A classic, by some Margin

Anthony Harvison reviews a forgotten Alan Bennett gem

Beyond the Fringe, the pioneering satirical revue that first brought Alan Bennett to the public's attention, is rightly remembered for its daring attacks on public institutions and politicians until then considered verboten as targets if ridicule.

By comparison the author, playwright and humorist's subsequent solo BBC 2 vehicle On The Margin, broadcast in 1966, is hardly remembered at all, even though it contained just as sharp a set of satirical teeth being bared to the delight of a significant percentage of the viewing public.

The reason for this seemingly unforgivable amnesia is probably the fact that save for one lonely sketch, the whole of the six-part series has been lost to us, one of the more significant victims of the BBC's short-sighted policy of wiping expensive videotape for re-use.

All, however, is not lost - quite literally - as a new BBC Audio release proves. The soundtracks of several of the more popular sketches were compiled and issued on LP by the Beeb back in the Sixties; these rare excerpts, digitally dusted down for your listening pleasure, are now our only window on the critically acclaimed sketch show.

If the 11 tracks on the CD can be taken as typical of On The Margin's style and scope then it would be fair to say that it fully deserves its place in the upper tier of superior Sixties satire, without suffering from the alienating, time-sensitive nature of much of that material.

For then, as now, Bennett's quarry wasn't so much the movers and shakers who governed the status quo as the comfortable middle classes and their institutions which came beneath, supporting the State like blue-watered tributaries to the river Tory.

Bennett sends up these mild, pretentious stereotypes perfectly with his twee, camp delivery. Sketches such as Bric A Brac - one instalment of a running quasi-soap, Streets Ahead: Life and Times in NW1 – take a velvet-fisted swipe at bourgeois pomposities, with the target in this instance being an upwardly mobile couple from Camden who collect junk for it's 'art deco' value. At least the unwanted items find new purpose in their culturally superior hands as ash trays – though nobody in their circle smokes.

Other sitting ducks include scoutmasters faced with the intrusiveness of the facts of life and literary critics. Joining Bennett in these skits are John Fortune, Virginia Stride and, bizarrely, a young John Sergeant, in the days before he traded acting for politics and ballroom dancing.

As he is very much a literary man, it is no surprise to find Bennett directing his gentle attacks at the printed word. With scripts rich in language and cultural references – something better appreciated without the distraction of visuals – he manages the most difficult task of striking right in the centre of the high brow while simultaneously being part of it.

The mock-documentary The Lonely Pursuit: A Writer's World, which features a successful writer reflecting on his northern working-class background while sunning himself at some exclusive Mediterranean resort, is both comedic and literary at the same time, while Going To The Excuse Me is unashamedly humorous poetry. If that wasn't bookish enough, On the Margin also differed from traditional sketch shows by containing straight poetry readings and string quartet recitals along with nostalgic archive footage of music-hall stars.

It could all so easily be as snobbish and ridiculous as that which it sets out to mock, were it not for the unwavering humanity of the writer. Yes, Bennett may be a bespectacled brain-box but he is also an endearing one who never forgot his Leeds roots during all his time at Oxford.

The stand-out sketches in the collection are The Defending Counsel, a brilliant satire featuring Bennett as the titular legal professional misusing his skills to transform a clearly-guilty criminal by the nickname of Fingers into an innocent night-time bathroom-window repairer, and The Telegram, a fantastic piece of wordplay and an enviable recipient of the ire of TV puritan Mary Whitehouse for its risqué acronym of Norwich (‘Knickers off, ready when I come home’).

Ironically living up to its title, On the Margin really does deserve greater appreciation among fans of vintage comedy and hopefully this release will help achieve that. Moreover, it is a fascinating and prescient insight into the early work of one of the UK's most important and highly regarded contemporary wordsmiths. Think of it, if you like, as Talking Heads without the tears.rn

  • On The Margin was released by BBC Audio earlier this month. Click here to order.

Published: 27 Oct 2009

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