My favourite Christmas things

 

From pixabay.com

 

This Christmas and New Year, my better half – Mrs Blood and Porridge – and I decided to forego our usual custom of heading back to Scotland to visit my family, mainly because we couldn’t handle another late December / early January spent in the cold, wet, windy and generally shite winter climate of the Scottish Borders.  Instead we elected to stay where we are, i.e. in southern Asia.  We’ve just spent four days at Unawatuna Beach on the southern coast of Sri Lanka.  I’d like to say the experience was entirely the idyllic sun-drenched experience suggested by this photograph.

 

 

Unfortunately, half the time, the area was battered by thunderstorms and Unawatuna Beach looked more like this.

 

 

In addition, the hotel we’d booked into turned out to be still under construction, workmen with whining drills, snarling saws and clattering hammers working on a new function room at the end of our corridor and more workmen plastering the walls beside the outdoor swimming pool (even while it was pissing with rain).  The place looked like something out of Carry On Abroad (1972).  But overall we had an enjoyable sojourn there.  We’re now spending Christmas Day in Colombo and plan to visit Thailand for a week-and-a-half over New Year.

 

Anyway, sitting in our Colombo apartment this Christmas Day, listening to our neighbours setting off fireworks – which is how they seem to celebrate everything in Sri Lanka – I find myself wondering what my favourite Christmas things are, in terms of books, films, TV, music and art.  Here’s what comes to mind.

 

© Vintage

 

Books.  Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) doesn’t do much for me these days, probably because I’m overly familiar with its plot and characters – who isn’t?  But a few months ago, I finally got around to reading Susan Hill’s enjoyable Gothic pastiche The Woman in Black (1983).  Hitherto knowing it only by its 2012 movie adaptation, I was surprised to discover The Woman in Black qualifies as a Christmas story.  At least, it uses the Victorian custom of telling ghost stories at Christmas-time as a framing device.  It’s during such a seasonal storytelling session that the middle-aged narrator gets unwillingly transported back to his youth and he begins to recall the terrifying experiences he had as a young man at Eel Marsh House.

 

Films.  A little while ago I wrote about the grim 1971 Australian movie Wake in Fright.  I realised it could be described as a Christmas movie, because its story of debauchery and squalor takes place during the festive season – though with the sweltering, fly-ridden Outback providing a background to the Christmas trees, decorations and carols.  In fact, if you fancy an Antipodean anti-Christmas double bill, you should watch Wake in Fright back-to-back with 2005’s Nick Cave-scripted The Proposition, whose climax has Ray Winstone and Emily Watson sitting down to a genteel English Christmas dinner in the heat and dust of the 19th century Outback while a pair of crazed bushrangers gallop towards their house intent on rape and murder.

 

© First Look Pictures

 

For more properly seasonal cinematic fare, though, I guess you can’t go wrong with The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) or the Finnish monster-Santa epic Rare Exports (2010).  And I have a soft spot for 1982’s beautifully animated adaptation of Raymond Briggs’ 1978 picture-book The Snowman.  I particularly like the version of it that has a prologue featuring David Bowie, who tells the story as a flashback and makes out this happened to him as a child.  Thus, the man who was Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and the Thin White Duke also flew with a snowman to the North Pole and met Santa Claus when he was a wee boy.  Wow, that David Bowie really lived a life!

 

© BBC

 

Television.  To me, Christmas TV means two things – comedy and (again) ghost stories.  Any time I’m in the UK during the festive season it isn’t difficult to track down on a Freeview channel one of the following comedic classics.  First, the 1974 Steptoe and Son Christmas special in which Harold tries to persuade his decrepit dad Albert not to spend Christmas at home in the rag-and-bone yard for once and spend it on holiday abroad instead.  This episode is poignant because it’s one of the few where Harold actually enjoys a victory and it was also the last Steptoe episode ever broadcast.  Second, the 1975 Christmas edition of Porridge where Fletcher, Gobber and co. form a Christmas carol-singing choir to hide the noise of an escape tunnel being dug out of Slade Prison.  And third, the 1996 Father Ted special where Ted and Father Dougal’s Christmas shopping takes an unexpected turn when they get trapped inside ‘the largest lingerie section in Ireland’.  I find it sad, though, that I haven’t massively enjoyed any festive TV comedy made in the last 20-odd years.  (Incidentally, if you say you like the Mr Bean episode where he ends up with a giant Christmas turkey stuck over his head, you don’t deserve to live.)

 

© BBC

 

As I mentioned earlier, Christmas was traditionally a time for telling ghost stories.  The BBC’s supernatural dramas that were broadcast every Yuletide during the 1970s under the title of A Ghost Story for Christmas now seem deeply festive – even though the stories themselves didn’t have Christmas-time settings.  (That said, most of them were based on works by M.R. James, who liked reading his latest tales to his friends at King’s College, Cambridge, “at the season of Christmas”.)  1971’s The Stalls of Barchester (based on a James story) and 1976’s The Signalman (based on a Dickens one) are probably the most memorable; 1977’s Stigma, set in the present day and using an original script by Clive Exton, is the subtlest and saddest; and 1975’s The Ash Tree, based on another James story, is the freakiest, ending with a pack of little spider-things with human faces scuttling up the branches of the titular tree to a bedroom window.  All the episodes are currently up on Youtube.

