“Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot. To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain, and play with it!” – Charlie Chaplin
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.’” – Samuel Becket.
As Chaplin showed, there has always been a dark aspect to British comedy and, indeed, there is also usally a sharp, shot of humour in British dark fiction. Tragicomedy that errs on the side of the tragic, perhaps.
A perfect home for life’s perpetual failures, then.
Think of Alexander Mackendrick’s classic 1955 film The Ladykillers where a group of gangsters hole-up in a cute little old ladies house and take turns trying to kill her. They fail, of course.
Or try the eponymous character created by comedian Tony Hancock in the 1950s who, on radio, on television and in film, tried his hand at so many different activities and failed. One episode –The Bedsitter – teeters dangerously on the precipice of bleak existentialism. The Bedsitter is a one-room set, one-man-show, where Hancock endlessly flips through a Bertrand Russell tome trying to find meaning in life, but fails, of course. As Hancock said: ‘Stone me, what a life!’
And more: Sixties sit-com The Worker had the perpetually unemployed Charlie Drake regularly annoying Mr Pugh at the employment centre, trying lots of jobs and failing at all of them. One of the United Kingdom’s longest running television series, Only Fools and Horses, featured wheeling and dealing market stall traders whose scams always failed but who genuinely believed that ‘This time next year, we’ll be millionaires.’
Indeed, if the shiny happy American comedy series Friends had been made in the UK it would probably have ended up more like Sartre’s No Exit since hell truly is THOSE people.
So, if crime fiction is about bringing order to chaos and noir is about bringing chaos to order, then perhaps British comedy is pure noir.
Or maybe, it’s just the weather.
They say that all small boys are influenced by their big brother’s music collection, and while that may well be true of me, I was also influenced by my family’s taste in other forms of entertainment. Luckily I grew up in a time when television and radio weren’t as youth focused as they are now and I could enjoy the same shows as my parents and siblings, such as Will Hay, Ealing Comedies and Tony Hancock. During the miners’ strikes in the ‘70s there were power cuts. Which meant no telly. Reading comics by candle light and listening to an old transistor radio. Radio 2, usually, since my parents were of that age group. The Navy Lark, Round The Horne and, of course, Hancock.
Tony Hancock – the easiest comedian for charades – and I share the same birthday, May 12th. Whether or not we share the same death day remains to be seen, of course, and let’s just hope we can put that little fact-finding mission on hold for a while, eh?
One of the UK’s major television and radio stars throughout the 1950s and early ‘60s, British actor and comedian Tony Hancock killed himself on 25 June 1968. He overdosed on booze and pills and left a suicide note that said:
‘Things just seemed to go too wrong too many times’
Indeed, Hancock’s eponymous character on radio, on television, and in film, regularly tried his hand at countless activities and endeavours that invariably failed.
One episode – The Bedsitter – teeters dangerously on the precipice of bleak existentialism. The Bedsitter is a one-room set, one-man-show, where Hancock endlessly flips through a Bertrand Russell tome trying to find meaning in life, but fails, of course.
In the most famous episode of his television show The Blood Donor, ‘the lad himself’ proudly donates a pint of his particularly rare blood only to end the episode by cutting himself so badly on a breadknife that he needs a transfusion of his own blood. The recording of the television version of The Blood Donor proved to be problematic as Hancock had recently been involved in a car accident and suffered from concussion so that he had to read his lines from autocue.
After the American failure of his film debut The Rebel, Hancock broke with his long time writing team of Galton and Simpson, who were responsible for most of the great writing in Hancock’s shows, as well as ditching his long-term agent, the splendidly named Beryl Vertue. This pretty much led to his career decline.
Disappointment was always breathing at the back of Hancock’s neck, it seemed.
Hancock, and other character actors, are regularly in my mind when I’m creating characters. Quigley, the hit man in my yarn The Bucket List, was partly inspired by the image of Tony Hancock stalking the streets with a gun.
Hancock could be said to be the perfect noir comedian, in fact. I’ve said before that crime fiction is about bringing order to chaos and noir is about bringing chaos to order, and Tony Hancock’s comedy is pure noir. A natural loser. When I started writing I wanted to write small, odd stories about small, odd people – like Hancock.
Like his fictional incarnation, Hancock was prone to introspection, a concoction of egotism and self-doubt which he bared when he was interviewed in the BBCs Face To Face programme in the early 1960s.
Spike Milligan said of Hancock that he was a ‘Very difficult man to get on with. He used to drink excessively. You felt sorry for him. He ended up on his own. I thought, he’s got rid of everybody else, he’s going to get rid of himself and he did.’
As Tony Hancock said: ‘Stone me, what a life!’
(This first appeared at Tom Leins’ blog as part of his Under The Influence series)
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‘A foul-mouthed, violently comic crime caper, full of gaudy characters and dialogue sharp enough to shave with. When London gangster Mad Tony Cook gives aging thugs Big Jim and Kenny the simple task of collecting a briefcase from northern courier Half-Pint Harry he doesn t suspect that the courier will end up dead in his lock-up, or that Kenny and Big Jim will then dress up in drag to rob a jeweler’s shop and lose the coveted briefcase. A fast-moving, wild, and hilarious search for the missing briefcase quickly ensues, with fatal consequences.’
Small Crimes is a sharp, short slice of noir based on David Zeltserman’s classic cult novel. A low-key, quirky crime film that is packed with great nuanced performances. Tightly directed with a gripping screenplay that smartly straddles the razors edge of noir and absurdity. Rich characters with a marvellously self-deluded and engaging protagonist. Small Crimes is brilliant, black comedy of errors that ticked all the boxes for me. I loved it.