So, riffing a little on the Eurovision, it’s interesting to consider what travels well and what doesn’t. Comedy is a real minefield for this sort of thing. You can get away with a lot, of course, by relying on classic archetypes, but context is all.
For example, I’ve never met anyone in Belfast who like The Vicar of Dibley. Which is not to say that it’s an intrinsically bad show. But Dibley draws on a particular pop-cultural tradition of rural English life, with the vicar, the squire, the village fete and all the rest of it. Even though it’s a life that has nearly died out in England, one of the most urbanised countries in the world, it looms large enough in the culture to still provide comic mileage. I think it doesn’t travel to Ireland because, even though Ireland has a much bigger rural population, the whole rural culture is different. On the other hand, loads of Belfast people loved The Royle Family or Rab C Nesbitt, for obvious reasons.
Think of the TV shows the Brits have managed to sell to America – Steptoe becoming Sanford, Alf Garnett as Archie Bunker. Now think of those that didn’t sell. The US networks wouldn’t pick up a classic like Porridge, because the execs couldn’t get their heads around the idea of a sitcom with a career criminal as the hero. John Sullivan couldn’t get them to buy Fools and Horses, but Dear John (his finest creation IMO) went down a storm. The reason, I think, is that American popular culture doesn’t really have an equivalent of the wide-boy street trader, but there are plenty of divorcees around. You can’t beat universality. And the turnabouts you get with adaptation are often quite fascinating. Men Behaving Badly died on its arse in the US, according to the critics, because to an American audience two thirtysomething men living together weren’t ‘lads’ – they were gay. On the other hand, while we can tolerate Friends as an import, a British version wouldn’t work – the beautiful hipsters would just come off as unbearably smug.
And so, in the spirit of Eurovision, there’s the question of what appeals to Eastern Europe. To be honest, native product is a lot more popular these days, and much better than it was before the Wall fell. But there are a few interesting historical idiosyncrasies. I’m thinking, of course, of George Formby.
If the British left’s cultural critics would look beyond writing endless articles on “What the Clash meant to me”, they might find that George Formby has a lot to recommend him. He seems a bit passé nowadays, but if you go back to the Lancastrian master of the banjolele, you’ll find a lot of social commentary in his songs, and a surprisingly sharp wit. The latter often veers into Donald McGill ribaldry, and the Formby oeuvre contains an astonishing amount of phallic innuendo, enough to keep Graham Norton in knob jokes for the rest of his life.
Of course, in his famous trip to South Africa in 1946, George was the first entertainer to break the colour bar and perform to black audiences, and we should honour him for that alone. But what fascinates me is that in 1944 George was awarded the Stalin Prize on account of his films’ enormous popularity in the wartime Soviet Union. Why is this? I’ve never come across a Soviet equivalent of Ebert or Kael to explain the phenomenon. The only thing I can think of is that the stock Formby character, a plucky, good-natured little proletarian who wins through against the odds, sat well with Soviet sensibilities as well as being able to get past the Stalinist censorship regime.
Come to think of it, there might be a similar reason for Norman Wisdom’s cult following in Albania, which is usually put down to a personal eccentricity on the part of Uncle Enver.
This is all just pulling cultural theory out of my left ear, of course, but I have a feeling there’s a seam to be mined there. And reference to socio-political context might just explain why On the Buses was such a smash hit in Yugoslavia, something that’s always been a bit of an embarrassment to those of us who love the wit of Miroslav Krleža. Come to think of it, a sitcom about workers slacking off in an inefficient nationalised industry is an uncannily close metaphor for late Titoist Yugoslavia.
I still can’t for the life of me explain, though, why Cubans are so keen on George and Mildred. If you’ve any theories, feel free…