Beyond the Fringe

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Beyond the Fringe
Beyond the Fringe original cast.JPG
On Broadway circa 1962 to 1964. From left, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett, Peter Cook and Jonathan Miller.
Written by Alan Bennett
Peter Cook
Jonathan Miller
Dudley Moore
Date premiered 22 August 1960 (1960-08-22)
Place premiered Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
Original language English
Genre Revue
IBDB profile

Beyond the Fringe was a British comedy stage revue written and performed by Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett, and Jonathan Miller. It played in London's West End and then on New York's Broadway in the early 1960s. Hugely successful, it is widely regarded as seminal to the rise of satirical comedy in 1960s Britain.

The show[edit]

The show was conceived in 1960 by an Oxford man, Robert Ponsonby, artistic director for the Edinburgh International Festival, with the idea of bringing together the best of the Cambridge Footlights and The Oxford Revue that in previous years had transferred to Edinburgh for short runs. John Bassett, Wadham College, Oxford graduate and assistant to Ponsonby, recommended jazz band mate and rising cabaret talent Dudley Moore, who in turn recommended Alan Bennett, who had been a hit at Edinburgh a few years before. Bassett also identified Jonathan Miller, a Footlights star in 1957. Miller recommended Cook. While Bennett and Miller were already pursuing traditional careers, Cook had an agent due to his having written a West End revue for Kenneth Williams; as a result, Cook's agent negotiated a higher weekly fee for him to participate, although by the time the agent's fee was deducted, Cook actually earned less than the others from the initial run.

The show's runs in Edinburgh and the provinces had a lukewarm response; however, when the revue transferred to the Fortune Theatre in London, produced by Donald Albery and William Donaldson, it became a sensation, thanks in some part to a favorable review by Kenneth Tynan.[1] The show crossed the Atlantic to New York with its original cast in 1962 at the John Golden Theatre, with then-current U.S. President John F. Kennedy attending a performance on 10 February 1963.

The majority of sketches were by Cook, based on material written for other revues, including "One Leg Too Few". Amongst the entirely new material, the stand-outs were "The End of the World", "TVPM", and "The Great Train Robbery". Cook and Moore revived some of the sketches on their later television and stage shows, most famously the two-hander "One Leg Too Few", in which Cook played a theatrical producer auditioning a one-legged Moore for the part of Tarzan.

The show continued in New York with most of the original cast until 1964, when Paxton Whitehead replaced Miller, while the London version continued with a different cast until 1966. It had a drastic effect on the careers of Bennett and Miller, who had been preparing for lives in academia and medicine respectively.

Controversy[edit]

The revue was widely considered to be ahead of its time, both in its unapologetic willingness to debunk figures of authority, and by virtue of its inherently surrealistic comedic vein. Humiliation of authority was something only previously delved into in The Goon Show and, arguably, Hancock's Half Hour, with such parliamentarians as Sir Winston Churchill and Harold Macmillan coming under special scrutiny — although the BBC were predisposed to frown upon it. Macmillan — according to Cook — was not particularly fond of the slurred caricature and charade of senile forgetfulness (marked by a failure to pronounce 'Conservative Party' coherently) handed down on him in Cook's impersonation. Since Beyond the Fringe was not owned by the BBC, however, the quartet enjoyed relative carte blanche. The only protocol they were obliged to adhere to stipulated that their sketches be sent to the Lord Chamberlain for approval prior to performance (a requirement abolished in 1968).

Most specifically, its lampooning of the British war effort in a sketch titled "The Aftermyth of the War" was scorned by some war veterans for its supposed insensitivity. (One British visitor to the Broadway performance was said to have stood up and shouted 'rotters!' at a sketch he found distasteful, before apparently sitting down again and enjoying the remainder of the show, while another, at the first performance in Edinburgh allegedly stood up and declared that the 'young bounders don't know the first thing about it!' and promptly left the auditorium.) In response to these negative audience reactions, the Beyond the Fringe team insisted that they were not ridiculing the efforts of those involved in the war, but were challenging the subsequent media portrayal of them.

Influence[edit]

Many see Beyond the Fringe as the forerunner to British television programmes That Was the Week That Was, At Last the 1948 Show and Monty Python's Flying Circus.

As with the established comedy revue, it was a series of satirical sketches and musical pieces using a minimal set, looking at events of the day. It effectively represented the views and disappointments of the first generation of British people to grow up after World War II, and gave voice to a sense of the loss of national purpose with the end of the British Empire. Although all of the cast contributed material, the most often quoted pieces were those by Cook, many of which had appeared before in his Cambridge Footlights revues. The show broke new ground with Peter Cook's impression of then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan; on one occasion, this was performed with Macmillan in the audience, and Cook added an ad lib ridiculing Macmillan for turning up to watch. In 2006, Jonathan Miller recounted that the breach of decorum this represented was a source of embarrassment to both audience and performers.