 

© Charlemagne Productions Ltd

 

Music.  Christmas songs are generally dreadful – apart from the Pogues’ Fairy Tale of New York and Run DMC’s Christmas in Hollis – and the songs that get to the Christmas number-one spot in the UK are generally worse than dreadful, especially now that they’re usually sung by the latest non-entity to have rolled off the Simon Cowell Conveyor Belt of Karaoke.  But for an enjoyably berserk Christmas listening experience, you can’t beat the heavy metal versions of Christmas songs like Silent Night and Jingle Bells recorded in 2012, 2013 and 2014 by the late, legendary actor Sir Christopher Lee, star of the Lord of the Rings and Star Wars movies and many horror ones.  The combination of the nonagenarian Lee’s still-booming operatic voice, twiddly power-metal guitars and Christmas – what’s not to love?

 

Art.  In the last few years English-speaking culture has become aware of the goat-horned, curly-tongued Krampus, the demonic figure of Germanic and Slavic folklore who acts as an anti-Santa Claus and goes around at Christmas punishing children who’ve been naughty.  Among other things, there’s been a Hollywood movie made about him, 2015’s Krampus, and he turned up in a 2016 festive episode of the BBC anthology series Inside No 9.  Only recently did I discover that mainland Europe has had a long tradition of exchanging Krampuskarten, greeting cards featuring the Krampus.  These include some bawdy ones where the saucy old festive demon is seen cavorting with buxom young ladies.  Here’s a few examples – charming in their visual designs and quaintly Roald Dahl-esque in their sentiments.

 

From krazywolf.com

From krazywolf.com

From krazywolf.com

 

So Merry Christmas – I trust Santa Claus has been good to you.  Or if you’ve misbehaved, the Krampus has been bad to you.

 

God save the Queen

 

© Brandywine Productions / 20th Century Fox

 

Scene: The living room of the Parochial House on Craggy Island during a 1996 episode of Father Ted.  The elderly and infirm Bishop Jordan, one of a visiting trio of church dignitaries, has just been explaining how he had a heart attack last year and needs to avoid having sudden surprises and shocks.

Father Dougal (bellowing at the top of his voice): AAAAAHHHHH!

Bishop Jordan nearly suffers another heart attack on the living room sofa.

Father Ted (seeing Bishop Jordan’s distress): Dougal!  What are you doing?!

Father Dougal: Sorry, Ted – I just remembered.  Aliens is on after the news!

Father Ted: Dougal, for God’s sake!  (To the stricken Bishop Jordan, who has almost collapsed off the sofa.)  I’m sorry, Bishop Jordan!  (To Dougal.)  Did you not hear what he’s saying about his heart?

Father Dougal: I know, but it’s just that it’s the Director’s Cut!  Come on everyone, let’s all have a lads’ night in!

Father Ted: Dougal, just shut up!  (To Bishop Jordan.)  Ha-ha.  A heart attack?  That’s rare enough these days.

Bishop O’Neill (trying to help Father Jordan back onto the sofa): There were certainly a lot of prayers said for Bishop Jordan –

Father Dougal: I don’t know why we can’t look at Aliens

Father Ted: Dougal!  Bishop O’Neill is speaking.

Father Dougal: But…  They’d love it, Ted!

Father Ted: No, they wouldn’t!

Father Dougal: But bishops love sci-fi –

Father Ted: DOUGAL!  WE ARE NOT WATCHING ALIENS!

 

* * * * *

 

Here’s yet another anniversary that makes me feel ancient.  It’s now exactly thirty years since the James Cameron-directed sci-fi / horror / action movie Aliens was released in the United Kingdom.  A few days from now, it’ll be exactly thirty years since I first laid eyes on it in a crowded cinema in Aberdeen.  And like Dougal in that old episode of Father Ted, I still get irrationally excited when I discover that it’s due to have another airing on TV.  And during the first occasion I watched it, there were a few moments when, like the beleaguered Bishop Jordan, I thought my heart was about to pop.  Yes, Aliens is a film that gets the adrenaline sluicing through you like no other.

 

It’s remarkable that the film achieves this when it’s a sequel.  One of the Great Laws of the Cinema is that, compared to the original films, sequels are almost always rubbish.  Certainly, that law seemed to hold true in the 1980s, when cinema audiences were subjected to such puddings as Halloween II (1981), Grease 2 (1982), Rocky III (1982) and Rocky IV (1985), Jaws 3-D (1983), Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) and Rambo III (1988), Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986) and Beverley Hills Cop II (1987).  Oh, and Piranha Part Two: The Spawning (1981), which was directed by a certain James Cameron…

 

Aliens’ task was particularly daunting.  It was to be the follow-up to Ridley Scott’s magnificent haunted-house-in-space movie, 1979’s Alien.

 

© Brandywine Productions / 20th Century Fox

 

It’s unsurprising that while Cameron was shooting the sequel at Buckinghamshire’s Pinewood Studios in the mid-1980s, he had to put up with a sceptical British crew who were of the opinion that this bearded thirty-something Canadian wasn’t fit to kiss the boots of the mighty Ridley Scott.  Mind you, the contempt was reciprocated by Cameron.  A man used to pursuing his vision with the single-minded determination of The Terminator (1984) – the film that he’d directed between the Piranha sequel and the Alien sequel – Cameron was not impressed by his crew’s Great British working practices like stopping every couple of minutes to have a tea-break.

 

The resulting movie shows no disrespect to Ridley Scott or the original Alien.  It simply takes a very different approach to the hideous, slimy, fanged, multi-jawed, acid-blooded title creatures.  Whereas Alien set one of them loose in a giant spaceship and Scott milked the scenario for all the clammy, claustrophobic horror it was worth, Cameron unleashes a whole army of them in and around a base on a distant planet and declares out-and-out war on the bastards, courtesy of a well-armed platoon of space marines who’ve journeyed there in the company of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, heroine and sole survivor of the first film.   Yes, there’s clamminess, claustrophobia and horror to be found in Cameron’s creation too, but that doesn’t prevent Aliens from also being one of the best action films ever made.

