This is a brief history of things that have been…
Here’s the deal: back in the dark ages of modernity, about half a century ago in what must have been the late 1950s, a guy called David Paradine Frost went to Cambridge University and was a member of The Footlights. The Footlights was a student club dedicated to humour, which nobody could join – you had to be invited. Other people went to Cambridge University and were members of The Footlights. People like John Cleese, Graham Chapman and Eric Idle, who went on to be members of Monty Python. People like Graeme Garden, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Bill Oddie, who went on to be Goodies. People like Clive James, Douglas Adams, Griff Rhys Jones, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Germaine Greer, Miriam Margoyles, Eleanor Bron, Alexander Armstrong, Ben Miller, Michael Frayn, Jonathan Miller…
One of the most revered people to have been a member of the Footlights was a guy called Peter Cook. He had graduated in the years before people like John Cleese and Clive James even got to Cambridge, but he was still highly revered and spoken off respectfully by people who had known him, seen him or heard of him, who were still present. While Cook was still an undergraduate he had written professionally for established comedians. He’d written two whole shows for Kenneth Williams of Carry On infamy.
One of Cook’s creations was a character called E. L. Wisty, who essentially delivered stream-of-consciousness monologues in a lugubrious monotone – kind of a forerunner of The Sandman. After Cook graduated, he and another Cambridge/Footlights veteran, Jonathan Miller, had been recruited along with two Oxford University graduates, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett, to appear in an Edinburgh Fringe Festival show entitled Beyond the Fringe. It was important because it was a new kind of revue that more-or-less launched what became known as the British satire boom – a new wave of contemporary absurdist humour, dealing with contemporary absurd life, came to the fore and, like contemporary music, fashion and art, took a firm hold. People describe the transition from the 1950s to the 1960s in England – the pre- and post-Beatles age – as being a shift from black and white to colour.
As events unfolded, the person who made the most of the so-called satire boom was not Peter Cook – even though he helped fund and launch a live venue, the Establishment, featuring live, cutting edge comedy; and came to be associated with an important satirical publication, Private Eye – but someone who bloomed later than Cook, and sustained that later bloom: David Paradine Frost. Employing the best comedy writers to follow, he established a weekly satirical show entitled That Was The Week That Was – or TW3 for short – which would provide a satirical wrap-up of the week’s events. Frost also did serious journalism. He is the same Frost upon whose interview with President Nixon the film Frost/Nixon is based. But fronting TW3 (and later, The Frost Report), is how Frost first made a name for himself.
Frost gave so many comedians their professional start – employing many as researchers on his serious show, employing many as writers in his satirical shows. He was instrumental in ensuring the Pythons – and Tim Brooke-Taylor – got their pre-Python/Goodies breaks with the shows Do Not Adjust Your Set and At Last The 1948 Show. And when he got wind of Monty Python’s Flying Circus taking off, he apparently asked if he could be a part of it, providing the links between sketches. “Piss off, David, you can’t be in this one,” is how Eric Idle summed it up in the doco Life of Python. By Monty Python: The Complete And Utter Truth – The Lawyers’ Cut, the only reference to Frost comes from John Cleese, and it is utterly reverential.
Fact is, some people seem to resent Frost his success. Or at least, they once did. And it’s possibly because he never seemed as talented as genius Peter Cook on campus (but then again, who did?) whereas, after university and initial success, Cook seemed to be permanently stalled while Frost was amazingly successful. Adding insult to injury by seeming to deliver every line in a kind of lugubrious, E. L. Whisty monotone. You can hear it in action in the theme song – Frost provides the ‘brilliant wordplay’. (Note use of inverted commas; also note that the youtube clip of the themesong sometimes fails to load – in which case, it lives here.)
The main vocalist was Milicent Martin, and it was produced by George Martin (any relation, I wonder?), head of the Parlophone label and producer of a lot of comedy records – Goon Show albums, as well as albums and singles by Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan, albums by Flanders & Swann (who are sent up by Armstrong & Miller as ‘Brabbins and Fyffe’) not to mention the cast recording of Beyond The Fringe – prior to signing and producing The Beatles.
Britain’s That Was The Week That Was had an American equivalent. It went by the same title. One of the regular contributors to that show was a Harvard Mathematics lecturer who had already written to volumes of satirical songs of his own. His name was Tom Lehrer. He would provide a topical song each week. At the end of the year, the best songs were compiled for an album that proved very popular indeed. It was called That Was The Year That Was. Every sophisticated Aussie household with a sense of humour had a copy. A generation or so later, Tom Lehrer proved one of the inspirations that helped launch Sammy J.
There is a new tradition of satirical shows going by the name That Was The Year That Was. It started a few years ago and is now an annual event at the Sydney Opera House, featuring a host of brilliant comics giving their take on the year that was (who better, eh?!) The third one is upon us. December 29, December 30. Go buy tickets. Then come back and read some of the interviews with comics…