Category Archives: Humour

Victorian Worthies

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Victorian Worthies –
Vanity’s Leaders of Church and State
By Malcolm Johnson
Foreword by Ian Hislop
Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd – £14.99

”Every morning as I stroll to my office at Private Eye in Soho I cut through Cecil Court and outside the second-hand bookshops I stop to look at a display of old prints from Vanity Fair. This is not just to remind myself in a gloomy way that even the best satirical magazines must pass but because the brilliantly-executed caricatures of Victorian celebrities are still so arresting. Who were these extraordinary figures in their top hats and their frock coats? What was going on in their severe-looking heads and why are they still staring out at me so confidently?”

                                                                                                           Ian Hislop

Lest it be said, it makes a nice change for religion and the trajectory thereof, to be seen, considered, or at least written about as ‘fun.’

In this terribly heartbreaking age of killing in the name of religion, Victorian Worthies – Vanity’s Leaders of Church and State, does indeed make for a refreshing and equally inviting change. Its collection of fifty of the most renowned caricatures (of leading figures) in Victorian Britain, are herein reproduced in fine colour; along with an approximate four-to-six-hundred word synopsis of who and what they were all about.

From William Ewart Gladstone (”were he a worse man, he would be a better statesman”) to The Marquis of Salisbury (”he is too honest a Tory for his Party and his Time”) to Alfred Lord Tennyson (”It has become fashionable to doubt his genius and to deprecate his works but he remains unquestionably what the public voice has long pronounced him, the first poet of our day”); this most jovial of hardback books is something of a light-hearted pleasure to behold.

In the words of The Revd Richard Coles: ”Malcolm Johnson has skilfully recovered these caricaturists from the magazine rack of history.”

In so deftly doing, Johnson has ensured these 225 pages (excluding Hislop’s Foreword, Postscript and Bibliography) are a full-on, risible reason, for the reader to be wholly transported back to another time. And place.

”As none of these Victorians probably said at the time, ‘Enjoy.”’

David Marx

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Woody Allen – Film By Film

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Woody Allen – Film By Film
Introductory Interview With Woody Allen
By Jason Solomons
Carlton Books – £25.00

”You could see Woody Allen’s out-of-time physical clowning as a corrective to our own assumptions of intellectual superiority, and there’s always humour in
seeing an inadequate Jewish man trapped within all this mechanical paraphernalia, usually trying to impress a girl. It’s a humour tinged with tragedy, of course, a crushing, absurdist comic mechanism.”

Reading this book is almost as good and enjoyable as watching Woody Allen’s films. The prime difference being, when watching his movies, you’re concentrating on
what you’re hearing and seeing: the movie itself – replete with the actors, the dialogue, the direction and naturally everything that watching movies entails.

Whereas reading Woody Allen – Film By Film, you’re fundamentally concentrating on more of the man. More of the artist. An invitation, which, if you care to think about, really is altogether fabulous, because Woody Allen doesn’t exactly show up betwixt the pages of glossy magazines every other week.

All we essentially have to go by, is the work – which is as it admittedly should be.

But within these 253 pages (excluding Index), we get a variant of inviting (colour) close-ups of Woody Allen the artist, the writer, the stand-up, the ragingly up-tight Jewish New Yorker.

Plus, dare I say it, that which makes the man tick.

So be it behind or in front of the camera, this exceedingly wonderful book brings Woody to the fore, in a way I have personally never come across before.

This is partially achieved by exploring the didactic subject matter of the work itself. From a premise might I add, that is not only surprisingly in depth, but which reflects on each and every one of us in a profoundly idiosyncratic and inadvertent manner: ”Woody Allen’s films capture the absurdity of life and love, the humour and the pain. He can somehow nail what is most modern and evolved about us and yet also skewer our most basic, primal urges. His characters take us to the abyss and yet transport us, in fits of laughter, on flights of fantasy. Alvy Singer, Fielding Mellish, Harry Block, Gil Pender – all these creations with their ties and stammers, their inadequacies, desires and thick glasses, are far removed from most of us, yet in them we see ourselves reflected.”

That we do – which probably accounts for Allen’s relentless popularity.

