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franciscan - May 2000

© Copyright, The Society of Saint Francis, 2000

The tragedy behind the smile

by Graham Harvey

When television viewers were invited to vote for their favourite comedy moment of all time they chose a scene from the classic sit-com Dad’s Army. It is the episode where Corporal Jones, Sergeant Wilson, Privates Pike, Godfrey and the rest of the gang somehow manage to capture an enemy U-boat crew. The German commander tries to question them. He wants to know who they are and to which unit they belong. Pike, the youngest member of our Home Guard heroes, looks as though he may crack and give away too much. So the doughty Captain Mainwaring, ever cool under fire, steps forward with a word of warning. “Don’t tell ’em your name, Pike,” he snaps. With a triumphant smile, the U-boat commander enters Pike’s name in his notebook.

Quite why this moment of stupidity should be so beloved of the British TV audience is not easy to work out. It’s true: the pompous Mainwaring has been made to look a fool once more, but you would hardly call it the joke of the century. So why is it we have this fascination for the British buffoon, the idiotic, the terminally incompetent? Captain Mainwaring is the archetypal comic toff. Conceited, puffed up, oblivious to the sensitivities and needs of those around him, he is a caricature of the remote, unfeeling boss. He is the person we would all hate to work for. By the end of the first week we would probably want to kill him. So why is this ludicrous anti-hero such a durable character? He is, after all, no more than a re-invention of the Oliver Hardy we remember from the 40s and 50s.

One reason may be that we enjoy seeing the authority figure get his come-uppance. We can be sure his arrogance and insensitivity will sooner or later get him into trouble and then we shall be there to see him put down. We watch simply because we like seeing toffs get humiliated.

But there is another possible reason, an altogether more noble one. For all his bluff and bluster, there is more than a dash of the tragic hero about the Mainwaring character. Let’s face it: people like him are born to have a hard time. Whenever he contemptuously dismisses a suggestion from one of his long-suffering troops, we know he is going to pay the price for his arrogance. Whenever he embarks on some hopelessly over-optimistic exercise to impress the local brigade commander, we can relax in the certain knowledge that he will end up with egg on his face. Yet, through it all, he remains the undaunted optimist, believing implicitly in his little rag-tag army, confident that – with the right training and the right leadership – they will be more than a match for the finest German storm-troopers. And if it ever comes to a fight you can be sure Captain Mainwaring will cheerfully die for his men. So while he remains a buffoon, he has a touch of hero about him. And in my book that makes him, not a comic, but a tragic figure.

One of my earliest comic heroes was the radio and TV star Tony Hancock. Here was another comedian whose performance seemed riven with self-parody and the bitter mirth of tragedy. Though his head was filled with thoughts of the heroic, he remained trapped in a world of mediocrity. He longed for adventure, for excitement. He dreamed of life as a test pilot, as an explorer, as a fearless espionage agent. But those dreams were confined within the net curtains and flock wallpapers of 23 Railway Cuttings, East Cheam, the most celebrated claustrophobic address of a generation. I’m sorry to say it came as no real surprise when this talented actor, who had found international success playing the thwarted dreamer, decided to end his own life in a dreary Australian hotel room. It seemed that, wherever he went in the world, his hopes remained enmeshed in those dreary, life-destroying net curtains.

And then, of course, there was Steptoe. ‘Young’ Harold was another whose ambitions soared into worlds of glamour, sophistication and beauty, even as his life remained hemmed in by the heaps of rusty metal, old rags and decaying masonry of an East London scrapyard. Like Captain Mainwaring, the young Steptoe railed and rebelled and battled against the spirit-crushing circumstances that beset him. And, like Captain Mainwaring, he knew – in the private recesses of the heart – that he could never change them. It is the perennial tragedy of the comic: the slapstick laugh on the face of the broken-hearted clown.

One of my favourite shows of more recent times was the hit comedy Cheers, which chronicled the lives of a group of no-hopers hanging out in a particular Boston bar. Shaking the cocktails was barman Sam, good looking, arrogant and with a limitless stock of one-liners. This was the man who measured his self-esteem by his pulling power. His tragedy was that it was fast running down. He was getting old. Then there was Diane, the blonde barmaid with the dreams of academe, her acid wit and withering phrases honed to hide her vulnerability. While her words held the great put-down, her eyes were filled with longing. All she really wanted was love: genuine, open, undemanding love. But those barbed remarks were proof that all she ever found were users. And there were the regulars, Big Norm and Cliff, retreating from a world that had rendered them invisible. In this little bar they were somebodies, their opinions mattered, people listened. Their tragedy was that they could not spend their entire lives sitting on their favourite bar stools.
Which brings us back to the question: why do we watch them? Why do we choose to laugh at people who at the very core of their being are lost and filled with longings that will never be realised? Surely it is the flaw in us? Are we not using the misfortunes of others to make ourselves feel better? Well perhaps. And then again perhaps not.

One of the hard lessons of growing up is that we have to bear the pain of disappointment. The dreams we started out with are hardly likely to be fulfilled. That’s the first let down. And then we expect everyone we meet is going to love us. That’s the second. In short, we expect our lives to be filled with love, beauty and laughter, but they aren’t. Sooner or later we learn to accept the world as a fairly tawdry place. Growing up for most of us is about compromise, settling for less than the ideal, making the best of a pretty mediocre job. But, unlike us, our comic heroes refuse to compromise, at least mine do.

They hold onto their hopes against the odds, shrugging off the blows and brickbats of the grown-up world and clinging obdurately to the dreams of youth. They rage and rail and fulminate against the smothering mediocrity of modern life. And that’s why they fascinate and enthral us. We laugh at them, not because we want to see them brought down but because we want them to go on being as they always are – stubborn, impossible and ridiculously idealistic. Because we know, deep down, that the unremitting, hopeless, heart-aching longing that makes them such social misfits is really a longing for God. They can never be at home in the world because, whether or not they realise it themselves, their home is somewhere else.

So the last thing we want is for them to give up their idiosyncrasies and live normal, sensible half-lives like the rest of us. We would far rather they went on chasing their naïve and impossible dreams. Because we recognise somewhere that in the drab, dull, cloyingly-comfortable lives we all lead they are the repository of whatever remnants of hope we ourselves have left. §

A former farming journalist, Graham Harvey is now agricultural story editor of The Archers. His book, The Killing of the Countryside, won the 1997 BP Natural World Book Award.


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