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Comedy as Gradual Recognition

I believe, that in radio drama, the revealing of character and what it is that moves the listener to laughter have much in common.  I first came to the conclusion, that the best radio comedy takes the form of a gradual recognition on the part of the listener, many years ago, when I produced a series of autobiographical comedies by the probation officer and journalist, Geoffrey Parkinson.  They are the most appealing and compassionate kind of comedy, in which the subject laughs at himself.

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My favourite, The Non-conforming Non-conformist, is about how Geoffrey, as an adolescent in the 1950's, loses an over-literal faith as a member of the Sutton Methodist Youth Club and how he finds - or rather tries to find - girls.  I shall give four excerpts; the first to show you how the play starts:

NARRATOR: (NARRATING) I was first taken to church when I was six years old.
GEOFFREY: Our family had its own pew.  My grand father sat with formidable dignity at the first place just by the aisle; next to him, more relaxed, came my father.  Then my mother, my elder brother, John and finally me.  I thought I behaved rather well in church, but nobody else shared this view. Complaints started with my grand father and made their way along the pew.

GRANDFATHER: Tell Geoffrey not to fidget so much.
FATHER: Oh yes. Claire, tell Geoffrey to behave himself.
MOTHER: Yes dear.  John, would you ask Geoffrey to try and sit still.  It's not for much longer.
JOHN: Okay.  (Loud Whisper) Geoff!
JOHN: Shut up mucking around.
YOUNG GEOFF: I'm not doing anything.
JOHN: Shut up!

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The play continues with Geoffrey frequently confused by religion.  Even those of us, who have not had a formal religious upbringing, will recognise the wonderful confusions that grown ups can lead children into.  Geoffrey Parkinson had the innocence to take such matters literally at the time, and the talent, later in life, to distil such experiences in his writing.  For example, on one occasion his mother explained, how they did not touch fermented liquor in their family and his father explained how many homes had been ruined by drink.

YOUNG GEOFF: Why did Jesus turn water into wine then?
MOTHER: Oh, I'm sure it wasn't real wine, Geoffrey.  It couldn't have been fermented.  I would have thought it was more like fruit juice.  Wouldn't you, Will?
FATHER: I think it was real wine, Clare. But of course we have to bear in mind one very important fact. Jesus lived in the Middle East.
MOTHER: I don't quite follow you Will. Surely alcohol is evil wherever it's found.
FATHER: It's very different if you live in the Middle East, Clair. (With finality) Very different.

Geoffrey asks Dick, the boy down the road, what the Middle East is; and is told it is where people wear hardly any clothes and where they sit on nails.

Geoffrey's religious education is further confused, when his brother John warns him of the terrible danger of worshipping graven images; that could for example even be plasticine models.

Geoffrey is not terribly worried, because he has never been tempted to worship plasticine.  At the age of six he is more interested in looking at little girls' willies and has vague qualms of conscience that this might be evil.  Furthermore John goes on to point out that Geoffrey is in great danger, because he has used the word 'blimey'.

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This means he has asked God to blind him. Young Geoffrey tries desperately to say the word backwards, to undo the harm: 'Yemilb! Yemilb!'

However I think he is at his funniest and most poignant when he has to join the youth club, where he first notices girls.

GOFFREY: I remember that around that time, I'd just read Emily Bronte's 'Wurthering Heights'.  I also went to see Laurence Olivier as Heathcliffe and Merle Oberon as Cathy in the film at the local Odeon.  What a film that was and what an effect it was to have.


HEATHCLIFF: Why isn't there the smell of heather in your hair?

CATHY: Oh, Heathcliffe, why won't you let me come near you? You're not black and horrible as they all think.  You're full of pain.  I can make you happy.  Let me try.  You won't regret it.  I'll be your slave.  I can bring life back to you.
OLIVIER: Why are your eyes always empty?

GEOFFREY: (NARRATING) Sitting in the front stalls and absorbing all the high drama, an idea occurred to me.   Now although I didn't feel I stood a dog's chance of attracting any girls on my own merits, it seemed possible, just possible, that if I could present myself to them as an imitation of Heathcliffe, even as an imitation of Laurence Olivier, I might possibly make some sort of headway.  At nights in my bedroom I tried, not very successfully, to imitate his beautiful, carefully delineated voice.

GEOFFREY: (ALOUD) Your hair smells of the heather, Cathy.  No.   Your hair! - (BUT HIS VOICE TURNS INTO A SQUAWK)  Your hair - (STILL NOT CONVINCED)  Oh blast! (PAUSE)   Your hair smells.... that's better. Your hair smells of the heather.
(NARRATING)  When I tried the Heathcliffe touch with the dumpy little blonde girl at the youth club, the result was slightly embarrassing.

GEOFFREY: (OLIVIER IMITATION) Can I get you a cup of coffee, Mary?
MARY: BUNDY: I don't mind.
GEOFFREY: You like coffee, Mary?
MARY: Are you feeling all right?
GEOFFREY: Feeling all right, Mary?
MARY: Have you got a cold or something?
MARY: You sound different.
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Then during a visit to a production of 'La Boheme', Geoffrey falls in love with Sybil, another girl from the youth club.  He becomes a fervent, if somewhat misinformed, disciple of Freud and begins to drift away from the Chapel.  Years later he receives a letter from the minister.

MINISTER: My dear Geoffrey, We have been looking through the list of Church members and notice that you have long since ceased to make a regular attendance.   This is a great sadness, not only to us, but also, I am sure, to your dear mother and father.  With the greatest reluctance, we have therefore decided that your name must be removed from the membership role.  I hope and pray that one day it may be joyfully reinstated.  Yours sincerely, Frederick Whitfield Liggett. PS God bless you my boy.

Three qualities that I particularly love about this play:

  1. There are many plays about lapsed faith, in which playwrights tend to attack, or to be embittered by, their childhood faith.  They tend neither to offer a positive alternative nor to suggest, that there is more than one side to the question.
  2. Very often the reason for writing is a form of personal catharsis and therapy; but, in my opinion, many of these plays do very little to inform, to heal or even to entertain the listener.  Geoffrey Parkinson's play is more objective.  It is redeemed by compassion and affection, as well as by acute observation and a lovely sense of humour; that is directed as much at himself as at anybody else.  In writing, as in real life, one needs these qualities to get at the truth of a character.
  3. The humour has a slow burn to it.  It only occasionally makes us laugh out loud, but it keeps a grin on our faces.  It is based on recognition.  We may to think to ourselves: 'Oh yes, yes, I know that situation.  I have been there and seen that, but I never quite realised before how enlightening and how funny such an everyday situation could be.'  As Henry Fielding opines in his preface to Joseph Andrews: 'Life everywhere furnishes an accurate observer with the ridiculous.'

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We also recommend the following radio scripts: Polaris by Fay Weldon in Best Radio Plays of 1978, I Never Killed My German and Of the Levitation at St Michael's by Carey Harrison in A Suffolk Trilogy, The Village Fete by Peter Tinniswood in Best Radio Plays of 1987, Cigarettes and Chocolate by Anthony Minghella in Best Radio Plays of 1988, Death and the Tango by John Fletcher and Song of the Forest by Tina Pepler in Best Radio Plays of 1990 and In the Native State by Tom Stoppard in Best Radio Plays of 1991.  Sadly some of these scripts are out of print.  However you should be able to order them from your local library

We also recommend the recording of Lee Hall's wonderful first radio play, I Luv U Jimmy Spud.  Lee went on to write the screenplay of Billy Elliot.