The enticing, if unfashionable, premise of Ben Thompson's expansive book is that the golden age of TV comedy is not some far-off memory, but here and now.
Our selective memory means the monochrome masterpieces of bygone days are viewed through rose-tinted spectacles while past failures are neatly forgotten. In contrast, the entire warts-and-all canon of contemporary comics remains fresh in the mind.
But this book suggests, quite reasonably, that a comic generation that can produce The Day Today, The Fast Show, Father Ted, Alan Partridge, The League Of Gentleman and The Royle Family has a lot to be proud of not to mention, of course The Office, which provides the handy excuse to put the mandatory, sales-boosting picture of David Brent on the cover
After paying Lip Service to the undeniable legacy of the Goons, the Sixties satirists and the likes of Galton and Simpson in 20 scant pages, Thompson sets out his case that modern comedy was born on the day in 1990 that Vic Reeves' Big Night Out was first broadcast.
Indeed, Reeves and Bob Mortimer enjoy messianic status throughout this book. They apparently influenced absolutely everyone in comedy in the past 15 years, and no fewer than three chapters cover their rise, from modest beginnings in a South London pub to the Saturday-night mainstream that was almost their undoing.
Of course they were original, funny and refreshing. But Thompson can barely bring himself to acknowledge that their output could ever be anything but genius even Randall And Hopkirk (Deceased) or that their bizarre cabaret turns could have been inspired by anything else such some of those acts who actually played the early days of the Comedy Store-led circuit.
But bias is one thing, and in such a personal book as this, his opinionated passion is a plus, but Sunshine On Putty suffers from two more serious flaws.
The first is that it is neither a logical dissertation nor a comprehensive history. In fact, it is a collection of articles he wrote for the likes of the Telegraph and the Independent, which leads to bitty feel as well as glaring omissions. There's often a dated feel, as, for example, he writes about The Royle Family before it's even been broadcast or he previews Eddie Izzard's 1995 tour
The second problem is even more fatal. And that's that Thompson is quite simply a dreadful writer.
Good arguments and interviews are leaden with overblown prose, extended metaphors and obscure and pretentious references that obscure the point, rather than clarifying it. Some of it is done with tongue in cheek headings like 'The Great Mythological Armour Shortage of 1993-4' or 'What Henri Bergson has to say about this' can surely not be as they appear - but Thompson's not funny enough to get away with it.
Even the title of the book gives away Thompson's pretensions: Sunshine On Putty apparently comes from a description literary lesbian duo Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper applied to playwright George Moore in 1890. So there.
This academic showing-off pervades the book like a cancer, stifling any cancer. In another example, Vic Reeves, yes him again, is compared to how D.B. Wyndham Lewis's described the artist Whistler at his 1872 libel trial. Not the most illuminating of analogies for those of us not au fait with Victorian legal reporting.
But when it comes to actual relevant facts, he's incredibly sloppy. Among the names he misspells are Griff Rhys Jones, Alistair McGowan and Armando Iannucci, all reasonably significant players in the field he proclaims himself expert. He asserts that the planned Bill Cosby version of One Foot In The Grave never materialised but it did (although it did get badly mangled in the process). You start not to trust a word he writes.
And for all his linguistic grandstanding he must have been paid by the word for his original articles - his analogies are often simply wrong. "When something starts at the peak of conceptual perception that was Shooting Stars' base camp, there is only one way to go. And that is not up," he writes. But up is exactly where you go from a base camp.
No sentence is compete without a handful of commas, a couple of pairs of brackets, a dash or three and a footnote; of which there are an incredible 272 in the book. It indicates a muddled mind, and makes for disjointed reading.
The problem is Thompson cannot prevent himself making even the simplest things complicated.
For most people, Ali G's reference to the 'terrible events of 7/11' would be dismissed as a cheap pun, but for Thompson it's not only a reference to "capitalism's capacity for making a fast buck out of unthinkable horror but also to the ever-tightening grip of the US military-capitalist complex". Err, right.
Next he'll be drawing parallels between Vic And Bob's silly game show Families At War and the bombing of Sarejevo which is, inevitably, exactly what he does a few pages later.
Remarkably, some insight does shine through this fog, Thompson has had the privilege of talking to just about every significant player in comedy in the last decade and a half, and when he lets them speak it's often an insightful and fascinating read until Thompson interjects to ruin it again.
He's right that much of modern TV comedy does constitute a golden age, and deserves an authoritative tome making the case. This curate's egg of a book isn't it.
February 5, 2004
Sunshine On Putty is published by Fourth Estate at £15
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