Socialist realism goes to the music hall

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…

17 Comments

  1. prianikoff said,

    May 30, 2008 at 4:45 pm

    George Formby was also an influence on the early British rockers who emerged from the skiffle movement; Joe Brown in particular.
    The Beatles were actually second billing to him in some of their first 60’s tours and George Harrison was also a ukelele enthusiast.
    Later on, Harrison entertained a whole convention of the George Formby society in his house.
    Brown played ukelele at Harrison’s memorial concert and guested on the Uke at one of Mark Knopfler’s Albert Hall gigs just a few days ago.

    I too have experienced the Yugoslav penchant for “On the Buses”. Perhaps explained by the rank and filers constantly thumbing their noses the bureaucratic inspector ‘Blakey’.
    They certainly were fond of a ribald joke or two, but the Albanians, of course, always preferred Norman Wisdom.

  2. Liam said,

    May 30, 2008 at 10:11 pm

    I would have thought that the Church of Ireland has enough participants in its schismatic cult to provide an audience for The Vicar of Dibley.

  3. charliemarks said,

    May 31, 2008 at 1:29 am

    How’s about socialist politics in sitcoms? Rodney pens his own Das Kapital, which Del Boy flushes down the toilet. In Rising Damp, Alan is a Maoist. In Steptoe & Son, Harold is a socialist. Michael in Til Death Do Us Part is often seen waving a copy of Militant…

  4. harpymarx said,

    May 31, 2008 at 8:16 am

    “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”.

    Yeah, it is called Hollyoaks….

    They were repeating George Formby films on BBC2 couple of mths ago. Oh and speaking of what concept hasn’t worked in the States is their version of the C4’s Spaced. Though I don’t think it got to be broadcasted, it was binned before that.

  5. The Guvnor said,

    May 31, 2008 at 10:48 am

    Has anyone noticed the remarkable resemblance between George Formby and Professor Frank Füredi of Spiked fame? Can they be, by any chance, related?

  6. splinteredsunrise said,

    May 31, 2008 at 11:06 am

    Hollyoaks! Source of the global peroxide shortage!

    And it’s somehow comforting that Al Bundy is still a folk hero in Germany…

  7. harpymarx said,

    May 31, 2008 at 11:48 am

    “Hollyoaks! Source of the global peroxide shortage!”

    And fake tan….

  8. Briz Blogger said,

    May 31, 2008 at 1:58 pm

    Re The Guvnor’s comment above: having seen Frank Furedi at close quarters on several occasions, I can assure you that George Formby has infinitely greater personal appeal, not to mention vastly superior dress sense…

  9. jamie said,

    May 31, 2008 at 2:52 pm

    I understand that The Professionals was very big in Inner Mongolia a few years back.

    Granada also tried to launch a local variant of Coronation Street with CCTV a few years back, but it didn’t take off.

  10. splinteredsunrise said,

    June 1, 2008 at 11:51 am

    And yet, a localised Ugly Betty has been launched in China – mind you, that sells just about anywhere. I caught sight of the Russian version recently.

  11. prianikoff said,

    June 1, 2008 at 12:58 pm

    On a historical note, “On the Buses” was scripted by Chesney and Wolfe.

    From 1936 to the 1960’s, Ronald Chesney was much better known as a harmonica player than a scriptwriter.
    He built up a large classical repetoire, performing on the BBC and internationally.
    (There seems to be some association between lightweight portable instruments like the harmonica (harp) and uke and radical politics.)

    In the 60’s, Chesney teamed up with Ronald Wolfe for a TV script-writing career.
    Besides ‘On the Buses’, they were also responsible for the “The Rag Trade “.
    The show featured Miriam Karlin as the shop-steward ‘Paddy’, with the famous catch-phrase “Everybody Out”.
    Reg Varney was the foreman and went on to play Stan in ‘On the Buses’
    Miriam Karlin became a well-known sponsor of the A.N.L in the late 70’s, by which time the show was revived.

  12. Andy Newman said,

    June 2, 2008 at 1:18 pm

    ” 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. “

    In fact, the US version of Porridge, callled On the Rocks was quite popular and ran for 22 episodes, using the same scripts as the Brit version, only lightly edited. The clips I have seen show how much of the humour in Porridge was from Ronnie Barker’s genius rather than the scripts.

  13. Darren said,

    June 3, 2008 at 2:21 am

    The second season of Shameless has just finished being shown on the Sundance Channel in the States. What Middle America makes of the Gallaghers and the Chatsworth Estate, I can only guess at.

  14. dsquared said,

    June 4, 2008 at 12:44 pm

    Sadly, although George Formby was very popular in the Soviet Union, the Order of Stalin thing is a myth. Shame really. Also a shame that he never recorded an equivalent to “Thanks Mr Roosevelt”.

  15. Doug said,

    June 5, 2008 at 8:47 am

    What about comedy missed chances? I’m thinking of a sitcom with Hattie Jacques living with her brother Eric Hoeneker (‘Oh, Eric’). Corky could be in the local Stasi, popping in unannounced to make sure they were ideologically sound.

  16. tellyfan said,

    June 23, 2008 at 2:55 am

    “while we can tolerate Friends as an import, a British version wouldn’t work”: Uh? I take it that you’ve never heard of Coupling.

  17. craig said,

    November 27, 2010 at 12:11 pm

    i grew up late 70’s and 80’s while my friends watched the A-team and Night rider i was watching the great british comedy classics such as george formby,will hay,the crazy gang,old mother riley and frank randell,i think these films teach you respect not like the stuff produced to day,thank goodness for video and DVD as these greats would be just on a shelve some where gavering dust.


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