Despite being a popular and respected broadcaster, ITV aren’t known for making a high turnover of documentaries surrounding the history of the genre. Debates continue surrounding the cultural vandalism which took place when TV companies naively took the decision to wipe a large percentage of the television output of the forties to the eighties which in turn robbed us of being reminded of the stars and shows from yesteryear. Yet this week ITV3 pulled out all the stops and treated us to a four part nostalgic documentary series entitled The Comedy Years which charted four pivotal years in the life of British comedy. The eras in question were: 1979, 1984, 1998 and 2003 which arguably is a very random assortment, not taking into account the forty previous years which were mostly packed full of stars, stories and a lorry load of laughter.
Banishing my own personal opinion aside, one year in particular seemed to resonate as being a defining period which saw an obvious shift in the comedy landscape. 1984 saw much unrest and divisions as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and President of the Union Of Mineworkers Arthur Scargill headed up a fierce battle at the proposed closure of twenty mines throughout the country which lead to mass strikes and unemployment. With such bleak circumstances, the public looked to television executives to deliver the best entertainment money could buy which spawned a new generation of comedians who used satire in a way that had never seen before on British television.
On Sunday 28th February 1984 LWT launched a satirical sketch show with a difference. Conceived by Peter Fluck, Roger Law and Martin Lambie-Nairn Spitting Image ran for eighteen series over twelve years and constantly poked fun at the establishment whilst making stars of Rory Bremner, Chris Barrie, Steve Coogan and Harry Enfield to name but a few. Probably the most famous Spitting Image’s comic creation was Steve Nation’s bizarrely perfect portrayal of arguably the most famous woman in Britain at the time. Margaret Thatcher’s tough exterior had long since been at the centre of many comedians stand up routines but now her stoicism was subverted to new levels. To see a satirised puppet of Britain’s first female prime minster standing at the urinals with members of her cabinet with her penis pointed at the porcelain was a watershed moment for British comedy. It was clear that Spitting Image wasn’t frightened to pack a satirical punch and for twelve years which saw Thatcher out of office, it constantly pushed satirical boundaries which paved the way for a natural cohesion between satire and mainstream comedy which we have today.
If Spitting Image was a significant factor in moving British comedy on, 1984 was also the year that the nation mourned the loss of not just one but two comedy greats in just six weeks of each other. On the 15th April 1984 ITV broadcast Live From Her Majesty’s hosted by Jimmy Tarbuck who introduced a stellar lineup including Les Dennis and Dustin Gee, The Alyn Ainsworth Orchestra all building up to the top of the bill Tommy Cooper. The comedy giant had stepped back from the comedy spotlight since the turn of the decade following television executives not wishing to offer him any further formats. He was still a regular on the chat show circuit but had failed to find a vehicle which would showcase his talents as a performer. Therefore this appearance was met by vast anticipation by avid comedy fans. He walked on to elation as he wore a giant packet of Tunes on his head and for the first five minutes he had the audience in the palm of his hand. The climax of the routine involved a bright coat which was going to cover another unsuccessful magic trick but just as his assistant draped the coat around him, Tommy fell to the floor unconscious with the audience in fits of laughter thinking it was part of the act. Yet this was no act and producers cut to an emergency commercial break. Tommy Cooper had died doing what he did best and just like his whole career, his death is now a significant part of comedy folklore.
The death of Tommy Cooper sent shockwaves throughout the showbiz fraternity but just six weeks later Eric Morecambe took to the stage at the Roses theatre, in Tewkesbury accompanied by his friend and entertainer Stan Stennett. Morecambe’s ill health had been well documented on television interviews but very few people knew how bad he was. That night was filled with laughter and recollections on an unparalleled career in comedy and he and Stennett performed songs and enjoyed some lively patter. After an unanimous standing ovation, Eric muttered to himself “thank god that’s over!” before collapsing and was rushed to a nearby hospital where he passed away just hours later.
1984 was a pivotal year for Britain for so many reasons: Thatcher, Scargill, Band Aid and Torville and Dean. Yet perhaps one of the most significant aspects about 1984 was that it saw a visible shift in the way that Britain perceived comedy and entertainment. In an age when nostalgia is frequently criticised for contributing to the hostility towards the era of 360 content, it’s great that we can still enjoy programmes which harp back to days gone by and remember the stars who helped to make the genre what it is today. Just like that!