Archive for November, 2009

Revisiting “The Comedians”

22 November 2009

(c) Helen Maybanks

I had feared that Trevor Griffiths’ play The Comedians, premiered in 1975 and revived by the Hammersmith Lyric – the run has just closed – might seem as dated as Galsworthy or Priestley, with its exploration of racist and sexist humour and an argot of venues that seems as remote as the Romans. I needn’t have worried.
The underlying tension in the play, between the old pro, Eddie Waters, who’s teaching the aspirant comedians of the play’s title, and the agent Bert Challenor, come to look for new talent, is as live as ever.
Eddie Waters sets out his stall as he warms up his protégés ahead of their performances at a local club in front of Challenor:

WATERS: A joke releases the tension, says the unsayable, any joke pretty well. But a true joke, a comedian’s joke, has to do more than release tension, it has to liberate the will and the desire, it has to change the situation.

Some of the writing, and the performance, as the play explores this in its first act, amid the pre-set tension, is right at the edge, particularly the apparent improv around the tongue twister, “The traitor distrusts truth”.

Challenor, of course, is having none of it, as he arrives towards the end of the act, to give the comedians a few tips before they go on stage.

CHALLENOR: I’m not looking for philosophers, I’m looking for comics. I’m looking for someone who sees what the people want and knows how to give it to them … Any good comedian can lead an audience by the nose. But only in the direction they’re going. And that direction is, quite simply … escape.

Of course, (mild spoiler alert) the students who pander to Challenor get the contracts. Price has changed his act at the last minute, and is tough, challenging, and perhaps not funny, mystifying agent and the other students alike (but not Eddie Waters). The third act, effectively, plays out between Waters and Price. They’re on the same side of the argument that comedy should ‘change the situation’, but about what comedy is for, but disagree about whether this needs to be done with love and compassion or not.

This makes it sound like a play of ideas, and it is, of course. But it’s also a technical tour de force, an ensemble piece in which all the ensemble are deftly drawn (as my friend Rick pointed out), some clever stagecraft, outstanding writing, and perhaps most satisfying of all, it plays out in real time – the director of the Lyric production, Sean Holmes, emphasised this with a clock in full view of the audience, which could have been risky for a less accomplished play or production.

‘What will you do?’, asks Waters of Price, as he leaves. ‘I’ll wait’, he says.

And with hindsight, he’d probably have done alright, along with the other comedians dismissed by Challenor. 1975 was probably – pre-punk, pre-Jubilee, pre-Thatcher – the highwater mark of the ‘joke telling’ comedian in the Northern clubs. As alternative comedy took off in the early 80s, the political, the angry, and the character comedians all prospered. Perhaps Griffiths had an instinct that the moment was about to turn.

The production photo above is by Helen Maybanks.You can see more of her photographs – many of them utterly charming – at her blog.


Wars of nerves

11 November 2009


Although he’s no longer the Laureate Andrew Motion has marked Remembrance Day this year with a very public poem, ‘An Equal Voice‘, which used ‘found lines’ about shellshock and post traumatic stress to bring this particular (and distinctively distressing) experience to mind, shared to some degree by all survivors of war. As he wrote in the introduction:

This is a “found” poem, a stitching together of the voices of shellshocked people. Their words have been taken from a variety of sources, from the first world war to the present, and are presented in the poem in roughly chronological order. There’s a fragment of Siegfried Sassoon in there, but most are from unknown soldiers.

As he acknowledges he has also drawn on Ben Shephard’s history of military psychiatry, A War of Nerves, and the title is taken from a quote from Shephard’s book:

“We hear more from doctors than patients. However hard he tries, the historian cannot even the account, cannot give the patients an equal voice, because most of them chose not to recount their experiences.”

Oddly, Shephard’s response was that the poem was plagiarism, which surprised me, coming from the author of a fine (and undeservedly out of print) book. It’s not. But perhaps the history of the objet trouvé hasn’t yet collided with the history of the military.

The whole poem is technically quite interesting – 6 fourteen line stanzas. I’ve reproduced the first one here and recommend reading the whole thing, which was published last Saturday in the Guardian Review and builds, memorably, towards a conclusion.

From An Equal Voice

War from behind the lines is a dizzy jumble.

Revolving chairs, stuffy offices, dry as dust

reports, blueprints one day and the next –

with the help of a broken-down motor car

and a few gallons of petrol – marching men

with sweat-stained faces and shining eyes,

horses straining and plunging at the guns,

little clay-pits opening beneath each step,

and piles of bloody clothes and leggings

outside the canvas door of a field hospital.

At the end of the week there is no telling

whether you spent Tuesday going over

the specifications for a possible laundry

or skirting the edges of hell in an automobile.

The picture is from Canadian Content, and shows soldiers cooking a Xmas goose at the front in 1914. It is used with thanks.

On Topic

8 November 2009

topic70boxset3dvisualI’m a bit late to mention the 70th anniversary of Topic Records, almost certainly the oldest independent record label in the world. Its catalogue of folk music, particularly English folk music, is unrivalled. I was lucky enough to catch Martin Simpson playing at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London as part of the birthday celebrations – with luminaries such as Danny Thompson, Andy Cutting, Jon Boden and B J Cole joining him on stage.

Topic Records was a creature of the 1930s, evolving out of the Workers Music Association, which was founded in 1936, becoming Topic Records in 1939. The secret of its longevity seems to be that it has never set out with the intention of making money, instead recording music it thought worthwhile and keeping it in print.

MD Tony Engle put it like this in an interview:

“The idea is to make records that are, if not instant classics, then records that will be here for as long as we have the medium to make them available. The music industry, by and large, wants to make money. It’s a business, and thinks relatively short term. I always think long term.”

Its statement of aims and objectives – what might, unfortunately, be called a ‘mission statement’ these days – which were formulated soon after Topic was formed, is perhaps the best clue to its longevity:

  • to present to the people their rich music heritage
  • to utilise fully the stimulating power of music to inspire people
  • to stimulate the composition of music appropriate to our time
  • to foster and further the art of music on the principle that true art can move people to work for the betterment of society.

The picture is of Three Score and Ten, a 7-CD box set (an utterly fabulous collection of music which includes Topic’s very first release, “The Man Who Watered The Workers’ Beer”, by Paddy Ryan, as well as more recent material by Martins Carthy and Simpson, Richard Thompson, assorted Watersons, June Tabor, Ewan MacColl, and a whole body of Scottish and Irish and international (mostly American) music, including Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson – track list and review at Musical Traditions), and a book about the label issued to mark its anniversary. On my Xmas list.


4 November 2009

The best song I know about age and ageing is ‘Birches’, by the American folk singer Bill Morrisey, which popped up on my iShuffle the other day.

It is a perfectly encapsulated moment; a three minute short story that Raymond Carver (or his editor) would be proud of, in which a disagreement between an elderly couple over whether to burn oak or birch in the stove becomes an exact metaphor.

There’s a performance by Morrissey on youtube, of course, at the top of this post, although it’s not as good as the version he recorded.  The words are here. There’s more recent work as you go into his current website.