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Where Does the Shredding End? – Ripping England: Postwar British Satire from Ealing to the Goons by Roger Rawlings

The Good Show (1951-53)

The Goon Show (1951-60)

A Book Review by Tony Williams.

Ripping England is the latest of two recent studies by American academics devoted to aspects of British Cinema. Although the day is long gone when certain snotty English academics could remark that Americans should not write about British cinema gaining the justified response, “Then why don’t you stop Ed Buscombe from writing about the Western?” any study written from an outside perspective must expect appropriate criticism concerning plausibility of arguments and relevant evidence provided to support the thesis. Certain books, like dissertations, pass the test. Others rather result in reviewers shaking their heads concerning initial university committees (which in America do not require an outside examiner, as in England) as well as the judgment of an editor concerning a work to appear in an otherwise reputable series. This author acclaims an editor who “pushed and pushed until the chapters pleased what the Peer Reviewers might flag as lacking, what the marketplace needed” and whose “own irreverent and feisty punk rock attitude (something this apprentice has taken too much from his editorial sorcerer in certain instances!) was a welcome shot of adrenaline again and again the whole way through” (ix). This is the final result.

One may question whether constantly pushing a particular group of peer reviewers, the supremacy of the marketplace, feisty attitudes evoking desperate professors taking on the jester role of stand-up comedian before students, and an “opiod epidemic” institutional resort to adrenaline, would result in a serious and scholarly work that would have benefitted from concentrating on The Goons rather than the over-wide canvas it covers?

Ripping England’s thesis appears plausible: the investigation of a particular moment of British satire between 1947-1953 during which certain Ealing Comedies and The Goon Show critiqued contemporary British cultural and historical movements, which paved the way not just for Monty Python’s Flying Circus but also Saturday Night Live.

Ripping EnglandThe book contains eight separate chapters with an introduction and epilogue, the most problematic of which is the sixth – “The Special Relationship: American Satires of the 1940s” – that appears both redundant and superfluous in the context of this study. Like the very loaded ideological term “Special Relationship,” the whole concept is amorphous and can mean many things at different times and certainly does not contain the consistency the author believes. Although one can see American influence (treated far more sophisticatedly by James D. Stone in his recent study and the role of the music hall in pre-Ealing British films), it is doubtful whether the American influence (except for films such as the later 1954 The Maggie) was as influential on Ealing as he suggests. Certainly, one wonders whether Rawlings’ definition of the special relationship within Hollywood films, different as they were, as he admits (116), had any intrinsic connection to each other with certain artists having “mutual admiration for how far each pushed the boundaries of Western Anglo tastes” (116). Certainly To Be or Not to Be (1942), the films of W. C. Fields, the 40s comedies of Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1949) and Ace in the Hole (1950), and the “melodramatic satires of Douglas Sirk” are all examples of different species whether in the realm of authorship or a very particular type of American cinema having little to do with England. If Rawlings believed that the Beatles would never have existed without The Goons, is it true also to say that without Sunset Boulevard “there would be no The Entertainer…or even The Player”…? (134)

This remark is typical of the entire book – a cavalier display of sweeping statements without any attempt either to verify them or bring in qualifying comparisons, such as the differences between Sunset Boulevard and The Entertainer or whether John Osborne had the Hollywood film in mind when he wrote his play. Certainly, the inclusion of Bob Hope in The Paleface (1948) does not consider that the vast majority of his American audience may not even have known that he was originally from England (see the assertions on pp. 115, 140-141) and appears like another desperate attempt to support a thesis whose premises rest on very shaky foundations. Does Kirk Douglas’s character in Ace in the Hole have much to do with the later gonzo journalism of Michael Moore and earlier New Journalists? (136) Assertion rules rather than plausible argument.

Certainly, the Goons’ influence on some aspects of post-war British satire appears possible but a better, more well-researched, and scrupulously documented study could have focused on this concept alone rather than casting an over wide net engaging in far too many dubious assertions. The Goons delivered a type of “anarchic performance art,” but whether it can be defined as a clumsy, “definition-takes all” amalgam of “cutting-edge, postmodern, near-schizophrenic invective and perspective” (147) rather than seeing it as more aligned to music hall and surrealistic tradition (as with the reference to Breton’s 1924 Surrealistic manifesto that opens chapter 7) is another matter. Rawlings briefly mentions Spike Milligan’s humorous autobiography Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall (1971) but never explores how this book, though written at a later time, could explain the origins of his anarchic humor.

