Part 5: Fortune and fame

Advert for the opening at the Fortune Theatre

The show as initially exhibited in London comprised 23 items and opened with a neat trick, Moore playing the national anthem (as was customary before theatre shows at the time) for which the audience would stand, only for the performance to be revealed as the start of the first sketch, "Steppes In The Right Direction". The sketch had also opened the show in Edinburgh but was now tightened up slightly, and thus that bit sharper.  Its clowning concealed (but not very well) some sharp digs at the NHS ("for twelve shillings a week we are treated absolutely free") and the cornerstones of conservative British society ("CP Snow... mmmmmmmmm!"). It eventually dissolved into blowing raspberries at Harold McMillan, hardly subtle but an effective way of introducing the show. Once you've destroyed deference in the first six minutes, almost anything goes.

And almost anything did. Religion, advertising, gutless journalists, "ivory tower" philosophers, romanticised war movies, and even the Prime Minister himself were all mercilessly mocked - and that was just the first half.

"Steppes In the Right Direction" was followed by "Royal Box", a two-hander originally penned by Cook for Footlights, featuring Cook and Moore as patrons in a theatre. It quickly emerges that Moore has seen the show nearly 500 times, not because he enjoys it but on the off-chance that a member of the royal family might someday turn up to sit in the royal box.

Moore: You see, up there, that's what they call the Royal Box. But I don't know if you've noticed, there's no Royal people in at the moment. No royal personage actually gracing the royal box. Unless of course they're crouching.

This was obviously fairly tame stuff, but the third sketch had a bit more bite. A parody of religious programmes, "Man Bites God" mocked the established church's attempts to make itself more appealing to younger people. Opening with an inappropriately jaunty theme song courtesy of the keyboard maestro Moore, the sketch featured Jonathan Miller as a trendy vicar ("Call me Dick, that's the kind of vicar I am")  answering (or avoiding answering) questions put to him by Moore.

Miller: God is as old as he feels, and that's the message I'm trying to get across to you youngsters down at my little dockland parish of St Jack in the Lifeboat. You see, I think we have to get right away from this stuffy old idea of thinking of God as something holy or divine, and once we do that we'll get you youngsters flooding back into the churches... We've now got ourselves a young vigorous church where youngsters like yourselves can come in off the streets, pick up a chick, jive in the aisles, and really have yourselves a ball. The result is we're playing to packed houses every night except of course for Sunday, when we are forced to close our doors because of the Lord's Day Observance Society.

Bennett's first monologue "Let's Face It" followed, ahead of two old Edinburgh favourites, "Bollard" (the cigarette advertisement sketch featuring a trio of very camp "luvvie" actors) and  Miller's "The Heat Death of the Universe".

The Heat Death Of The Universe

Miller in "The Heat Death Of The Universe"

Moore had already been at the piano in two sketches, but now provided his first solo, "Deutscher Chansons", two short, clever parodies of Faure and Schubert which reamined funny even without knowledge of the composers in question. Moore's facial expressions added to the amusement, confirming his remarkable talent as a clown as well as a truly virtuoso musician.

"The Sadder and Wiser Beaver", mostly a Cook monologue with interjections from Bennett, was one of the more directly satirical items in the show, Cook adopting the character of a writer in the employ of real-life newspaper magnate Lord Beaverbrook:

Cook: Just because my name's at the top of the column you mustn't think that I have any connection with it. It's just that I like Mountbatten and if ever I have to write anything on him - every now and then I am forced to write something - I always ring him up and apologise, or get my secretary to.

"Words... and Things" took joy in simple absurdity, mocking that strain of philosophy which appears to have no connection to everyday life.

Miller: It seems to me that philosophers who start off my asking "why" questions" end up by making pseudo-statements of the sort "Saturday got into bed with me".
Bennett: Is that a pseudo-statement?
Miller: Well, I'll take one from real life in that case, to hammer home the point... "There is too much Tuesday in my beetroot salad", or something of that general sort.
Bennett: I think that is perfectly obvious, but I don't think you are saying, and I don't think you would say, would you, that these statements are in themselves meaningless.
Miller: Oh good heavens, no.

Once Bennett and Miller's philosophers had finished running logical rings around each other, Cook let loose with his impersonation of Harold Macmillan.

Cook: "Good evening. I have recently been travelling around the world on your behalf, and at your expense, visiting some of the chaps with whom I hope to be shaping your future. I went first to Germany, and there I spoke with the foreign minister, Herr... Herr and there, and we exchanged many frank words in our respective languages, so precious little came of that in the way of understanding.

Despite Cook's claims that his impersonation was essentially affectionate, it did contain some sharp barbs at the PM's attitude to his job and his public.

Cook: While I was abroad, I was very moved to receive letters from people in acute distress all over the country. And one in particular from an old-age pensioner in Fife is indelibly imprinted on my memory. [He takes a crumpled piece of paper from his pocket and reads it] It reads, "Dear Prime Minister, I am an old-age pensioner in Fife, living on a fixed income of some two pounds, seven shillings a week. This is not enough. What do you of the Conservative Party propose to do about it?" [He tears up the letter] Well, let me say right away Mrs McFarlane, as one Scottish old-age pensioner to another, be of good cheer. There are many people in this country worse off than yourself, and it is the policy of the Conservative Party to see that this position is maintained.

