One of the things that has been highly noticeable about the spread of Covid-19 is that it is no respecter of rank, position, or privilege. Like a true plague, it has struck indiscriminately, from Prince Charles, to Boris the Bastard, to Kenny Dalglish, to fathers and mothers and siblings and offspring less famous, but just as necessary to the wellbeing of the world.
Sadly, for everyone who contracts the virus and recovers, we suffer a painful loss: at the time of writing, over 144,000 lives have been lost worldwide, and the number grows daily. And while it could be argued that some figures might improve the world immeasurably by no longer being in it*, we’re also seeing the loss of people who have enriched our experiences through their work and their legacies. Gita Ramjee has died. Lorena Borjas. Terrence McNally. And last night, as Luscious and I were heading to bed, news broke that brought us both to tears.
British comic actor, writer, and absolute pillar of my childhood memories, Tim Brooke-Taylor, succumbed to the virus at the age of 79.
It’s hard to measure just what an impact Brooke-Taylor had on my understanding of comedy, and writing, and performance. As a child, of course, he was the hyperactive, hyperpanicky, sexually upper-middle class member of The Goodies. It wasn’t just that we found The Goodies funny. It was that we, and everyone we knew, did. They weren’t a television show. They were a time, like Doctor Who was, or dinner. You know how that clock works: four o’clock, 5 o’clock, 6 o’clock, dinner, Doctor Who, The Goodies, 8 o’clock, bedtime…
To say that the show was influential would be to undersell it prodigiously. It was influential to an entire generation of families, who shared that love with their children, who have gone on to share it with their children in turn. It was era-defining, and while it has dated — and in some episodes, where blackface, gay-stereotyping, and misogyny are often played for laughs to excess, the dating is awkward indeed — it still has enough brilliance and technical genius to ensnare and entertain.
And then, of course, there was Bananaman, which to this day typifies, for me, the silly, essentially British approach to comic books that I love, having first appeared in silly, quintessentially British comic books like the Beano. The three Goodies provided all the voices, distinctively, and with immediate recognition. I was aware of them before I really began to understand what they meant, particularly to the era of shows which surrounded me in the late 70s and early 80s.
It wasn’t until my late teens that Brooke-Taylor really began to infiltrate my artistic consciousness. I escaped high school with most of my psyche and skin intact, and began a writing degree at University. It was there that I became obsessed with postwar British comedy. I had already discovered The Goons, and Hancock, and whatever was on the ABC at the time. But now, with the resources of a University at my disposal, and slipped free from the constraints of my English working-class parents’ disdain of rich-types-with-nowt-to-complain-about, I found a rich lineage running from It’s That Man Again, through Kenneth Horne, the Telegoons, Beyond the Fringe, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Not Only… But Also…, Beachcomber, Q, Do Not Adjust Your Set….
The list is long. Unbelievably long. And I bathed in them all, and soaked them all into my skin, and my marrow, and swore that I would make this period of comedic brilliance my life’s work…
I wonder what happened to that guy?
But in amongst them I found I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again, with Tim Brooke-Taylor in the cast. And At Last the 1948 Show, starring Chapman, Cleese, Feldman… and Brooke-Taylor. I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue. The scripts for A Clump of Plinths. Marty. And it became apparent just how deeply entwined he was in one of the strongest, most daring, funniest periods in British comedy. I still have ISIRTA cassettes, and 1948 DVDs, and the collected Plinths scripts are somewhere among my book shelves.
If you had asked me outright, I wouldn’t have listed Brooke-Taylor as one of the most immediate of influences on my own writing, or love of the comedic era. But the news of his passing brought it all rushing back: the long list of productions in which he was involved; the list of titles I love deeply that bear his moniker, or his presence; the perfect timing of his delivery; the quiet, seamless way he shared the performance space with others– never outright the star, always the glue that holds things together and gives every member of the cast enough time and space to shine.
Tim Brooke-Taylor was an exceptional comedic writer, a superb performer, and an essential element of well over two decades of the most brilliant British comedy ever committed to two media. And it was part of his brilliance that he enabled an ongoing rota of ensemble casts to shine, cumulatively and individually, without ever once overpowering them. He knew his range, knew his best skills, and played to them consistently and constantly. And as a result, produced some of the most outstandingly funny work of the era.
The Goodies has been mentioned unceasingly since the news broke, but I want to share two clips from a different show. The first is, perhaps, the perfect distillation of what I’ve been talking about. It’s a sketch made unceasingly famous by Monty Python, as part of their Live at the Hollywood Bowl movie. But it’s not theirs. It was written by Brooke-Taylor, Feldman, Cleese and Chapman, for At Last the 1948 Show, and it was they who first performed it.
The second is a piece of pure malicious mischief from Marty. Often the rube, or the victim, because he played it so well, this is an example of Brooke-Taylor’s brilliance in the other direction: pure deviltry, next to the great British comedic devil himself. And it shows his ability to simultaneously support the nominated ‘star’ of the piece while being strikingly memorable in his own right. Despite being clearly the second (or even third) wheel, he’s nowhere near relegated to the background. It’s one of my favourite sketches, bar none, with a truly wonderful ending.
RIP, Tim Brooke-Taylor. You definitely got it right.
*I do not subscribe to the somebody’s-father-somebody’s-brother line of perpetual forgiveness reasoning. I will not be persuaded that the loss of a Boris, or a Harvey Swinestein, or an Obersturmfuhrer Dutton would be half so painful for the karma of the planet than Ramjee, or Borjas, or indeed, anybody who is just trying to do their best to improve the world around them for the rest of us. Fuck that argument. Stalin had six kids. Did that make him a better person? Everyone is someone’s blah blah blah. Doesn’t stop some of them being murderous, fascist, psychopathic, evil pricks.