101 Things Brum Gave The World. No. 72: British Satire
As Philip Larkin said about sex, British satire began in the 1960s and it has never looked back. That Was The Week That Was, Beyond The Fringe, Harold Macmillan impressions and that time when the varying heights of John Cleese and the Two Ronnies taught us all about class. Life was changing: young upstarts with just a public school and Oxbridge education behind them were bravely taking on the ruling elites that they were born to join and things would never be the same again.
But where would British satire be without the Cambridge University Footlights Dramatic Club, the comedy hothouse that produced Douglas Adams, John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Stephen Fry and, erm, Tim Brooke-Taylor? Displaying all the quiet entitlement of a cat lounging on clean washing, Footlights alumni have inhabited every matey TV panel show and chortlesome Radio 4 smug-in for four decades. And where would Footlights be without that distinctive name? Possibly just a footnote in history: another boring revue club, like they have at that ‘other’ university. And without Birmingham we would not have footlights.
In the late 1790s William Murdoch started experimenting with using the flammable nature of gas to provide illumination. He was a Scotsman who worked in Birmingham for Boulton and Watt at their Soho Foundry. By 1802 he’d devised a way to light the Soho factory and had even used gas to light his home, which suggests that Mrs Murdoch was either possessed of an admirable faith in her husband or some really high calibre insurance.
In 1808, Murdoch presented a paper to the Royal Society called Account of the Application of Gas from Coal to Economical Purposes for which he was awarded Count Rumford’s gold medal, and the age of gas lighting arrived. Just three years later Westminster Bridge became the first to be lit by gaslight and it was followed by factories, streets and, of course, theatres.
Before Murdoch’s invention, theatres were lit by guttering candle light, with the actors desperately shouting and mugging in heavy makeup to gain the audience’s attention, often losing out to the action in the auditorium. Those in the posh boxes were usually OK, they could see the stage, wouldn’t get their pockets picked and very rarely got torched by the candles. But for the poorer theatre-goers, taking in a show pre-gaslight could be hazardous.
Lamps using gas, which later would be refined with lime to create dazzling beams (your moment in the limelight, anyone?) transformed 19th century theatres. They went from places of garish rowdiness to scenes of youthful artiness and exploration, and became more inclusive and safer for the hoi polloi too. Albeit with just the tiniest risk of detonation if it all went wrong with that lime.
And over in Cambridge things were changing too. The university drama club had habitually performed elitist plays to elitist audiences, but in 1883, a group of Cantabridgians decided to create a new type of drama club, one that would appeal to the town as well as the gown, and they chose Footlights as their name.
History has failed to record whether the inaugural Footlights performance contained Gladstone impressions, an undergraduate dressed as Queen Victoria or a joke about Otto von Bismarck, but as 1883 was the year that Gaudi got cracking on the Sagrada Família, let’s hope that there was at least one gag about unreliable builders. “This cathedral will definitely be nearly finished by the turn of the century, but I can’t be sure which one – I’ve got a few other big jobs on first.”
So, we can thank Birmingham and gaslight for the 1960s satire boom. And peachy-skinned young Emmas and Stephens have been taking pot shots at the ruling classes ever since, keeping them quaking in their handmade Italian kidskin moccasins. And thanks to their incisive wit, wielded so ferociously on Radio 4 or in Richard Curtis films, the whole elitist house of cards has been brought crumbling down, so that never again will we be ruled by an in-bred class of overfed Etonian bully-boys. God bless you Birmingham.