Now There’s a Funny Thing”: Humour and Comedy in Post-War Britain

Session Abstract : This session will offer three perspectives on using humour as a source for historical enquiry. Using variety theatre, the sitcom, and the failed joke as case studies, the panel will ask what humour, comedy and laughter can reveal about the broader political, social and cultural milieu of post-war Britain.

Across the panel, the papers seek to explore comedy as something both produced and consumed. It will consider the technical issues of comedy’s production, performance and distribution alongside an exploration of its audiences, reception and appreciation. From the variety stage and stalls, to the world of television comedy and the living rooms of its viewers, the papers will ask who was laughing, and when, to elucidate broader themes in modern Britain, from affluence, modernity, and technological change, to questions of taste, morality and belonging. The panel will explore how three historically specific cultures of humour were engaged in mediating the changing face of Britain, and what their jokes meant to the audiences watching.

Session Chair: Gavin Schaffer, Uni of Birmingham

Paper 1 Abstract : ‘‘All Clever Stuff, No Rubbish’: The Promotion and Role of Live Comedy in Variety Theatre 1945-60

Leo Bird, University of Sheffield

In the post-war era, comedy was at the heart of the British variety industry. The landscape for live performance was shifting rapidly and the economics of amusement were becoming increasingly diverse and challenging. This paper will examine the changing role of live comedy, how it was marketed and promoted by the variety theatres in Post-war Britain. The promotion of bills at the major chain Moss Empires will illustrate the shifting patterns in taste and economic success. The activity and marketing of comedians Max Wall and Max Miller will be used as case studies, in an attempt to further explain how live comedy tried to appeal to audiences in a rapidly changing cultural environment.

Comedians and comic singers were the mainstay of a variety bill and hundreds travelled the land performing at city-centre variety theatres and smaller music halls. This period saw a drastic change in how comedy was available to audiences. Radio, television and film had opened new and more accessible avenues to consuming comedy. In variety, traditional music hall comics coexisted with demobbed comedians trained in entertainment corps. Younger audiences turned towards marketable pop culture and theatres sought to include big bands, popular singers and eventually rock ‘n’ roll groups at the expense of traditional acts in an attempt to capitalise on this trend. However, comedy in the flesh remained a vibrant and profitable business until the mid-1950s.

The operators of the live entertainment industry needed to respond to this challenging market and maintain their box office takings. This paper will assess the attempts to keep multiple demographic groups happy and whether it prolonged the success of live comedy performance or contributed to its demise.

Paper 2 Abstract : “Look at us, we’re dregs!”: Steptoe & Son and the Cultural Rediscovery of Poverty

Michael Potter, University of Manchester

Steptoe and Son ran to twenty-seven episodes broadcast between 1962 and 1965, attracting critical acclaim and audiences of up to 26 million viewers. The programme’s creators believed it offered a form of good social comment and a space where you could advance a point of view and illuminate the human dilemma. Despite this, no serious historical studies have yet been completed of Steptoe.

In simple historical lexicon, the “Sixties” means affluence and modernity. Revisionist histories have, however, begun to question the universality of participation in this apparent social, cultural and economic “revolution”. Steptoe offers a popular cultural product through which historians can explore one social group’s fictional inability to participate.

This paper will highlight how Steptoe and Son provided a cultural rediscovery of poverty during the boom years of affluence and in advance of its “official” exposition in 1965. In so doing, it also brings into question the extent to which the 1960s can be considered post-Victorian. Histories of British poverty have predominantly been told through the prism of sociological reports and analyses. Accordingly, having been vanquished by the welfare state, poverty was “rediscovered” in 1965 following the publication of sociologists Peter Townsend and Brian Abel-Smith’s The Poor and the Poorest.

Utilising episodes, production files, journalism, biography and audience research materials, this paper will explore how Steptoe’s eclectic genre mixing of social realism with sitcom; the mise-en-scène of Victorian squalor; the characters’ role as rag-and-bone men in a mass consumer society; Albert’s characterisation as unregenerate and grotesque; Harold’s inability to escape his circumstances, both physically and imaginatively, all contributed to a popular and cultural rediscovering of Victorian poverty in the midst of the affluent society. Crucially, it will also consider audience responses to this representation. Viewers received the programme as uproariously funny but frequently as a consequence of its “vulgarity”.

Paper 3 Abstract : “In Poor Taste”: Failed Jokes and the 1970s Television Audience

Chelsea-Anne Saxby, University of Birmingham

This paper will explore jokes that failed – jokes that, rather than inducing laughter, caused offence and even outcry – as a means to think about who constituted the television audience in the 1970s. The methodological problems that culminate to form what has come to be known as ‘the reception problem’ in television studies will be considered, and the archival repository of the ‘failed joke’ employed as a way to tease out historic imaginings of the unseen, unheard millions watching television comedy at home. Underpinning this discussion of the vulgar, blasphemous, sexist and racist joke will be questions about who is laughing, and who is being laughed at, who is being invited into television’s interpretative communities, and who is being shunned.

The paper’s premise is that those jokes which generated controversy, in turn, generated more material, and so the ephemeral absence of laughter has often left a bigger archival trace. Just as an individual’s laughter is ambiguous, their failure to laugh can offer no straightforward lessons about their values, and neither can those whose viewing experience was so often characterised by outrage be taken as representative of the ‘average’ viewer. What attention to the failed joke does afford is the illumination of a discursive struggle to define what was not funny. The evidence files of the Annan Committee on Broadcasting (1974-1977) will be used to map the contours of these attempts to police the boundaries for acceptable humour, and a range of social actors, with disparate political agendas, will be revealed as having sought to represent the ‘Sensible, Ordinary Briton’ whom future jokes should be written towards.