What we remember about classic comedians is seldom their jokes. It is something far more physical: how they walk, how they phrase their sentences, in other words their entire way of behaving. That, in turn, translates into a set of images: Lucille Ball's mouth when she screamed - she always screamed - or the eerie clarity of Jack Benny's walk and the frightening length of his silences. (On his first appearance in London a man in the audience yelled 'For God's sake say something!'.) And as we watch, great performers reduce to a hieroglyph, an essence or a gesture like a Toulouse-Lautrec drawing.
If Lautrec were alive he would draw the British comic Michael Barrymore, a stick insect dressed like a trainee bank clerk. But right now there might be other reasons for drawing him, for at the height of his career Barrymore has apparently just attempted suicide. There is nothing novel about depressive comedians. Nor is there anything startlingly new about Barrymore's act. What is original is Barrymore as a person, and the risks he feels compelled to take. (What other comedian can work with children or sing a sentimental song and mean it?) So far two television vehicles have been conceived for him: Barrymore, a sort of talk show, and My Kind of People, a kind of talent contest without prizes, shot in shopping malls and other public places all over Britain. Neither is strictly defined. If a team of Greeks demonstrates folk-dancing, for example, Barrymore, their ubiquitous host, will do it too, breaking plates across his legs. If a guest sings, Barrymore may join in. And though critics deplore this tendency towards vampirism, it has one advantage: in the era of tele-prompters, when lines are read, not meant or felt, someone is doing his best to revive impromptu entertainment.
Never having defined what he does, Barrymore needs more breathing space than most, moving from songs to jokes to dances to acrobatics to huge, tacky extravaganzas. Audiences never know what to expect. It could be a stage full of men with eye-patches and cutlasses, singing The Pirates of Penzance, or an intimate chat with Eastenders star Gillian Taylforth, recently apprehended by the police for having sex in a stationary car. What links these disparate elements? The only underlying principles are that Barrymore is a good all-rounder and a bit of a lad, that he enjoys the company of other people, gets bored easily but is always prepared to make mistakes or cope with those of others.
One of his most embarrassing interviews was with the Marquis of Bath. Nutty as a fruitcake, the hippie marquis wearing a tie-dyed kaftan ignored every question put to him, showed unmistakable signs of being tired and emotional and seemed quite impervious to logic. For his host, there was no escape. How on earth could he get this person off the stage? In a stroke of genius, Barrymore remembered a couple of rhyming words that had cropped up in the course of the conversation, helped the overwrought aristocrat to his feet, then, to the delight of the audience, danced and sang him sideways off-camera. Only Barrymore could have managed to do that without hurting the feelings of a guest, ruining the continuity of the show or turning the oblivious, harmless Marquis into even more of a buffoon than he is already. It was an exercise in good manners, but also a piece of consummate stagecraft.
For if Barrymore belongs to a tradition it is undoubtedly a stage tradition: that of the all-round entertainer. A personality rather than an act, he needs devices only to be able to emerge as himself. More than anything, he needs the proximity of other people, since his humour depends on exchange. One precursor seems to have particularly influenced him: Bruce Forsyth, who recently retired. Forsyth became a star overnight. When ITV's expensive weekly showcase Sunday Night at the London Palladium needed a host, Forsyth, a song-and-dance man who worshipped Sammy Davis Junior, was discovered working at a Butlin's holiday camp, singing and organising games for the campers. Luckily for him, the the highlight of the Palladium extravaganza was Beat the Clock, silly games played by volunteers picked from the audience. On his first night he chose a woman called Beattie, who ignored him, ruined every one of the games and did not stop talking from beginning to end. The audience was hysterical.
