Turned Out Nice Again
Call me oversensitive if you like, but I do think there's a real prejudice in British society against people simply enjoying themselves. As a comedy fan, I've noticed many times over the years that being obsessive about, say, alternative music, is lauded, whilst those who immerse themselves in comedy are looked at as being a bit odd. It's also worth considering the snobbery within comedy fans themselves (and lazy journalists) about 'canned laughter' and 'naturalistic' comedy, which caused The Office to be lauded way beyond its actual value, whilst the more traditional sitcom was sneered at, as if it was a crime to simply make people laugh. Oddly enough, it wasn't noticed that the most played scene in The Office was David Brent gurning in a way that would make Les Dawson proud.
In Turned Out Nice Again, Louis Barfe redresses the balance a little in favour of light entertainment, a subject he's been researching for almost his entire life. It's also fair to mention that I've been a friend of Louis' for over 10 years, so I may well be biased. However, light entertainment (or LE) is a subject dear to my heart, and I certainly wouldn't hesitate to complain if it hadn't been given a good treatment, but there's my interest, and I've stated it.
As it happens, there's no cause for worry. Louis' book plays a blinder, being a thoroughly well-researched 354 pages (there aren't 22 pages of notes for nothing), and follows the story of the LE industry from the birth of variety in the middle of the nineteenth century, to the more recent revival in entertainment television in the shape of The X Factor, Strictly Come Dancing and Saturday Night Takeaway, to mention but a few. On the way, we get a taste of Louis' sister interest in TV history with a pleasingly detailed look at the beginnings of radio and television, including a fascinating reveal of the politics behind the launch of commercial television, which prove to have ramifications 45 years later. Louis isn't all work and no play, though, as the 'Strictly Commercial' chapter features a hilarious description of the first edition of 'Double Your Money', presented by the notorious Hughie Green, and, as Louis interviewed former producers, as well as the likes of Bill Cotton, there's plenty of stories of shows flying by the seat of their pants. It's easy to forget that most early television went out live, so it's no surprise that TV was very theatrical in the 1950s, with the 1960s being the decade where TV was more successful in establishing its own language and conventions. It's easy to see the professionalisation of entertainment though the book's narrative, with the twentieth century beginning with amateur entertainers in the home or in the local pub, and ending with a TV in nearly every living room in Britain. Amateur entertainment is now seen as a rather quaint old custom, rather than a main source of relaxation.
The 1960s saw a huge change in both television and society, and the book charts the launch of colour television with BBC2, and the last gasps of variety theatres, which lost out to cosier living rooms and higher production values. With the rise of television came the de-regionalisation of entertainment, with provincial audiences being coaxed to accept acts from outside their region. The story of Mike Winters dying on his arse in the Glasgow Empire is a famous one, with the emergence of his brother Bernie from behind the curtain provoking a voice to say "Shite, there's two of them!". This ancedote is amusing partly for the fact that it would be unlikely to happen today, with British audiences being familiar with the traditions and humour of the various regions of their country. Not only can the reader see the changes in British society through LE, with the exploration of the satire boom and the heyday of Saturday night entertainment in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but the major figures of LE are also profiled, including Bob Monkhouse, Les Dawson and those who led the 'Alternative Comedy' movement. Louis is keen to point out that there really wasn't that much difference between 'Alternative Comedy' and the comedy that preceded it, regardless of what his younger self thought. There's a well-overdue tribute to the still-impressive Filthy, Rich and Catflap, with its humour firmly sat in the LE world, and the reveal that the character Jumbo Whiffy, an unscruplous BBC executive, is actually an affectionate parody of Jim Moir, the then BBC Head of Variety, made with his full blessing. The revolutionary effect of John Birt on the BBC is less affectionately played, with no-one interviewed willing to have a good word for the widely-hated former Director General.
In essence, this is the definitive work on the genre, weaving a direct link between those early pioneers of variety to today's stars. Where else would you discover the link between Top of the Pops and Billy Cotton's Band Show? It is essential for anyone with even a passing interest in British television, and proves beyond all doubt that there really isn't anything 'light' about guaranteeing quality entertainment for a mass audience.