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Martin Pengelly On … Humour in Vintage Radio

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The Fitzrovia Radio Hour brings classic radio with roaring tales evoking the age of cultural imperialism.

The Fitzrovia Radio Hour has been broadcasting for three years. In that time, what is funny and what is not funny in a theatrical-vintage-radio-parody has become clear.

Nazis, for example, are funny. But Communists are not. You might call this the Indiana Jones Paradigm, if that didn’t sound like an unfortunate Robert Ludlum novel. In enthralling radio thrillers set in the 1940s, Nazi villains, the camper the better, raise laughs. But Communists provoke (appropriately) poker faces.

Maybe it’s because we, “the British”, beat the Nazis but the Americans beat the Commies. Maybe it’s because we tell ourselves that. The Fitzrovia Radio Hour, after all, trades upon a certain view of Britain’s imperial past, or the end of it. A view of what it was like when the globe's pink bits were bigger than Gibraltar and a speck of grit in the South Atlantic.

Related to that, a turban is not funny, really, but a fez decidedly is. We are not quite sure why this is, expect for perhaps the Tommy Cooper factor (Ludlum again) and the fact that an Indian character played by a white actor, though appropriate to time and place, doesn't sit well with modern crowds. Then again, the same actor playing some absurd abstract ‘Turk' does. Curious.

The Fitzrovia Radio Hour also presents domestic tales. Within which, an amnesiac housewife remembering through hypnosis (and gin) that she was responsible for the death of her one-year-old son is not funny. But the same housewife pushing her husband down the stairs, to the result of a 'broken neck' is.

Sound effects help, of course. In the above instance, said husband’s fall is accompanied by a heavy suitcase being roiled about and then, at the point of lethal fracture, a roll of bubblewrap being violently wrenched. In the lingo, this is a ‘banker’.

What else? Condescension towards women is funny; condescension towards servants is not. But then, condescension towards northerners (particularly those who gut themselves on lathes) is fine. To which add Welshmen, Scots and some Irishmen. Meaning, Republic funny; North, not. Careful abuse of cabbages and melons for sound is funny; carefully constructed soundscapes involving actors, whisks and even chainsaws are sometimes, heartbreakingly, not.

The Fitzrovia Radio Hour is about to return to the Edinburgh Festival, where such conventions will be tested again. So, five actors in evening wear presenting enthralling radio adventures at The Gilded Balloon, every day at 4pm? Funny. The state of our communal bathroom at the end of August? Not.

The Fitzrovia Radio Hour runs form the 3-29 August (excl 17) at 16.0 at the Gilded Balloon Teviot.


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