Deadpan humour is a tricky thing to handle. You’re never really sure when it’s going to strike, or if you are going to end up the victim.
That’s why I am treating Sidney Charles Green and Richard Michael Hills with a mixture of respect and suspicion.
For here they are, waiting to greet me at the Elstree Studios, dressed perfectly conventionally. Except for their magnificent black busby hats, which they arc wearing as if it is a perfectly natural mode of head-gear for top comedy scriptwriters.
“We’re letting our heads grow accustomed to their presence,” said Sid, most solemnly.
“And getting used to drinking in low-beamed bars,” says Dick, with terrible aplomb.
The busbies are stage props, but Sid and Dick simply can’t resist having a giggle with them. That’s their business, after all: they are among television’s most consistently successful comedy script-writers. Stars like Morecambe and Wise, Bruce Forsyth and Norman Vaughan look to them for laughs.
On Friday, they start a new series themselves, as performers. Those Two Fellers, it’s called. Anonymous sounding, you might think. But Sid and Dick are a fairly anonymous pair; you could mistake them for anyone’s next door neighbour.
Both live in Kent, in classy commuter country. Both are family men, and “fortyish”. They play rugby at weekends for exercise and the “social gathering” afterwards. They drive their children to school and their respective wives mad by dropping cigarette ash over their respective carpets!
Perfectly normal types: Sid is the crinkly-haired one, sometimes wears glasses, and prefers casual clothes. Dick is more thick-set; the more extrovert; likes a natty line in suiting.
And it’s virtually impossible to put your finger on their highly-tuned sense of humour. Enough to say it doesn’t slosh you in the eye like a custard-pie. It sort of creeps up behind you and taps you on the shoulder 10 minutes after they’ve changed the subject.
Their philosophy of humour is that anything, anything is funny if you look at it long enough, think about it hard enough.
Even me! And they don’t even have to look or think hard about me. “You’re tall,” says Sid, immediately. “Always good for a whole routine of tall man’s gags… you know, trouble washing hands in trains, doing up shoe laces.”
“And you’ve got long, thin, hairless legs,” remarks Dick, surfacing from my sock-line. “All you need is a short, fat, hairy partner and you’re in business, boy.”
Which is a thought that needs some swallowing, so we move into the Elstree Studio bar, where we are greeted warmly by Eric Morecambe, Ernie Wise, and Millicent Martin, who are working on a show with Sid and Dick today.
Sid and Dick are obviously putting their humour philosophy to the test. They’re staring at a glass. So are Eric, Ernie and Millie. Remember, if you look at anything long enough, etc.
“It’s empty,” says Sid.
“And to make it funny, Dave,” says Dick, “fill it!”
They all stop staring at the glass. And stare at me. All absolutely deadpan… you see what I mean about tricky situations? It must be my round.
“If you fill it three times, it gets to be hilarious,” adds Sid, helpfully. Yes, but what about the show? How come two script writers pop up every now and again in their own series?
“Mainly because it gives us a pretty good showcase as writers,” replies Sid. “We’re not realty performers — although we’ve never lost a schoolboyish delight in acting the fool.”
“And this series will give people a chance to learn our surnames,” adds Dick. “Until now, we’ve simply been known as Those Two Fellers. Or Sid and Dick. Or them two. Now people will know our surnames.”
“I’m Sid Richard,” says Sid, deadpan.
“I’m Dick Sidney,” says Dick, equally deadpan.
And this is the way they work. Set up a serious situation. Work in a gag. Blow up the balloons, then burst them.
In the series, Green and Hills (notice I’ve got the surnames in!) will write for many top comedians, who will appear as their guests — Morecambe and Wise, Frankie Howerd, Bob Monkhouse, Arthur Askey, Bruce Forsyth, Ted Ray.
Before they write anything, they study each comedy talent under a microscope: style, facial expression, timing, the lot They can imitate most comedy acts; Sid can do Eric Morecambe to a T. They act out ideas. This is partly how they have become involved as performers.
“We even studied ourselves for this series,” says Sid.
“Discovered we’re probably the best-paid writers in the business,” adds Dick.
“And the worst-paid performers,” says Sid.
It takes quite something to make Sid and Dick break down and laugh out loud. They did when they saw Rachelle, a ravishing, 27-year-old, 6ft. tall red-head, who sings off-key… and deadpan, of course. She will appear in the series.
Having studied each other under their comedy microscope, they have decided Hills is the performer and Green is not. So Dick gets the funny lines, although it’s debatable whether they will stick to any formula.
Sid says his wife will complain right through the six shows that he ought to be home doing the garden at this time of year. Dick says she’s right!
Me? I’m still trying to work out why Sidney Charles Green and Richard Michael Hills have worn busbies throughout this assignment. After all, there isn’t one low beam in this bar.
Still, maybe the joke will creep up on me.