Standing Up For Sitcom: The Inaugural Ronnie Barker Comedy Lecture

The phrase ‘comedy lecture’ sounds like a bit of an oxymoron but when you name it after Ronnie Barker and have it delivered by Ben Elton, how can anyone resist?  It’s oxymoronically appropriate too, as Ben Elton and Ronnie B did not get off to the best start.  They met at a BBC Light Entertainment dinner some time in the ’80’s, when the Two Ronnies were at the height of their fame.  Ronnie C and Ronnie B held, as it were, separate orbits; Ronnie C’s being relaxed and full of laughter and Ronnie B’s being full of intent, nodding BBC executives listening to the great man pronounce.  Excellent comic actor (and writer) he may have been; self-deprecating he undoubtedly was, but it seems Ronnie Barker could be a tad pompous.  Anyway, as Ben Elton, Stephen Fry and Rowan Atkinson hovered at his shoulder like the three wise monkeys, Ronnie swivelled round and, pointing to each in turn, said to Atkinson ‘I like you,’ to Fry ‘I quite like you,’ and to Elton, ‘don’t like you’ – before turning his back on them. This was a rude beginning but as time went on they got to know each other better and became friends.

If anyone can reconcile the oxymoron comedy lecture, it is Ben Elton: after all, he started off making people laugh with a combination of savage political satire and plain silliness – much in the style of ‘Not the Nine o’clock News’ – before going on to co-write ‘The Young Ones’ and ‘Blackadder’ and to author the police series ‘Thin Blue Line.’  He has mellowed with age and was even a tad Bob Monkhouse-ish towards the end of this lecture (can this be the same guy who once spat at an audience?  Whose mile-a-minute delivery seemed to come from a mouth glued to the microphone while his head span round and round?  It can and it is.)

It’s about time somebody stood up for sit-com and he is the one to do it.  He makes a plea for critics to be less scathing in their reviews: I felt a little sheepish at this as I’ve posted a few scathing comments in my time: however I have consistently stood up for the sitcom form which I, along with Elton, consider to be underrated.  He spoke about the ability of comedy to generate strong emotion and the often destructive power of criticism (I can testify to this myself, having had some blistering reviews of my work).  Even Shakespeare was lambasted by critics, the most famous comment being ‘upstart crow’ which Elton took as the title for a sitcom starring David Mitchell as a rather hapless and put-upon Bard.  Some of his insights were revelatory: I knew that there is a huge difference between recorded laughter and canned laughter (one is recorded live and is a genuine reaction; the other is fake) but I didn’t know that there is a difference between comedy recorded with one camera and one recorded with several.   It’s the difference between seeing the actors’ original timing and seeing an edited version, apparently.

Since the nineties there has been a tendency not to use live studio audiences; it started with ‘The Royle Family’ and followed on with ‘The Office’, but whereas it was entirely appropriate for these sitcoms, they seem to have started a fashion in which it is now practically de rigueur to dispense with a studio audience.  (I just want to mention ‘Detectorists’ here, which is unique in my experience being a sitcom which is set largely outdoors.)

Anyway, as all good lectures should be, the inaugural Ronnie Barker Comedy Lecture was both informative and entertaining.  So go watch:

Kirk out






































The Wall of Loneliness: Radcliffe Hall, ISIS and The Handmaid’s Tale

I’ve been thinking a lot about societies lately; how they can restrict us and how hard it is to do without them.  A society is like an impossible partner: you can’t live with them and you can’t live without them.  And two recent dramas which explore this theme are surprisingly similar, though one deals with ISIS in Syria and the other with a fundamentalist Christian dystopia in America.

These are so similar that at times ‘The State’ seems like a fantasy and ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ like the reality: both are repressive totalitarian regimes in which women have to cover themselves when they go out or risk brutal punishments.  Beatings and executions are common, though in Gilead they go for hanging rather than beheading; and both feature stonings and chopping off hands, though Gilead being wealthier does at least anaesthatise its victims first.  In both societies women are reduced to chattels, kept only to serve or to procreate.

The difference is that, astonishing as it seems, the women in Syria have actually gone there voluntarily.  The series features two groups, one of men and one of women, and follows their diverse experiences as the men are trained in fierce combat and the women kept indoors to cook and clean.  As in Saudi Arabia they are not allowed out without a male guardian and have to obtain permission before doing anything beyond their normal duties.  It’s all the more chilling for being real; yet ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ is not less chilling for being fiction, because it’s plausible.  You can imagine a combination of circumstances in which it could happen.