 

That’s not to say that Aliens is a non-stop rollercoaster from start to finish.  Cameron actually takes his time getting his characters to the base (after contact with the 160-strong space colony there is suddenly and mysteriously lost).  Wisely, and unlike a lot of directors of scary movies who’ve come since, he gives the audience a chance to get to know, and get to like, his characters.  So that when all hell does break loose, halfway through the film, we’re genuinely on the edge of our seats because we’re rooting for those characters to survive.

 

© Brandywine Productions / 20th Century Fox

 

Cameron does such a good job of it that, thirty years on, I still know those characters like they’re dear old friends.  There’s Michael Biehn’s reliable Corporal Hicks, who packs a vintage pump-action shotgun alongside his space-age weaponry (“I like to keep this handy… for close encounters”) and who finds himself in the unexpected position of platoon leader after the aliens’ first onslaught wipes most of it out.  There’s Lance Henriksen’s Bishop, the regulation android whom Ripley – mindful of what happened in the first movie – is extremely wary of; though after he’s saved her and saved the other surviving humans three or four times (even after he gets ripped in half), she accepts that he’s a good, if synthetic, bloke.

 

And there’s the motor-mouthed Private Hudson, played by the great Bill Paxton, who gets the film’s best lines.  This is both before the aliens show up, when he’s a swaggering, show-offy git – “Hey Ripley, don’t worry.  Me and my squad of ultimate badasses will protect you…  We got nukes, we got knives, we got sharp sticks!” – and after they show up, when he’s a quivering, whiny git – “Hey, maybe you haven’t been keeping up on current events but we just got our asses kicked, pal!”

 

But Aliens is hardly a testosterone-fest.  Dougal in Father Ted might have earmarked it for a ‘lads’ night in’ but it’s also, subversively, a chick-flick.  At its heart are no fewer than four powerful female characters.  There’s the splendid Sigourney Weaver, of course, back in the role of Ripley – though it’s in Aliens that both Weaver and Ripley properly achieve the status of cinematic icons.  There’s Carrie Henn as Newt, the waif-like little girl who’s the colony’s only survivor and who, gradually, awakens Ripley’s maternal instincts.  While Ripley spends the original movie reacting to and mainly running away from the horrors around her, it’s thanks to Newt that in Aliens she becomes increasingly proactive and ends up running at them.  Admittedly, that’s when she’s armed with a M41A Pulse Rifle / M240 Flamethrower.

 

© Brandywine Productions / 20th Century Fox

 

And let’s not forget the impressive Private Vasquez, played by Jenette Goldstein, who’s more than a match for any man in her platoon.  “All right,” she snarls at one point, “we got seven canisters of CM-20.  I say we roll them in there and nerve-gas the whole f***in’ nest.”  And when she’s not shooting down aliens, she’s shooting down Hudson’s bullshit, as happens in the following exchange: “Hey Vasquez.  Have you ever been mistaken for a man?”  “No.  Have you?”

 

The film’s final trump card also takes female form: the Alien Queen.  Here, Cameron combines the design of the original alien, by the Swiss artist H.R. Giger, with the concepts of an egg-laying queen termite and of a tyrannosaurus rex.  He creates a twenty-foot foe of terrifying savagery, strength and tenacity.  And when she comes bearing down on Ripley at the movie’s climax, Aliens turns into the Battle of the Big Bad Mamas.  By this time, the Queen has seen her whole hellish brood destroyed and wants revenge.  Meanwhile, Ripley is determined to defend what’s left of her family – Newt and the now-incapacitated Hicks and Bishop – to the death.

 

What more can I say?  Three decades later Aliens is still riveting and I envy anyone sitting down to watch it for the first time – especially on a big screen with a big sound-system.  In the words of Private Hudson: “We’re on an express elevator to hell, going down!”

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X-Xj24Gdxds

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tjhkhi0Ye6s

 

© Brandywine Productions / 20th Century Fox

 

A Ted talk

 

(c) Hat Trick Productions

 

One of the problems with growing older is that every time an anniversary – of something you love or that’s important to you – crops up, it affects you like a punch to the solar plexus.  “Jesus, is it really ten years since they released that album?”  “Bloody hell, no!  It can’t be 15 years since that movie came out!”  “What, 25 years ago that happened?  25 f**king years?  No!  Surely not!”  The result, once the initial wave of shock has passed, is that you spend five minutes studying your ravaged face in the mirror.  Then you spend the rest of the day in a daze, reliving fond – though now bitter-sweet – memories from long ago.

 

And the same thought keeps flashing inside your head: “Aw!  I was so young then!”

 

I had an experience like that recently when I read in the Guardian that this month is the 20th anniversary of the debut, on Channel 4, of Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews’ much-loved situation comedy Father Ted.  Yes, that surreal and slapstick-ridden saga of three hapless priests and their demented housekeeper living on a remote Irish island is now two decades old.

