Monday, August 23, 2010

Beyond the Fringe

I'm all in favour of free expression provided it's kept rigidly under control.
- Alan Bennett

Beyond the Fringe, the British comedy stage revue written and performed by Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett, and Jonathan Miller, debuted at the Edinburgh Festival fifty years ago today. The show was conceived in 1960 by an Oxford man, Robert Ponsonby, artistic director for the Edinburgh International Festival, with the idea of bringing together the best of the Cambridge Footlights and The Oxford Revue that in previous years had transferred to Edinburgh for short runs. John Bassett, Wadham College, Oxford graduate and assistant to Ponsonby, recommended jazz band mate and rising cabaret talent Dudley Moore, who in turn recommended Alan Bennett, who had been a hit at Edinburgh a few years before. Bassett also identified Jonathan Miller, a Footlights star in 1957. Miller recommended Cook.

It played in London's West End and then on New York's Broadway in the early 1960s, and is widely regarded as seminal to the rise of satire in 1960s Britain. It was a series of satirical sketches and musical pieces using a minimal set, looking at events of the day. Although all of the cast contributed material, the most often-quoted pieces were those by Cook, many of which had appeared before in his Cambridge Footlights revues. The show broke new ground with Peter Cook's impression of then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. The show is credited with giving many other performers the courage to be satirical and more improvised in their manner, and broke the conventions of not lampooning the Royal Family or the government of the day. However, the show wasn't all that satirical, merely making fun of things — such as war films — though even this was a step forward in comedy. Shakespearean drama was another target of their comedy. There were also a number of musical items in the show, using Dudley Moore's music, most famously an arrangement of the Colonel Bogey March which resists Moore's repeated attempts to bring it to an end.

Miller: Get thee to Gloucester, Essex. Do thee to Wessex, Exeter.
Fair Albany to Somerset must eke his route.
And Scroop, do you to Westmoreland, where shall bold York
Enrouted now for Lancaster, with forces of our Uncle Rutland,
Enjoin his standard with sweet Norfolk's host.
Fair Sussex, get thee to Warwicksbourne,
And there, with frowning purpose, tell our plan
To Bedford's tilted ear, that he shall press
With most insensate speed
And join his warlike effort to bold Dorset's side.
I most royally shall now to bed,
To sleep off all the nonsense I've just said.
[They exit. Re-enter all four as rustics.]
Miller: Is it all botched up, then, Master Puke?
Bennett: Aye, and marry is, good Master Snot.
Moore: 'Tis said our Master, the Duke, hath contrived some naughtiness against his son, the King.
Cook: Aye, and it doth confound our merrymaking.
Miller: What say you, Master Puke? I am for Lancaster, and that's to say for good shoe leather.
Cook: Come speak, good Master Puke, or hath the leather blocked up thy tongue?
Moore: Why then go trippingly upon thy laces, good Grit….

from So That's the Way You Like It, Beyond the Fringe

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