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:
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