Heroes of Comedy: Dick Emery

Saturday, April 13, 2002 by

When the Heroes of Comedy series first began on Channel 4 it was something of a revelation. Here was a tribute programme that used “talking heads” to the best effect yet seen and dispensed with ponderous and hagiographic narrative. People who actually knew and worked with the subject talked and revealed a little of the subject that might otherwise have gone unknown to mortals such as I.

The first programme was a piece on Tommy Cooper and was uncharacteristically long at 90 minutes. However it was a superb work that included testimony from Cooper’s wife and showbiz luminaries such as Eric Sykes, a genuinely emotional Jimmy Tarbuck (Cooper famously died on stage during his show) and an extraordinary commentary from Anthony Hopkins where he recounted his impersonation of Cooper to the cast and crew on The Silence of the Lambs. The series went on to include programmes on Frankie Howerd, Terry Thomas, Benny Hill and Peter Cook amongst others.

Sadly these halcyon days are all but forgotten and a once great series has rather fallen into the ordinary.

This is not to decry the subject matter by any means. Last Saturday night a fulsome – and long overdue – tribute was afforded Dick Emery, a past giant of light entertainment who created laughter for so many people and for so long that he deserves all the plaudits he has – and more pointedly, has not – received in recent times. But like light entertainment this programme is not what it was.

After the original run came a further series entitled Heroes of Comedy: The Living Legends, a rather obvious device to overcome the fact that the series creator, former Thames producer John Fisher (also the off screen unheard interviewer of the talking heads), couldn’t think of anyone else to include in his illustrious pantheon. However, since these programmes included subjects such as Ronnie Barker that could be forgiven. Now however, we have departed from even that diversionary path and returned to plain Heroes of Comedy but the stranding has been dropped so that in this most recent run we have been given portraits of the late Dick emery and the still very much with us Ronnie Corbett (although one cannot help but think that this episode was compiled simply out of a sort of obligation to Corbett since Barker had been covered and it might have seemed too obvious a snub to Corbett for Fisher not complete the set, as it were).

So that brings us back to last Saturday’s show on Dick Emery. Many nuggets of information were to be had here: his parent’s act – as described by the man himself during his last interview (such rediscovered gems being one of the few continuing glories of the series as a whole) – his childhood troubles and his spell in military prison amongst them. The quality of researched and archive material on show in these programmes has always been its most interesting facet. The show included much pertinent and relevant commentary from those who had known and worked with Emery (no Jamie Theakston or Kate Thornton here, thank God) including Roy Hudd, Pat Coombs, Bill Cotton and, somewhat erroneously but very happily, Sir John Mills. The content of the show was of a good standard, so what’s the problem? It is not this but the overall listlessness of the programme, the atmosphere that surrounds it that troubles more than anything else. One cannot help but think that if the producers thought so much of Emery, why was he not included earlier in the run? One can picture a production office far inside some innocuous office block with John Fisher and others sitting around sucking biros and posing the question to one another, “Who’s left?”

Too ephemeral a criticism? Perhaps, but these things bother me when such subjects so dear to my heart are in question.

Perhaps we should just be grateful that a tribute is being made at all. Certainly I should be happy that at least some care is being put into their production and we are not faced with the aforementioned Theakston grimacing and drivelling, “Mandy Dunnit? What was all that about? He just looked the same but in a wig!” But like most television viewers I want more. I am a snob where these things are concerned. The first series of Heroes of Comedy was something of an event and to be included in its ranks has lent an air of superiority to those profiled (not that many of them needed it). So when one comes across such a worthy subject so far down the line it irks.

But then perhaps it is only Pat Coombs, Roy Hudd, Bill Cotton, John Mills and me that think that. The programme-makers don’t seem to. The real problem here is that this series has descended from the alpine peaks of achievement into mediocrity and that really is a shame.


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