Saturday, 22 October 2011

A Blow for the Silent Majority

As ever when Ricky Gervais gets his greasily transgressive chops all over the media's thinkpieces, the thoughts of sensible folk turn immediately to anything other than Ricky Gervais. It is, however, shamefully tempting to speculate how well Life's Too Short will stack up against the (admittedly very few) previous attempts to get humour out of society's attitudes to those we shall be very 1992 for a moment and refer to, complete with disarming scare quotes, as “little people”.

Most famously, there was Mike Walling and Tony Millan's A Small Problem for BBC2 in 1987, positing a future height-based apartheid Britain. Nine years before that, though, Good Life writers John Esmonde and Bob Larbey contributed a comic entry to the Play for Today canon, A Touch of the Tiny Hacketts, that bears re-examination.

The premise: in a Hounslow terrace, mild-mannered Ray Collis (Ray Brooks) is woken by his wife (Judy Cornwell) to confront a burglar downstairs. Finding what he assumes to be a “crouching figure”, a startled Ray lashes out with a conveniently placed Zulu knobkerrie only to find his felled victim is dwarf Tiny Hackett (Rusty ‘Britain’s Bounciest Weather’ Goffe).

Word naturally gets around about the incident, covering every detail aside from Hackett's stature. At work, he's hailed as a have-a-go hero in predictable tabloid fashion. (“It's about time someone stuck up for us mortgage owners!”) The previously anonymous Ray becomes the toast of the engineering firm. Stan, a workmate and confidant full of saloon bar swagger, puts himself nobly at Ray's disposal. (“I'm empowered to use the telephone in this office any time I want to, you know that.”)

Unfortunately, a snooping neighbour has witnessed the crucial detail, and the next morning the local rag reveals all. “We're in, Prince,” he excitedly tells his dog. “Look at that. Three inch double column – upper and lower case bold headline. And we're on the same page as the air tragedy!”

The cat out of the bag, allies become enemies with astonishing ease. The irascible Old Spud, initially Ray's strongest champion, suddenly becomes a staunch defender of midgets (“... and I will maintain my right to use that word”), reminiscing about a highly unlikely tolerant past. (“We used to have respect for midgets in the thirties. The old Queen Mary built a home for them out of her own pocket. Nowadays, anybody with a bit of a drawback, he's at the mercy of society, isn't he?” “You wanted to hang him yesterday.” “He was normal size yesterday!”) A meek-looking accountant approvingly hands Ray a National Front leaflet. Ray's boss (Patrick Newell), a conspicuous champion of what he calls “unfortunates”, calls him in for a carpeting. (“You have torpedoed my credibility!”)

It soon becomes clear that nobody is acting with remotely noble intentions, merely taking up whatever moral stance suits their self-regarding purposes. None of Ray's shop floor colleagues have a moral compass worth tapping. His boss, it's implied, is only taking on “unfortunates” to reduce his wage bill. Strong, reliable Stan turns out to be having an affair with Ray's wife, pathetically feigning angina when Ray confronts him. Only Ray himself makes any kind of progress, and even then it's pretty feeble – from weak-willed ditherer to slightly more self-possessed cynic.

It's by no means a faultless play. Some scenes are forced, and Goffe himself only gets a handful of lines, the main confrontation being between Ray and Hackett's mother (Brenda Bruce) outside the magistrate's court. But Esmonde and Larbey explore the issue intelligently, making their comedy from the characters' moral panic, logical confusion (there's a great argument about “degrees of crouching”) and egotistical posturing rather than taking the easier path of cheap “transgressive” stereotyping or off-the-peg scenes of social embarrassment.

Produced at a time when mainstream comedy was making one of its periodic retreats into a reactionary comfort zone, A Touch of the Tiny Hacketts questioned everything within its purview. Many have argued today's comedy is undergoing a similar malaise, and Life's Too Short may well provide a similar corrective breath of fresh air. On the evidence of the past week, though, it's doubtful we'll even get a decent knobkerrie gag.

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