on 7 June 2007
I have been discussing this text with students for many years, during which time comedy has changed from stereotyping to alternative to pc and still there is something relevant. It is about comedy, initially, but it is also about moral values - trust and loyalty and, as you would expect from Griffiths, it is a political play. Operating over real time we familiarise ourselves with a diversity of desperate characters during act one as they warm up for their comedic performances in act two. Our expectations of loyalty and betrayal are partially confounded during act two so Griffiths keeps our interest high, especially by leaving Price's startling act until the end. He belongs to no one and indeed student and teacher roles are reversed as he points out Waters' own betrayal by forgetting his working class roots. It is a powerful drama, even today and reminds us that the truth whether in comedy, politics or our own personal ideology is the best weapon we have to improve society.
Though inexplicably a little out of fashion, as indeed his mucker Alan Plater's were in his last few years, Griffiths' plays are in fact timelier that ever and you can extend the trope of comedy as far as you like in finding this an indictment of the world of entertainment and, indeed, the society we live in. In the first act we see the aspiring stand-up comedians, ( all men, significant that), being trained by old stager Eddie Waters for possible signing by a London agent who will appraise them in the 2nd act. We proceed through an okay Irish observational comic, a sardonic Welsh lacerator, the usual club circuit types including a somewhat opportunistic and/or self hating Jewish one and a fairly useless couple perpetrating a vent act among the more prominent we will encounter in act 2. In this second part they each run through their routines, the startling Gethin Price, the best by a mile, thus likely, you'd have thought - I did - to get the gig. In Act 3 Challnor the impresario selects, as it dawns on you he was always going to,.......other than Gethin Price; an occasion when something is not a surprise but still a shock. Indeed the acts selected above him implicitly self-indict a lazy, self-satisfied world that cherishes the 'wrong' values and won't touch Price's incendiary act with a barge-pole. Famous for a career- making performance by Jonathan Pryce and latterly the underrated David Dawson, this is a mordant attack on shallow values and implies a need for genuine ones. A reminder of why Griffiths once said that he found " the sheer bad taste" of Dennis Potter's 'Brimstone and Treacle' "makes you want to cheer" , a wonderful compliment. Top fellow and a brilliant writer. Entertaining and instructive, this play should be performed FAR more often.
My personal experience of this play came from taking part in a production playing the small role of the caretaker (who is arguably the only actuallly funny character in the play) and recently watching the 1979 Play for Today television version of the play on youtube.
When we were rehearsing this play, in order to get into its 1970s milieu, we all watched videos of comedians from the time, like Frank Carson, Charlie Williams and Bernard Manning. The ignorance and casual sexism and racism that these comedians displayed was quite shocking to us, who had seen this kind of comedy sidelined by the alternative (but now mainstream) comedy that we had seen in the 1980s and 1990s. I think it is these attitudes which are the main focus of the play.
The play concerns an evening class in Manchester in which a northern veteran comic, Eddie Waters, takes a group of six men through their paces as they prepare for an evening in which they prepare for an evening at a local bingo hall in which they hope to impress a London agent Bert Challenor so that he will take them on a as professional comics.
It is clear that Bert and Eddie have very different concepts about the job of a comic. For Bert Challenor, comedy is an escape and he seems happy for comedians to go for the easy laughs. By contrast, Eddie Waters sees comedy in a far more serious light. He abhors comedy based on lazy stereotypes believing that such comedy starves its audience.
In act 2, we see the comedians in action. Up first is Mick Connor, a rather simple Irish builder whose comedy act is an observational one about being an Irishman in Manchester. This one clearly follows the kind of teaching that Eddie Waters has been instilling in the class. Next up is Sammie Samuels, a Jewish club owner and one that I recall I found the most unpleasant character in the play. He begins with lots of Jewish family jokes that get no response from the audience and then he switches to a whole stream of the kind of lazy stereotypical racist jokes that Eddie Waters has been decrying. He goes down a storm. The next act is Ged and Phil Murray two brothers doing a ventriloquist and dummy routine. It starts well but there are family issues between them and the act falls apart with a truly embarrassing joke about a Pakistani on a rape charge and general recriminations between them. The fourth act is George McBrain, a Northern Irish comedian, who, like Sammie Samuels performs a crowd pleasing routine based on the standard wife not interested in sex/mother in law staples. Finally, we have Gethin Price, a train driver who performs a truly disturbing "grand guignol" act.
The final act sees the inevitable selection of the acts that Challenor would like, much to Waters' disgust and a final confrontation between Waters and Gethin Price during which Eddie Waters describes his experience as an ENSA comedian touring Germany at the end of the Second World War. In particular, his visits to German Concentration camps and seeing the cyanide pellets used for extermination have caused him to lose his sense of humour. We learn that during the classes, he has never himself told a joke.
Watching the play again proved to be an intense experience and it is a very thought provoking piece of drama.