William Cook writes the weekly comedy page in the Guardian Guide. He has published six books about comedy: Ha Bloody Ha – Comedians Talking (Fourth Estate); The Comedy Store – The Club That Changed British Comedy (Little, Brown); Tragically I Was An Only Twin – The Complete Peter Cook, and Goodbye Again – The Definitive Peter Cook & Dudley Moore (both published by Century); 25 Years of Viz (Boxtree) and, most recently, Eric Morecambe Unseen – The Lost Diaries, Jokes & Photographs (HarperCollins).
1. Funny Way to be a Hero by John Fisher (Paladin, 1976)
What John Fisher doesn’t know about traditional British comedy probably isn’t worth knowing. This heartfelt book is a collection of compact but vivid portraits of the comedians who ruled the music halls during the first half of the last century (Arthur Askey, George Formby, Max Miller, Tommy Trinder) plus postwar variety survivors like Tommy Cooper, Les Dawson and Ken Dodd. This book isn’t just about comedians – articulate and affectionate, it’s also an elegy for a lost age.
2. That Was the Satire That Was by Humphrey Carpenter (Victor Gollancz, 2000)
The biographer of Jesus Christ and Dennis Potter scrutinises the 1960s satire boom, in a book that almost doubles as a biography of Peter Cook. As Carpenter points out, the four cornerstones of 60s satire were the stage show Beyond The Fringe, the private members club The Establishment, the periodical Private Eye and the TV series That Was The Week That Was (TW3). Cook was the star of Beyond The Fringe, the founder of The Establishment and the owner of Private Eye, and the only reason he wasn’t all over TW3 was because he was busy performing Beyond The Fringe on Broadway when it started.
3. From Fringe to Flying Circus by Roger Wilmut (Methuen, 1980)
From Beyond The Fringe to Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Roger Wilmut surveys the depressingly prodigious output of those Oxbridge clever clogs who seemed to be collectively responsible for virtually everything that was even remotely funny during the 1960s and 1970s. There are potted biographies of all the big names, from Bird & Fortune to The Goodies, and fascinating excerpts from long forgotten shows like Do Not Adjust Your Set, I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again and The Complete And Utter History of Britain.
4. Didn’t You Kill My Mother in Law? by Roger Wilmut & Peter Rosengard (Methuen, 1989)
Wilmut resumes his history of British comedy where From Fringe To Flying Circus left off, describing the haphazard evolution of so-called ‘alternative’ comedy, from the Comedy Store (the Soho comedy club cum strip club where this supposedly anti-sexist movement started) to Saturday Live, the TV show that introduced its right-on stars to a mainstream audience. There are some cracking extracts from the early stand-up routines of Alexei Sayle, the Store’s first compere, and an entertaining introduction by Peter Rosengard, the life insurance salesman who co-founded the Comedy Store.
5. Gift of the Gag – The Explosion in Irish Comedy by Stephen Dixon & Deirdre Falvey (The Blackstaff Press, 1999)
Sparked by the cult success of Dublin’s first alternative comedy club, The Comedy Cellar (located in an attic), during the 1990s Britain was overrun by a horde of Irish comics. Sean Hughes, Dylan Moran and Tommy Tiernan all won the Perrier Award, while Patrick Kielty, Graham Norton and Ardal O’Hanlon became household names on both sides of the water. Dixon and Falvey talk to all the main players on this lively, creative circuit, in a breezy compendium of enjoyable anecdotes that is mercifully free from navel-gazing introspection.
6. Comics – Ten Years of Comedy at the Assembly Rooms by John Connor (Macmillan, 1990)
“In 1982, John Connor was a young sketch writer, stand-up and freelance journalist. Crap at all three, he decided while compering a show and watching a performer crack jokes with a paper bag over his head that comedy might be very silly but as nobody else was going to write about it he would.” Here Connor recalls the first decade at the Assembly Rooms, the Edinburgh Festival’s top comedy venue, and the launch pad for countless comedians: Rory Bremner, Julian Clary, Ben Elton, Harry Enfield and Stephen Fry, to name a few. However Connor’s most amusing yarns concern less famous acts like Malcolm Hardee, fondly remembered for stealing Freddie Mercury’s birthday cake.
7. Dame Edna Everage and the Rise of Western Civilisation by John Lahr (Bloomsbury, 1991)
An absorbing backstage biography of the comedienne sometimes mistaken for Barry Humphries, by the theatre critic of the New Yorker – and the son of the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz. Lahr taped 34 hours of interviews with Australia’s finest (and funniest) cultural export, but it’s his colourful descriptions of Dame Edna, Sandy Stone and Sir Les Patterson that make this book live and breathe. A life in showbiz, seen from the wings.
8. Spike Milligan – The Biography by Humphrey Carpenter (Hodder & Stoughton, 2003)
During his later years, Spike Milligan was practically canonised by the British comedy establishment – the Mahatma Gandhi of modern comedy, a holy fool who could do no wrong. Actually, Milligan was a far more complicated and interesting character than these eulogies suggest. Carpenter gets a bit closer to the complex (and often contradictory) truth – not quite close enough to crack the riddle of this enigmatic clown, but probably about as close as any biographer will ever get. He doesn’t shy away from the lurid details – the affairs, the illegitimate children, the accusations of racism – but he never loses sight of the fact that what made Milligan so special was his extraordinary sense of fun.
9. Morecambe and Wise by Graham McCann (Fourth Estate, 1999)
This meticulous but amiable book charts the twin careers of Britain’s greatest double act (more than 28 million people – over half the population – watched their 1977 Christmas show) who bridged the gap between live vaudeville and televised Light Entertainment. The duo’s story doesn’t have the peaks and troughs that make a riveting tale (theirs was a steady ascent, rather than a rapid rise and fall, with no offstage scandals to report) but McCann’s warm and scrupulous study looks set to remain the definitive biography for many years to come.
10. Frankie Howerd – Stand-up Comic by Graham McCann (Fourth Estate, 2004)
After chronicling the careers of Eric and Ernie, two of the most well-adjusted men in show business, McCann turns his attention to one of the most peculiar individuals who ever stood behind a stand-up mike. During his 50 year career, this ultra camp comic flitted in and out of fashion (but remained resolutely in the closet) and McCann masterfully chronicles all his showbiz ups and downs. Frankie Howerd’s material may have been pedestrian but his delivery was unique, and McCann makes a convincing case for Howerd as one of the founding fathers of modern comedy.