Book review: Soupy Twists! by Jem Roberts

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Soupy Twists!: The Full Official Story of the Sophisticated Silliness of Fry and Laurie, by Jem Roberts. Published by: Unbound

It has now been thirty years since the TV debut of ‘A Bit of Fry and Laurie’. This news should be ample cause for celebration in itself. Running for four series between 1987 and 1995, the show was occasionally patchy, in common with every sketch show ever made (yes, even The Grumbleweeds) and ran out of steam before the end. The “yuppie businessman” sketches, generally featuring an over-use of the word “damn” often seemed to run on forever.

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But dammit Peter, thanks largely to the formidable combined intellect of comedy’s foremost Steve and Hugh (no offence, Punt and Dennis), A Bit of Fry and Laurie was far more often good than bad.

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Consider: the song “Kicking ass,” a parody of US foreign policy values which concludes: “We’ll kick the ass of cancer and we’ll kick the ass of AIDS,
And as for global warming, we’ll just kick ass wearing shades. We don’t care whose ass we kick, if we’re ever all alone, We just stand in front of the mirror, and try to kick our own.”

Or Fry: “I think it was Donald Mainstock, the great amateur squash player who first pointed out how lovely I was.”

Or Laurie: “Then I was Princess Anne’s assistant for a while, but I chucked that in because it was obvious they were never going to make me Princess Anne, no matter how well I did the job.”

Or Fry’s: “I can say the following sentence and be utterly sure that nobody has ever said it before in the history of human communication: “Hold the newsreader’s nose squarely, waiter, or friendly milk will countermand my trousers.”

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Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Jem Roberts’ excellent book reminds us just what a formidable body of work the talented duo have produced together: Jeeves and Wooster, Blackadder (including the famous scene in which Fry’s Iron Duke punches Laurie’s Prince Regent repeatedly), countless TV adverts specifically for Alliance and Leicester (“Mostin!”), their early Young Ones appearance, operating the celebrity gunge tank on Comic Relief, Peter’s Friends and much much more. Roberts also fully covers their formidable solo careers including Laurie’s spell as the highest paid TV actor in the world, in the long running House, probably the only thing many overseas readers seeing this will know him for. Fry has, meanwhile, appeared in everything from IQ (a 1995 movie comedy starring Walter Matthau as Einstein) to QI. His intense overwork was, of course, symptomatic of problems that would lead to the Cell Mates debacle in 1995.

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Laurie and particularly Fry’s lives have, of course, been well-documented already: as a writer on the history of Blackadder and a biographer of Fry’s slightly older technology-obsessed friend, Douglas Adams, Jem Roberts has written about the boys before himself. He deserves all the more praise then for shedding new light on them – and uncovering and reproducing many new unused A Bit of Fry and Laurie scripts – in this fresh, thoroughly enjoyable and engaging biography of Britain’s brightest ever comedy partnership.

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Book review: Little Me. My Life From A-Z. By Matt Lucas

aBook review: Little Me. My Life From A-Z. By Matt Lucas. Published by Canongate.

“He’s a baby! He’s a baby!” These words were sung by Shooting Stars co-host Bob Mortimer just as an unusual looking man dressed in a full-sized pink romper suit homed into view.

This is probably how most of us got our first glimpse of Matt Lucas, then known as “George Dawes” (as in “What are the scores, George Dawes?”) in the anarchic Nineties quiz show, Shooting Stars. He was not, of course, a baby, but it is surprising to reflect, just how young he was. Having started performing stand-up in his teens, Lucas was already a semi-experienced performer when he first appeared on the show in 1995. He was barely twenty-one. True stardom was to come with Little Britain alongside his comedy partner, David Walliams, some years’ later.

As Lucas admits, he does tend to polarise opinion somewhat. If the sight of his grinning bald face on the front cover already repels you, this book is unlikely to change your mind.

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But Lucas certainly has a story to tell: even before his entry into the comedy world, he had to cope with sudden childhood baldness, parental divorce and family scandal, fluctuating weight and the growing realisation that he was gay. Then, there was the decade-long climb to fame, initially playing the fictional aristocrat Sir Bernard Chumley, his first teenage meeting with Walliams (they bonded by comparing their stock of celebrity impressions), George Dawes, Rock Profiles, Little Britain, Come Fly With Me and ultimately Hollywood.

