Something Old: Britain’s Comedy Legends of the Woodstock Era

Right now, in the UK and Ireland, comedy is doing a roaring trade. Comedians are performing in sold out arena tours, their DVDs and books are the bestsellers of every Christmas season and a swathe of sitcoms and studio shows feature them almost on a daily basis. Comedians are celebrities and rock stars, but that’s nothing new.

From the 1960s onward, a group of comedians comprising of double acts and stand-ups would capture the public’s affection, drawing in the biggest audience figures of the time. This generation (READ: my generation) largely has no idea of  who these people are, but they should, because they’re brilliant.

So, allow me to present to you the greatest British comedy talent of the day.

Les Dawson

Growing up in northern, industrial England, the fiercely intelligent and talented Dawson first tried his hand at being a pianist, allegedly moving to Paris where he would play in a brothel, thinking he was doing a good job. What he was actually doing was acting as the signal for closing time to the patrons. When the piano played, play time was over.

He made his break on an early version of the Got Talent programmes – ‘Opportunity Knocks’ – where acts performed on stage, on TV, and the winners got through on votes. There was even a panel of judges. This was in the 1960s, I might add.

Ironically, his piano playing would earn him legendary status. While he was a truly accomplished pianist, he would play on stage hilariously badly. Two other iconic roles were his drag acts and mother in law jokes.

On paper, those areas may appear sexist, but that simply isn’t the case. The butt of Dawson’s jokes were never women – they were him, adopting the persona of someone miserable with no luck and no talent. He was also the king of one-liners.

Morecambe and Wise

Double acts fill the history of British comedy, and few had the fame, fortune and talent of Eric Morecambe and Bernie Wise. Part entertainment show, part sketch show, featuring cameo appearances of prominent celebrities (and esteemed BBC newsreaders) the real part of their fame came in their Christmas shows – the biggest ratings hits of the era with a colossal 28 million viewers.

The Christmas specials were an incredible source of stress for Morecambe, however, always fretting they’d never meet the incredibly high standards of the previous show. On one in particular, an elaborate routine involving a man doing backflips toward camera only to be revealed as Morecambe through an off-camera switch caused particular issue as Morecambe didn’t believe it would work. When he finally saw the finished piece, he was so relieved he cried to the director.

One notable part of their act was the sitcom element where the pair lived together and shared a bed, much like Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street. The pair was reluctant, knowing what it could suggest. Their writer won the argument, though, saying if ‘it’s good enough for Laurel and Hardy, it’s good enough for you’. No one batted an eyelid.

Their sketches became even more famous than them, some even ‘covered’ by later double acts, like Reeves and Mortimer, and Armstrong and Miller. This is probably the most famous of them all: the Breakfast Sketch.

Tommy Cooper

A giant of comedy. Literally, he was 6 foot 4 and relatively rotund. Cooper was a prop comedian, his guise a terrible magician. The real key of his comedy was his personality. When he performed he came across as enormously likeable, just there for a good time with the audience.

With wild hair sticking out the sides of his signature red fez with black tassel, he would wear a suit, perform tricks and use his signature phrase ‘just like that’.

The particular tragedy of Tommy Cooper is in his death. On stage, on live TV being broadcast to millions, he had a heart attack. The audience thought it was part of the act and roared with laughter. The curtain was drawn in front of him and the show continued in front of the stage.

He’s still remembered with great warmth with this his most memorable routine.

The Two Ronnies

Finally, another double act with legendary status. Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett performed sketch shows across two decades, with a popular segment where they delivered ‘the news’. Often using innuendo and clever word play, their sketches had a distinctive style with incredibly solid writing.

Ronnie Barker in particular had a stunning career, starring in incredibly popular sitcoms such as the prison based Porridge and the local shop-based Open All Hours which receive frequent re-runs on UK television to this day.

Their most famous sketch is the ‘Four Candles’ sketch, about a shop keeper who continually mistakes what a customer is saying. My favourite, however, is the Mastermind Sketch, based on the TV quiz show Mastermind (which still airs), where members of the public sit in a chair, with the clock counting down, answering questions on a chosen subject.

So I hope you enjoy this classic comedy as much as I do. Do you have any favourites I didn’t mention? If so, make sure to recommend them in the comments below.

If you want to see more you can purchase the following on Amazon or check out Youtube:

The Best of Les Dawson [DVD]

Morecambe & Wise – Complete BBC Collection [DVD] [1968]

The Best of Tommy Cooper [DVD]

The Best of The Two Ronnies (BBC) [1971] [DVD]

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