 

http://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2015/apr/20/father-ted-legacy-20-years-on-up-with-this-sort-of-thing

 

The very first episode of Father Ted reached our TV screens in April 1995.  Which was the year of the Oklahoma Bombing, the Tokyo Subway gas attack and the Unabomber; of Jacques Chirac becoming French President, Nick Leeson bringing down Barings Bank and O.J. Simpson being acquitted of murder; of the disappearance of the Manic Street Preachers’ Richey Edwards, the feud between Blur and Oasis and the release of the world’s first full-length computer-animated feature film, Toy Story.  It was that long ago.  Now please excuse me while I go off and stare at myself in the mirror for five minutes.  Aw!  I was so young then…

 

Okay, five minutes have passed and I’m now back at my keyboard.  The thing with Father Ted is that the show feels like it’s never left us.  This is despite it running for just three series, plus a Christmas special, and notching up just 25 episodes.  Also, the fact that its third season would be its last was tragically underscored when the show’s star, Father Ted himself, Dermot Morgan died of a heart attack just 24 hours after the final episode had finished filming and two weeks before Channel 4 began to show the final season.  Thus, even before Father Ted had ended its TV run in 1998, fans were sadly aware that it was all over.

 

However, those 25 episodes have seemingly spent the last decade being broadcast on an endless loop on Channel 4’s digital / Freeview subsidiary More 4.  If you desperately need a Ted-fix, it seems to be there for you most evenings.  And every Christmas-time, Channel 4 still gives a prominent festive airing to the 1996 Christmas special, the one where Ted and gormless sidekick Father Dougal and half-a-dozen other priests get trapped inside the ladies’ lingerie section of a giant department store.  I suspect this is the only TV programme some people in Britain watch at Christmas-time.  These days, it’s the only thing I ever watch at Christmas-time.

 

So why was Father Ted so good?  There are many factors that can contribute to the success of a TV sitcom.  And if you wrote those factors down in a list and started ticking off the ones that apply to Father Ted, you’d probably find at the end that you’d ticked all of them.  For example…

 

(c) Hat Trick Productions

 

Being trapped

The clue is in the term itself: situation comedy.  The more limiting the situation the characters are in, the more they get on each other’s nerves and the more comedy is generated as a result.  See Slade Prison in Porridge (1974-1977) or the World War I trenches in Blackadder Goes Forth (1989).  Father Ted’s setting isn’t quite as claustrophobic as those.  But the Parochial House is pretty bad – with Dougal practising his relentless buffoonery, Father Jack sitting drinking and swearing in the corner and Mrs Doyle torturing her charges with endless cups of tea.  And the wider environment, Craggy Island, isn’t much better – it’s populated by misfits like Tom, the village idiot / truck driver / pest-control officer / armed bank robber, and John and Mary O’Leary, the shop-owning couple who when they aren’t grovelling to the priests are busy trying to murder each other.  The place is maddening for someone with Ted’s intelligence and aspirations.  Which leads neatly to…

 

Frustrated aspirations

Many great sitcoms have a lead character or characters who believe they’re capable of greater things but are continually thwarted by their circumstances and the less able souls around them.  Harold Steptoe in Steptoe and Son (1962-1974) was forever trying to climb the social ladder but was held back (1) by his being a rag-and-bone man and (2) by his wheedling, devious and utterly exasperating old dad.  The elderly leads of Dad’s Army (1968-1977) were brave former soldiers desperate to do their bit for King and Country against Hitler, but because of their age and infirmities they had to make do with playing at being soldiers in the local Home Guard unit.

 

Ted’s aspirations aren’t complex.  He’s a regular bloke pining for money, comfort and an easy life (as in the episode Going to America) or for the love of a good, preferably beautiful and wealthy woman (as in the episode And God Created Woman).  Fulfilling those aspirations isn’t going to be easy, though, as Ted – despite his apparent disinterest in religion – has somehow ended up becoming a priest.  The fact that the community of priests that Ted belongs to consists mostly of idiots doesn’t help, either.

 

(c) Hat Trick Productions

 

Recognisable characters

Obviously, it helps a sitcom’s success if viewers can identify with its characters.  Ted is a recognisable everyman figure, but the show’s other characters – though drawn with hugely-broad brushstrokes – are hardly ones that people in Ireland, south or north of the border, are unfamiliar with.  You don’t have to wander far on the Emerald Isle before you encounter an amiable young dimwit like Dougal or a cantankerous old drunk like Jack.  As for Mrs Doyle, I seem to remember Northern Ireland being overrun with types like her in my childhood – ladies of a certain age, both Protestant and Catholic, who’d treat their guests to an almost psychotic level of hospitality.  If you set foot in their parlours and didn’t immediately consume a gallon of tea and several kilos of their best cakes, buns and biscuits, they’d take it as a mortal insult.

 

A family unit

Many successful sitcoms are about families.  Many others feature a set of characters who interact in family-like ways.  Their relationships are recognisably parent-child, brother-sister, husband-wife, etc.  Thus, in The Thick of It (2005-2012) we have an abusive father (Malcolm), a well-meaning but ineffectual mother (Nicola), a bratty child (Ollie) and a dotty uncle and aunt (Glen and Terri).  And the family dynamic doesn’t necessarily require the presence of both genders.  In the all-male Porridge, there’s an overbearingly strict father (MacKay) and another well-meaning but ineffectual mother (Barrowclough), plus two sons chaffing against their parents’ authority, the streetwise older brother (Fletcher) and the naïve kid brother (Godber).

 

Thus, in Father Ted, it isn’t difficult to see how Ted, Mrs Doyle, Jack and Dougal fill the roles of stressed-out dad, hectoring mum, sozzled old granddad and naïve young son.

 

(c) Hat Trick Productions

 

Work

Some of the greatest sitcom characters, in Britain at least, are defined by their jobs – world’s worst hotelier (Basil Fawlty), world’s worst office manager (David Brent), world’s worst D.J. (Alan Partridge).  Meanwhile, sitcoms like The IT Crowd (2006-2013, written by Linehan) and Black Books (2000-2004, with both Linehan and Arthur Mathews contributing to the scripts) show the endless jealousies, rivalries and antagonisms that arise in a workplace.  These are invariably petty conflicts that outside observers, i.e. the sitcom audience, find both ridiculous and hilarious.  It’s a variation on the first item on this list, being trapped.  You don’t want to spend 40 or more hours every week with these losers and misfits around you.  But you signed the job contract and they’re your colleagues.  You have to.

