…In fact there’s a long tradition of absurd humour in England. Shakespeare included comic asides in his plays. I particularly recall as a schoolboy enjoying Act 5, Scene 3, of Macbeth. Imagine the scene as the English forces begin their approach to Dunsinane. Someone has to break the bad news to Macbeth…
Enter a SERVANT
MACBETH: The devil damn thee black, thou cream-faced loon! Where got’st thou that goose look?
SERVANT: There is ten thousand…
MACBETH: Geese, villain?
SERVANT: Soldiers, sir.
I always rated Macbeth’s first line as one of the best put-downs in literature of all time. I also like the image suddenly created out of nowhere of ten thousand geese attacking a Scottish castle. Brilliant.
And the absurdist tradition in Britain has continued through Lewis Carroll to the Goon Show, Monty Python, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and even QI.
One particular favourite of mine has always been Beachcomber. You don’t hear much about him these days and I think he was very much a product of a different era of journalism, newspapers, and society. J.B. Morton wrote the column for the Daily Express for fifty-one years until 1975. That’s a massive output of consistent material, and the type of column we don’t see in newspapers in the UK anymore.
(The Express has resuscitated the Beachcomber name, but the current incarnation bears little resemblance to Morton’s weirdness of all those years ago).
In short, his humour is just too complex to explain properly. Instead I suggest you search for details about him on the web by starting here – and look out in second-hand bookshops for the many edited volumes of his work that he published over the years (I counted 22 separate volumes). He combined a sharp eye for everyday detail with a bizarre sense of humour.
Spike Milligan cited him as one of his major influences for his radio scripts for the Goons – as well as the vehicle for one of his TV series. And the likes of Richard Ingrams and John Sessions have been – and are – fans (BBC Radio 4 Extra really does need to re-broadcast these shows soon).
I’ve collected here just a small selection of Morton’s printed pieces that mention the wireless. I think they reveal a writer who had both a keen understanding of the way radio works and an appreciation of how we can sometimes (unintentionally) broadcast absolute nonsense. Morton fictionalised the everyday of broadcasting, and captured the way the medium had become part of the fabric of daily life from the 1930s onwards. The first example parodies radio listening – and the medium’s self-importance – in the early years of world war two, whilst the second, I suspect, picks up on Orson Welles’ 1938 radio dramatisation of ‘War of the Worlds’… The rest just make me laugh.
A reply of Mr. Churchill in the House to a particular question might be given a wider application, as an answer to the people who waste their time in whining and grizzling about the boredom of radio. Mr. Churchill was asked for “an assurance that we shall not have to listen to the Italian National Anthem on the Nine-o’clock News “, and he replied, “There is no obligation to listen to the Nine-o’ clock News.” Many people seem to forget that, at present, listening to the B.B.C. is not compulsory. Good-day to those of you who have faces like the backs of cabs.
J.B. Morton (“Beachcomber” of the Daily Express), Captain Foulenough & Company (London, 1944), (p. 65)
The game of butting into radio programmes will soon produce such a roaring chaos that the listener will not know whether he is listening to a band contest in New York or an auction in Arabia. Surely science could invent some means by which the listeners themselves could join in, shouting comments, banging bits of iron, laughing, and tearing calico.
J.B. Morton (“Beachcomber” of the Daily Express), Captain Foulenough & Company (London, 1944), (p. 35)
‘English is a beautiful language. Don’t let’s louse it up.’ (American radio commentator)
J.B. Morton, Cram Me With Eels! The Best of Beachcomber’s Unpublished Humour, edited by Mike Barfield (London, 1994), (p. 78)
The pick of the programme
There is apparently some controversy on the recent and audacious broadcast of a man sifting cold porridge through a cardboard sieve while standing inside a safe. Nothing like this has ever been attempted before, and several million listeners are doubting whether what they heard was really the porridge going through the sieve, or merely sounds made in the studio by somebody rubbing a thin slice of ham against a tin disc, or perhaps only a gramophone record. It is vastly important that the British public, which is the most cultured and intelligent public in the world, should know what it is getting for its money. It is a dangerous policy to try to fob it off with anything but the very best in the way of entertainment. If it is announced that real porridge is to be sifted through a real sieve, then real porridge should be sifted through a real sieve.
I speak bluntly, feeling that I represent the democratic feelings of 23,734,117 decent, cricket-fearing men and women.
Beachcomber: The Works of J.B. Morton, Edited by Richard Ingrams. (1974), London: Fredrick Muller Ltd., P. 137.
And other items…
A Scoop! A Scoop !
The prematurely, if only partially, denied unofficial semi-confirmation of the almost official report of the tentative announcement of the quasi-engagement of a so-called athlete to the beautiful daughter, as it were, of a mother has now been pseudo-officially announced as informally denied. The belated announcement of the formal denial of the prematurely confirmed refusal of either party to say anything is to be followed by a partial report of an official refusal to deny the rumour of a confirmation.
J.B. Morton, The Best of Beachcomber (edited by Michael Frayn) (London: Heinemann, 1988 ), (p. 219)
SIXTY HORSES WEDGED IN CHIMNEY
The story to fit this sensational headline has not turned up yet.
J.B. Morton, The Best of Beachcomber (edited by Michael Frayn) (London: Heinemann, 1988 ), (p. 146)
Mr G. J. Oyle is engaged upon an article for the Mausoleum. It is an examination of an article by E. P. Hoax dealing with an article by Henry Smelt on Wanda Brown’s article on Esther Curry’s article on Selena Hack’s article on Brenda Gurte’s review of Sidney Futtle’s book on E. L. Eupp’s book on the book by Robert Dreyfus on Marcel Proust.
J.B. Morton, The Best of Beachcomber (edited by Michael Frayn) (London: Heinemann, 1988 ), (p. 93)
…Other contributions and observations will be gratefully received.