The Poignancy of Light Comedy

Call to mind, if you will, the halcyon days at the good old university, drinking port and singing along to the Tom Lehrer songs, “Bright College Days,” “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park,” and “The Vatican Rag.” To this day, you cannot help but smile at a momentary recollection of the rhymes which so amused you as a youthful undergraduate:

Turn on the spigot
Pour the beer and swig it
And Gaudeamus igit

Individual college experience may vary.

The witty, cultured, man-and-piano mode of light entertainment is a much undervalued and somewhat paradoxical format. At virtually the same time as Lehrer was entertaining at Harvard and beyond, Michael Flanders and Donald Swann—friends at Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford—were re-establishing their partnership after the Second World War. Flanders had served as a sub-lieutenant in the Royal Navy, surviving a torpedo attack before contracting polio which would keep him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Swann had, as a conscientious objector, served with the Quaker Ambulance Unit. After initially writing songs for others—Swann as the composer, Flanders as the librettist—they made the felicitous decision to perform for themselves.

Like Lehrer, they only performed for the best part of a decade but left a legacy commensurate with their prodigious talent. The power of their satire is both more acceptable while also more biting because of its formal trappings: dinner jackets, erudition, elite accents, and the sound of the piano.

This contrast heightens the depiction of the absurdities of everyday life. Like Lehrer, Michael Flanders’s monologues are as amusing as the songs themselves. His response to the sign at the airport saying “Beware of low flying aircraft” is, “There’s not a lot you can do about that. Take your hat off.” In many ways, the mixture of the everyday, like a zoo visit, with the plain silly, like a talking gnu who takes offense at being mis-speciesed, is the more cerebral forerunner of the Jerry Seinfeld style of observational comedy: “What’s the deal with…?”

It is a peculiarity of great comedy that it can be hilarious even if one does not fully understand it. With Flanders and Swann, their cultural hinterland was immense, and the contrast between the educated and the absurd is at the centre. The spectacular “Ill Wind” is the story of how Flanders lost his alleged french horn set to the tune of Mozart’s Horn Concerto in E♭. To understand it fully, one would have to grasp a range of musical vocabulary and some of the language around fox hunting. Yet the comedic highlight of the song is the forced rhyme of:

lost that horn,
lost that horn,
found that horn, gorn.

With “gorn” as an upper class pronunciation of “gone.”

In the same way that comedians, probably on account of their timing, can make fine tragic actors (Robin Williams, Lenny Henry), light comedy can, in spite of itself, be exceptionally poignant. One of the saddest songs ever written is Flanders and Swann’s “Slow Train.” In 1963, Dr Richard Beeching’s report on the British railways led to the closure of around half of UK railway stations and the “slow train” services which fed them. Lamenting this loss, Michael Flanders based the piece around the evocatively bucolic names of stations which were fitted for closure:

No more will I go to Blandford Forum and Mortiehow,
On the slow train from Midsummer Norton and Mumby Row,
No churns, no porter,
No cat on a seat,
At Chorlton-cum-Hardy and Chester-le-Street
We won’t be meeting again on the slow train.

Later on in the same song, the people have gone. Using one of the best polyptotons in the English language, the railways fall into despair and death:

The sleepers sleep at Audlem and Ambergate,
No passenger waits on Chittening platform for Cheslyn Hay,
No-one departs, no-one arrives,
From Selby to Goole,
From St. Erth to St. Ives,
They all passed out of our lives,
On the slow train.

Flanders and Swann were satirists, though, of the highest degree from a left-leaning but ecumenical bent. While their satirisation of De Gaulle and British Prime Ministers and their Chancellors of the Exchequer has perhaps dated, their biting mockery of hypocrisy and vanity stands to this day. From their satire of the house proud:

We’re fearfully house and garden at number 7b
The walls are patterned with shrunken heads
Ever so very contemporary.

To the egregiously patriotic:

The English are moral, the English are good
And clever and modest and misunderstood!

Their mockery is of the velvet glove variety, until it isn’t. At the end of “Sounding Brass,” a satire of social one-upmanship, they bite:

Hell has just been taken over…
We’ve acquired a private furnace,
Bigger, hotter, far than yours.

The question is whether this sort of satire loses its effectiveness given its lightness. It can blow away in the wind when the audience leaves the theatre. Maybe this is true with all satire. As Peter Cook said, it has approximately the same effect as cabaret did in the Weimar Republic. Perhaps, then, the impact of Flanders and Swann is that it is so intelligent and fun that the audience starts to think, even in spite of itself.

Author: Peter Blair

Peter Blair teaches English Literature and is a senior leader at a boarding school. Educated at the Glasgow Academy and the Universities of St Andrews and Cambridge, he is probably the only banjo-playing High Church Anglican Scotsman in existence. He writes to explore the metaphysical in an increasingly materialistic world.

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