Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Just for laughs

As demonstrated by recent developments regarding particular episodes of Fawlty Towers, League Of Gentlemen and Little Britain, there appears to be a heightened sensitivity to what is and is not appropriate within comedy, and a consequent reappraisal of much-loved series of the past. Which makes Noel Gardner's re-evaluation of Blue Jam - a show he fanboyed over when it first aired (on Radio 1, of all places) 22 years ago - particularly timely.

As students in a Nottingham house share, my friends and I developed a Friday midnight ritual of huddling around the radio in the downstairs bedroom, luxuriating in the weirdness and invariably howling with laughter - albeit laughter not so much in the dark as in the pitch black. That Blue Jam was a comedy (and a frequently hilarious one) is a point worth emphasising - as Gardner observes, "an uninitiated listener could be forgiven for scarcely recognising it as an example of the form".

But even we "initiated listeners", who had gorged ourselves on Chris Morris' previous projects The Day Today and Brass Eye, were occasionally left floored at what we were being invited to laugh at - even without the benefit of distance and perspective. To say that some of the sketches assaulted good taste would be an understatement. It's no surprise to learn, for instance, that Julia Davis was seriously uncomfortable about playing her role in 'Unflustered Parents' - it was unsettling enough as a member of the audience.

What set Blue Jam apart from its predecessors was the lack of obvious satirical focus or targets, of moral purpose or ethos. Gardner argues that "you do imagine that writing something which wasn't expected to have a point would have been a freeing experience at the time", but that meant that the show's shock value could then only be framed as being for its own sake, or at least only to provoke laughs. Gardner does an admirable job of setting aside his youthful ardour and carefully assessing sketches like 'Little Girl Balls' that felt slightly troubling even at the time.

What Blue Jam does share with On The Hour, The Day Today and Brass Eye, though, is a "sort of linguistic japery" - evidence of its creator's ability to get "heavy absurdist mileage from minor adjustments to what we see as conventional turns of British-English phrase". I do, however, bristle at the suggestion that Morris should be held responsible for "that dismal style of compound swearing" exemplified by the insult "cockwomble" - that's a reassessment too far.

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