The banana skin and the manhole

14 December 2013

There’s a story about a conversation between the Hollywood screenwriter Charles MacArthur and Charlie Chaplin. 

“How, for example, could I make a fat lady, walking down Fifth Avenue, slip on a banana peel and still get a laugh? It’s been done a million times,” said MacArthur. “What’s the best way to get the laugh? Do I show first the banana peel, then the fat lady approaching, then she slips? Or do I show the fat lady first, then the banana peel, and then she slips?”

“Neither,” said Chaplin without a moment’s hesitation. “You show the fat lady approaching; then you show the banana peel; then you show the fat lady and the banana peel together; then she steps over the banana peel and disappears down a manhole.”

There was an excellent piece of banana skin and manhole business in the last but one show in the current series of the BBC comedy Hebburn, which has just finished. (UK readers can find it on iPlayer for another couple of weeks). Without giving away any spoilers, the McGuffin of the story was an edition of the Telegraph magazine in which there was an extract from Jack’s secret diary of his wife Sarah’s pregnancy. Jack calculates that no-one in Hebburn – not an affluent town – reads the Telegraph, and reluctantly shreds his own copy. 

But – of course – a copy arrives in town, and gets left by mistake on the sofa in a recording studio where Jack’s sister happens to be (banana skin). But before she sees it, the sound engineer scoops it up and takes it out with the other rubbish. From then on the plot ticks inexorably towards the manhole moment and the discovery of the offending article by a friend of Sarah’s. You know it’s going to happen, but you don’t know how or when: it creates a point of comic tension.

I like Hebburn, not least because it’s blessed by the acting of Gina McKee and Vic Reeves. Although the second series is less dark than the first, it’s managed to develop the characters so they feel fuller (they could easily have descended into thin North-eastern cliches). You also know immediately that the scriptwriters, who come from the area, like their characters rather than regarding them as clotheshorses to hang jokes on (Little Britain, anyone?). I also like the fact that their lifestyles in the show correspond with how they might be in actual life; these are people who live in post-crisis Osborne-land, who don’t have much money, and the storylines and quite a lot of the humour reflect that. In contrast, when you watch Big Bang Theory you wonder how Penny, working as a waitress on minimum wage, manages to afford to pay for an apartment on her own when Sheldon and Leonard, both better paid, have to share. Or at least I do.  

The photo of the cast of Hebburn at the top of this post comes from its production company, Baby Cow Productions, and is used with thanks.  

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