The wrong words, and in the wrong order

If you're going to honour a writer, then don't misquote his work, says Ralph Jones

Comedy writing can be a frustrating business. And all the more so when people misquote your material.

Mark Lawson this week published a piece in The Guardian following the death of the superbly talented Eddie Braben at the age of 82. The article rightly praised Braben's gag-writing ability and dedication, not to mention his penchant for the surreal: it was at the request of Braben, for example, that the characters of Morecambe and Wise share a bed while enacting the ‘behind-the-scenes sketches’, several of which have contributed moments now cemented into the pantheon of Great British Comedy.

The trouble is that Lawson doesn't seem to know his comedy all that well; he misquotes an impressive 75 per cent of the lines cited as being among Braben's finest, and this is a problem. It is a problem because comedy is inseparable from language and how best it ought to be employed.

If it were not, there would never have evolved any need for gag writers like the one Lawson was paid to celebrate: people would simply think of something funny; say it or write it down; and get congratulated for it. This obviously isn't the case, and good joke writing takes the same level of skill as does poetry, novel-writing or screenwriting. When done properly – by writers like Braben, or geniuses like Peter Cook – it is an art form as elegant as any other.

Lawson's mistakes are not particularly calamitous, but the point is that the article explicitly pays tribute to a great writer. Eddie Braben was not a performer. The irony is that at the outset Lawson relates an anecdote of Braben's that implicitly mocks Prince Philip for assuming that comic performers simply invent their hilarious material on the spot. Lawson wishes – commendably – to communicate to the reader that it was only thanks to Braben's finely honed scripts that Morecambe and Wise climbed to such dizzying heights. But he then proceeds to do a disservice to some of these scripts' most endearing elements.

First of all he gets wrong one of the funniest exchanges I have ever seen on television. He claims the following: ‘Asked, in a Roman sketch, if he “had the scrolls”', Morecambe replied: “No, I always walk this way”.’

Lawson gets not only the punchline wrong but the entire premise. The sketch is in fact one in which Wise plays Napoleon and Vanessa Redgrave his wife, Empress Josephine. The exchange is between Redgrave and Morecambe, and goes as follows:

‘Have you got the scrolls?.

‘No, I always walk like this.’

The effect of this punchline is very different, as Braben would have pointed out had he read Lawson's alternative. Braben's choice is incredibly funny; Lawson's is harder for the performer to say and therefore harder for the audience to respond to. Crucially, of course, Braben's line is what was actually said. His instinct for gags would have told him that in order for the joke to have maximum impact he would need to phrase it in a certain way; it couldn't, for example, have been ‘No, this is how I always walk’ or similar variation. And – Lawson aside for a second – note the pitch-perfect choice of the word 'scrolls', implying some disgusting and hitherto unimagined medical condition. Everything about it is a masterclass in efficient joke writing.

Most impressively, Lawson gets wrong what is perhaps the most famous line in the careers of all those involved, misquoting it as, ‘I am playing all the notes. Just not necessarily in the right order.’ Whether or not this is a typo on Lawson's part, as opposed to a determined effort to accurately set the words down, I do not know; I am inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.

The correct line is ‘I'm playing all the right notes... but not necessarily in the right order’. The 'just' is of little importance here, but of course if Morecambe had begun by saying ‘I am playing all the notes’, as Lawson has set down, the audience wouldn't have laughed nearly as hard – the line comes immediately after the feed line ‘You're playing all the wrong notes’, and 'right' therefore acts as a crucial part of the rebuke.

In fact, this line was not even originally written by Braben – as it came from a sketch Sid Green and Dick Hills wrote for the duo in the Sixties - another error Lawson makes (A fact of which I was unaware, too, until reprimanded by a knowledgeable source on Twitter).


Lawson's final error is in quoting Morecambe as saying, ‘He won't sell many ice-creams going at that speed’. This is the most bizarre of the collection, the correct line being ‘He's not going to sell much ice-cream going at that speed, is he?’. Read aloud it is immediately clear that the latter is funnier by a country mile.

The former is clunky and, once again, difficult to say – the sign of an author who does not know what it is like to have to deliver a punchline to an expectant audience.

The beauty of the original line is in fact its length: the way in which, delivered quickly in Morecambe's unforgettable voice, the words gallop and cluster together and spill over one another as they cross the finishing line of the joke. We would not be talking about the line had it been ‘He won't sell many ice-creams going at that speed’; this is a testament to its immaculate construction.

Does any of this matter? Clearly I think it does, given that I am writing an article about it. But I think that the issue is important as a matter of principle for comedy writers (and of course all other writers); it isn't just something that brought out the pedant in me. A professional writer makes his money on account of his way with words; it rather negates the time and effort spent crafting these words if a journalist is going to misquote them in a national newspaper the day after his death. The very least to be expected is that basic research be done in order to ascertain the correct wording.

Give journalists free rein to misquote as they see fit and obituaries will be printed along the following lines: ‘And now, thanks to him, immortalised in our culture are the lines, “Though this be madness, yet there's quite a lot of method in't”; “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore is thy name Romeo?”; and “To be or maybe to not”.’ Shakespeare – and those who love his work – would have shuddered at the breakfast table had they read those words. Braben is owed precisely the same attention to detail, and not to understand this is to miss an important point about both the writer and the art of writing.

Published: 23 May 2013

We see you are using AdBlocker software. Chortle relies on advertisers to fund this website so it’s free for you, so we would ask that you disable it for this site. Our ads are non-intrusive and relevant. Help keep Chortle viable.