His style of comedy has been erased from British television
Barry Cryer has left us. ‘Uncle Baz’, as he was known affectionately in the comedy industry was one of the last, if not the last, of the great post-war writer-comedians, that established themselves in the 1960s and flourished in the cultural bloom of the second half of the 20th century.
Dave Allen, Tommy Cooper, Morecambe and Wise, Dick Emery, Spike Milligan, The Two Ronnies — Cryer wrote for them all. And he also performed, never more effectively than on I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, where his love of word play and double-entendre found a natural home. His talents extended into books and the theatre: with the fondly remembered Willie Rushton, he toured a stage show, Two Old Farts in the Night. You can hear him laughing — that rich, rippling laugh — now.
He was quintessentially British. His comic world was a world of cheeky old ladies, naughty vicars and oversized comedy vegetables, given extra zest by a taste for the anarchic. And he took delight — a very English, schoolboy delight — in filth. “On a dreary afternoon,” he once reflected, on his time writing a Ronnie Corbett vehicle, The Prince of Denmark, with Graham Chapman, “Graham and I used to write, ‘It’s morning. We discover Ronnie wanking,’ and we’d laugh for half an hour.”
Perhaps it’s Cryer’s sheer love of, and dedication to, jokes that will be most missed. Out-and-out jokes — big, silly jokes; jokes that make you laugh; jokes that care about nothing but making you laugh — are increasingly rare birds in broadcast comedy, particularly in television.
The kind of formats which made Morecambe and Wise and The Two Ronnies household names are dead. The studio audience sitcom, which Cryer made a substantial contribution to, is on life support; BBC Comedy is increasingly preoccupied with commissioning American-influenced dramedies, programmes which deliver excellent reviews in The Guardian, but few viewers and even fewer laughs. The style of humour which Cryer specialised in — mainstream, accessible, beloved — has been largely removed from the television landscape. Producers no longer delight in jokes, but seem ashamed of them.
I make no secret of my love for the mid-to-late 20th century world Barry Cryer thrived in. The velvet jackets and dicky bows. Dinner with Danny La Rue and Frankie Howerd. Typewriters Z — a complete pain, I’m sure, but a convenient bulwark against modern television’s penchant for endless rewrites. Ironically, whilst reactionaries like me cannot resist looking back, with tear-dimmed eyes, at tinsel, and crumpet, and Les Dawson’s mother-in-law routines, Cryer took a completely different attitude: he revelled in new comedians, and went out of his way to support up-and-coming acts. It is testament to his embrace of change that, although the masculine atmosphere of I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue in its pomp has dissipated, there are plenty of series left in it yet.
Whether a Yorkshire-born Leeds university drop out could gain access to quite such an extraordinary career today is another matter. I fear our culture, for all its talk of diversity and inclusion, is less accessible now than when a young Baz rocked up in Soho with a toothbrush in his pocket and a notebook full of gags.
I hope, as I write, Barry Cryer is looking upon the face of God — and telling him the one about the Archbishop and the marrow.