Forgotten Heroes of Comedy
An extract from Robert's latest publication, the definitive tribute to Marty Feldman, 'The Biography of a Comedy Legend'. one of those unfairly forgotten heroes of comedy, forgotten no more...
"Comedy, like sodomy, is an unnatural act."
Today, if you mention the name Marty Feldman to even the most ardent of comedy fans the chances are you will engender one of two responses. An affectionate chuckle at those lop-sided eyes of his as he gallantly crusades throughout a psychedelic sixties countryside, usually with a golf club firmly gripped. Or an affectionate chuckle at those lop-sided eyes of his as he channels old-school vaudeville within a vintage Universal horror setting. Cries of: "Hump? What hump?" or one of a dozen or so other deliciously quotable lines from Mel Brooks's 'Young Frankenstein' would be the most commonly evoked response, particularly by anyone under the age of thirty.
For 'Young Frankenstein' remains the most celebrated and accessible of Marty's work: an international, block-busting comedy success that made him a Hollywood favourite at the age of 40.
But for Marty, life didn't start with him reaching his ambition for film stardom. Never again was he as relaxed, creative, popular and just plain likeable in a film project. Bitter clashes with studio executives and an endearing refusal to compromise his integrity saw his most personal projects scuppered by corporate politics. Almost as soon as he tasted fame in America he began missing the 'hungry' years. But not in that glorious, all-conquering Summer of 1974.
As he basked in the California sunshine, Marty had made it. This was the pinnacle he had worked so hard to achieve. As the palm tree sways and an endless line of media interviewers clamoured for his thoughts on the film industry, Marty's thoughts must have wistfully returned to the thankless slog through British variety as part of Morris, Marty and Mitch. In 1974 he was more likely to be spotted at the Hollywood Bowl rather than the Chiswick Empire. His friends and colleagues were the likes of Dean Martin, Orson Welles and Groucho Marx rather than bottom of the bill variety turns.
But Marty retained his affection for his early days. Those far off days when a combined passion for jazz and silent comedy propelled him through a myriad of dead-end jobs and half-realised ambitions.
As he sipped fruity-flavoured alcohol and mapped out his first big solo Hollywood project, Marty could look back on a twenty-year long stint of writing comedy. Throughout the 1950s he had dutifully towed the line, writing safe and simple situation comedy and radio variety for the big names of the day. He had brought fresh blood to ITV's flag-ship show 'The Army Game' and put words into the wooden mouth of Peter Brough's badly-behaved ventriloquist dummy Archie Andrews.
Family-geared entertainment for the masses but, with Marty's jet-black comedy imagination in the mix, a deceptively mild show could conceal sharp barbs of satire and surrealism. This trend for, in effect, bucking the trend of British comedy found it's longest-lasting and most potent home in BBC Radio's 'Round the Horne'. One of the four cornerstones of radio humour, the show was a Trojan horse of smut. The English Sunday lunchtime was never quite the same again.
But Marty was nobody's fool. He knew that success in England meant very little to the majority of his American audience. Indeed, success as a script-writing didn't mean all that much to audiences in England either. Rather than being famous for around a decade he was known and only by a relatively select few. He was known as the most inventive, prolific and speediest scriptwriter in the business. That business was radio and television and within the confines of middle-of-the-road situation comedy and middle-class revue he had smuggled in a streak of eccentricity. An off-the-wall squint at life wrapped in a cosy familiarity.
In America, the lengthy list of writers on a television show would whiz past their eyes so fast no-one was known except the star of the show. Woody Allen and Neil Simon may have been slaving away behind the scenes but Sid Ceasar was the national treasure. It was only when Marty went out on a limb and out in front of the cameras that audiences sat up and took notice. Only when colour was added to the mix would American stations begin to bring Marty's outlandish mix of slapstick and silliness to an even wider audience. Every decade or so America would pick up an English performer and embrace him. They would almost became a sideshow freak. The English comic tempted over from his homeland to sit in captivity in Hollywood and entertain studio bosses with their funny accent and outmoded good manners. In effect it was America poking him with a stick and making him dance. Marty was only going to dance to his own tune.