This is a book where too many assertions and unverified definitions are made, whether they work or not. For example, postmodernism raises its trendy head when Rawlins mentions “the new postmodern forces of the bomb, DNA computers, and globalization” (34). He never examines when this concept was actually used nor refrains from his tendency of throwing in “everything but the kitchen sink” in certain passages. Rather than examining counter-arguments of Andrew Britton and Raymond Williams against this discourse, he instead engages in his own version of Descartes’ “Cogito ergo sum” – “it is so because I say” rather than rigorously examining relevant evidence. For example, he sees “long lasting ripple effects” (210) between certain British comedies and American satires such as National Lampoon, Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, The Office, and Shameless resulting in changing “America’s obsession with confidence, invasion, and nation-building around the globe” (249, n.15). As well as raising questions as to whether these American shows and their creators had their own original premises in the first place, concern remains about peer-reviewers used for this manuscript as well as the role of a series editor. Do they both think critical readers – and reviewers – no longer exist? Maybe they are as bad as certain academic committees mechanically approving dubious product for the marketplace rather than returning them to a justifiably humiliated candidate showing that standard rules of criticism and revision are more important than the “marketplace” (ix) and obtaining an undeserved qualification?

Many typos and errors appear that could have benefited from better proof-reading. But one suspects those sub-editors having the same qualifications as those peer reviewers. On p.222, n.25, the surname of a well-known British director is given as “Alvey” while the surname of one of the original Goons is misspelled “Benetine” (145), and another well-known British critic’s surname appears as “Lowell” (203). On p. 244, n.12, Rawlins lists later Labour politicians, not Tory, as “compatriots” to Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan (181). Footnote citation 244, n.13 has little, if anything, to do with the material on p. 182. It is really appalling to encounter these blemishes in the pages of a university press in contrast to the often more meticulous and professional operations of non-institutional publications such as Bear Manor and McFarland.

At Last, the 1948 Show (1967)

At Last, the 1948 Show (1967)

And one wonders if “without Ealing and the Goons, Lennon and the Beatles would have been less, intelligent, irreverent, or even popular” (183). What is Rawlings actually referring to here? He does not make it specific and if he is suggesting that the Beatles would have failed as musical artists (which is primarily how they shot to fame both in America and Britain) without these two cited influences, then he is really insane. (I’m speaking here from someone who was around to witness their British ascendance). Another dubious assertion made is that “The British satires (1947-1953) appeared a little too early to be appreciated and experienced by Boomers” (45). Maybe this would be true of their original theatrical releases but they were certainly screened on BBC TV and in revivals. I can remember seeing one of the last Ealing comedies theatrically – The Ladykillers (1955). Not all of us were ignorant of this movement and I again speak as one whom Rawlings tritely chooses to denigrate as part of a generation “still wallowing in their prelapsarian bliss with their Davey Crockett caps” (46). Did he never speak to anyone of this generation when researching English archives? If he did, he would have avoided such stupid statements related to the Boomers avoiding their own film history (48), since many of us were also into Hammer and British film noirs of the late 40s and 50s at the time. Also, in view of the diversity of Hollywood cinema and the fact that the Bogart legend developed after his death, were the British public “addicted” to him in 1948 as the author surmises on p.53? I see “adrenaline” (and academic “opiod addiction”) operating again!

Certainly, there were influences on the Monty Python group but Rawlings never mentions the pre-Python Associated Rediffusion production from David Frost’s company At Last, the 1948 Show (1967) that featured Graham Chapman and John Cleese and provided a televisual link between the Cambridge Footlights Review and the later Python series. Pretentious slang occurs, perhaps influenced by that editor whose work Rawlings “admired from afar for many years, and who saw the value of the thesis from the beginning”, as with “Whatever dude” at the end of p.239, n.46. Blanket assertions are made without any accompanying evidence such as Britain borrowing from “American film like their Continental brethren…” (144)  in his use of an obsolescent direct-transfer theory that has now become anachronistic. The response to this question is “yes and no” since the interaction was negative in certain instances and plausible in others. Complexity does not seem to bother Rawlings. Elements in this book are interesting and sometimes interesting but the author himself may not entirely be to blame for this unwieldy concoction. Certainly, “the fault lies not in the stars but in ourselves” as the line from Julius Caesar goes but in publishing, firm, informed, and responsible direction from peer reviewers and series editors, no matter how many rewritings are necessary, are crucial in allowing the final version of a much better prepared and well-argued book rather than the machine-like cannibalistic demands of the marketplace that devour both producer and the possibility of a better manuscript.

Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, author of Structures of Desire: British Cinema 1939-1955 (2000)  and contributor to anthologies on this national cinema to Re-viewing British Cinema 1900-1992 (1994), Fires Were Started: British Cinema and Thatcherism (2006) as well as various journals. He is also Contributing Editor to Film International.

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