Saturday, December 30, 2017

Beyond the Fringe

Pete & Dud in Cleveland
(Spoiler for the Netflix series "The Crown" ahead.)

My mother stayed with us one evening before the holidays, and she set herself up to watch The Crown on Netflix. She’d gotten ahead of me, and was taking in the final episode of the recently released season two. I was trying not to pay attention, but something caught my eye.

“Is that Peter Cook and Dudley Moore?” I asked. She wasn’t sure, but it was apparent to me that it was, two men in suits with skinny ties, one noticeably taller - or, the other significantly shorter, anyway - performing a sketch on a stage in a theater. The short one had on a woman’s hat and was clutching a handbag. It was obviously a comedy sketch.

Anyway, I tried not to pay attention, I would get this episode eventually. I was doing housework and trying to shut down the house for the evening. But then I saw four men, and it was obvious what I was looking at, because the other two were dead ringers for Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett. I was looking at a recreation of Beyond the Fringe (circa 1963.)

Most Americans are familiar with the absurdist satire of Monty Python, and I would suggest its international success was based on its platform - television, and later film. It had wider reach and longevity. However, that team has roots in the same university cabaret traditions which were the basis for earlier comedy teams which made their fame in Great Britain through stage and radio, including Beyond the Fringe, Flanders and Swann, and one the most inspirational comedy troupes of the century, The Goons.

Patrick Warner (center) as Peter Cook in "The Crown"
In Cleveland, my family were exposed to a great deal of their work on WCLV “Saturday Night” (now Weekend Radio) a weekly show where program director Robert Conrad let his hair down to play comedy and satire from both sides of the Atlantic. Staying up late, listening to this show, hearing selections from not only the aforementioned British troupes but also everything from Nichols & May to the National Lampoon, I received a tremendous education in wit and satire before I had even reached adolescence.

Even so, I was a bit young to attend the 1975 American tour of “Good Evening” starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore (post-Fringe) which played the Hanna Theatre the week of May 19th -- which also happens to be my brother Henrik’s birthday. My father took him to an evening performance, but brought the three of us to the stage door following a matinee performance to see if we could score some autographs.

Moore did not make an appearance at the stage door, but Cook did, and he was a tall man -- taller than my father at 6’2”. I was not yet seven years old, and I remember the look of complete incredulity on his face as he leaned over to take and sign my little autograph book. What bizarre American would bring a small child to this somewhat cerebral and somewhat filthy comedy revue?

Anyway. In the episode of The Crown in question (S02E10 "Mystery Man") Prime Minister Macmillan is goaded into attending a performance of that West End smash, Beyond the Fringe, by his surprisingly cruel spouse. The company generated a great deal of attention satirizing modern politics and even the royals, in a time when it was still technically illegal to do so (see: The Licensing Act of 1737.)

In case you didn't know who Peter Cook was.
Macmillan's wife intimates that he is set up for harmless ribbing. However, when he attends, the PM is not only humiliated, but in a surreal moment, the gigantic Peter Cook (Patrick Warner) actually notices him in the house, breaking the fourth wall, leaning into the house, and drawing the entire audience's attention on him for ridicule.

Prime Minister Macmillan promptly resigns.

Last year I wrote a meandering piece inspired by an episode of Mad Men in which Don and Megan attend a performance of America Hurrah!  As with that event, I am almost touched by the loving artistic detail paid to recreating a moment in theatrical history. Even more so, by the defiant protestation from the creators of television programs that live stage performance once did and could still affect the course of history.

Happy New Year!

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