For well over half a century, British comedy has been part of the fabric of the country, echoing the ever-changing face of our cultural makeup in a way that has never been recorded. It celebrates and echoes the fashions of the day and acts as a social time capsule of a time gone by. Now big business, British comedy still has the power to unite audiences and is now the source of academic deconstruction. Comedy historian Robert Ross has been immersing himself within this world since 1996 when he published his first book The Carry On Companion celebrating the infamous Peter Rogers franchise. This was the first offering in a formidable repertoire of work surrounding the story of British comedy which has brought him into contact with some of the icons of the art.
To listen to the full interview press play, below.
Being able to transform his lifelong passion for comedy into a profession was the ultimate dream for the boy who grew up on the golden period of British television. Having grown up with radio comedy by his late father who was a fan of the entertainment shows of the 1950’s, the young Robert Ross promptly developed a fascination with programmes such as The Navy Lark, Hancock’s Half Hour and their contemporaries which inspired him to become a writer. Not that he had the desire to emulate these comedy heroes but instead celebrate their accomplishments and keep their memory alive.
The magic of Carry On still manages to captivate an audience over sixty years since its creation. A nucleus of well known actors was one of the most enduring aspects of the films which made up for the low budget and shady production values. The combination of Sid James, Kenneth Williams, Hattie Jacques and Barbara Windsor provided a strong core which arguably was vital to the success of the franchise. By having such a strong centre made it easy for producer Peter Rogers to substitute actors with like-minded folk. For example, when Kenneth Williams was unavailable Frankie Howerd would be cast in a similar role and so on. Such a device proved to be a winning formula and helped Carry On achieve cult-like status. Carry On is the epitome of quintessential British family fun and the franchise has become a cinematic rite of passage for future generations. It’s a strange concept but Barbara Windsor’s splitting bra in Carry On…Camping has become a universal shorthand for English decency and remains one of the most iconic scenes in British cinema.
Following the success of his first book surrounding Carry On, Robert has since extended his repertoire to profile some of the most prolific figures in comedy from Sid James to Benny Hill. In fact his 2001 book The Complete Goodies charting the history and legacy of the irreverent comedy group, eventually resulted in Robert reuniting Bill Oddie, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Graeme Garden on stage for the first time in over thirty years. Such a memorable night shall forever hold a special space in his heart as for two hours he was living a childhood dream which was just one of the highlights in an unparalleled career.
His other major career achievement came when Robert was asked to contribute to a book surrounding the story of the celebrated sitcom Steptoe and Son alongside television scriptwriting legends Ray Galton and Alan Simpson. It was here that Robert got a unique insight into the workings of one of the most successful television writing partnerships in the history of British entertainment and was able to unpick their genius. To be able to say that you have collaborated with the legendary Galton and Simpson is just about as good as it gets for a comedy historian and for Robert this is definitely a great achievement.
Just about to embark upon a one man show at the Edinburgh Festival, there seems to be no end to Robert’s talents within the comedy world. Beyond books, Robert remains in demand as a journalist and MC for comedy talks and exhibitions while the biggest names in entertainment are queuing up to have him chair live discussion shows throughout Britain. It was a great pleasure to meet and interview Robert Ross and wish him all the very best for the rest of his remarkable career in British comedy.