Which brings me to Radcliffe Hall’s famous novel on lesbianism, ‘The Well of Loneliness.’  This is equally gripping especially if like me you remember a time when gays and lesbians had to hide for fear of internment or worse (it wasn’t all that long since Oscar Wilde had walked the treadmill at Reading Gaol.)  It was written in 1928 and immediately banned because it contained the line ‘and that night they were not divided,’ making it clear that the two women had shared a bed.  They manage to make a life together in France but in the end their isolation from home, family and society at large makes their situation intolerable, and the ending is heartbreaking.

Kirk out

Marching in Wales

Regular readers will remember from last autumn such gems on this blog as the fuel and wood situation, the dog situation and the bread situation.  These situations have been revisited, revised and reorganised in my second – nay, third – trip to the borderlands where Monmouthshire and Herefordshire kiss – or perhaps spit at each other – over a river.

I’m an old hand at the Welsh Marches now:  I know the roads and the villages, I know the castles and the churches; I know the pubs and the people.  Most of all I know the dogs – but alas! the resident dogs have the memory of a goldfish and in spite of the fact that I walked, fed and entertained them for several weeks, they did not remember me.  But the dogs are the least of it: for now we have the geese situation, the duck situation, the turkey situation and the hen situation.  Further afield in an orchard resides the pig situation where a lot of digging and fencing (not the sporting kind) is happening prior to the geese situation transferring up there, whereupon the turkeys, hens and duck will all move up one place like some game of poultry musical chairs.

To begin at the beginning: the duck is possibly the most entertaining of these creatures.  It’s an Indian Runner Duck (which I persisted in thinking of as an india-rubber duck, a joke which works on several levels if you think about it) a flightless bird which makes up for its lack of wings by running extremely fast.  Unfortunately the previous brood were killed by foxes, so there is just the one rubber – sorry, runner duckling – at the moment.  I have yet to see it run but I have observed it standing up really tall on its hind legs, looking like a cross between a meerkat and a penguin.


The geese, called George, Mildred and something else (after the seventies sitcom) have the run of the garden.  They are intensely curious and follow strangers round hissing and pecking; however as soon as you turn on them they scatter in fright: it’s a sort of goose-step  version of Grandmother’s footsteps.  (Grandmother’s goosesteps?)


I did not interact much with the turkeys as they are keeping warm and safe inside the greenhouse while the hens inhabit their own run on the other side and produce an egg each every day.  And that completes the household.  Up on the orchard two pigs keep the fruit trees company; they’re a heritage breed called – hang on, scarlet and black – no, cream and brown – no, I can’t remember but something and something.  They have dug up the entire patch and eaten all the weeds, roots and all: I think I could do with a couple of them in my garden.

So much for the menagerie, now for the countryside where I had a somewhat larger radius this time.  This was due to Bertie.  Bertie is the latest addition to our household; he is a small, faithful, silver-blue Ford Focus and he takes me everywhere.  Together we explored Sir Fynwy and Herefordshire, Abergavenny and Hereford while later in the week I made a solo pilgrimage to Hay on Wye.  I had always wanted to go to Hay and now I have.  I bought several books – a volume of Oscar Wilde extracts with a foreword by Stephen Fry; Radcliffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, a fistful of Penguin ‘60’s for a quid and Bruce Chatwin’s On the Black Hill.

And thereby hangs this tale:

by the side of my sister’s house there runs an ancient highway, part of the Three Castles walk which links a trio of Norman border castles.  Not far from the house the path dips steeply and then climbs just as steeply right through a farm where it gets extremely muddy.  I was told in the pub that this farm is the subject of much local legend as it was run by six brothers, none of whom ever married; and that in the 1980’s Bruce Chatwin stayed in the village and wrote a novel set on that very farm (though he made the six brothers into twins.)  On the Black Hill is that novel.

One thing I didn’t manage to do was climb those hills.  The brooding presence of the Black Mountains looms over the area and beyond them, somewhere else I intend to explore, the Brecon Beacons.  But for now I have to be content with Swithland reservoir and the woods beyond.

Kirk out



Many Quake, but Few are Quoken…

My absence from the blogosphere for the last week or so can be explained by this: I have been at a Gathering.  Or perhaps it was a Meeting.  Was it a meeting of minds?  Or a gathering of bodies?  Or both?  Where was it?  Who was it?  What was it?  All questions will be answered, though only in the Quaker way.  This is much like the economists’ way: ie if you ask three Quakers a question you will get four different answers.