 

Ted probably isn’t the world’s worst priest.  (That title may well belong to Dougal or Jack.)  He is, though, tortured by his work situation.  He has to deal with the army of oddballs who make up the local priesthood – bores (Father Paul Stone), annoyances (Father Noel Furlong), delinquents (Father Damo Lennon), bitter rivals (Father Dick Byrne) and utter sadists (Father Fintan Stack, the priest who plays his beloved jungle music really loud).  He also has to deal with the idiocies of the organisation that employs him – such as the All Priests Over-75s Five-a-Side Football Championship, the All Priests Stars in their Eyes Lookalike Competition or the church hotline that puts you on a hold while a real nun sings Ave Maria down the phone-line at you.

 

Lies that escalate

Fawlty Towers (1975-1979) mined comic gold from the deceptions of Basil Fawlty.  His attempts at, say, hiding a dead body from the hotel guests or hiding a pet rat from a hotel inspector would trigger chains of events where confusion escalated into embarrassment and then into disaster.  Similarly, Ted is forever trying to lie his way out of tricky situations.  How can he hide the fact that he’s just destroyed the car that was going to be the prize in the big fundraising raffle from his parishioners?  How can he hide the fact that the Parochial House is infested with rabbits from his bellicose superior, Bishop Brennan, who’s coming to visit and who coincidentally has a massive rabbit-phobia?  Predictably, each lie ends up causing him a hell of a lot more trouble than the trouble it was originally meant to avoid.

 

(c) Hat Trick Productions

 

Catch-phrases

It’s an easy route to comic success.  Load your comedy show with catch-phrases and hopefully the public will be shouting at least some of them on the street the next day.  It often works, though.  Look at how The Fast Show (1994-1997), The League of Gentlemen (1999-2002) or Little Britain (2003-2006) quickly imprinted themselves on the national consciousness.  Father Ted, of course, is choc-a-bloc with them – Jack shouting, “Feck!  Arse!  Drink!  Girls!” or Mrs Doyle going, “Ah, go on, go on, go on, go on, go on…” or Bishop Brennan bellowing, “Crill-eee!”

 

Even one-off lines from individual episodes have passed into everyday usage – “Down with this sort of thing!” (from The Passion of Saint Tibulus) or “That would be an ecumenical matter!” (from Tentacles of Doom).  Indeed, just the other day, while I was having lunch with someone, I suddenly found myself intoning: “There are some very hairy babies on Craggy Island.  And I think you are the hairy baby-maker!”  At which point my girlfriend told me not to order another pitcher of beer.

 

Of its time

Dad’s Army couldn’t have appeared at any period other than the 1960s / 1970s.  World War II still loomed large in many people’s memories but sufficient time had passed for its awfulness to feel less pronounced, so that it was the right moment for a sitcom making gentle humour out of it.  The Office (2001-2003) was perfect for the early noughties.  Tony Blair and the Nu-Labour government were at their peak and Britons were supposed to feel good about themselves – the economy was booming but everyone now inhabited a nicer, more civilised, more PC and touchy-feely environment.  But the suspicion – which the show confirmed – was that, under the surface, working practices were just as callous, exploitative and horrible as they’d been before.

 

Similarly, Father Ted couldn’t have arrived at any time other than the mid-1990s.  Ireland had become more cosmopolitan and streetwise and it now had the confidence to poke fun at its old stereotypes and clichés.  Sadly, this was also before the dark secrets of the Catholic Church came tumbling out of the closet.  Indeed, Linehan, interviewed two years ago in the Independent, said he wouldn’t have penned a series about loveable buffoonish priests if he’d known what he knows now about the industrial levels of child abuse perpetrated by his country’s clergy: “I could never write Ted now because I’d be so angry my fingers would go through the keyboard.”

 

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/profiles/graham-linehan-ive-come-to-hate-the-church-8665386.html

 

Come to think of it, modern-day Ireland would be a lot more at ease with its religious heritage if the Catholic Church had been staffed purely by the likes of Fathers Ted, Dougal, Jack, Dick Byrne, Noel Furlong, Fintan Stack and so on.

 

(c) Hat Trick Productions

 

Imaginary minced oaths

 

(c) NBC

 

A few weeks ago, somehow, I found myself talking to a group of Sri Lankan people about a feature of the English language that’s often heard but rarely discussed: the minced oath.

 

A minced oath is a non-offensive utterance that’s substituted for an offensive one.  It’s sometimes an innocuous word with an innocuous meaning that happens to sound like the thing it’s replacing.  For example, rather that shout ‘Shit!’ when you swing a hammer, miss the top of the nail you’re aiming for and squash your finger instead, you shout ‘Sugar!’  Or instead of shouting ‘Damn!’, you shout ‘Dash!’  Sometimes, though, the minced oath is a word that only exists as a minced oath – like the word ‘heck’, used as a replacement for ‘hell’, as in “What the heck is going on?”

 

Often, minced oaths have been used so frequently and for so long that they’ve acquired their own distinct personalities.  Is anyone who comes out with the mild exclamation ‘Gosh!’ aware that they’re using it as a substitute for ‘God!’?

