards laughter. Such a response seemed cruel, somehow. After watching him for ten minutes or so, I did start to feel cruelly towards him, but I was no closer to laughing. There’s definitely a kind of cold-blooded comic skill to the man, but it all seemed very artificial, as did the script. Guest seemed to be under the influence of the Marx Brothers, and no doubt generations of music hall cross-talking comedy acts, and his material, like Askey’s performance, mimics the best of those traditions without ever actually generating the surprise or freshness needed to produce laughs. There’s a lot of meta-textual gags too, confirming Joe Dante’s assertion that breaking the fourth wall used to be a lot more common.
I was expecting the sexual politics to provide the laughs, and unintentional ones at that, but in fact there wasn’t very much in the way of dated sexism to raise chuckles. A pity, really. Here’s modern comic Harry Enfield spoofing that kind of idiocy, in one of his best sketches.
There were funny acts in the music hall — Chaplin and Stan Laurel both got their start there, and what I’ve heard of Dan Leno’s material is whimsical as hell but still funny, at least in places. But for some reason, the main way the medium is recalled today is in parodies of lousy and inscrutable old comedy, by way of spoof comedians like Tommy Cockles, Arthur Atkinson and Count Arthur Strong. And this does seem to represent a definite strain of British comedy.