Moore's "And The Same To You" and the ensemble epic "Aftermyth Of War" rounded out the first half.

Cook: Perkins! Sorry to drag you away from the fun, old boy. War's not going very well, you know.
Miller: Oh my God!
Cook: We are two down, and the ball's in the enemy court. War is a psychological thing, Perkins, rather like a game of football. You know how in a game of football ten men often play better than eleven?
Miller: Yes sir.
Cook: Perkins, we are asking you to be that one man. I want you to lay down your life, Perkins. We need a futile gesture at this stage. It will raise the whole tone of the war. Get up in a crate, perkins, popover to Bremen, take a shufti, don't come back. Goodbye Perkins. God, I wish i was going too.
Miller: Goodbye sir. Or is it - au revoir?
Cook: No, Perkins.

Most of the sketches with real satirical bite appeared after the interval, beginning with the anti-nuclear "Civil War".

Bennett: Her Britannic Majesty's Government is very anxious to popularise the notion of Civil Defence. Now the Government's defence - what for want of a better word we'll call policy - is based on the concept of the deterrent. Say, what for the purpose of argument I will call an un-named power should take a nuclear missile and drop it on the United Kingdom, we in the United Kingdom would then take another nuclear missile and drop it on Russ- on the un-named power.

Moore was once again cast as the question-asking fly in the ointment.

Moore: Following the nuclear holocaust, could you tell me when normal public services would be resumed?
Miller: Very fair question. Following Armageddon, we do hope to have normal public services working fairly smoothly pretty soon after the event. Though I feel in all fairness, I ought to point out that it must needs be something in the nature of a skeleton service.

This was followed by "Real Class", the nearest thing to a "quickie" in the London production.

Cook: I think at this juncture it would be wise to point out to those of you who haven't noticed - and God knows it's apparent enough - that Jonathan Miller and myself come from good families and have had the benefits of a Public School education. Whereas the other two members of the cast have worked their way up from working-class origins. And yet Jonathan and I are working together with them in the cast and treating them as equals, and I must say it's proving to be a most worthwhile, enjoyable and stimulating experience for both of us.

Take a pew
"But my brother Esau is an hairy man, but I am a smooth man."

Even Moore's piano solos had bite. His imitation of Peter Pears singing Little Miss Muffett to a arrangement by Britten was both funny in its own right and a brilliant and cheeky mockery of a highbrow "establishment" form.

The unusually bleak "The Suspense Is Killing Me" featured Miller as a condemned man and Moore as the prison chaplain rationalising the situation.

Miller: Is it going to hurt?
Moore: Well I suppose it's rather like a visit to the dentist. It's always worse in anticipation. But you won't see any of the apparatus, if that's what you're worried about - you'll have a little white bag over your head.
Miller: What white bag?
Moore: It's just a little white bag, sir. They make them in Birmingham. But I can't explain to you what goes on out there, I'm not here for that sort of thing, am I now? You wait until the Prison Governor comes down - he'll set your mind at rest. Really he will.
[Enter Bennett.]
Bennett: Morning! And a lovely morning it is too. Though there will be rain before the day is out. Fine before seven, rain before eleven - you know what they say.
Moore: So you'll be missing the rain, sir, won't you?

The Suspense Is Killing Me

Setting the scene for "The Suspense Is Killing Me"

Miller's second solo was "Porn Shop", and this was followed by the Studio Five sequence, listed in the programme as two separate sketches, first a pair of quickies ("Frank Speaking") followed by an interview with "Mr Akiboto Nobitsu, the leader of the Pan-African Federal Party", portrayed by Miller. The sketch neatly skewered both white racism and the hypocrisy of some black leaders. Toward the end of the sketch, there is a neat reversal of expectation as Mr Nobitsu is revealed not to have a black complexion as the audience has previously imagined:

Cook: Mister Nobitsu, one thing rather puzzles me about you, and that is, your hair is extremely straight, and your complexion seems to be white in colour.
Miller: That is perfectly true. I have recently undergone an operation to straighten my hair and also remove the pigmentation from my skin.
Cook: Doesn't this rather fly in the face of your principles?
Miller: Not at all. I can represent the interests of my people best by speaking to the white man on his own ground. Besides, it is the only way in which I can get lodgings.

In contrast, Cook's solo "Sitting On The Bench" was pure fantasy.

Cook: Yes, I could have been a judge but I never had the Latin, never had the Latin for the judging, I just never had sufficient of it to get through the rigorous judging exams. They're very rigorous, the judging exams, they're noted for their rigour. People come staggering out saying, "My God, what a rigorous exam" – and so I became a miner instead. A coal miner. I managed to get through the mining exams – they're not very rigorous, they only ask one question, they say, "Who are you", and I got 75 per cent on that.

