Wednesday, May 04, 2016

The Men from the Ministry, Jimmy Clitheroe and my sense of humour

These days I find something too premeditated about televsion comedy. The idea of sitting down to watch something for 30 minutes because it will be funny, feels odd. I much prefer wit in the pursuit of another goal.

But the comedies we watch when we were young don't just form our sense of humour: they form who we are.

As I have blogged:
When I was in the sixth form ... we conversed using lines from Fawlty Towers and Reginald Perrin in the way Victorian schoolboys are supposed to have swapped Latin tags.
Recently Radio Four Extra, my new favourite station, has stated repeating two comedies that take me back further than that.

When I was 11 my favourite radio comedy was The Men from the Ministry. I suppose its anti-Whitehall ethos has its roots in post-war resentment of socialism by the comfortably off - think of the fuss over the Tanganyika ground nut scheme - but it was immensely good natured.

The comedy was in the hands of pros like Derek Guyler and Richard Murdoch,* and it managed to be funny despite, even because of, its formulaic plot.

Their General Assistance Department would have two projects on the go, get them mixed up (perhaps sending the letter referring to one project to the other and vice versa) and there would be a news bulletin describing the resultant chaos.

They would fear the sack, but then discover that their boss was happy with it for some reason and live to cause chaos another week.

So ingrained is the show's comedy in my own sense of humour that I recently heard a joke that I stole for one of the first couple of Lord Bonkers' Diaries. (It is a sobering thought that those first diaries are nearer in time to my 11-year-old self than they are to me today.)

But I can go back further than that.

Radio Four Extra has started to repeat The Clitheroe Kid, which was my favourite radio comedy when I was 8.

You'll get a good idea of Jimmy Clitheroe's schtick if you watch the video above of him with George Formby. He was the ultimate precocious, cheeky schoolboy.

Except that Much Too Shy was made in 1942 and Jimmy Clitheroe was born in in 1921. Which means that he was already 20.

Because Jimmy Clitheroe - and that was his real name - suffered thyroid gland a birth and never grew after the age of 11, remaining 4ft 3in tall.

So by the time I fell in love with his show in 1968, he was 47. He still turned up for recordings in schoolboy cap and short trousers, but he had the face if a middle-aged man. That is why his television and film career had foundered by then.

Jimmy Clitheroe died in 1973, at the age of 51, after taking an overdose on the day of his mother's funeral.

And you thought Jimmy Krankie was disturbing.

* Richard Murdoch married into the family of Market Harborough's doctor. When he had his appendix out in the cottage hospital here he was plagued by urchins demanding to see "Stinker". He entertained them by putting his bare feet up on the windowsill and wiggling his toes.

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