Saturday, December 20, 2008

In defence of innuendo - and against Jonathan Ross

Mark Lawson has a piece in the Guardian today pointing out, no doubt rightly, that the BBC has a far more chequered history than many of its modern critics like to pretend. It wasn't all high Reithian principles until a few years ago.

However, I think he gets it wrong when he argues that there is an equivalence between the excesses of Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand and the way that earlier comedians relied upon innuendo "given that previous eras were so much more decorous and sensitive than ours":

The comedian Ronnie Barker, widely eulogised at the time of his death as an innocent family entertainer from whom uncouth youths of today such as Ross and Brand could learn, relied heavily on inventive but relentless sexual innuendo, especially during the spoof news bulletins on The Two Ronnies.

Morecambe and Wise were generally cleaner, with both Eric and Ernie routinely complaining in interviews about peers who resorted to "blue" jokes. But, even their representative sketch about the art world - "My aunt's got a Whistler," boasts Ernie - ends with Eric waggling his glasses and replying, "Now, there's a novelty."

The difference is that Eric and Ernie - or, to be more precise, whoever wrote their script - were showing a wonderful awareness of the possibilities of language. "My aunt's got a Whistler" - an innocent phrase that shows a knowledge of art - is made into something appallingly rude. More than that, it will be rude in a slightly different way to every listener.

By contrast, Jonathan Ross yelling "He fucked your granddaughter!" displays no wit or inventiveness at all. It is worth noting, however, that what is really objectionable here is not the obscenity but Ross's eagerness to let his listeners know that he is friends with the stars and knows all their secrets. Basically, he needs to grow up.

Verbal comedy often involves saying one thing but meaning something else. For that reason, it flourishes when there are things that cannot be said.

Take the wonderful screenplay for Kinds Heats and Coronets. When Louis says to Lionel:

You're a lucky man, Lionel, take my word for it.
he is telling us that he has slept with Sibella (Lionel's bride) the night before the wedding.

And then this exchange:

Louis: How did you enjoy your honeymoon?

Sibella: Not at all.

Louis: Not at all?

Sibella: Not at all.

tells us that Lionel and Sibella's marriage was not consummated on honeymoon.

Even the film's ending contradicts the moral rule of its day: Louis gets away with his crimes if you want him to. Incidentally, Screenonline suggests that this Kind Hearts and Coronets is another British film of the 1940s that was too racy for the America censors. The ending had to be recut to show Louis's memoirs in the hands of the prison governor.

I seem to be arguing myself into an uncomfortable position for a Liberal - than censorship encourages creativity. So let's just attack Jonathan Ross's huge salary from the BBC again and leave it at that.

10 comments:

Blognor Regis said...

Show 'im yer 'Arris Jules. :-)

Andy said...

One of my favourite (late) childhood memories is of Digitiser, the videogames Teletext page written by Paul Rose. What was delightful about it was the fact that, since the page was accessible at all times of day, it had to be suitable for a pre-watershed audience. Despite this, it clearly amused the writers to smuggle through as much filth as they could, leading to some bizarre and very funny stuff. Part of the humour came from the knowledge that what you were reading was intentionally mucky, but had nevertheless got past the sub-editors.

I'm not sure there's a watertight argument that censorship encourages creativity, though. Rather, the creative people will always produce something good, and the less talented will not. Jonathan Ross has some talent (not £6m worth, though), but the incident in question was clearly not his finest hour.

Hywel said...

Wasn't a Max Miller show on the BBC hurriedly terminated mid-broadcast as he was about to conclude the gag:

I was walking over the mountains when I came across the beautiful woman stark naked. Strewth, I didn't know whether to toss myself off or block her passage.

Jonathan said...

I wouldn't say your mistake is suggesting in saying that censorship can encourage creativity. The fact that working within certain boundaries can help drive some aspects of the artistic process is hardly controversial. Don't let concern for maintaining the appearance of having principles get in the way of stating a truth; that is supposed to be more of a conservative failing.

However, it is nonsense to think the issue is about a "wonderful awareness of the possibilities of language", "a knowledge of art" or "wit or inventiveness" or any other frankly pretentious twaddle you care to bring to the controversy.

It's also a mistake of intellectual self-satisfaction to say that it is about how Ross needs to grow up. Many otherwise mature people have a similar name-dropping weakness; it is hardly grounds for controversy and punishment. Again, that is a fundamentally conservative way of thinking to think being gauche is a punishable offense.

Shouting "he fucked your granddaughter!" was a gratuitous, offensive invasion into the man's privacy. Not gratuitous in some intellectual sense. A phone call like that is a blow to the gut; it would be ridiculous to assert he could have calmly chosen not to take offense. The lack of verbal dexterity involved is entirely beside the point. I'm sure that if he tried, Ross could have been far more witty and inventive and it would have not made it any less offensive.

To be fair, I have some sympathy for where you're coming from. The thought experiment of a far more witty and inventive offensive phone call is made easier by picturing someone like Stephen Fry doing the deed.

Frank H Little said...

I'm pretty sure that the ending of KH & C was re-shot with British sensibilities in mind. Nobody got away with murder on film then. I'm not sure whether it was the censor or Ealing Studios management who insisted on changes, but the little dialogue with Miles Malleson as a reporter and the final shot of the memoirs left in the prison cell were tacked on.

Jonathan said...

Frank: The ending we are familiar with in the UK is the original one. And the journalist was played by an unknown actor called Arthur Lowe.

Blognor Regis said...

Despite this, it clearly amused the writers to smuggle through as much filth as they could

Ahem! The Spy or Who is Pink Oboe First broadcast on January 12, 1959 Genius. How they snuck this through and got the title printed in The Radio Times I don't know.

COMMANDER NARK:
Good morning, now Seagoon these are the code-names. (aside) You know I don't feel strange in this programme at all. Here are Do you know the code-names of our agents in France at allhere?

SEAGOON:
(confidence) Carry on, I'll remember them.

COMMANDER NARK:
There's the Black Rabbit, the Blue Pelican and the Yellow Alligator.

SEAGOON:
(confidence) Roger.

COMMANDER NARK:
Then there's the Octaroon Monkey, the Pink Oboe, and the Purple Mosquitoe.

SEAGOON:
(getting worried) Yes, I think I...

COMMANDER NARK:
Then there's the Vermillion Sock, the Vermillion Ponk, the Chocolate Speedway and the White Bint.

Blognor Regis said...

Ooh ooh, and don't forget Simon Groom's innuendo on Blue Peter!

Simon said...

I don't really see you arguing that censorship makes comics funnier, only that legally being able to say naughty things does not in fact make it funny to do so. Even in a liberal society innuendo is funnier than obscenity, and a comic who fails to understand this doesn't deserve £6m of tax payers money.

Harassment on the other hand, either by the state or individual persons, is not something liberals should be defending in the slightest.

The Half-Blood Welshman said...

Frank H. Little, completely off-topic but the reporter was not Malleson. Malleson played the hangman. The reporter was played by a then young and little-known actor called... Arthur Lowe!

I know how you feel about the ambiguities of censorship - I wrote an entire thesis on it. There were times when I wanted to hit the silly censors over the head, and other times when I thought, "Actually, this is such a stupid and offensive work..."

And if it's any consolation, there are other academics who feel the same way. It's a tough call. It's less I think that it encourages creativity and more that it requires the artist to be more ingenious.