British Comedy

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by Gregg Rickman

 

The Ladykillers

Land of both the stiff upper lip and the ministry of silly walks, England has long had both a highly respectable public culture along with a disreputable underground tradition of broad comedy. In Britain, the chief conduit for lower class comedy for years was the music hall, but the tradition has remained alive for many more years in the cinema (in the 1930s, in the Carry On… series of the 1960s) and on television (Benny Hill). At the same time upper class England has a long tradition of satire and keen verbal wit, apparent in the plays of George Bernard Shaw and Noel Coward in the early 20th century, coming to the fore in the postwar comedies produced by Ealing Studio. The coarse and fine threads of British comedy were at last firmly knitted together in the radio and TV work of the 1950s and later in such productions as The Goon Show, Beyond the Fringe, Monty Python's Flying Circus and their filmic spinoffs. These different traditions continue to jostle, with often fine results, today.

Heritage Cinema

Britain, of course, has one of the world's finest literary traditions, some of which is in large measure comic: Geoffrey Chaucer, Jonathan Swift, William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde. Attempts to adapt these men's comedies to film have produced variable results. The medieval poet Chaucer inspired the very peculiar A Canterbury Tale (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1944) and Pier Paolo Pasolini's unfunny The Canterbury Tales of 1971. Swift's "Gulliver's Travels," defanged, has been largely left to non-British animators, as has Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland stories.

Albert Finney in Tom Jones

Henry Fielding's bawdy Tom Jones (one of literature's first novels) was the source of a very popular, Oscar-winning English film by Tony Richardson in 1963, full of juicy performances by some of England's legions of great character actors, and a star-making turn in the title role by Albert Finney. (A later attempt, on the BBC, was less successful.) William Makepeace Thackeray's great satire Vanity Fair inspired Hollywood's first three-strip Technicolor film, Becky Sharp, in 1935, and a 2004 version with an American actress, Reese Witherspoon, incongruously cast in the lead. The very American Witherspoon was also miscast in the 2002 version of Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, but fortunately there is a splendid all-British 1952 version that fully conveys Wilde's delicious wit and amusing narrative contrivances. Other Wilde plays on film include many versions of Lady Windermere's Fan, An Ideal Husband (including the recent version with Rupert Everett, and a fine 1969 production), and his more serious projects Salome and The Portrait of Dorian Gray (setting aside no less than three biopics that play up the pathos of his later life, including this one with Stephen Fry).

Charles Dickens wrote some of the funniest books ever written, but there is no great critical following for the 1954 Pickwick Papers. Getting better reactions are the comic turns of W.C. Fields in the 1935 Hollywood version of David Copperfield, and Frances L. Sullivan in both of David Lean's impressive Dickens adaptations, Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948).

While the greatest Shakespearean films draw upon his tragedies and histories, there are worthy film versions of the comedies, going back to 1936's As You Like It, with Laurence Olivier. Orson Welles' Spanish-made Falstaff (a.k.a. Chimes at Midnight, 1966) contains the funniest single Shakespearean performance on film (Welles' own as the rotund coward). More recently, along with all else the Bard penned, the comedies have been subject to variably successful international co-productions: thus Keanu Reeves in Much Ado About Nothing in 1993.

Theatrical Beginnings

The British film industry, caught between healthier film industries in Europe and in Hollywood, was especially weak in the silent era, and while the English music hall produced some of comedy's greatest stars - Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel, Cary Grant - they did the great bulk of their work in the US. Historians will note that Chaplin's early comedies frequently recreate classic music hall acts (e.g., 1915's A Night in the Show) and that his last American film, Limelight (1952) is a moving tribute to the halls in the form of the aged comic Calvero (Chaplin). (Ironically, Chaplin's two British-made films, 1957's A King in New York and 1967's A Countess from Hong Kong, are set in the US and on a boat, respectively.)

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