Fittingly for someone who was recently jumping around in time on Doctor Who, however, Lucas avoids a chronological approach. Each chapter is in alphabetical order by subject, a technique which works very well. The second chapter B, for example, is entitled Baldy! and discusses Lucas’s hair loss while the tenth J, Jewish, discusses his racial and religious heritage. It’s not always as obvious as that however and you’ll have to find our for yourself what the chapters ‘Frankie and Jimmy’ and ‘Accrington Stanley’ are about.

There is also, the tragic end to his relationship with Kevin McGee, his civil partner who committed suicide in 2009, some time after the failure of his relationship with Lucas. Lucas makes no apology for skirting around what clearly remains a very painful subject for him and nor should he have to. When he does occasionally refer to McGee, however, it is always with sensitivity and affection.

Like anyone, Lucas has a love/hate relationship with his own fame. He is perhaps more comfortable in the US where he is better known for his brief appearance in the huge comedy movie hit Bridesmaids opposite Rebel Wilson than for anything else. Indeed, as he himself admits, with the UK version of Little Britain a decade in the past now and the failure of his recent series Pompidou, he is less familiar to younger viewers now than he once was. Indeed, of the two Little Britain stars David Walliams is by far the better known member of the duo now.

Despite this, it is hard to imagine the man who created The Only Gay In The Village or George and Marjorie Dawes, ever disappearing quietly from our screens anytime soon.

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Book review: How Not To Be A Boy by Robert Webb

How Not To Be A Boy by Robert Webb (Published by: Canongate)

It’s probably more than a decade now since most of us became familiar with the comedy actor Robert Webb.

As Jez, the more laid-back but less responsible half of the flat-share arrangement in Channel 4’s longest running sitcom Peep Show between 2003 until 2015, he was the perfect foil to David Mitchell’s more intelligent but thoroughly anal Mark Corrigan. Although brilliant, Peep Show was never a ratings success. It did, however, lead directly to the sketch show The Mitchell and Webb Look which, though patchy as many such shows are, pushed the duo into the mainstream.

Webb’s career is obviously linked to Mitchell’s: the two met at Cambridge in the Nineties and are currently appearing together again in Simon Blackwell’s aptly named comedy, Back. A straight comparison of the two men’s careers has led many to assume Webb is the lesser talent of the two. Mitchell has been a prolific columnist and clearly has a massive aptitude for comedy panel shows. Aside from his spectacular victory in the 2009 Let’s Dance for Comic Relief and his early performance in the TV series The Smoking Room, most of Webb’s biggest successes have been with Mitchell.

But any lingering doubts anyone might have about Webb’s talent should be vanquished by a reading of this genuinely funny and touching memoir. The title might seem to count against it: the “how to” prefix has been overused in comedy books in recent years (How Not To Grow Up by Richard Herring, How To Build A Girl by Caitlin Moran, How To Be A Grown-Up by Daisy Buchanan, How To Be A Bawse by Lily Singh and the forthcoming How To Be Champion by Sarah Milican) but in fairness to Webb, the title is pretty essential to the book’s structure. The seemingly well-worn “having an imaginary conversation with one’s younger self” device, previously deployed by Miranda Hart, amongst others, is also used well here.

The book is boosted by Webb’s vivid recollections of his painful teenage years, doubtless helped by his enjoyably pretentious diaries (“Is there any romance greater than the one a teenage boy has with his own loneliness?”) which he bravely reproduces fragments from here. He is also refreshingly open about his drinking problems and his early experiments with homosexuality.

But as with Hugh Laurie who, likewise, has always been in danger of being overshadowed by his brilliant co-star, this book serves as a valuable reminder that Robert Webb is a major talent in his own right.

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Book review: Edward Heath: A Singular Life

Edward Heath: A Singular Life by Michael McManus

Poor old Edward Heath. This year is the centenary of his birth and how has Britain chosen to honour it? By rejecting the one crowning achievement of his premiership: by choosing to reject our membership of what is now known as the European Union. As Gyles Brandreth (who once happened to be sick on Heath’s shoes) has said: “were Ted still alive, it would kill him”.

Last year, was an even worse year for the former prime minister’s posthumous reputation with the emergence of a number of allegations emerging against Heath: specifically that he had sex with underage boys in retirement. Despite the fact these seem to have very little foundation, (Heath seems to have been homosexual by inclination but not in practice) the damage to Heath’s reputation seems to have been done. Thankfully, he never knew of them, having  died in 2005.

