Is dramatising old comics' lives in the best possible taste?

Chris Hallam thinks it's all in the performance

Kenny Everett has a slightly awkward reputation. On the one hand, he was undeniably a groundbreaking DJ and comedy performer and – certainly in my view anyway – frequently hilarious. On the other hand, much of his work hasn’t aged well and is rarely aired these days. His rather crass contribution to Mrs Thatcher’s 1983 election campaign ('Let’s bomb Russia! Let’s kick Michael Foot’s stick away!') probably hasn’t helped.

Everett is now to be the subject of a new BBC4 drama entitled The Best Possible Taste being screened this Wednesday at 10pm starring Oliver Lansley as Kenny himself.

Everett certainly isn’t the first comedy veteran to receive this sort of posthumous treatment. Before becoming well known for portraying figures as diverse as Tony Blair, Brian Clough and David Frost, Michael Sheen received acclaim for his performance as Carry On star and raconteur Kenneth Williams in Fantabulosa! in 2006. The drama was unsparing – some scenes showed Williams pleasuring himself. Some thought it unkind to the Willo The Wisp narrator.

There have nevertheless been a spate of such dramas mining the personal lives of Britain’s funnymen ever since, usually on BBC Four. Williams was a closeted homosexual, deeply unhappy, probably celibate and living with his elderly mother into his sixties. His Carry On co-star Frankie Howard was, in contrast, far more confident sexually even to the point where he tried to 'convert' people who weren’t actually gay. Howerd was portrayed another comic David Walliams in Rather You Than Me in 2008.

Tony Hancock, already played by Alfred Molina in a 1990s BBC play, was played again by Ken Stott in Hancock and Joan in 2008. The story came close to overlapping with Hattie, in which Ruth Jones played the Sykes and Carry On star Hattie Jacques whose colourful private life eventually drove her husband John Le Mesurier (here played by Robert Bathurst) into the arms of his third wife Joan who later had an affair with Hancock.

The quality of some of these productions has varied. Although well cast the story of Steptoe and Son featuring Jason Isaacs as the typecast Harry H. Corbett and Phil Davis as Wilfrid 'Albert Steptoe' Brambell actually turned out to be a pretty flat drama (The Curse of Steptoe) although it did get good viewing figures. Channel 4’s Not Only… But Always, however, was brilliant stuff not least because of a superb performance as Rhys Ifans as Peter Cook.

Ultimately the performances are the key. Few things can be more intimidating to a performer than portraying a much-loved comedy figure. Yet all of the above have succeeded in doing so in some cases triumphantly. The achievement is all the greater when, as in Oliver Lansley’s case, the comic’s own characters (such as Everett’s Sid Snot and Cupid Stunt) are recreated just as vividly as the man himself.

A lack of drama in the comic’s personal lives need not be a problem either. BBC One’s Eric and Ernie put a clever spin on the Morecambe and Wise story by focusing not on their Seventies heyday but on their early years: notably the total failure of their 1950s TV series.

Last year’s Holy Flying Circus based around the 1979 Monty Python Life of Brian controversy was bolder still. Not only did the comedy drama deliberately emulate the surreal humour of the Pythons themselves but it also tackled subjects who were mostly still alive. Predictably, the surviving Pythons did not much care for it. Their criticism that it was 'inaccurate' seems odd, though. Much of it clearly wasn’t even attempting to e accurate (unless anyone believes Michael Palin was genuinely married to Terry Jones?). But the performances of all the Python impersonators particularly Darren Boyd and Charles Edwards as John Cleese and Michael Palin were spot on and the little seen drama in fact deserved a much wider audience than it got.

What next then? Lee Evans as Norman Wisdom? Harry Hill as Benny Hill? What about the lives of Mike Yarwood, Bob Monkhouse, Les Dawson, Tommy Cooper, the Dad’s Army cast or Bill Hicks? Maybe one day the likes of Alexei Sayle, Rik Mayall, Matt Lucas or Michael Barrymore may all be the subject of dramas. Sayle, has in fact, already appeared as a minor character in the adaptation of The Long Firm where he was played by Darren Bancroft. He appears in a scene were a Sixties gangster comes out of prison after 15 years to find that his beloved strip dive has become an early alternative comedy club.

Personally, I’ve no problem with it. If the subject is good, the treatment is fair and the quality remains as high as it has done so far, why not? In short, as Everett’s cheekily named Cupid Stunt might say, there’s little to object to provided 'it’s all done in the best possible taste.'

Published: 1 Oct 2012

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