Looking Beyond the Fringe Towards British Satire’s Roots

The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 120,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)

When people talk about comedy during the 1960s they invariably begin to refer to the “satire boom” that that decade is known for. They talk about Laugh-In, The Smothers Brothers, Dr. Strangelove, and a host of other examples, but there’s one more example that Americans don’t often hear much about despite the fact that it had a lasting impact on comedy both here and across the pond in England. I’m referring to the stage production of Beyond the Fringe.

This stage show represents the collaboration between the venerated institutions of Britain, Oxford and Cambridge, and some of the greatest minds to spring from them. The legend goes that the operators of the Edinburgh Festival were sick of “fringe” festivals stealing their audiences, so they decided to invite the top amateur performers from The Oxford Revue and The Cambridge Footlights. No doubt you’ll recognize a few of the names involved, though all four of them were launched into stardom following the run of Beyond the Fringe. The show was written and performed by Alan Bennett, Peter Cooke, Jonathan Miller and Dudley Moore.

Beyond the Fringe was performed in London’s West End beginning on August 22nd, 1960 until May 10th, 1961, with its final performance recorded and broadcast much later on the then fairly new BBC2 on December 19, 1964. The version that aired that night was edited down to an hour, though the version in the Paley Center archives has the full run time of two hours.

Okay, okay, enough background. Let’s talk about what this is, if it’s so important, right? Well, here’s what made this production so important during its time. The show is comprised of a string of sketches, some monologues, some musical, but nearly half of them deal with either the British military or the religious leaders of the country, which was simply not done at the time. As a result, many of the sketches still feel pretty fresh, even today, fifty years later. For example, one sketch presents a television show that attempts to make religion cool to teens, by having a priest hang out with youth, and unintentionally show his ignorance of their culture (“Don’t call me vicar, call me Dick. That’s the kind of vicar I am.”) At the same time, we begin to see the early seeds of the British anarchical humor that were planted by The Goon Show years earlier, and would later come into full bloom with Python a few years later, in moments such as when a teen complains about all the violence in the Bible, such as all that talk about “shoving a needle through the eye of a camel.”

The sketch that caused the biggest stir was one entitled “The Aftermyth of the War,” which was a satire of the media’s portrayal of the British war effort, in which the quartet pokes fun at the building of war heroes and the mythologizing of the experience. War veterans of the time deemed it insensitive, and would, from time to time, shout in anger at the stage (One particular example, that I love, was “young bounders don’t know the first thing about it!” I plan on shouting this all the time now.). Quite honestly, watching it today I found the sketch not only tame, but kind of boring, though to be fair, I wasn’t alive during the media’s coverage of World War II, nor am I British, so I may be lacking something with regards to this experience.

A lot of the material still works, though, and the majority of that material comes from Dudley Moore. His talents are abundantly clear as one watches the special, and it’s clear why his name is probably the most remembered of the four. There are three musical interludes throughout the piece, which involve him alone at the piano, which are technically impressive and entertaining to see. The most memorable of these is his rendition of the “Colonel Bogey March” (Go ahead and Google it. You know the tune even if you don’t know the name.) done in the style of Beethoven, which he milks for everything it’s got, but making huge, cartoony faces and refusing to end it, making at least eight fake out endings, and that’s just from when I started counting them.

The sketch that probably best demonstrates what was going to come next from British humor and shows the influence Beyond the Fringe had on, of course, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, as well as At Last the 1948 Show, and That Was the Week that Was involves Dudley Moore as a one-legged man auditioning to play Tarzan. After a little bit of beating around the bush, the interviewer breaks the news. “You are auditioning for the part of Tarzan. A role that is traditionally associated with a two-legged man. A role in which two legs would be the minimum requirement. Your right leg I like. It is a lovely leg for the role. I have nothing against your right leg. The trouble is neither do you.” The practice of taking one concept and over-explaining it to death should probably be familiar to anyone who has seen sketches involving dead parrots, cheese shops or holy hand grenades.

And while Beyond the Fringe is not the funniest piece of humor of all time, nor is it necessarily the most relevant to American viewers in 2011, there is still a lot of joy to derive from it, but more importantly, it’s great to see the origins of all those programs that did in fact… derive from it. We’re lucky that the BBC had the foresight to record and broadcast the show, that somehow, despite their track record, the tapes weren’t erased, and that a complete two-hour version of the show is still available to us. For those of us who like to investigate the roots of comedy, look no further than Beyond the Fringe.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, the head writer of his website, a podcaster and a guy on Twitter.

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