Indeed, through the perplexing and quite often, poignant prism of his huge body of work – the bar of which has remained uncontestedly high throughout most of his career – we the audience, are subliminally reminded of our own doubts. Our own desires. Our very own, uncontested pangs of ridicule and remorse.

Not to mention the variant short-coming(s) of comedic sexuality. Comedic, simply because, whether it’s Alvy Singer himself, or an array of other fictitious characters; we, as film-goers, readers and society, can, and do, so very strongly relate to them all. Characters whom again and again, we meet ”throughout this book, and many more, male and female, all of them prismatic reflections of both of us and their creator, Woody Allen. Can we separate these fictitious folk from his life and our lives? Can he, especially when he plays most of them, or his real-life girlfriend does? As Alvy says of writing his first, rudimentary play in Annie Hall: ”You know, you always try to get things to come out perfect in art because, uh, it’s real difficult in life…” This book will examine the career-long tussle between the two.”

Lest it be said there are a menagerie of terrific one liners scattered throughout Woody Allen – Film By Film, which is another aspect that makes flicking through the pages, ever more inviting:

”My one regret in life is that I’m not someone else.”
”I believe that there’s an intelligence to the universe, except for certain parts of New Jersey.”
”I was born in the Hebrew persuasion but I converted to narcissism.”
”Drew Barrymore sings so badly, deaf people are afraid to watch her lips move.”
”My view of reality is that it’s a grim place to be… but it’s the only place you can get Chinese food.”

That said, there is, as previously mentioned, an in-depth quality to almost all of the writing contained herein; of which the following, from the chapter ‘Themes, Styles and Motifs’ is a most pertinent example: ”What typifies Woody Allen’s films is their remarkable facility for toggling between past and present, slipping into different modes with a smooth economy and narrative precision. Despite these huge leaps of logic, the audience are rarely left wondering: ”What just happened?” or ”Is this a dream sequence?” or ”Wait, how is he talking to his mother?” There is never any need for wobbly visual dissolves,special effects or Twilight Zone-style music to signal this alternate mode. And Woody can do it in any genre or tone: Midnight in Paris, Annie Hall, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Another Woman – in all these films, characters wonder the rooms of their past and interact with other characters to comic, philosophical or tragic effect. The weird thing is that it never, not for a second, feels weird at all.”

Compartmentalized into five specific sections, the book is made up of the five decades in which Woody Allen has been making films. Starting with the 1960s (with What’s New Pussycat in 1965) and concluding with the 2000s (by way of 2015’s Irrational Man), this nigh un-put-down-able, absolutely superb book, is a resolute MUST for any discerning, serious fan or admirer of Allen’s work.

Woody Allen – Film By Film is quite possibly the next best thing to a new release; the one difference being, you can both enjoy and refer to it, at random and at will.

David Marx

The Radio

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The Radio
By M. Jonathan Lee
Matador – £7.99

The Radio, as highly observant, current, and entertaining as it is, is one those books that ends so badly, it unfortunately leaves the reader with a dismissive after taste. This is a great shame, because had it ended with a little more thought, consideration and all round chutzpah, it could well have been truly tremendous.

A black comedy, although equally poignant in parts, the book is anchored in the trials and everyday (terrible) tribulations of its prime protagonist, George Poppleton. The reserved and distinguished sort of gentleman each and every one of us might know and silently respect. An upstanding member of the community, who doesn’t rock the boat in any way, shape or form, who is first and foremost, the perfect family member – albeit horribly hen-pecked.

M. Jonathan Lee has ensured his story is liberally peppered with anecdotal humour throughout. For instance, after winking at his granddaughter Mollie, ‘’who was lying on her front on the lounge floor, colouring, looked up at her grandpa just in time to catch his smile and wink to her. She reciprocated the gesture (though her attempt looked more like an amalgamation of toothache and an involuntary eye spasm) before returning to her colouring. George, in turn, returned to his dishes.’’

The author has also ensured the book has a certain eloquent, familial gravitas. In Chapter Twenty-Five, George is in church, doing his best to speak of his son, Adam’s heartbreaking suicide: ‘’I didn’t understand his needs then and I don’t understand the situation we are all in now. I loved my son, but didn’t manage to find the right words to let him know this. And now we are all in this mess. I know that I have failed him as a father, that I could have done more. Don’t let the same thing happen to you. Talk… talk to each other […]. The church was silent. George stood staring at the coffin as tears streamed down his face. After a few moments, the vicar approached him and gently helped him back to his seat. He folded the speech that he had written the day before and replaced it back inside his suit pocket. His written words had been unused, instead replaced by those which came more naturally.’’

