Sunday, 4 July 2010


'Without 'two world wars and one world cup', as the song goes, the English would have disappeared from even their own imaginations by the year 2000.' Peter Handke

'Without the Beatles, England are Portugal; Empireless and small.' Ian Svenonius, The Psychic Soviet

' [These comedies] come with the idea: we the British, and more specifically, we the English, can laugh at ourselves, and that is what makes us better than you. But it also contains the more troubling thought: we can laugh at ourselves, because whatever we are, we know we're better than you.' Stephen Fry

When England were paired with Germany in the World Cup last week, it resurrected age-old cliches that even the brazen seemed to use half-heartedly, aware that the ground had shifted. But use them they did, and when Our Boys were ambushed by a swashbuckling young German side filled with various ethnicities, the great unspoken English response was: that should be us. But naturally, it couldn't be, not right now, because deep introspection and radical projection isn't natural for the English (we use a French term, avant-garde, remember, because we have no equivalent of our own).

The goal that wasn't was one of those poetic echoes that sport, unscripted, throws up, a beautifully crafted red herring, in this case.

The Second World War gave Britain several things: A renewed feeling that her innate sense of moral superiority was correct (the geographical spread of the Nazi forces everywhere but the islands is both a fact and a metaphor), a celebratory complacency (for while America thrived in a consumerist glee adrenilized by rock'n'roll/Vietnam/Space Race euphoria, and the rest of Western Europe rebuilt and modernized itself, Britain clung to a sepia infrastructure) and a ribald miscellany of comic types to sustain itself for twenty years, thirty years, forever.1 From the kinky Gestapo officer to the tediously punctual guard, to name but two, the Nazis as joyless sadists turn up again and again, especially in the Nineteen Seventies,when every sitcom/stand-up routine/sexploitation comedy of English origin had one.

Always, it is the notion of spirited, fair-playing Englishmen which prevails, the plucky geezer fighting the robotic enemy. Of course, a berserk romanticism on the part of the Nazi's is key to what undid them. but its kinder (and lazier) to think about them as automatons consistently outgagged and outsmarted by an Englishman, with common sense,wit and attitude.

Adolf Hitler '68 Comeback Special seizes the same turf, initially, as Heil Honey I'm Home, or 'Allo 'Allo: it's mean panto season, then, and our ugly sisters wear swastikas. Shot with the same tone as the Robin Asquith 'Confessions...' flicks, and often with a similar cast and locales (Southend stands in for Paraguay, Brixton is Manhattan), John Le Mesurier plays an eerily un-uncanny Erwin Rommel in the style of Roger Moore, trying to guide the second coming of Hitler (Tony Booth) back from the jungle hideaway in Paraguay he has inhabited since 1945. His plan: Career resurrection, Broadway style. He books a televised show (under the pseudonym Johnny Fuhrer, a name later adopted by the singer of shock punks The Swasticklers) at Carnegie Hall where he will unveil the fourth reich, supported by hypnotism, which he hopes to conquer the new empire of America with. Only his timing is awful, as he discovers that the night he has booked is the same night that Elvis Presley's Comeback is being televised from Las Vegas. The entire world will be looking elsewhere.

Against advice, Hitler plays the show anyway, and to an audience of three, he performs a play, 'Spy Finkel and the Gormless Rotunda', in which a member of the Reich infiltrates America and discovers its pitiful and horrific daily existence.1 The joke is that Hitler's grandly pompous narrative arc, approaching fifteen hours with the menace of a panzer division's progress through Ukranian frost, is so devoid of entertainment (especially in comparison with Elvis' charm) that no-one could ever sit through it comfortably. But this is dealt with so smugly, that one comes away feeling immense sympathy for the misunderstood auteur of epic plays/mass genocide/ethnic cleansing. The underlying feeling is that this Hitler, failing Austrian painter, is an outsider talent being crushed under the wheels of an ignorant entertainment industry. Fuelled by Nazi bullion and a dream he books a rundown theatre for a year, and continues to play the show to nobody, heroically.

Tony Booth is grandly sypathetic, coaching from the front row every night, convinced that with slight script tweaks and absolute commitment he'll have his hit. John Le Mesurier plays Rommel as a resigned but dutiful right-hand, coping with the Fuhrer's eccentricities and his own alcoholism with suave and offbeat style. His white-suited Rommel is immaculate even when waking from the gutter. They're both too likable and foolish to hate, which somehow seems like the grandest faux pas of all.

And then Nazis fell out of fashion, at least in comedy. Stephen Frears' Somme Girls Are Bigger Than Others (1986) was a late, independent dig, mixing First and Second World War metaphors with death-by-Thatcher northern yearning. But the archetypes live on, and on, perpetrated mostly by English minds 'who have already decided on their place in the world, and it is at the top table.'4

Adolf Hitler '68 Comeback Special Directed by Tom Lancaster Produced by Bert Harris Written by Tom Lancaster, Simon Humphries Starring Tony Booth, John Le Mesurier Rank Organisation Release Date UK: Aug 1974, US:N/A, 104 mins Tagline 'The Most Notorious Act of the Century is Back!'

1. And by Britain, in this case, I mainly mean England. Wales and Scotland have other nationalistic crutches to cling to. The Northern Irish.... well, I'll leave the Northern Irish alone for now.
2. Sam Mendes directed a version of this play on the London stage in 2000. It was restricted eight hours, but received some minor praise.
3 .I quote German thinker Pierre Littbarski: 'The English are forced to use a French term, 'avant-garde', becauser they have no equivalent. Their children are stripped of dangerous thoughts, punished under a grammar hammer. The cleverest English are comedians and popular musicians. Ask an Englishman to name a clever fellow countryman,and they will say Stephen Fry. Or Morissey. 'Yes, that bugger's a smartarse.' Philosophical questions must be framed in these highly accessible forms. This is not necessarily a bad thing. So: navel gazing about the war is restricted to casual romanticism.'
4. George Bernard Shaw.


  1. where and when did handke make such an inane statement? since handke is on your list - i would say there are nearly a dozen of his books and plays that are essential - here the portals to a lot of material of his and about him on the web:

    the new HUB to all Handke-blogs

    and all

  2. Where and when did Handke make such an inane statement? More troubling is how and why. To the latter I have no answer, but to the former I'd guess that it was through the side of his mouth, deadpan.

    Truth is I'm prone to making stuff up. Fake films, fake quotes. Except when they're not.

    Thanks for the Handke links, I appreciate it.