In 1754, Horace Walpole, who is making his first appearance in this column – welcome aboard, Horace – coined the word “serendipity”. The idea came to him after he read The Three Princes of Serendip, a fairy tale in which the heroes “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.” And so serendipity came to mean “the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way”.
Just such an instance has come to hand, fortuitously and felicitously linking three circumstances which, taken together, will give happiness and pleasure to many. The first of these occurrences is the news that after a gap of some 16 years there is to be a new Carry On film. This will be welcomed by the Prime Minister whose stated mission is to foster among the many disparate groups who comprise our society a unifying sense of Britishness. Few things could better achieve that goal than the delightful combination of salacity, innuendo, smuttiness, comradeship, irreverence, ridicule of class differences and raucous bawdy that are among the chief components of Carry On. When mention of a bed pan makes you laugh, you are well on the way to becoming British.
There is, however, another ingredient without which the formula would not work, and that is unconscious absurdity, exemplified in the hapless soul who is a twit in the eyes of all but himself. Which brings us to the second, and indeed third, components of the serendipitous combination to which I have alluded.
While somewhere at Pinewood Studios there are men and women chewing pencils, scratching their heads, pacing the floor, and calling for more coffee and inspiration, all necessary parts of the creative endeavour that goes into concocting a Carry On script, over at the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Plymouth the raw material of farce is being generated with a straight-faced lack of awareness. Researchers there studied the results of football league results since the Second World War and concluded that teams whose strips are predominantly red win more often. This, they say, is no accident. The colour red stimulates deep-rooted aggression in competitive situations and when opposing teams are confronted by red shirts they become defensive.
Scientists have observed a similar phenomenon in kitchens. Cooks who are normally reasonably equable will, upon setting eye on a ripe tomato, become enraged, often hurling the fruit at other kitchen workers and, in extreme circumstances, diners too. On the roads, too, it is noticeable that most incidents of rage occur at red lights.
For the third happy circumstance we must go to the University of Groningen in Holland where Prof Abraham Buunk has discovered that short men are prone to bouts of aggression, showing-off and keeping a close eye on their wives or girlfriends at parties. He blames “short man syndrome” on evolution. Tall men and medium-height women, he says, have greater success with the opposite sex, which, over eons of evolution, has left men of below average height with a grudge. For confirmation the professor conducted further inquiries and found that short men were, as expected, most jealous in the presence of powerful, tall, strong and rich potential rivals. I am no scientist, but I would guess that if you removed the word “tall” from those characteristics that would still leave enough to make a rival jealous.
Fortunately, you don’t have to be a scientist to create a Carry On script. A rich supply of the absurd is sufficient and, on the evidence, the universities of Plymouth and Groningen have deep seams to be tapped. Angry little men made madder still when dressed in red shirts are the very stuff of a Carry On film, as are the professors responsible for drawing our attention to them.
One hears much of the good that may arise when the worlds of commerce and academe combine, and there could be no better example than the synthesis of behavioural research and Carry On comedy. But there is a missing ingredient without which no Carry On film could possibly work, namely the double entendre. (A woman goes into a bar and asks the barman for a double entendre. So he gives her one.)
But the academics have that covered, too. Over at the University of California they study “double entendres as a cousin of the verbal slip to determine the cognitive-processing origins of both through an examination of naturalistic and laboratory observations with implications for the cognitive efficiency of normal, error-free, speech production; and in particular, with implications of polysemantic activation within a spreading-activation lexicon.” It’s the way they tell them.