Again, the above is something that we can all relate to, which partially accounts for The Radio’s depth of social clarity. I just really wish the ending was as equally in depth and substantial as the rest of the book.

Maybe next time?

David Marx

50 People Who Buggered Up Britain

50 People Who Buggered Up Britain
By Quentin Letts
Constable & Robinson – £7.99

’Big Brother may claim to offer a face of ‘real’ Britain but in its age selections and the concentration on showy characters with an oiky attitude it is no more ‘real’ than stage blood. Bazalgette, with a little justification, says that the programme holds up a mirror to our country and shows us what we have become. That, however, is a disingenuous and increasingly circular argument in that it ignores the legitimising nature of TV and the fact that Big Brother is now helping to create this society. Once viewers have seen forms of behaviour on the telly they suppose that they must be ‘OK.’ When viewers listen to the gormless, profanity-laden witterings of the twentysomethings on the TV screen they think they need not bother to mind their own language or attempt to become more eloquent. Big Brother cements into the public imagination the idea that we really are a nation of urban, childless, sexually incontinent dullards. Bazalgette, the behind-the-scenes circus master, may himself be terribly civilised, with the pukka accent and flawless manners of a privileged patrician, but it is as though he is determined that no one else should be like that. It is as though he is fuelled by some destructive desire to get his own back on this ruptured society and condemn it to even greater anti-intellectualism and long-term weakness.’’

So writes Quentin Letts with regards Peter Bazalgette, the fourth fantastically selfish, and most myopic of maggots, within the pages of this brave and most idiosyncratically interesting of books, 50 People Who Buggered Up Britain. Not exactly the most articulate of titles admittedly, but like all Ronseal products, it does exactly what is says it’ll do on the front of the tin. Or in this instance, on the front of the book – a read that really does home in on fifty people who really do have so very much to answer for.

Among them: Kenneth Baker (‘’Big Government should never be the Tory solution.’’), Richard Beeching (‘’All that toil, all those cuttings and embankments, tunnels and bridges – brushed into the bin like cold leftovers.’’), Andy Hornby (‘’Disaster is rewarded – that’s how it goes in modern Britain.’’), Janet Street-Porter (‘’While China remains a gerontocracy we have become a culture of cretinous juvenilia, mostly thanks to a sixty-plus freelance hack who fancies she can hold back the Grim Reaper by going to parties with Kate Moss.’’).

Might I add that the above merely skims the surface, which is why I found the book almost un-put-down-able.

To be sure, upon conclusion of its 277 pages, I felt as if I’d finished a really good meal. A meal well planned, well prepared and cooked with the utmost of care. For in truth, Letts has obviously done his homework, done his research, and executed his (and perhaps much of our) most profound disgruntlement with guts and grace, panache and purpose.

50 People Who Buggered Up Britain is worth buying just for the section on Princess Diana alone: ‘’The woman was a liability, a souffle of false ideas, a super-model with all that that entails. She was the glamorous tool of cleverer men, a plaything for the powerful, a delusion worshipped only by impressionable […]. Diana was dim. A long line of herbal-cure fraudsters, psychobabbling self-esteem preachers and emotional intelligence shysters beat a path to her palace door. She fell for them as readily as did the Prime minister’s wife, Cherie Blair. Whereas Cherie was laughed at, and rightly so, for being a nincompoop and a dingbat, Diana was feathered by sighs of sympathy, indulged simply because she looked pretty and helped to sell newspapers and magazines […]. Diana displayed welcome mercy to AIDS sufferers and to little girls orphaned and disfigured by land mines, but she nearly always knew where the cameras were and she played up to their lenses like the fattest ham in the butcher’s deep freeze. She escaped mockery only because she was a female ‘victim’ and because she was a member of the Royal Family – the very family she decided she could tolerate no longer.’’

Here. Here. I couldn’t have put it better myself.

David Marx