It all began with a soapy TV 'moustache'

It all began with a soapy TV 'moustache'

With Liz Truss becoming the 56th British prime minister, it got me thinking about how many PMs there have been in my lifetime. The answer is 16, going back to Clement Atlee, which is a bit scary. In fact, while I was still residing in the UK there were only six PMs.

I was fortunate enough to have been brought up in an era when for the first time British prime ministers and politicians had become regarded as legitimate targets of fun from television comedy and satirical shows.

In the late 1950s I recall my grandmother laughing her head off when comedian Tony Hancock did a brief impersonation of prime minister Harold Macmillan. Hancock was having a shave and had given himself a lathery shaving cream "moustache" closely resembling that of Macmillan. Hancock proceeded to come out with the PM's catchphrase, a grandiloquent "you've never had it so good".

Macmillan actually had a reasonable sense of humour. On one occasion he bravely attended the fiercely satirical Beyond the Fringe show in 1961 only to find himself savagely parodied on stage by Peter Cook. Macmillan appeared to take it in good spirit, although behind the fixed grin he was probably gnashing his teeth.

Explaining the prime minister's relaxed attitude to being a satirical target his biographer wrote "Macmillan felt it was better to be mocked than ignored". He may have had a point.

'Pipe and pint' Premier

British politicians were regarded as fair game by the satirical TV show That Was the Week That Was (TW3) which was cancelled by the BBC before the 1964 general election because it was upsetting too many politicians. It is hard to explain what a breakthrough it was to see pompous pillars of the Establishment lampooned in such a comical manner.

TW3 was followed by Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life. Harold Wilson was PM at the time and he was impersonated brilliantly by actor John Bird. Wilson preferred to be portrayed as a "pipe and pint" working class figure although in reality he was more a middle class "cigar and cognac" man. It was on this theme of Wilson's purported poverty-stricken childhood that Macmillan once commented "If Harold Wilson ever went to school without boots, it was merely because he was too big for them".

Private Eye magazine was also at the forefront of political satire and pulled no punches if it believed politicians were out of order.

The magazine often misspelt Wilson's name as "Wislon", partly just to annoy him but also to avoid libel suits. In addition, it created the expression "tired and emotional" as a euphemism for any public figure who was visibly inebriated.

Bedtime stories

My apologies to readers for misspelling the word librocubicularist in this column a fortnight ago, meaning someone who reads in bed. My thanks to eagle eyed reader Yongyuth Yuthavong for spotting this error. I knew I should have never started messing about with long words.

Mr Yongyuth informs me that he prefers writing in bed rather than reading. I don't know what the word is for that but I wouldn't mind betting it's very long. Mr Yongyuth suggested "scribocubicularist'' which is good enough for me.

I rarely write in bed partly because of fears it will spark nightmares like being trapped in a lift with Edith Clampton (Mrs). There are plenty of famous names who regularly wrote in bed including Winston Churchill, Mark Twain and Marcel Proust. George Orwell completed his last novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, on his typewriter propped up in bed, but this was primarily because he was sick at the time.

Incidentally, George Bernard Shaw, Roald Dahl and Dylan Thomas preferred the garden shed for creating their more memorable offerings.

Typewriters with attitude

These days authors use laptops and other electronic gadgets to write their precious thoughts. But for decades this was the role of typewriters.

Some well-known authors have experienced rocky relationships with their typewriters. Leonard Cohen reportedly threw his typewriter into the Aegean Sea while on the Greek island of Hydra after writing the novel Beautiful Losers. Hunter Thompson was photographed pointing a gun at his machine. American author Clarence Budington Kelland wrote: "I get up in the morning, torture a typewriter until it screams, then stop."

Ernest Hemingway sometimes typed while standing up. I tried it once but only because a chair wasn't available in an overcrowded media room in Koh Samui. It was most uncomfortable.

Some authors preferred the traditional way of writing in long hand. Graham Greene once wrote: "My two fingers on a typewriter have never connected with my brain. My hand on a pen does. A fountain pen of course. Ball-point pens are only good for filling out forms on a plane."

Guilty words

I am ashamed to admit that while moving house 16 years ago I left my old Smith Corona typewriter amongst the cobwebs in a cupboard for the workmen to play with.

It hadn't been in working condition for a decade, but I should have treated it with more respect and I've felt guilty about it ever since. It was like abandoning a pet, or losing an old friend.

I should have at least given it a decent burial.

A final word from PG Wodehouse: "I just sit at a typewriter and curse a bit." I know that feeling well.

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Roger Crutchley

Bangkok Post columnist

A long time popular Bangkok Post columnist. In 1994 he won the Ayumongkol Literary Award. For many years he was Sports Editor at the Bangkok Post.

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