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This is a slightly odd book. There seems to have been a  proofing error in it (one chapter is described as covering “1950-1959” when it actually covers “1950-1970”). It claims to be “not a biography” when to all intents and purposes, it is. McManus’s website describes as “an acclaimed collection of essays, tributes and anecdotes about the former Prime Minister.” It isn’t. It is a biography featuring extensive quotes and recollections of Heath. As the introduction explains, something was lost in the journey from conception to completion.

This is still an excellent read, however, providing a real sense of Heath’s character over the years. It is easy to forget now just what a supremely able person he seems to have been in his early years, impressing many with his qualities diligence and leadership both during the war and as a rising MP. He practically kept the nation going as Chief Whip during the 1956 Suez Crisis, when the real prime minister, Sir Anthony Eden was often either overseas or ill or both.

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Real leadership does not seem to have brought out the best in Heath, however. On the one hand, joining the Common Market was a major personal triumph owing much to his endurance and diplomacy. He also acted courageously and correctly, quickly isolating Enoch Powell from mainstream Tory politics, following his racist “Rivers of Blood” speech in  1968. On the other hand, his was a disappointing premiership low on achievement and quickly derailed from its initial ambitions by inflation and industrial action. Having been brought down by the two General Elections of 1974, (having come to power after a surprise election win in June 1970), he was overthrown as Tory leader by his old Education Secretary Margaret Thatcher in February 1975.

Heath’s defensiveness in the face of media attacks, plus his rather odd manner and sense of humour gave rise to the rather stuffy awkward image of Heath which prevails to this day: that of the “incredible sulk”.

It is not wholly unjustified. But his morally courageous attacks on the excesses of Thatcherism in later life, demonstrate that he was perhaps a better man than he was a Prime Minister.

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Book review: Shirley Williams The Biography by Mark Peel

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Baroness Shirley Williams appeared as a guest on BBC Question Time last Thursday. To say that the Liberal Democrat peer, at eighty-three, is universally admired throughout all parties for her good nature and superior intellect is true but sounds a little patronising. Giving sharp, concise and well thought-out answers, she is still clearly  a force to be reckoned with suggesting fellow panellist TV chef Anthony Worrall Thompson “go back to the kitchen” after the TV chef had unleashed a rambling anti-Liberal Democrat tirade.

But how different history could have been…

Back in 1981, Williams was one of the founders of the ‘Gang of Four’ who broke away from Labour to form the Social Democratic Party. The SDP’s early triumphs make UKIP’s recent “success” look all the more risible. The SDP actually won by-elections and had MPs sitting in parliament. By the end of 1981, (before Thatcher’s 1982 post-Falklands War comeback) they commanded over 50% in the opinion polls, way ahead of the two traditional parties, both then at the extremes under Margaret Thatcher and Michael Foot.

Before that, Williams was a leading figure in the Wilson and Callaghan Governments, frequently talked of as a possible first woman Prime Minister.

But this never happened. Margaret Thatcher born to a much humbler background five years before her beat her to it in May 1979. On the same day, Williams lost her Hertford and Stevenage seat as an MP, an upset similar in terms of prompting widespread surprise to Michael Portillo’s defeat in 1997.

What went wrong?

Williams was undeniably from a privileged background. She was born in 1930 as Shirley Vera-Brittain-Caitlin, the daughter of an academic and frustrated politician and Vera Brittain, the author of the celebrated First World War memoir, Testament of Youth. With her parents both vocal left-wing critics of the Nazi regime before the war (they were later revealed to be on a Nazi “Death List” and thus would have been in extreme danger had Hitler invaded Britain), Shirley and her brother spent most of the war in the United States. Throughout her early life and at Oxford, she seems to have dazzled and impressed almost everyone she met with her charm and precocious intellect. An early serious relationship was with the future four-minute-mile champion Roger Bannister. Despite her many qualities, she faced a struggle to enter parliament winning only after four attempts in 1964.

Did Williams’ privileged background count against her?

Margaret Thatcher certainly made play of it in a Conference speech made when Williams was in government and the Tory was Opposition leader in 1977:  “People from my sort of background needed grammar schools to compete with children from privileged homes like Shirley Williams and Anthony Wedgwood Benn.”

