Tag Archives: Ian Hislop

Victorian Worthies


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

Only When I Laugh

paul merton

Only When I Laugh
By Paul Merton
Ebury Press – £20.00

Paul Merton is without doubt, the funniest man on radio and television at the moment. Also the wittiest – and has been so for a number of years.

The rate at which something inventive and hilarious will suddenly leap forth into his most colourful, idiosyncratic imagination, is astonishing, inspiring and more often than not, absolutely nothing short of simply brilliant.

In other words, Merton is a modern day Groucho Marx – a comparison I’m sure the south-London comic will embrace with all the acute, gazelle like speed of cathartic wonderment – which says a lot considering generational difference and the fact that the former was born on the Upper East Side of Manhattan the latter in Parson’s Green.

But that’s comedy for you, a place where there are no rules and there are no parameters.

A place where only the resonance of laughter, and the all resounding connection of which that fundamentally entails, matters: ”That night in the big top I heard the sound of massed laughter, and that buzz, once tasted, is forever with you. From that night on I wanted desperately to be part of it all. To be in the ring, to be in the middle, to be part of the creative spirit that sparks people into laughter. This is where I wanted to live.”

This is why I wanted to read Paul Merton: My Autobiography – Only When I Laugh; as I’ve always been compelled to find out more about what essentially makes comedians tick. And I don’t mean the vast array of five-minute wonders; the totally unfunny toss-pots, that have always (and continue to) litter the comedic terrain with all the smug and pointless gallantry that’s comparable to cement.

I mean the true geniuses like the aforementioned Marx, Charlie Chaplin, Tony Hancock, Peter Sellers and Peter Cook – of which Merton is clearly one.

As for this book, well its 334 pages are written in chronological order and they touch on varying facets of Merton’s life. From his early years in Fulham to what sounds like a resoundingly strong work ethic; from both romantic and professional relationships to his all round approach to comedy writing.

It’s twenty-three chapters bequeath a flavour of what it’s like to be Mr. Merton.

Admittedly, there are times when certain areas of the writing appears to merely skim the surface of what really transpired, but then that’s Mr. Merton’s prerogative. The degree to which he wants to regale readers with personal or work orientated information, is for him, and him alone to decide. Although in chapter 13 (‘Woof Woof Boom’), he translucently shoots from the hip so far as the execution of stand-up comedy is concerned:

”I had full houses every night and always strove to be at my best for the people who had paid to see me. And yet. I didn’t enjoy any of it. Listening to myself onstage talking for an hour was boring to me. I used to pray for somebody else to walk on. A comedy butler played by a Comedy Store Player. A bit of human interaction.

I loved the impro shows with The Comedy Store Players. In comparison, stand-up felt like I was drawing in pencil compared to the lush Technicolor pastures of group work. After all my effort, all the dreams I’d had, the awful truth started to dawn on me – I didn’t want to be a stand-up comic anymore.

It’s not that I didn’t like stand-up. I love it, it’s a true art and one I’d spent a lot of time getting good at. But when I thought back about the moments I’d enjoyed, most of them were more about the camaraderie than comedy.”

In itself, this is somewhat revelatory. Although given Merton’s particular brand of comedy, utterly understandable – as are many other segments of Only When I Laugh.

An altogether terrific book, which I have to say is (on occasion) candid, poignant, and rather lovely.

David Marx