On the Margin

There’s no such thing as heaven. I think we can all agree on that one. But obliterate all rationality from your mind for a moment, and ask yourself what your personal heaven would be like.

Armando Iannucci dreams of a heaven where he finally gets to watch all of the television programmes he was deprived of in his youth because of being a Viewer In Scotland. I think I’d settle for being able to rewatch those programmes I did see in my youth but which have been forgotten by history. I know some people still remember Simon and the Witch with fondness, but if I walked the length and breadth of Cambridgeshire I wouldn’t find more than a handful of people who would smile with nostalgia at the mention of Gruey or Marlene Marlowe Investigates.

But these programmes presumably still exist somewhere, if only on old VHS cassettes in the dingier cupboards of Broadcasting House. Maybe the dream of a digital archive is not so distant as all that. The BBC at any rate ought to have learned the lesson that all of its creative output should be preserved indefinitely. The odd missing episode of Hancock or Steptoe and Son resurfaces every so often, but the hope of seeing things such as John Fortune and Eleanor Bron’s sketch show Where Was Spring? ever again are very faint.

Alan Bennett, with Virginia Stride and John Sergeant

Perhaps one should be grateful for small mercies, such as the audio release of a compilation of salvaged sketches from On the Margin, which I have been listening to regularly over the past few months. This was a 1966 sketch show written by Alan Bennett, the original tapes of which were wiped long ago. The soundtrack, by happy chance, has survived. It’s of interest not merely for curiosity’s sake, being Bennett’s only TV sketch show, but because, 45 years on, it’s still extremely funny. It opens with what I presume (and I may be wrong) to be the first version of Bennett’s sketch, ‘The Telegram’.

On the Margin is inevitably indebted to Beyond the Fringe, and includes a version of the ‘In Memoriam’ sketch (also known as ‘The English Way of Death’) that appeared in some incarnations of the revue, but it’s nice to see Bennett breaking away from the other three and settling into his own voice. The Betjeman pastiche, ‘Going to the Excuse Me’, is a prime example, and ‘Camden Passage’, a two-hander with John Sergeant where Bennett plays an effeminate antiques dealer (‘You must excuse my hands, but I’ve just been stripping a tallboy’), contains echoes of the ‘Bollard’ sketch from Beyond the Fringe, but is more sophisticated. ‘Bollard’ shows three queeny actors (Bennett not among them) preparing to record a commercial, the punchline being that when eventually they attempt a take their voices are immediately transformed into the deepest basso profundo (‘SMOKE BOLLARD – A MAN’S CIGARETTE!’ [falsetto whoop]). ‘Camden Passage’ moves beyond the intrinsic funniness of a man talking in a high voice to exploit a richer vein of camp humour, a humour derived, as so much of Bennett’s humour is, from northern dialogue.

But I think the highlight for me is possibly ‘The Lonely Pursuit: A Writer’s World’, in which Bennett portrays a Yorkshire writer who has enjoyed a modicum of success.

I don’t know whether you’ve ever looked into a miner’s eyes for any length of time, because it is the loveliest blue you’ve ever seen. I think that perhaps that’s why I live in Ibiza. The blue of the Mediterranean, you see, reminds me of the eyes of these Doncaster miners.

Or try this bit.

At the moment I’m working on a novel set entirely in the mind of an ageing cinema usherette during a festival of Anna Neagle films. She’s at the crossroads, really, desperately trying to come to terms with herself and the demands of her career. We explore her reverie, which is broken in on occasionally by the film or by the patrons wanting to be shown to their seats. We see how deeply, how tragically she’s identified herself with the personality of Anna Neagle, and how tragic the inevitable outcome. It takes in, en passant, the eternal themes – love, death, birth – some of the less eternal ones – her love-hate relationship with the ice cream girl. If I can sum up, it’s everything that Virginia Woolf failed to do, plus the best of Stan Barstow.

That brilliant juxtaposition of names is typical of Bennett, isn’t it, and is funny twice over, firstly for its betrayal of the writer’s pretensions and secondly for the sheer absurdity of the combination. His inspired use of brand names is also in evidence here. Anyway, just a recommendation. I must get Bank Holidaying. Here’s to a nice long weekend.

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