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The British Sense of Humour by Mark Duguid
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Still from Bottom

Bottom: Ade Edmondson,
Brian Glover, Rik Mayall

In the real world, of course, violence is nothing to laugh about, especially if it's happening to us. But fictional violence can be a rich source of comedy, even if it's not to everyone's taste.

Violence is energetic and visually exciting, so it's not surprising that it was a common feature of silent comedies from film's very early days. They were carrying on a 'slapstick' tradition - people falling down or hitting each other, but never really getting hurt - which had been popular on the stage for decades, even centuries.

The British have always had mixed feelings about violent comedy. We love the surreal brutality of American cartoons like Tom and Jerry or Roadrunner (brilliantly spoofed in The Simpsons' 'Itchy and Scratchy'), but our home-grown animation is rarely anything like as violent. And while many of us love violent or 'black' comedy, others complain about its 'bad taste'.

Comedies like Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) - about a frustrated commoner murdering his way to a Dukedom - and The Ladykillers (1955) - about a gang of thieves trying to do away with the old lady threatening to give them away, but succeeding only in killing each other - show the very British ability to laugh at murder. Alfred Hitchcock, the filmmaker who claimed "murder is funny" - and proved it in his films - was, of course, British.

TV viewers gained endless pleasure from watching Basil Fawlty assault and humiliate the hapless Spanish waiter, Manuel, in Fawlty Towers. Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson's Bottom, like their earlier series The Young Ones, showed the enduring appeal of cartoon or comic-book violence, even if they were often dismissed as 'childish' (which was exactly the point). In the strange and twisted world of The League of Gentlemen, we are invited to laugh at, for example, the murderous butcher who (perhaps) serves up human flesh for his 'special' customers, or the vet whose incompetence leads to the spectacular death of one poor animal after another.

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