These are sad times for admirers of English middle class humour. First came the loss of Alan Coren, a comic writer of breath-taking accomplishment and versatility, then just a few days ago the death of his one-time friend and colleague Miles Kington. Both were still in their 60s and as funny as ever.
It might seem strange that I describe their humour as middle class. I can hear a New Yorker friend of mine now: “Jeez, do you limeys have to bring class into everything?” On the face of it humour should be classless, but it isn’t. To appreciate Coren and Kington, you needed to be both literate and, up to a point, learned, and those accomplishments, though quite modest, tend to belong to the middle classes.
I had not really thought about this until I read the Daily Telegraph obituary of Kington, which said of his series of Franglais books: “They were rapidly to become a fixture in the lavatories of middle class households.” You needed a smattering of O level French to appreciate Franglais, a term invented by Kington to describe the mixture of French and English spoken by the British tourist. Here are a couple of examples: A man is accused of driving his car “avec toute la finesse d’un Rangers fan” and a door-to-door salesman assures his customers “Je ne suis pas un nutter religieux”. He wrote another series, this time for people with a faint recollection of O level classics. His Latin Tourist Phrase Book included Quid pro quo (The sterling exchange rate), Ad hoc (Wine not included), Sub rosa (Rather unattractive Italian girl) and Sal volatile (rather attractive Italian girl).
If you found those funny the chances are you’re middle class, even though in this egalitarian age you might not care to admit it.
George Bernard Shaw famously said that it was impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman despise him. That is no longer true now that Estuary English is fashionable, indeed obligatory, among the metropolitan elite and especially those who choose broadcasting as a profession. Instead, it might be said with greater accuracy that when an Englishman opens his mouth to laugh he betrays his class.
Britain has become a predominantly proletarian culture and so the things that make us laugh are proletarian too; that is to say they are unrefined, coarse and owe nothing to any prior knowledge other than a basic understanding of human orifices, their output and input, and a sound grasp of profanity. When the humorist Frank Muir died his close friend and former scriptwriting partner Denis Norden said: “He had one of the best comedy brains I have known. He had a civilised breadth of allusion, with references that extended beyond football players and lager and bodily functions.” Truly a man of yesterday. The men of today are Jonathan Ross and Graham Norton.
What Coren, Kington and Muir had in common, apart from being very funny, was that their humour was grown-up. I would have used the word “adult” were it not that it has undergone a change of meaning so profound as to become its own antonym. Today, adult means puerile or childish. So, “adult humour” is of the bum-po variety that makes five-year-olds chuckle. Just walk into a bookshop and look at the titles on the shelves marked humour. And if you have the stomach, go over to the greetings cards and look at the offerings under “adult”.
When today’s humour is not puerile it is pretentious. Alternative comedians are too bloody pleased with themselves to be funny, imagining that social comment of an unastounding kind interlarded with the F-word is enough to get by on.
If you are wondering what this has to do with marketing, it, too, has been infected by the rise of proletarian humour. Not surprising when for the first time in history the working class have a healthy disposable income or the next best thing, easy access to credit. Humour has always been among advertising’s most effective weapons, but whereas it was once whimsical or witty (middle class, in fact), it is now loud and vulgar.
Our humour was not always divided on class lines. Take it From Here, Hancock’s Half Hour, Steptoe, the Likely Lads, all attracted huge audiences irrespective of class, and all were funny in a grown-up way. So why has the quality of our humour nose-dived? Probably because the middle class are in decline. Bourgeois morality compelled comedians to be creative. When the restraints came down, in rushed cheap and easy laughs. The middle class took refuge in their lavatories with copies of Miles Kington.