Changing face of BBC comedy is a good lesson in laughter

Steptoe and Son, Harry H. Corbett as Harold Steptoe, Wilfrid Brambell as Albert Steptoe & Duncan Wood with various cast members & studio crew, 1965, Copyright BBC

Steptoe and Son, 1965, Copyright BBC

The developing face of comedy on the BBC from the 1950s to the present are examined in an exhibition in Warwickshire.

BBC Faces of Comedy at Compton Verney contains nearly 100 photographs from the BBC archives, and it’s amazing how many from the earlier section are still household names, or popular faces from repeats, today.

The early selection mostly of course covers BBC radio, and starts in the 1930s. A 1938 shot shows the actor Carey Grant guest starring on Band Wagon. The star of It’s That Man Again Tommy Handley is shown standing on his head for a promotional photo to look suitably zany.

Joyce Grenfell and Tommy Cooper, complete with fez, are in later images and there’s a very young Bruce Forsyth from 1959 starring in Educating Archie. Amazingly, this was a successful radio programme featuring a ventriloquist’s doll, but it only lasted a year when it moved to TV as viewers complained they could see the ventriloquist’s lips move!

The Frankie Howerd Variety Show from 1951 features him and Eric Sykes hamming it up, and Howerd pretending (presumably) to be asleep in a script conference. The Goon Show stars sit almost one on top of each other for a photo pulling daft faces, and Hancock’s Half Hour is represented by a lounging Hancock having his hair combed by Hattie Jacques with the other stars sat around attentively.

A young Morecambe and Wise are featured in conversation in 1957with Morecambe dangling a pipe from his lips; apparently their first attempt to transfer to TV was unsuccessful, but they came back three years later for another go and the rest was history.

Ken Dodd had perfected the look he’s had ever since by 1958, with his mad hair and dazed expression, and Kenneth Williams was looking camply askance in a Beyond our Ken picture from 1958.

These early photos differ from the more recent in that the images are mostly more outrageously posed and staged, with the comedians trying to appear the same way they put themselves over on radio or early TV. The later ones sometimes show the actors in character, but others are behind the scenes or during down time.

Lifes Too Short- Ricky Gervais - Stephen Merchant- production shot- S1 Ep1  2011- Copyright BBC

Life’s Too Short, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant production shot, 2011, Copyright BBC

They still represent the passing decades though; there’s The Liver Birds pictured in 1969 with their hairstyles and clothes very much of the time, several photos from Dad’s Army, and Are You Being Served?, showing different sets in the studio. Fawlty Towers has the stars very much in character, as does the Young Ones. In Only Fools and Horses the stars are shown relaxing on set and being filmed on a boat, and the Absolutely Fabulous stars are shown in costume but off duty in Paris. Ricky Gervais and his University of Warwick-graduate co-writer Stephen Merchant are shown laughing in a studio.

Some issues are dealt with, including the fact that Ain’t It Half Hot Mum from the 1970s is not generally reshown like other shows from the decade as one of the Indian characters was a white man blacking up. However more recent shows such as Goodness Gracious Me and Citizen Khan show that comedy is becoming more representative of the population.

It’s an interesting exhibition which shows changes in society on several issues.

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