Henceforth the fantasy of singing and dancing was never allowed to overshadow his ad-libs, his alarming bossiness and his strange, elaborately mannered presence. Later, when live entertainment gave way to TV quizzes and other competitions, Forsyth was ready for it. For the rest of his working life he compered one game show after another, all variants on the old holiday-camp frolics, all depending totally on his raffish, aggravating persona: a fast-talking car salesman with an answer for everything. Walk through any London market - Petticoat Lane or Walworth Road - and you meet people just like him, selling china or anything else that has dropped off a lorry. Only a few intellectuals realised the significance of these salesmen and their world, notably George Orwell in his essay on British seaside postcards and T.S. Eliot in his envious homage to Marie Lloyd. While the chatter can be seen off the stage, for the public, each star was someone authentic, necessary and unique. As Max Miller would say, 'There'll never be another when I'm gone'.
The funniest man I have ever seen, no photographs or recordings do Miller justice. Not even when John Osborne wrote The Entertainer, based his character Archie Rice on him and cast Olivier in the role, was there a glimpse of the excitement that Miller generated. He played an audience like an angler plays a fish, tempting them, leading them on, then feigning naiveté. The act began with Miller simply walking up and down, looking pleased with himself. Wearing a white hat and a dressing-gown over plus-fours and a flowery jacket, he would interrupt his promenade by shouting 'Oh no I'm not!'. As if it were all a Punch and Judy show, the audience would yell 'Oh yes you are!', at which Miller carried on parading himself while the band kept playing. Only in Britain, it seems, is this possible, perhaps because of Shakespeare and pantomime dames but more probably because we just like doing it. Miller talked about his body and his sexual exploits, mixing conventional tokens of sexual identity. What intellectuals have missed in their analysis is the hint that what he was doing was not an act at all.
It was in a similar vein that Michael Barrymore began, his party-piece an elaborate routine involving a stage full of professional soldiers, with whom he marched (badly) and tried in vain to make normal eye-contact. The interloper soon realised that professional soldiers are not allowed to respond in any way, but like a naughty child, he was determined to break down the imperviousness of their fixed stares. At the climax of the act - as you suspected, dreaded and hoped - he was unable to resist temptation and gave one of the guardsmen a kiss on the cheek. The audience erupted. If ever there was innocent fun, this was it, and no one but Barrymore could have thought of setting up such an elaborate excuse for such a tiny joke. The irony of the act is now apparent, since last August Barrymore publicly announced that he was homosexual.
No problem, you reply, particularly for an entertainer, particularly in Britain. Unfortunately, it is the move that is wrecking his career and his life at the same time. Pushed by the tabloid press, he came out on radio, a move masterminded by Jeremy Joseph, at whose weekly night at Heaven he had been seen dancing with men. His agent and wife for 20 years resigned herself to the situation when Barrymore disappeared to Switzerland for a holiday with a 22 year-old chef, but a week later he announced that the affair had been called off. It was the beginning of a nightmare from which Barrymore is still trying to recover. His career suddenly took a nose-dive; My Kind of People was cancelled after viewing figures fell from ten to nine million. This January he returned to his wife, then embarked on a new stage show in London, an obvious attempt to restore his reputation. Reviewers raved. 'Utterly captivating' said the Guardian, 'Triumphant ... Unimpeachable', the Independent on Sunday concluded.
The situation is unclear. While television companies are keen to 'release' him from contracts, audiences interrupt his live performances by shouting messages of support. Barrymore's fans consist not only of blue-rinsed women and their retired husbands, but also of much younger people. Barrymore remains nervous about his scripts, but if he worked entirely from scripts he would have nothing to worry about. 'He cracks only one gay joke all evening,' wrote one reviewer, 'Putting his leg around a man from the audience... The audience loves it, as does the punter, who puts his own leg around Barrymore in response. But Barrymore doesn't love it...' The story continues. Barrymore was traced to a psychiatric hospital after insulting guests at an award ceremony, and the News of the World, truly the gutter press, reported the drug overdose. Perhaps this is just part of the world that every comedian has to face: the recurring nightmare that people are not laughing at your jokes but instead are laughing at you, and that Jean-Paul Sartre was right: hell really is other people.