That tune was the one he had built up over a fairly short period at the BBC and at ATV. Pied Piper like he had a choice collection of writers and stooges who trailed after him where-ever he wanted them to go. With his affable charm, softly-spoken determination and keen perfectionism he found his niche on British television. Here was a performer unique in every sense of the word. His face was instantly recognisable. His comedy was deeply-rooted in the past while continually taking huge strides into the future and he was a star personality and performer who retained his dignity and humility.
In the late 1960s it was the coolest thing in the world to be English. Marty was at the epicentre of fashion, art, music and politics. He was a satirical hippy with mad hair, mad eyes and a heart full of justice for his fellow man. He was a guru for the comedy children of the revolution.
Michael Palin recalls: "being in awe of Marty. He seemed so wise and assured at what he was doing." Long-time cohort Tim Brooke-Taylor explains that: "there was always a sense of foreboding about Marty. He would often look me in the eye and say, 'Well, when you're my age, you'll understand.' He was only six years older than me!" Marty was perfectly suited to the surreal here and now of London in the late 1960s. He could wear a Flower Power T-Shirt or a floral tie and make it look as 'in' and 'groovy' as John Lennon could. 'At Last the 1948 Show', the pioneering sketch show that made his name, may have been the immediate jump-lead to 'Monty Python's Flying Circus' and 'The Goodies' but it was Marty and Marty alone who was propelled to almost instant solo stardom.
His name was big enough to put in to the title of a television hit. Indeed, his finest work with the BBC was enjoyed under the ego-pleasing title: 'Marty'. Skilfully and lovingly combining the visual dexterity of Buster Keaton with the insane babble of Spike Milligan, Marty became a national figure of some clout and importance. More than just a comedian, he was a symbol for the swinging sixties movement of expression and self-censorship. As much a part of the in-crowd as Keith Richards, David Hockney and Terence Stamp, Marty would wear the latest fashion, support the latest campaign and comment on the latest world events.
He gave evidence for the defence at the Oz decency trial at the Old Bailey and even recorded his own hit album of comedy songs. It was hardly 'Abbey Road', but still. Marty was the hip comedian. One of the beautiful people.
In some ways it must have seemed a lifetime away as Marty sat discussing his Igor character in 'Young Frankenstein'. The classic television he had produced during the late 1960s and early 1970s was still vibrant and fresh in the States. Indeed, he would often recreate vintage material for American television variety spots. But in England he was all-ready being thought of as yesterday's man. The British audiences loved success, of course, but weren't that keen on huge success. There was always that danger that he would make a huge name for himself in Hollywood and never come back. As Marty's big film projects crashed and burned and his presence on English television came to a grinding halt, the major insecurities started to emerge. For a performer who lived on his nerves this was disastrous for Marty.
But success on British television had just been a stepping stone to success in American films. This wasn't an arrogant attitude on Marty's part, it was simply what he wanted. Or, as regular writing partner Barry Took noted, "what he thought he wanted". It was Marty's dream to be making his own starring vehicle in Hollywood. He thought it would be just like the Golden age of his heroes like Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Laurel and Hardy. But of course it wasn't. Hollywood in the 1970s was far, far different from what it had been fifty years earlier. It had always been a business but when Marty was making his films the business aspect was all-consuming. Keaton worked bloody hard but he had fun on set. One got the impression that Marty's Hollywood experience was a pretty depressing one.
Throughout the wild eighteen months that saw him burn brightest in Britain, Marty had became the most talked about and influential comedian in the country. His family life was his rock and his artistic passion was comedy. As long as there was room for jazz and cigarettes as well he was a very contended man indeed. His ego, though floated by success, was never completely inflated.
In America, a few remnants of colour television insanity from Hollywood and a much-loved and influential turn for Mel Brooks wasn't enough to sustain him. His own writing and directing projects would turn into living hell. His subsequent collaborations with Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks would never equal the razor-sharp, free-wheeling, unbridled joy of 'Young Frankenstein'.
But that Summer of 1974 must have been wonderful. Marty was fit, funny and forty. An international star in a major box-office hit. If the sun could have slowly sunk in the west and the end credits had rolled there and then it would have been the perfect Hollywood ending. But, alas, those don't happen: particularly not in Hollywood.