The show is credited with giving many other performers the courage to be satirical and more improvisational in their manner, and broke the conventions of not lampooning the Royal Family or the government of the day. However, the show wasn't all that satirical, merely making fun of things — such as war films — though even this was a step forward in comedy. Shakespearean drama was another target of their comedy. There were also a number of musical items in the show, using Dudley Moore's music, most famously an arrangement of the Colonel Bogey March which resists Moore's repeated attempts to bring it to an end.

The show prefigured the Satire Boom of the 1960s. Without it, there might not have been either That Was the Week That Was or Private Eye, the satirical magazine which originated at the same time, that partially survived due to financial support from Peter Cook, and that served as the model for the later American Spy Magazine. Cook and Moore formed a comedy team and appeared in the popular television show Not Only... But Also, and the 1967 film Bedazzled. Cook also launched his club, The Establishment, around this time. Many of the members of Monty Python recall being inspired by Beyond the Fringe.

The retrospective show Before the Fringe, broadcast during the early years of BBC 2, took its title from this production. It consisted of performances of material that was popular in theatrical revue before the advent of Beyond the Fringe.[2]

The show was revived in slightly altered form in Los Angeles in 2000 and 2001 by Joseph Dunn's ReEstablishment Theater to critical acclaim.

All four original members of Beyond the Fringe feature prominently in the play Pete and Dud: Come Again, by Chris Bartlett and Nick Awde. Appropriately, the comedy drama had a sellout run at the 2005 Edinburgh Festival Fringe before transferring to London's West End at The Venue, in 2006, in a version starring Kevin Bishop as Moore, Tom Goodman-Hill as Cook, Fergus Craig as Alan Bennett and Colin Hoult as Jonathan Miller. It subsequently embarked on a nationwide tour.

Quotations[edit]

  • (Said by Squadron Leader to Flight Officer Perkins): "I want you to lay down your life, Perkins." "Right sir!" "We need a futile gesture at this stage. It will raise the whole tone of the war." "Yessir!" "Get up in a crate, Perkins." "Sah!" "Pop over to Bremen." "Yessir!" "Take a shufti." "Right sir!" "And don't come back." "Yessir" "Goodbye, Perkins. God, I wish I was going too." "Goodbye Sah! – Or is it au revoir?" "No, Perkins."
  • Peter Cook as E.L. Wisty: "Yes, I could have been a judge, but I never had the Latin. I never had the Latin for the judgin'."
  • Cook as Macmillan recounting a summit meeting with U.S. President John F. Kennedy: "We talked of many things, including Great Britain's position in the world as some kind of honest broker. I agreed with him when he said no nation could be more honest, and he agreed with me when I chaffed him and said no nation could be broker."
  • Cook to Moore in "One Leg Too Few": "Your right leg I like. I like your right leg. That's what I said when I saw it come in Mr. Spiggot. 'Lovely leg. Lovely, lovely leg.' I've got nothing against your right leg, Mr. Spiggot. The trouble is, neither have you."
  • Alan Bennett as falsetto-voiced vicar, in "Take a Pew": "But my brother Esau is an hairy man, and I am a smooth man." (Quoting Genesis 27:11)
  • "Then, unavoidably, came peace."

Discography[edit]

  • Beyond the Fringe, UK, Parlophone, audio lp, mono, 1961, PMC 1145
  • Beyond the Fringe (Original Broadway Cast Recording), USA Capitol, audio lp, mono, 1962, W1792 - also stereo SW1792
  • Alexander H Cohen Presents Beyond the Fringe '64, USA Capitol, audio lp, mono, 1964, W2072 - also stereo SW2072
  • Complete Beyond the Fringe [Box set], EMI Audio CD, 21 October 1996, ASIN: B000006SW2
  • Beyond the Fringe, Acorn Media DVD, 5 October 2005, AMP 7990, ISBN 1-56938-799-0. "The complete 1964 gala farewell performance"
  • Beyond The Fringe Live At The Cambridge Arts Theatre, UK, EMI audio CD, 2011

Bibliography[edit]

  • Smiles, Roy (2008) Afternoon Play: Good Evening (BBC Radio 4)*Carpenter, Humphrey (2000) That Was Satire That Was ISBN 0-575-06588-5
  • Cook, W (Ed) (2004) Goodbye Again ISBN 1-84413-400-8
  • Bennett, Alan (1994) Writing Home ISBN 0-571-17388-8
  • Paskin, Barbra (1997) Dudley Moore ISBN 0-330-35322-5
  • Thompson, Harry (1997) Peter Cook ISBN 0-340-64969-0
  • Bergan, Ronald, Beyond the Fringe … and Beyond. London, Virgin Books (1989) ISBN 1-85227-175-2
  • Wilmut, Roger, From Fringe to Flying Circus. (Celebrating a Unique Generation of Comedy, 1960-1980), London, Methuen (1980) ISBN 978-0-413-46950-2
  • Good Evening, a play about the Beyond The Fringe team by English playwright Roy Smiles, was staged in South Africa in 2009 and broadcast on Radio 4 in 2010.

References[edit]

  1. ^ See Humphrey Carpenter That Was Satire That Was, pp. 122-23; Tynan's review is extensively quoted.
  2. ^ Before the Fringe at the Internet Movie Database

External links[edit]