Quakers.  As Romeo might have cried, wherefore are ye Quakers?  The answer lies in history, in an insult hurled at Friends who, inspired to speak, might quake in body or voice.  In true Friends’ fashion they took the insult and turned it into a name for themselves.  (I don’t know, there are so many words we can’t use any more: queer, Quaker…)

A week is a long time at Quaker Yearly Meeting, also – confusingly – known as Yearly Meeting Gathering.  A Gathering happens but one year in three, and is a residential affair, a sort of cross between a conference and a retreat.  There are meetings for worship and meetings for business (thought it’s often hard to tell the difference) and a bewildering profusion of workshops, lectures and plenary sessions (I’ve never been quite sure what a plenary session is, though OH helpfully informs me that it’s ‘when everyone gets together.’  Thanks…)

So: that took place at Warwick which, apart from being Margaret Thatcher’s favourite university is a pleasant place, open and airy with lots of trees and leading quickly onto farmland and woods (where I walked one morning with a group of Friends.)  By the end of the week it seemed I’d been there half my life; long enough, indeed, to write a poem about my experiences.  I read this out at the final meeting and it was well received: many people asked for a copy, and you can read it below.  There were a couple of interesting lectures from Quaker politicians; one MP and one MEP, on their experiences of bringing Quaker ethics into politics.  I even managed a couple of early-morning meditation sessions.

After that I had only a day’s rest (or half-rest, since I did a poem at the Hiroshima day vigil in Loughborough) before being plunged into an unexpectedly ferocious walk.  At the moment I’m good for seven miles on the flat or up gentle hills; however this walk was seven miles not on the flat or up gentle hills.  The first bit was fine, meandering through a valley, but being Derbyshire there was no getting away from the hills, and up we went.  And up, and up some more and then much more seriously up and finally I could take no more and declared that it was time for lunch.  After lunch we climbed the final bit to the top, and I was assured it was all downhill from then on.  However, what was not specified was exactly what sort of downhill.  And this was not a gentle downhill; nor was it even a steep downhill, it was a quite unfeasible downhill.  A path quite clearly marked on the OS map was simply not there; and following where it ought to have been led us down a vertiginous and unreasonably thistly slope to a thicket of bracken and thorn bushes.  The way seemed hard, if not impossible.  The words ‘going back up’ were pronounced, whereupon I mutinied.  I could not, and would not, go back up.  And that was flat.  It was the only thing that was flat but flat it was.  So we hobbled, skidded and fell down the bumpy slope into the valley and struggled through an inhospitable landscape to find the path which our more sensible friends had found half an hour before.  It was not fun.  The rest of the walk along the river Derwent would have been delightful had I not been so exhausted.

However, the views were tremendous.  And the company was good.

And that’s us up to date.  How have you been?

Kirk out

PS Oh, I nearly forgot – here’s the poem.

Gold Star

(on my first Yearly Meeting)


First I was afraid –

you might say, petrified –

when the plan was laid

that QYM be tried;

I wanted to refuse

curl up like a recluse

but something told me: choose

to be a Yearly Friend


From early intimations

upon a box of oats

of wholesome men with hats on

dispensing Quaker quotes;

vague notions of the logo,

love and peace and cocoa

(though not like John and Yoko)

that’s what I knew of Friends.


As the years increase

I find my spirit’s kin,

witnesses to peace

that never were sworn in

link arms around the fence

sing madness into sense

and speak the present tense

that’s what I learned of Friends.


Midway along this road

I happened on a Meeting;

I sat, I shed my load

amid that silent seating;

but I had no prognosis,

no great apotheosis:

it happened by osmosis

that I became a Friend.


So here at QYM

(or is it YMG?)

I’ve come to sense the stem

of something that is me:

though I wobbled at the gate

and got into a state

something told me: wait

and find your way with Friends


And now I am afraid –

you might say, petrified –

because our time is played

and, Friends, I need a guide

to light me back to earth

where peace has little worth

and where there is a dearth

of people who are Friends.


Let’s lift up that gold star

and set it in the sky

so when we travel far

we hold its halo high

the circle growing vast

we feel the light that’s cast

until we come at last

to meet again as Friends.


© Liz Gray, 2017