But in truth, it is unlikely Williams’ background did her serious harm. She has always possessed a classless quality which has broadened he appeal to the electorate

Was she then a victim of sexism? Peel mentions here that despite a good relationship with Jim Callaghan, she was never offered any of the major offices of state. Yet this no less true of Thatcher who, like Williams, was in charge of Education, in Thatcher’s case under Heath. Neither woman was a huge success in this role. Williams regards her promotion of comprehensive education as her proudest achievement but it remains controversial. Thatcher, in contrast, was reportedly embarrassed for herself that she closed more grammar schools than anyone else in that post.

Was Shirley Williams just unlucky? Was, as some have suggested, just in the wrong party at the wrong time? Luck does of course play a part in anyone’s political destiny. Labour were in fact in power for more than half of Williams’ thirties and forties. This is again similar to Thatcher and the Tories (in fact, Thatcher spent longer as an Opposition MP before 1979 than Williams did). And Thatcher raised the Tories from a very low ebb indeed in 1975.

Shirley Williams was, however, less lucky in her marriage than Margaret Thatcher. This is not to be sexist. A good marriage can be as crucial to male political success as female. Only Edward Heath has made it to Downing Street since the war while still unmarried and only Sir Anthony Eden became Prime Minister with a divorce behind him. Shirley’s first marriage to philosopher Bernard Williams ended in 1974. She married presidential historian Richard Neustadt in 1987 (both men in fact died very close together in 2003). She thus lacked a soul mate at a critical juncture in her career.

Biographer Mark Peel cites a certain scattyness and lack of political courage at crucial moments (notably her failure to stand in the Warrington by-election a decision perhaps fatal to her own career and to that of the SDP) which did for her.

Journalist Robin Oakley summarised her thus: “she really is one of the warmest, nicest people in politics, ever open to reason… She has a first rate-brain and a burning sense of justice… But the great drawback is her fatal indecisiveness…The flaw, some say, is that she likes being liked and making decisions makes enemies.”

Few of the tributes to Lady Thatcher earlier this year cited her warmness, niceness, first-rate brain or sense of justice. Clearly, the late Prime Minister totally lacked these qualities.

And maybe Shirley Williams lacked the necessary harshness and killer instinct to be Prime Minister. But she is perhaps the better person for that.

100 years of Gerald Ford

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July 2013 is the centenary of US President Gerald Ford. Here are a few facts about the man.

