“Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot. To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain, and play with it!” – Charlie Chaplin
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.’” – Samuel Becket.
As Chaplin showed, there has always been a dark aspect to British comedy and, indeed, there is also usally a sharp, shot of humour in British dark fiction. Tragicomedy that errs on the side of the tragic, perhaps.
A perfect home for life’s perpetual failures, then.
Think of Alexander Mackendrick’s classic 1955 film The Ladykillers where a group of gangsters hole-up in a cute little old ladies house and take turns trying to kill her. They fail, of course.
Or try the eponymous character created by comedian Tony Hancock in the 1950s who, on radio, on television and in film, tried his hand at so many different activities and failed. One episode –The Bedsitter – teeters dangerously on the precipice of bleak existentialism. The Bedsitter is a one-room set, one-man-show, where Hancock endlessly flips through a Bertrand Russell tome trying to find meaning in life, but fails, of course. As Hancock said: ‘Stone me, what a life!’
And more: Sixties sit-com The Worker had the perpetually unemployed Charlie Drake regularly annoying Mr Pugh at the employment centre, trying lots of jobs and failing at all of them. One of the United Kingdom’s longest running television series, Only Fools and Horses, featured wheeling and dealing market stall traders whose scams always failed but who genuinely believed that ‘This time next year, we’ll be millionaires.’
Indeed, if the shiny happy American comedy series Friends had been made in the UK it would probably have ended up more like Sartre’s No Exit since hell truly is THOSE people.
So, if crime fiction is about bringing order to chaos and noir is about bringing chaos to order, then perhaps British comedy is pure noir.
Or maybe, it’s just the weather.