 

For my money, the King of Minced Oaths was the great American character actor Slim Pickens, who became typecast playing brawny, not-very-bright cowboys in Western movies.  I seem to remember Pickens in many an old Western spluttering, in a broad Texan accent, “Aw, shoot and darn it, you doggone son-of-a-gun!”  (Which in its X-rated version would be, “Aw, shit and damn it, you goddamned son-of-a-bitch!”)

 

But I suspect that many minced oaths are now living on borrowed time because – in the UK at least – we seem to inhabit a social and linguistic environment where it’s increasingly okay to use the real thing.  People seem to swear more commonly and openly than they used to.  At the same time, most of the old minced oaths that were once acceptable substitutes for swear words sound a bit lame now.  Any lad using ‘Dash!’ or ‘Gosh!’ in a modern playground would probably be viewed by his peers as something of a pansy.  (If they could figure out what he was talking about in the first place.)

 

The phenomenon of swearing puts writers of TV and radio drama (and historically of literature too) in a quandary.  What do they do when they want to accurately depict the real world – in whose homes, workplaces and schools many folk now swear non-stop, rather than shilly-shally around with minced oaths?  Do they bite the bullet and use real swear words, at the risk of offending those many viewers and listeners (and historically, readers) who still find such language offensive?  Or should they avoid using words that may cause offence and pretend that all people speak like Sunday-school teachers?

 

One solution has been to invent your own swear words, which will express the heated emotions your characters are feeling without upsetting people who object to bad language – in other words, to use imaginary minced oaths.  To illustrate this, I will now give you half-a-dozen of my favourite made-up swear words that have already been tried and tested in TV, films and literature and, presumably, are acceptable for use in polite company.

 

(c) The Daily Telegraph

 

FUG

An invented substitute for the F-word, ‘fug’ appeared in the 1948 World War II novel The Naked and the Dead, written by the late, great American writer Norman Mailer.  Warned by his publishers that the dialogue of his soldier-characters couldn’t be too realistic – even though in the real world, hard-pressed soldiers in a combat zone would be spewing the F-word endlessly – Mailer ended up having them say things like ‘Fug you!’ and ‘Fugging hell!’

 

It must have stuck in Mailer’s craw – and Mailer had a big craw for things to get stuck in – when, later, he was introduced to the celebrated writer and wit Dorothy Parker and she exclaimed, “So you’re the man who can’t spell f*ck!”

 

NAFF and NERK

In 1970s British TV sitcoms nobody swore.  In Her Majesty’s Prison Service, however, everybody swore.  Thus, writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais had a dilemma when they devised their classic 1970s prison-set sitcom Porridge – which they solved by having their characters spout imaginary swear words.  “Naff off, you nerk!” Norman Stanley Fletcher, the convict hero of Porridge played by Ronnie Barker, would often snap at irritating prison warders and fellow cons.

 

‘Naff’ and ‘nerk’ soon became popular in 1970s school playgrounds, as little children believed they were real words of abuse.  (I know I did.)  They were also adopted by another group with an uncertain grasp of reality, the Royal Family.  On one famous occasion, prying photographers were bluntly told to “Naff off” by Princess Anne.

 

FECK

Actually, ‘feck’ is a genuine minced oath in the Irish-English dialect.  However, it became famous in Britain in the 1990s when it was used as a non-offensive substitute for ‘f*ck’ in Father Ted, the much-loved sitcom about three less-than-devout priests assigned to a backward Irish island.  Indeed, many people now probably believe that ‘feck’ was invented by Father Ted’s creators, Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews.

 

(c) Hat Trick Productions / Channel 4 

 

Despite its innocuousness, the word caused controversy for B*witched, the briefly popular, river-dancing Irish girl-band managed by Louis Walsh.  Interviewed on TV, one B*witched-member exclaimed “Feck off!” and provoked complaints from hard-of-hearing viewers who thought she’d said something else.

 

FRICK

Doctor Evil, the super-villain in Mike Myers’ Austin Powers spoof-spy movies, was clearly a linguistic prude.  Even in his foulest moods, he unfailingly eschewed the F-word and used the non-rude ‘frick’ instead.

 

Actually, ‘frick’ is like ‘feck’.  Although thanks to the Myers movies many people assume it’s an invented minced oath, it has its roots in real, dialectic English.  According to the online Urban Dictionary, it comes from Southern and Midwestern American English and dates back to the 1930s.  I’ve even read claims that ‘frick’ is derived from the surname of the industrialist and chairman of the Carnegie Steel Corporation Henry Clay Frick who, because of his brutal approach to labour relations in the late 19th century, was once dubbed ‘the most hated man in America’.

 

Incidentally, although Doctor Evil was a paragon of good verbal manners, Myers messed up elsewhere on the salty-language front.  Misjudging the naughtiness of a certain British colloquialism – thinking it was purely a funny word when some people found it genuinely distasteful – he called the second Austin Powers movie The Spy Who Shagged Me.

 

SMEG

Language changes with the passage of time, so science fiction writers have often assumed that the future will see new rude words.  Some examples of these include ‘Frak!’ (from the TV sci-fi show Battlestar Galactica), ‘Frell!’ (from another TV show, Farscape) and ‘Drokk!’ (a favourite of the imposing Judge Dredd in the sci-fi comic 2000AD).

 

However, the supreme futuristic swear word is ‘smeg’, used by the characters of TV sci-fi comedy Red Dwarf.  Writers Rob Grant and Doug Naylor have always insisted that ‘smeg’ was the product of their imaginations and wasn’t inspired by smegma, possibly the least appealing secretion produced by the male human body.  But somehow, I don’t believe them.

