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The British Sense of Humour by Mark Duguid
Introduction Class Sex Violence Work The Family
Politics and Society Fools and Losers Madness & Surrealism Race    
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Fools and Losers
Still from Fawlty Towers

Fawlty Towers (BBC, 1974; 1979)

The British love a loser. However hard things may be for us, it always helps to know that there's someone worse off than ourselves. Losers are the victims of their own ambitions, failing, trying and failing again for our entertainment, and they seem to say something very British about ambition itself. The message of their suffering is, 'accept your status - don't aspire'. It's a message that Americans, for example, might find strange.

British sitcoms over the years have featured dozens of losers, from Tony Aloysius Hancock, the frustrated, pretentious hero of the 1950s' Hancock's Half-Hour, to the snobbish, foul-tempered Basil Fawlty of Fawlty Towers, to the many incarnations of the greedy Blackadder family and, most recently, The Office's self-satisfied David Brent. These characters aren't necessarily hateful, but each has a fatal character flaw that makes us enjoy their humiliation.

A close relative of the loser is the fool, as typified by Norman Wisdom who, in a series of film comedies in the 1950s and 60s, played a dim, clumsy idiot who caused chaos wherever he went. But Wisdom's characters were sweet-natured, with a strong sense of right and wrong, and in the end, he always triumphed over the villain and won the heart of the pretty girl he shyly fancied. In a very similar mould was Frank Spencer, hero of 1970s sitcom Some Mothers Do Have 'Em. Week after week, Frank would get into calamitous scrapes, to the despair of his long-suffering wife, Betty. This kind of fool - none too bright, but well-meaning, and with no greater ambition than to be loved - had no trouble winning our sympathies.

A second type of fool is a descendant of Shakespeare's 'wise fools'. They are knowing entertainers, whose clowning around disguises a brilliant and original mind. Tommy Cooper, Ken Dodd and Eric Morecambe, favourites of TV audiences for decades, had an instinctive understanding, not just of comedy, but of the absurdity of life.

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