Appellate Judge James A. Stewart feels his sharp wit in this small claim will create the Great American "review boom."
"I don't want to see lust and rape and incest and sodomy. I can get all that at home."—Dudley Moore, as the censor, Lord Chamberlain
A good chunk of the original Beyond the Fringe revue didn't get past the censor (only 23 of 35 sketches were acceptable) when the show opened in London's West End in 1961, but the comedy show, which began as a late-night diversion at Edinburgh's Fringe Festival and eventually did stints in London and New York, had an influence that went beyond the stage audience. It tested the censor's power, made a comedy team of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore (Bedazzled, The Hound of the Baskervilles), and started the 1960s British "satire boom" that led to That Was the Week that Was (which, if you take the time to look it up, sounds suspiciously like The Daily Show) and Monty Python's Flying Circus.
The four Fringe dwellers—Cook, Moore, Alan Bennett, and Jonathan Miller—taped their performance at a 1964 Gala Farewell for television. That performance promptly disappeared for years, popping up only now for this DVD release. The buttoned-down quartet walks out in jackets and ties onto a split-level structure with trapdoors and lots of hidden doors that serves as a multitude of settings, Shakespearean style (even for a Shakespeare parody, "So That's the Way You Like It"). With only a few props and goofy hats, they take on the world. Note that there's also a piano on the set for Moore's musical mischief, highlighted by a dramatic song based on "Little Miss Muffet." Even if you'd gone into this one without knowing any of the players or their futures, you'd notice that Cook and Moore outshine their comic colleagues, moving into the spotlight just a little bit more. Overall, Fringe reminds you of a topical version of the then-current Bob Newhart comedy albums, with the quartet delivering its absurd lines punctuated with the pauses and repetitions of nervous, natural speech.
Some of the material will seem familiar: the "One Leg Too Few" routine, in which Moore plays a one-legged actor auditioning for the role of Tarzan, which, as Cook points out, "is traditionally associated with a two-legged man," is an oft-redone Cook-Moore standard. Other sketches, such as the numerous mock interview and panel segments, will be recognized for their style. At times, it has the oddly familiar feel of an oft-copied original, and seems tired when it would have seemed fresh and unique to its original audience, but it still hits home at others.
Take, for example, a sketch on civil defense, in which Moore, from the audience, asks a panel, "Following the nuclear holocaust, could you tell me when normal public services would be restored?" After seeing terrorist attacks and the response to Hurricane Katrina, the question has an eerie resonance. The sketch—"Civil War"—ends with a slapstick visual: Cook donning a giant paper bag as protection against nuclear fallout. One can also hear the anti-war sentiment expressed in "Aftermyth of War" ("You know how in a game of football, 10 men often play better than 11? Perkins, we're asking you to be that one man. I want you to lay down your life. We need a futile gesture at this stage. It will raise the whole tone of the war.") in current jokes about Iraq. The quartet also braved the censors for gags about homosexuality ("Bollard"), religion ("Man Bites God"), and class warfare ("Real Class"). And, perhaps most brazenly, the joke about the censors which opened this small claim.
The bit with the sharpest wordplay is "The Great Train Robbery," which has Cook, as the deputy head of New Scotland Yard, being grilled by Bennett about the lack of progress in the investigation, with lines such as "When you speak of a train robbery, this, in fact, involved no loss of train. It was merely the contents of the train that were pilfered," and "We believe this to be the work of thieves." Since the audience applause and laughter are heard throughout, and shown after most pieces, it's clear this one was a favorite in 1964 as well. The sense of playfulness with language and ideas holds up, even if the topical material is no longer timely and the style is now familiar.
As you'd imagine, the black-and-white taped presentation is faded in places, with washed-out images some places and actors lost in shadow elsewhere, and there's a fuzzy indistinctness about the audience footage. I turned on the closed-captioning to catch a few lines here and there as well. Still, for a lost 1960s performance, it's a decent enough presentation. The extras are helpful in explaining the significance of the show, and catching us up on the fate of the two remaining Fringe members, Bennett and Miller, who've left acting but made their marks as writers. Note that the Broadway Playbill is on a DVD-ROM, which didn't play on my computer and might not work on yours. How about a more accessible CD-ROM next time?
After more than 40 years of satire and sharp British silliness, you might find Beyond the Fringe dated, but if you've laughed in the 40 or so years since, you should enjoy seeing these pioneers of modern comedy in action. Guilty of inciting a revolution, but not guilty of lame comedy (except literally, in "One Leg Too Few").
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
• Behind the Fringe (text)
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