 

From amazon.co.uk

 

Favourite TV comedy songs

 

(c) Channel 4

 

With The Thick of It finished and Peep Show on a long hiatus, I’d assumed there was no decent comedy on British television at the moment.  Yes, I know some people like Miranda Hart’s sitcom Miranda but any time I’ve encountered it, I’m afraid, my facial muscles haven’t come remotely close to forming a smile.  And yes, the BBC4 comedy The Detectorists, written and directed by Mackenzie Crook and starring Crook and the excellent Toby Jones, won acclaim a little while ago.  But though I liked Crook’s show, about a pair of hopeless metal-detecting enthusiasts whose love-lives are even more hopeless than their metal detecting, I didn’t find it particularly comic.  Rather, it seemed to me a gentle, melancholy drama with a streak of wry humour.

 

And as for asking me if I like watching Citizen Khan or Mrs Brown’s Boys…  Well, you might as well as ask me if I like eating dumplings that have been fashioned out of dried vomit and then deep-fried in manure.

 

However, over the last month, my negativity about the state of British TV comedy has been proven wrong.  For I have greatly enjoyed the latest season of Toast of London, the Channel 4 sitcom starring Matt Berry as a middle-aged actor struggling to make ends meet in the recording studios, on the film sets and on the theatre stages of showbiz London.  Among other things, Toast has to endure the belligerence of his agent Jane Plough (Doon Mackichan), who comes across as half-Mary Poppins and half-dominatrix; and various nefarious plots hatched against him by his acting rival and arch-enemy Ray Purchase (Harry Peacock).  At the same time, Toast takes every opportunity going to shag Purchase’s desperate-housewife missus (Tracy-Ann Oberman).  In fact, the mellifluous, baritone-voiced and altogether hammy Toast is a splendid comic creation.  He’s a variation on those barnstorming over-the-top actors that in real life the British drama world has churned out by the dozen: Todd Slaughter, Donald Wolfit, Graham Crowden, Steven Berkoff and Brian Blessed.

 

The show’s style complements its main character.  An endearing mixture of absurdity, stupidity, surrealism, catchphrases (“Yes, I can hear you, Clem Fandango!”) and occasional showbiz satire, it also contains enough good-natured smut to float a fleet of Carry On films.  If its whimsical nature feels familiar, that’s probably because it’s co-written (with Berry) by Arthur Matthews, who co-wrote the legendary Irish-priest sitcom Father Ted back in the 1990s.

 

One thing I particularly like about Toast of London is its musical interludes.  Berry and Matthews know the value of slipping an occasional, good comic song in among the humorous scenes.  This is to be expected because, in addition to acting and comedy, Berry has an excellent track record in making music – serious music as well as silly stuff.  His albums Witchazel and Kill the Wolf are laudable confections of non-cheesy pop, non-pompous progressive rock and slightly-spooky Wicker Man-y folk music and can be listened to at YouTube, here:

 

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL5E13AF0E5205D540

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL8zVDNg2iCm5CzQKty-VoId9IXBohxUyM

 

Anyway, Toast of London has set me thinking.  What are the best comic songs to have appeared on TV comedy shows over the years?  By ‘comic song’, I don’t mean a simple parody of a ‘serious’ song or musical genre (which is what Not the Nine o’Clock News used to do in the early 1980s).  No, I mean a song that holds up as a song in its own right, with a proper tune and lyrics, whilst also managing to be funny.  Here are my favourites.

 

In the world of TV comedy songs, one name that looms large is Monty Python – and for this we should thank the musical and lyrical talents of the Python team’s second-youngest member, Eric Idle.  It’s fashionable nowadays to knock Idle for being a sell-out, because he was the one who transformed the second Python movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail into Spamalot!, a money-making juggernaut of a stage musical.  And apparently he was the driving force behind the team getting back together this year and mounting some indifferently-reviewed (but, again, massively lucrative) farewell shows at London’s O2 Arena.

 

But at least Idle was the man who put the music into Monty Python.  Because of him, you can rarely utter the show’s name in a British pub without middle-aged men around you bursting into lusty renditions of The Lumberjack Song.  My favourite Idle-penned Python song, though, is Bruce’s Philosophers’ Song, in which some Australian philosophy lecturers sing about the drinking prowess of history’s greatest abstract thinkers.  I probably like it because I studied philosophy at college and, after a gruelling lecture where I’d squirmed and sweated and tried to get my head around the basics of classical Greek philosophy, it was nice to hear this song and have Idle assure me that “Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle” and “Socrates himself was permanently pissed.”

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQycQ8DABvc

 

It’s just a shame that Idle’s most famous song is the dirge-like Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.  It was funny enough when it was sung during the crucifixion sequence in the third Python move, Life of Brian, but over the years, irritatingly, it’s become a ubiquitous anthem extolling the supposed British virtue of keeping calm and carrying on.  And I have to confess I cringed when Idle turned up and sang it during the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics.  (Although he was still better than the Spice Girls.)

 

One man who shouldn’t be forgotten when talking about Monty Python music is the idiosyncratic singer-songwriter and pianist Neil Innes, whose CV includes stints in The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, GRIMMS, Beatles piss-take The Rutles and The Idiot Bastard Band, as well as an association with Python that started in 1974 (after John Cleese, temporarily, left the troupe).  In addition to Python song-writing duties, which included penning the tunes for Holy Grail, Innes has the distinction of being one of only two people who wrote sketches for Python who weren’t in the core team of six – the other person, coincidentally, was Douglas Adams.   I thought it was a bit off of the Python gang not to invite Innes back to participate in the O2 Arena concerts – an invitation that they did extend to the show’s resident female performer, Carol Cleveland.  But Innes himself didn’t seem that bothered.  In an interview for www.musicradar.com, he said: “…Eric Idle is in charge.  And he’s got Arlene Philips, and boy and girl dancers, and a band.  You don’t really need an idiot with a duck on his head and a piano.  Now Eric’s gone all show business, he sees it as he sees it.  It fills me with horror to be honest.”  And no, he didn’t like Idle’s performance at the Olympics closing ceremony, either.

