The (too) easy laugh that kills so many TV comedy shows


Leslie Crowther vehicle “The Reluctant Romeo” is not as good as Steptoe, says Milton Shulman

Syndicated to newspapers on 18 May 1967

THE inexplicable ups and downs of BBC comedy give a critic an acute feeling of vertigo. They run the gamut from hilarious genius to abysmal piffle with apparently bland indifference.

It hardly seems credible that the same administrative minds that wars ready to sponsor such comedy breakthrough as “Steptoe and Son” and “Till Death Us Do Part” should also be responsible for such trite concepts as “The Illustrated Weekly Hudd” and their latest effort, “The Reluctant Romeo.”

Centred around Leslie Crowther, a pleasant, knock-about comedian with some gift for mimicry. It concerned his efforts as an advertising man to get a contract to sell spaghetti.

His sales technique was to pretend to be the senior member of the firm and to promise a passionate Italian lady, who owned the spaghetti business, to marry her.


When the signorina turned up at the office determined to kiss Mr. Crowther like a frantic suction pump and with a quaint line of accepted dialogue like “I love you from the heart of my bottom,” the entire office joined in the conspiracy to hide Mr. Crowther’s real identity.

Stated baldly in this way there is a thin thread of discernible logic running through the plot But the scriptwriters, George Evans and Derek Collyer, were not concerned with situation comedy but situation anarchy.

Whatever relevance the story had to an advertising agency quickly vanished since the running about from office to office, the donning of beards and wigs, the mugging and the falling down, might just as readily have been set in a plutonium plant or a gherkin factory.

Such jokes as there were depended not upon wit but often upon sly sexual innuendoes given to innocuous lines by a tilt of an eyebrow or a leer in the voice.

Samples: “I just have to explain to this lady how I made her a mother … I can’t get enough of it … You should see the look that comes in my eyes when I’m stirring my dumplings.”


The cheap and facile way of getting an easy laugh more and more betokens the inventive poverty of writers. Eric Fawcett, the producer, should force them to work harder by blue-pencilling most of these dismal excuses for gags.

“It’s my first real chance as a character actor,” Leslie Crowther is quoted as saying in the Radio Times. If be believes that he will believe anything.

What character? What chance? This is Mr. Crowther almost exactly as I remember him on the children’s programme, “Crackerjack,”‘ and not nearly so funny.

And if one were looking for an explanation to the erratic quality of BBC comedy snows, I think we have a clue here.

“The Reluctant Romeo” was probably conceived in some office in the Light Entertainment hierarchy at the BBC when someone brightly said: “Let’s find a vehicle for Leslie Crowther.”

Thereupon the story line, the dialogue, the environment was tailored for Mr. Crowther’s personality. Which meant finding something for a quick gagster, a painful mugger, an amiable face and a well-meaning blank.

The sensible thing, of course, would have been to allow two writers to develop a series with nothing but their imaginations to guide them and, then, get the right man to fit the script. Leslie Crowther if be could do it. Someone else, if he couldn’t.

“Steptoe and Son” were the creations of Galton and Simpson. Harry Corbett and Wilfred Brambell became successful TV comics because they adapted themselves to the characters of two junk merchants.

Johnny Speight conceived of the grotesque, hilarious family in “Till Death Us Do Part” and Warren Mitchell achieved instant fame as the unspeakable Alf Garnett.


In these two comic series, the most successful ever done on British TV, the funniest men on the small screen were merely versatile actors with no special reputation as comic geniuses before they fitted themselves into their roles.

Compare this record with those shows where the scripts were hand-tailored to fit the contours of comics like Roy Hudd, Lance Percival, Charlie Drake, Roy Kinnear and, now, Leslie Crowther. Desperate, all of them. Vehicles that became hearses. Laughter only good for canning.

Sometimes, of course, the technique works. Benny Hill and Frankie Howerd are honourable exceptions. But only great comics, like these two. can get away with it. There is a lesson here somewhere, I think. I hope.

2 thoughts on “The (too) easy laugh that kills so many TV comedy shows

  1. Milton Shulman was very perceptive. Writing in 1967, at first sight in other words, he gets it exactly right: ‘Steptoe’ and ‘Till Death Us Do Part’ were enormously popular from the start, and are still funny today. The 1960s tv comedies of Roy Hudd and Leslie Crowther are now completely forgotten. Yet he blames the wrong people. The more feeble comedies of the Sixties were feeble because of the writers, not because Roy Hudd or Leslie Crowther were poor comedians. Hudd in particular was brilliant, given decent material. The BBC, to encourage talent, were commissioning comedy scripts from new and untested writers: this was a brave policy, and the right thing to do, but some were bound to be less talented than Galton and Simpson or Johnny Speight.

    1. I could not expressed this any better.This story gets right to the heart of the matter(and shows how much comedy has changed over the years).Well written piece,Sir!

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