THE BBC is undoubtedly the most prolific comedy factory in the world. It churns out with awesome regularity everything from a seaside-pier giggle to a sophisticated, way-out leer.
Compared with it, commercial TV is about as funny as a crematorium. For some reason, Channel Nine has never taken humour very seriously.
ITV has relied for its laughs largely on imported American shows like The Beverly Hillbillies or The Lucy Show. It has cultivated comedians like Morecambe and Wise, Arthur Haynes, Alfred Marks and Bruce Forsyth, but this is a tiny achievement when one realises what the BBC has done for British humour.
On any representative week there is likely to be at least three times as much home-produced comedy on the BBC as on the alternative channel.
Benny Hill, Eric Sykes, Charlie Drake, Sheila Hancock, Thora Hird, Lance Percival, Roy Kinnear, Eleanor Bron, Dudley Moore, Harry Worth, Harry Corbett, Wilfred Brambell, Roy Hudd, Tony Hancock, Frankie Howerd, Hugh Griffiths, Millicent Martin, Terry Scott, Hugh Lloyd, Ted Ray – are only a fraction of the names who owe their TV reputations and best opportunities to the BBC.
And at the BBC, comic script writing has been recognised as the minor art-form that it is and with Frank Muir now in the higher echelons of the Light Entertainment side of the Corporation, this respect and nurturing of comic writers is likely to be even more enthusiastic.
All that having been said, it seems incredible to me that the BBC should have wantonly abandoned their reputation for reasonable judgment in the comedy field by putting on a show like And So To Ted to replace one of the slots left vacant by Not So Much.
It would be charitable to think that this throw-back to the dreariest kind of radio humour of the early thirties had been deliberately slotted as an act of malevolent revenge on all those viewers who had been clamouring for the removal of Not So Much.
Unfortunately, it looks far more like a grovelling surrender to the lowest taste denominator and a sickening reminder of how easy it is for any adult advance in TV programming to be shunted into a limbo of vestigial relics.
Except for an amiable face and an ability to reel off old jokes without the slightest trace of self-consciousness, Ted Rogers is my concept of a non-comedian.
His nervous grin and zig-zagging eyes convey anxiety. His timing is halting. His mastery of mimicry is minimal. And he displays a profound inability to distinguish a funny line from an abysmal one.
The script writers – Dick Vosburgh, Ken Hoare and Mike Sharland – seem to have gone on an exhumation hunt to find gags for their first two shows. If they dig up any more fossilised jokes they might be had up for grave-robbing.
“Here is the news in brief,” smirks an announcer wearing no trousers. For a topical joke there is “Which was the funniest of the Marx Brothers – Harpo, Groucho, Chico or Profumo?”
Since it has now run for two weeks in succession there is the item dealing with the Professor (funny, presumably, because he has a guttural accent) providing questions to answers.
“Now, Professor, what question follows the answer V-Neck”? What do me and my girl friend do when we are out together?” [sic on quotemarks -Ed] (berserk laughter from laugh machine). “Everest”? “What do I do when I feel tired?” (maniacal hysterics from laugh machine).
The second programme was an advance on the first simply because someone had throttled the laugh machine. Now there was a studio audience that seemed to contain one or two hyenas ready with an apoplectic response to the slightest tickle.
The nearest the programme got to sex was when a gardener said: “I got so confused I put Sweet William in the same bed as Iris,” and it took almost four minutes to re-enact that tired chestnut of the man who is awakened by his butler to take a sleeping pill.
Surely in view of the row that followed Not So Much‘s disappearance, one would have thought that both Huw Wheldon and Michael Peacock, as top BBC administrators, would have been acutely sensitive about the type of show they were replacing it with.
It does not say much for their sense of public relations – or, indeed, their feeling about what is or is not proper late-night viewing – that …And So To Ted is now with us.
What a relief, by contrast, to watch a real funny man at work.
The Benny Hill Show had some inspired clowning on its return a fortnight ago. The item about the fastest film director in the world was a hilarious hodgepodge of every technical mistake ever committed on the screen. And a family having breakfast in the rhythms dominated by the radio music was amusing stuff.
I thought the second show last Saturday less inventive and the skit about the weakling who takes body-building lessons to become the toughest man on the beach went on much too long and was decidedly forced.
But in his saga about how Little Bo Peep might have been treated by Z-Cars, Tonight and Bonanza, Benny Hill’s face, with its look of a naughty melon, showed once again its delicious and formidable gift for mimicry. I suspect that a second mind to help him with his script-writing might get rid of some of the more obvious errors in judgment.