Have we never had it so good?

Sunshine on Putty
March 19, 2004

George Orwell said that eloquence was the art of saying all that needs to be said, and only what needs to be said. Sadly, the journalist Ben Thompson ignored this wisdom when writing Sunshine on Putty , and the result is a mixture of wordy description and verbose narrative that fails to hold the reader's attention.

The book offers a history of British comedy starting in the late 1980s with Vic Reeves and finishing with The Office . Each chapter takes a different comed-ian or comedy programme and outlines its story, influences and impact. The overall view of the author is that British comedy has never had it so good, and here is why.

If he is right, then his style should reflect the fact. But far from being well timed and funny, the writing is at best wearisome and at worst soul destroying. To find out that David Baddiel's live act had some teething problems, you must wade through nearly three pages in which Thompson waxes lyrical about "the conjunction of this era of intellectual conservatism with the unprecedented forwardness of the comedian" and the like.

Elsewhere, when Thompson cannot decide on the right adjective he fires adjectives from a shotgun, spraying out dozens, hoping that one will hit the mark. This is particularly unfortunate given his subject. There can be very few people, even academics, who buy books about comedy written by journalists to discover comedy's philosophical roots and sociopolitical contribution; most buy them on the understanding that there will be bits that will make them laugh in the same way the original comedy did.

If anything, the author seems to have gone to considerable trouble to suppress comedy. Interviews with people such as Paul Whitehouse and Johnny Vegas should be funny but aren't. It almost seems as if Thompson spent a lot of time sifting through previous interviews with comedians looking for the non-funny bits and then spliced them into his narrative to add gravitas. There is one point in an interview that is unwittingly revealing, however. Thompson is interviewing Frank Skinner and Skinner says: "You know when people stand around swapping drinking anecdotes? As soon as I join in, the laughter turns to 'Oh God, that's terrible'." Thompson comments sombrely on this: "The moment when the laughter turns to 'Oh God, that's terrible' is the moment Skinner's comedy keeps coming back to." Surely he must have seen the warning sign to anyone approaching comedy in such a po-faced manner?

But regardless of Sunshine on Putty 's pretentiousness and heavy-handedness, maybe a book on modern comedy was destined to founder from the beginning.

Comedy, be it on TV or live, is a very spontaneous thing and is funny usually just the once and in the hands of the comedian. (Anyone who has tried to re-enact their favourite comedy moment to a stony-faced audience knows this.) Thompson, with extraordinary staying power, tries to make an entire book out of re-enacting comedy moments and expecting his reader to sit dutifully and pay attention while he breaks down the results. It is a Sisyphean task, and at the end of his book you cannot remember a single thing he has said.

Toby Sprigings is a film and media critic.

Sunshine on Putty: The Golden Age of British Comedy

Author - Ben Thompson
Publisher - Fourth Estate
Pages - 459
Price - £15.00
ISBN - 0 00 713583 1

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