In Edinburgh, Bennett had complained of having to follow Cook's monologue, "when I would be handed an audience so weak with laughter I could do nothing with them". In the new show, he was spared this fate by the inclusion of "Bread Alone", a curious sketch involving the entire cast as middle-class men out for a business lunch, and so reliant on ensemble mumbling and physical action that a printed script can give little idea of how it actually appeared on stage. After this, Bennett's wordy "Take A Pew" was a complete contrast, a superbly constructed demolition of platitudinous religious sermons:

Bennett: Life, you know, is rather like opening a tin of sardines. We are all of us looking for the key. And, I wonder, how many of you here tonight have wasted years of your lives looking behind the kitchen dressers of this life for that key? I know I have. Others think they've found the key, don't they? They roll back the lid of the sardine tin of life, they reveal the sardines, the riches of life, therein, and they get them out, they enjoy them. But, you know, there's always a little bit in the corner you can't get out. I wonder – I wonder, is there a little bit in the corner of your life? I know there is in mine.

The inspired lunacy of the Shakespeare skit "So That's The Way You Like It" brought proceedings almost to an end.

Miller:

Even now while we to the wonton lute do strut
Is brutish Bolingbroke bent fair upon
Some fickle circumstance.

Cook and Bennett:

Some fickle circumstance!

Miller:

Get thee to Gloucester, Essex. Do thee to Wessex, Exeter.
Fair Albany to Somerset must eke his route
And Scroop do you to Westmoreland, where shall bold York
Enrouted now for Lancaster with forces of our Uncle Rutland
Enjoin his standard with sweet Norfolk's host.
Fair Sussex, get thee to Warwick's bourne,
And there, with frowning purpose, tell our plan
To Bedford's titled ear, that he shall press
With most insensate speed
And join his warlike effort to bold Dorset's side.
I most royally shall now to bed
To sleep off all the nonsense I've just said.

So that's the way you like it

The manic Shakepeare spoof, So That's The Way You Like It

Finally, there was one last coda, "The End of the World", with the ensemble as members of a doomsday cult.

Bennett: And will there be a mighty wind, Brother Enim?
Cook: Certainly there will be a mighty wind, if the word of God is anything to go by.
Moore: And will this wind be so mighty as to lay low the mountains of the earth?
Cook: No, it will not be quite as mighty as that, that is why we have come up on the mountain, you stupid nit - to be safe from it. Up here on the mountain we shall be safe as houses.
Bennett: And what will happen to the houses?
Cook: Well naturally the houses will be swept away and the tents of the ungodly with them and they will all be consumed by the power of the heavens and on earth, and serve them right.

Although the cast denied "satirical" intent, the content of the show strongly suggested otherwise. From the very first sketch, the show took on topical targets and hit more often than not. 

 Cook: "Certain parts of it were satirical - the capital punishment sketch, the sketch I did as somebody who'd joined the Beaverbrook press, the "Aftermyth of War" - which upset quite a few people." The "satire" tag dogged the group for a long time. In the Sunday Telegraph, reviewer Alan Brien wrote that "we audiences have tasted our own blood and we like it".

Cicil Defence
Civil Defence: Cook in a bag

Yet while the cast's denial of satirical intent seems entirely out of kilter with the actual content of the show, it would be equally wrong to suggest that it was all bitingly satirical, or even topical. There was a good serving of plain silliness too, especially in the cast's solo spots. Miller's "The Heat-Death Of The Universe" was a grand title for a curious and hilarious rambling monologue that begins with Miller wanting to buy a pair of smart trousers and spins off into a bizarre fantasy involving 400 trouserless civil servants, while his later-added "Death Of Lord Nelson" provided the opportunity for some top-class physical clowning (which, inevitably, doesn't come across nearly so well on the audio recordings). Peter Cook's "Sitting On The Bench" offered a an early version of his E.L. Wisty character (not yet called that) talking inspired nonsense about coal mining, judges, ancient mythology, the geography of Venezuela and anything else that came to Cook's mind on the night. And Moore of course contributed his accomplished musical parodies, not just brilliantly conceived and played, but also acted out with a physicality that had the audience in stitches.

In this sense, Bennett was the odd one out. His solo spots were wordy, delivered from a lectern, and a complete change of pace from the madcap nature of the rest of the show. It wasn't that Bennett couldn't do buffoonery - as his turns in group sketches (particularly "So That's The Way You Like It") demonstrated, he could do it very well - but simply that his intended targets lent themselves to a more sober approach. Bennett was well aware that his material often baffled audiences, and privately dubbed his "Man Of Principle" monologue the "Boring Old Man" sketch. Nevertheless, the slower delivery of Bennet's monologues, which tended to build to a laugh every paragraph rather than every line, contributed to the overall pacing of the revue.  And they included one particularly memorable item in "Take A Pew", which deservedly became one of the most fondly recalled skits in the whole show.

Viewing the sketches now on DVD, or hearing them on CD, it is often the less directly "satirical" sketches which stand up best today. "Let's Face It" (truly a "boring old man" sketch) and "The Suspense Is Killing Me" in particular come across as rather heavy-handed. Yet when the Beyond The Fringe team turned their hands to more timeless silliness, they invariably did so with a lightness of touch that keeps the sketches fresh even today.

And back when the sketches really were fresh, critics and public lapped it up.

Read on... Part 6: English satire advances into the sixties