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A Great, Silly Grin: The British Satire Boom…

A Great, Silly Grin: The British Satire Boom of the 1960s

by Humphrey Carpenter

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The story is not straightforward, which is a major plus. The players pop in and out of the story as they and things develop. It's actually a coherent subject, which I did not expect. There actually was an "era" of satire in Britain, and though satire itself is a cloudy, amorphous concept, Carpenter has woven together all the ingredients of a comprehensive, if not exhaustive history of the concept. That makes this an unusual book, and kept my interest over its 338 pages.

As expected, I learned a great deal about the lives and personalities of the players in Beyond the Fringe, Private Eye and TW3, the three most famous vehicles for satire in the 60s. But of more value was how hey interconnected, for good as well as bad. And of course, how Carpenter sewed them all together in a quilt they did not know they were part of. A most worthwhile endeavour and achievement by Humphrey Carpenter, whose bio of Spike Milligan I've reviewed as well. ( )
  DavidWineberg | Oct 4, 2012 |
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To re-create the anti-establishment era of the 1960s, Carpenter interviewed almost 40 of the top "surviving satirists and their associates," and the result is both authoritative and amusing. Carpenter, best known for his biographies of Dennis Potter, Auden, Pound and Tolkien, sets the scene with the political and cultural backdrop of post-WWII "austere drabness" giving way to subversive antics on radio's Goon Show in 1951. The Edinburgh Festival of music and art began in 1947, and additional entertainments there were known as Festival Fringe. These "intimate revues" of music and comedy underwent an intellectual transformation when Jonathan Miller, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett teamed for the sharp-edged satire of Beyond the Fringe in 1960. As Miller put it, the quartet "tried to rinse away some of this gaudy sentiment," abandoning the "dum-de-da of conventional revue." It set the tone for what followed: the lampoons of Private Eye magazine, the satirical cabaret known as The Establishment and the BBC's top-rated That Was the Week That Was (aka TW3), laying a foundation for Monty Python and later comedic concepts. The concluding chapter covers how the movement's writers and performers fared in later years. Since Carpenter did extensive research on Dennis Potter, it's surprising to find no rundown of the satirical sketches the team of Potter and David Nathan wrote for TW3. Still, students of comedy history will find this the perfect companion volume to shelve alongside The Compass, Janet Coleman's superb history of satirical, improvisational theater in the U.S. 16 pages of b&w photos.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
"... it takes a literary historian as empathetic as Mr. Carpenter to reveal the deeper...story [of British satire]." -- Wall Street Journal, April 12, 2002
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