 

(c) BBC

 

Moving from the 1970s to the 1990s, no round-up of great TV comedy songs would be complete without a mention of one of Arthur Matthews’ previous credits, the much-loved Father Ted.  Responsible for the musical component of Father Ted was Neil Hannon, the Northern Irish frontman with the celebrated ‘chamber pop group’ The Divine Comedy.  After the theme music (which was reworked as Songs of Love on The Divine Comedy album Casanova), Hannon’s best-known work on the show is surely My Lovely Horse, the song sung by Ted and his gormless side-kick Father Dougal in the episode A Song for Europe when they were bidding to become Ireland’s entry for the 1996 Eurovision Song Contest.  Incidentally, Hannon also wrote the overwrought anthem The Miracle is Mine, sung by Ted’s nemesis Father Dick Byrne, who wanted to be Ireland’s entry too.

 

My Lovely Horse is ghastly, in a uniquely Eurovision way, but it’s brilliantly ghastly.  It’s no surprise that, recently, life tried to imitate art and a petition was launched in Ireland demanding that My Lovely Horse really be Ireland’s entry for the next Eurovision Song Contest.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jzYzVMcgWhg

 

Incidentally, Hannon made a guest appearance in the latest episode of Toast of London, performing half of the vocals on a duet that Toast sings with his old friend, the debauched Soho-loving artist Francis Bacon.  Yes, I know Francis Bacon died in 1992.  But Berry and Matthews cunningly get around this in their script by stating that no, Bacon didn’t actually die.

 

Moving from the British Isles to America, and from live action to animation, we inevitably come to The Simpsons.  The show’s head honcho Matt Groening is a big music buff – he’s curated two of the All Tomorrow’s Parties music festivals, one in the US in 2003 and the other in England in 2010, and performed in the ‘literary’ rock band The Rock Bottom Remainders alongside Scott Turow, Amy Tan and Stephen King.  So it’s no surprise that The Simpsons has always been choc-a-bloc with songs and music.

 

My favourite Simpsons’ comedy song is probably Dr Zaius, performed in the episode where Troy McClure wins a role in Planet of the Apes: The Musical.  However, because it’s really a spoof of an existing song – Rock Me, Amadeus by the Austrian musician Falco – I can’t nominate it here as a bona-fide comedy song.  Instead, I’ll opt for Your Wife Don’t Understand You, But I Do, that brief but glorious encapsulation of everything that’s bad (and good) about country-and-western music, sung to Homer by Lurleen the Waitress when he retreats to her honky-tonk bar to drown his sorrows following a particularly bitter bust-up with Marge.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qCzPAaIGOZM

 

(c) South Park Studios

 

But when it comes to funny music, The Simpsons is outdone by its more scatological cartoon rival South Park.  From the beginning, South Park wore its musical interests on its sleeve – the theme tune was performed by Primus, The Cure’s Robert Smith made a guest appearance in an early episode, and of course its Chef character was voiced by the late, great soul-funk-jazz legend Isaac Hayes.  However, it wasn’t until the release of the South Park movie in 1999, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, that the show’s creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker unleashed their inner Stephen Sondheims – they packed the movie with spiffy song-and-dance numbers like Blame Canada, Uncle-F*cka and Kyle’s Mom is a Big, Fat Bitch.  (Curiously, Eric Idle made a guest vocal appearance in the film too.)

 

Since then, the show has been a parade of musical delights.  I particularly liked Butters’ version of What, What (in the Butt) and Cartman’s swashbuckling song, Somalian Pirates, We (which includes the jolly lines, “We’ll shoot you in the face with glee / We’ll cut off your cock / And feed it to a croc / Somalian pirates, we!”).  But at the end of the day I guess my favourite South Park song is a typically salacious, but nonetheless funky number sung by Chef, Simultaneous.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_QHL_JkVgj8

 

From beatcrave.com

 

One live-action American comedy show that should be saluted for its musical greatness, meanwhile, is the HBO sitcom Flight of the Conchords, about a hapless singing duo from New Zealand trying, wholly unsuccessfully, to make a name for themselves in New York.  Written and performed by the show’s two Kiwi stars, Jermaine Clement and Brett McKenzie, the songs in Flight of the Conchords are guaranteed to raise a smile; but the one that made me laugh out loud was their attempted debut in the rap world, Hiphopopotamus Vs Rhymenocerus.  Actually, lyrics like “They call me the hiphopopotamus / Flows that glow like phosphorus / Poppin’ off the top of this oesophagus / Rockin’ this metropolis” are better than what you’d get in 95 percent of serious rap songs.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FArZxLj6DLk

 

Incidentally, I can’t wait to see Clement’s new mockumentary-vampire movie We Live in the Shadows.

 

Finally, and especially because I mentioned him at the start of this post, I should add something by Matt Berry to my list of favourite TV comedy songs.  Not, however, from Toast of London.  Rather, I think his funniest musical moment came when he sang One Track Lover during the 2004 spoof horror show Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place.  The song is a piss-take of those toe-curlingly rubbish 1980s soft-rock power ballads.  However, when Richard Ayoade suddenly breaks in with his attempted rap, it becomes a thing of genius.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OO-ZGP68-3w

 

(c) Channel 4