  1. Gerald Rudolph Ford was the 38th US president. He took over when Richard Nixon resigned in August 1974 and left office in January 1977, after being narrowly defeated by Jimmy Carter in the 1976 presidential election.
  2. He was born in July 1913 (the same year as Richard Nixon) and died in December 2006, aged 93. He lived longer than any other US president (narrowly beating Ronald Reagan). Jimmy Carter and George HW Bush may beat this record if they live until 2018 (update: they both now have).
  3. Ford was the only president never to be elected as President or Vice President. He succeeded Spiro Agnew as Veep when the latter resigned after being accused of tax evasion. He then succeeded Nixon when he became the first and only president to resign (over the Watergate Scandal). Agnew was and is only the second VP to ever resign and the only one to resign over criminal charges (which he was later found guilty of).
  4. Ford was a college American football star in the 1930s. This prompted President Johnson to comment when Ford was Republican Minority leader in the 1960s that Ford “is a nice fellow” but had played “too much football without a helmet” and that “Jerry Ford is so dumb he can’t fart and chew gum at the same time.” This is sometimes sanitised as “walk and chew gum at the same time”). Johnson died in 1973 and never lived to see Ford become President.
  5. He had a reputation for clumsiness, falling over in public several times. Comic Chevy Chase made his name on TV’s Saturday Night Live impersonating the president by depicting him endlessly falling over and crashing into things. Chase made no attempt to look or sound anything like Ford.
  6. Ford was the fourth of the six presidents to serve in the Second World War (the others were Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Carter and the first Bush).
  7. As a Congressman, Ford served on the Warren Commission which investigated President Kennedy’s assassination. The Commission controversially concluded Lee Harvey Oswald was solely responsible for the killing, something that has been disputed ever since..
  8. Betty Ford, Gerald’s wife was a notable champion of political causes and was open about her own battle with alcoholism and substance abuse. She is famous for the Betty Ford Clinics which bear her name and is arguably the only First Lady to exceed her husband in fame. She died in 2011, aged 93.
  9. One of Ford’s first actions as president was to pardon his predecessor Richard Nixon for “any offences he may have committed at the White House”. This was an unpopular move as many suspected (wrongly) that Nixon and Ford had done a deal to secure Ford the presidency in exchange for Nixon’s freedom. The pardon seemed to link Ford to the sleaze of Watergate and probably cost Ford the 1976 election.
  10. The Helsinki Accords of 1975 were an early step towards Détente (an early attempt to end the Cold War).
  11. Ford’s presidency included the bicentennial year of 1976. But it was also a time of fuel crisis, inflation and post-Watergate/Vietnam gloom. Vietnam fell to communist forces in 1975.
  12. Ford decided to run for the presidency in 1975. He previously had shown little personal ambition beyond being Speaker of the House. He faced a serious challenge from Ronald Reagan in the primaries which he eventually fought off.
  13. Ford recognised his status in a car-related pun (made when Vice President): “I am a Ford, not a Lincoln!”
  14. When LBJ took over following Kennedy’s death in 1963, he was not constitutionally obliged to pick a new Vice President immediately. Hubert Humphrey became Johnson’s running mate in the 1964 election and was thus sworn in after they won but between November 1963 and January 1965, there was no vice president. In 1967, the law changed, thanks to the Twenty Fifth Amendment. Any new president had to pick a VP immediately. Few expected it to come into practice so quickly. Ford had to pick a new VP in 1974 and appointed Nelson Rockefeller, a choice which Congress had to approve.
  15. Rockefeller, a scion of the very rich oil family, had run for president himself in 1960, 1964 and 1968. He failed to win the nomination. Some attributed this to social stigma: Rockefeller (like Adlai Stevenson in the 1950s) had divorced, following the death of one of his children in the early Sixties. This divorce stigma had lifted by the Seventies. When Rockefeller announced he was retiring, Ford picked another divorced man, Senator Bob Dole as his running mate in 1976. Reagan would become the only divorcee to win the presidency in 1980 (update: twice divorced Donald Trump has since won the presidency in 2016). Dole and John McCain, another divorcee, were both presidential nominees in 1996 and 2008, although their divorced status was not a major factor in their subsequent defeats.
  16. Ford narrowly escaped two assassination attempts in September 1975. Both the assailants were women. “Squeaky” Fromme drew a gun on Ford when he attempted to shake her hand in the crowd. Sara Jane Moore fired a gun at Ford but a bystander knocked her arm causing her to miss. Both women were freed only after Ford’s death, over thirty years’ later.
  17. Ford’s 1976 running mate Bob Dole, a World War II veteran, committed a damaging gaffe during a terrifically bland performance in the 1976 Vice Presidential TV debate (the first ever). “I figured it up the other day: If we added up the killed and wounded in Democrat wars in this century, it would be about 1.6 million Americans — enough to fill the city of Detroit”. Many objected to the suggestion that the two World Wars, Korea and Vietnam were necessarily “Democrat wars”.
  18. Ford made an even worse gaffe in his own TV debate with Democrat Jimmy Carter. Ford claimed “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford Administration.” This was an absurd statement to make at the time.
  19. Ford was defeated by Jimmy Carter very narrowly in November 1976. Ford actually won more states but carried less Electoral College votes. Had he won, Ford would not have been eligible to run again in 1980 as he had already served more than half of a full four year presidential term.
  20. Former President Ford made his acting debut playing himself alongside his old Secretary of State Henry Kissinger on an episode of Dynasty in 1983.
  21. The career of British Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home has a number of parallels to Ford’s. Both entered conservative politics after a college sports career (Home was a celebrated cricketer at Oxford in the 1920s). Both rose to power unexpectedly. Both inherited parties ravaged by scandal (the Profumo Affair in Home’s case, Watergate in Ford’s). Neither were personally implicated in scandal themselves and were considered lightweight but fundamentally decent. Both enjoyed short spells in office – Home was PM for a year, the second briefest premiership of the 20th century. Ford had the shortest tenure of any 20th century US president. Home was 60 when he became PM, Ford was 61 when he became president.  Both were defeated narrowly in general elections. Home enjoyed a comeback as Foreign Secretary in 1970-74. Ford was nearly appointed as Reagan’s running mate in 1980, though this did not actually happen. Ford died aged 93 in 2006, Home was 92 when he died in 1995.

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