‘Ma’s out and Pa’s out, let’s talk dirt! Pee-poo-titty-bum-drawers!!!’ As a child I was a bit shocked when I heard that the esteemed (by adults) duo Flanders and Swann, had sung such a song, not on TV, ‘Auntie’ BBC would not have liked that in the 1960s, or Flanders apparently lingering in his Falstaffian basso over the word ‘drawers.’
These days Ma and Pa wouldn’t have to go out for youngsters to make free with what was once called dirty language. Apparently, at least if modern day BBC Radio 4 is anything to go by, lavatorial humour is now more than acceptable among all age groups.
Of course, the British have always relished ribaldry; infant delight in faeces used to move on to adolescent skimming of the dictionary for intimate medical terms and joy in discovering double meanings in Shakespeare, his astonishing reference to ‘Count-ry matters,’ and to the Middle English word ‘Quaint.’ At A level there was Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale, which I remember in my generation disgusted everyone. For years the nation was cheered by the Carry-on Films and Benny Hill, and rocked with mirth at the mention of Mrs Slocombe’s unfortunate pussy. My grandparents had Donald McGill post-cards and George Formby’s saucy innuendo. But something has happened to our humour recently. It has stopped at the potty.
Imagine the Carry-On Films with their silly puns and word play with all the sexual innuendo removed, and just the ordure left – there wouldn’t be much there at all. Listening to BBC radio, and TV comedy it seems that all we’ve got now is what grown up adult people speaking like four- year -olds, now happily term ‘Poo.’
I come from a lower-middle class family where bodily functions and body parts were ruthlessly ignored. My grandparents once told me flatly that they didn’t like children who used rude words. It was a dire warning. I don’t want to go back to an age of such repression, but for adults to replace wit and erudition, almost entirely with scatology is puzzling.
I recently turned off BBC Radio 4’s Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, once a favourite program, broadcast on Sunday lunchtimes, after they were giving new definitions for old expressions; ‘Cack handed,’ ‘That’s when you haven’t got any toilet paper,’ opined their obligatory ‘funny’ woman. Roars of approval from the audience, followed by the panel finding new commercial definitions of the word ‘Condom.’ Quick fire repartee, once of course a prized, largely masculine skill, has now been reduced to, ‘Domestos condoms, cleans right around the rim.’ (Roars from audience.) ‘Cadbury’s condom, may contain nuts.’ Audience beside itself.
I switched off again during a conversation between the increasingly ubiquitous Greg Jenner, who describes himself, appropriately as a ‘Public historian.’ He’s a consultant for the TV version of the ‘Horrible Histories,’ which he believes represent a ‘non patronising’ approach to children, meaning they are full of references to defaecation. In 2013 whilst fifteen historians, including David Starkey and Niall Ferguson supported Michael Gove’s attempt to return the History curriculum to a chronological national story, beginning at the Stone Age through to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 which established the British constitution, Jenner protested that the idea, ‘Represents an ideological shift back towards the moral didacticism of yesteryear.’
Better let them stick to the Tudors and the Second World War and nothing else, rather than that nasty grown up stuff. He was talking on BBCRadio4 about comedy with Natalie Haynes, who studied Classics at Cambridge but is now a stand-up comedian. She was instructing listeners firmly that women are really funny. He explained that he has a PhD and to reassure us that he’s not really one of those moral didactic types, or worse elitist, added; ‘But hey! I’m the guy who writes the poo jokes.’
On Twitter he told me scatology was one of the most, ‘Important & fascinating areas of my career,’ as if it was really some kind of project, but then admitted, ‘I have spoken to children and grandparents in the same talk, and toilet references unite the crowd like no other.’
It’s a good job he never met mine. ‘I don’t do these jokes because they’re easy,’ he added somewhat disingenuously. ‘I do them because they resonate with most number of people. There is nothing more unifying on the planet than bodily functions.’
In other words, ‘Where there’s much there’s brass.’ But of course he’s not doing this merely for personal gain. ‘The oldest joke in the world is a fart joke. Toilets were the first problem of urban civilisation,’ he says. ‘Freud was adamant that faeces are fundamental to human psychology.’
True, Freud analysed infant fascination with excrement, what he called the ‘Anal stage,’ and also wrote two papers in 1905 on adult humour, relating jokes to the unconscious. But he never conflated the two and would probably have seen adults gloating about the lavatory as disturbed and ‘regressive.’ Freud and modern child psychologists see incongruity as a key component of amusement. For children it changes with development and once one cognitive level has been passed a subject loses its interest. Children used to move on, but not now it seems.
Jenner’s words quickly elicited support on line. ‘My dad, even in his late 90s still appreciated a good fart joke,’ said a tweet. ‘I do too, in fact I consider my sense of humour badly on the wane when I no longer find a well- crafted fart joke funny.’ Each to his own, all a matter of taste of course, but the problem is, there is now nothing much else but ordure going on. The university humour of Beyond the Fringe and Not Only But Also, are long dead and would be seen now as too male, white and elitist. Monty Python, Fawlty Towers and Blackadder with their intricate plots are gone and would again be damned as too ‘pale and male,’ and even Little Britain has been called highly offensive. Whatever Jenner claims about his poo jokes not being easy, they are crudely effective, with infants and people who have no expectations of anything more complex. Poo is perhaps all that is left, stuck and impacted in the rotting bowels of a corpse that was once called British humour.
Apart from a few American Jewish writers, like Larry David, safe from attack because of the success of Seinfeld, comedy has effectively been killed off by Woke thought, replaced by a sinister zombie which is all about not taking any intellectual risks. Tits, bum, poo is now the safe and all- inclusive alternative to comedy. Anything else is too dangerous. Old film comedies now have to be given a health warning. I was astonished at a ‘trigger’ warning recently about ‘Distressing scenes,’ before a TV showing of the 1956 film, The Green Man, starring Alastair Sim, George Cole, Dora Bryan and Terry Thomas. That ‘triggered’ great annoyance in me as I waited for something ‘distressing,’ which never came, or perhaps I’m too lacking in empathy by woke standards that I couldn’t see whatever it was. I did notice some witty lines in the script by Frank Launder who wrote The Lady Vanishes for Hitchcock and Night Train to Munich for Carol Reed.
Even Dad’s Army, which ran for nine series and was an international success can no longer be shown because of ‘Discriminatory language.’ Possibly the term, ‘Fuzzy Wuzzies,’ was just too much, although it was laughed at as archaic in the series. But all writing is now suspect; the year started with Salford University warning students about the dangers of reading Jane Eyre and Great Expectations, as they are considered, like the Green Man, ‘Distressing.’
The last TV version of that Dickens novel, rewritten by Sarah Phelps in 2011, excised all the comic characters, as it is no longer permissible to laugh at ‘vulnerable’ people like Wemmick and his ‘Aged P’ in their eccentric fortress in Walworth. Joe Gargery, a kind hearted simpleton, a plea by Dickens for sympathy and understanding for such people, was turned into an oddly frustrated but normal workman. His cruel sister had her ‘tickler’ cane removed, as female characters are now rarely depicted as bad, and showing violence to children would be ‘distressing.’ Since then, literary adaptions on TV have usually swung well away from the dangerous text where they originated.
In this atmosphere of mysterious, ever enveloping fear of committing thought crime, there are few laughs anywhere, except those perhaps still made behind closed doors, curtains drawn, music playing loudly, toilets flushing wildly, so that no one can overhear what is really being said by adults in private.