It was a stupidly brief bus ride to Chiswick in the circumstances, he surmised. Stupid because of the gulf between the place he’d been thinking of returning to permanently and the place he was now. Regarding the now, he was in BBC Television Centre in the boring prosaic sense, but it was a palace that they’d stormed if you liked to get symbolic about that sort of stuff.
People talked about breaking down the walls of comedy, but even the sceptic in him marvelled at that point, in 1980, at what the four of them were going through. They were on some kind of tightrope where you were rebel and royalty all at the same time and you didn’t stop to think about what was lurking on the drop either side. Just as bloody well really.
The bus ride to Chiswick would have taken him back to the bookies’ shop where he’d grown up and where he’d been ready to return and play the day job game for good. It was doing what he loved – acting – that had propelled him on when he was ready to chuck in the thing he loved, but you could have said that about the three other people around him as well. They’d all had to claw like hell to get anything remotely resembling a break, and maybe some of that hard-bitten drive had channelled its way into the photoshoot which resulted in the cover of the first tie-in book.
He was too modest to say it, but that picture had pulsated earnestness: all four of them crammed disarmingly and possessively into the lens, two heads upon two heads like Freddie Mercury and co in that video five years earlier but with none of the sense of high camp. He’d clenched his mouth shut and eyeballed the camera, perhaps, some wag had suggested, with a touch of Al Capone alongside an attempt to emulate his childhood hero, Tony Hancock.
Rowan had not gurned but had deadpanned, genuinely glumly withering and – yes – faintly hostile. For that second, he hadn’t been a comic character: he’d been something impenetrable. Pam had just done perfect demure ice queen: maybe not scowling like her male counterparts, but not welcoming either.
And Griff: well, he’d spend his life in Griff’s pocket and vice versa forever and a day after that, but even years after a certain familiar comfort with Griff’s tics and traits, he marvelled at how his friend had nailed it: wide-eyed, lips slightly parted (unlike the others), imperiously glowering and yet awestruck as if he were staring down a black hole at a future he couldn’t fathom. Years later, it was easy to admit that the kind of humour you’d pioneered was out of fashion; at the time, he wondered, only half in jest, if that kind of look would make everything else unfashionable forever.
So that was the zeitgeist. Looking back, he hoped he’d openly acknowledged how much the other three had been part of it at the time, but he wouldn’t sell one of his particular moments short either. The producer, John, couldn’t assert enough how they were trying to create realistic comedy – no more stilted sketches with elaborate wordplay in pubs with flat caps, warm beer and obsolete shove ha’penny boards, and no more smut-but-no-swearing-for-bourgeois-audiences if the truth was that vernacular language was the language of the street.
And indeed, in that moment, in that sketch, where he’d been the professor who had taught a gorilla to talk and who had regretted it forever, he wasn’t some scatty, mutton-chopped, wild-haired dapster with Victorian vowels – he was a dressed-down, bogged-down, tested academic forever looking a little frayed, and, as his character had said, now looking at his serious scientific project being pulled apart by the wretched creature who should have brought him acclaim.
Even early on in that sketch, even as Pam’s interviewer character delivered the lulling intonation about some extraordinary breakthroughs in communication between men and animals, he’d felt a frisson in the audience as if they knew this might be something new hatched: all the surrealism of Python and yet something recognisable from their own lives as well.
They got it when Pam looked ever so slightly horrified after the gorilla had interrupted his master and said he’d been taken into captivity in ’68, not ’67. They got it that Rowan was almost entirely hidden within the gorilla costume but that you could still see his eyes and lips: it was all too false and all too real at the same time. And they’d erupted with laughter when Rowan had delivered the first pungent verbal gag: the one about the gorilla not just being wild upon capture but being absolutely livid. As such, Mel knew he’d have to make the most low-key line the most loaded, and, appropriately in a show starting with the word not, he was oddly aware of a faint mantra in his mind as he prepared to take his cue.
Professor: Yes, he’s living with me, yes.
Gorilla: Though not in the Biblical sense! (self-satisfied laugh)
Not the betting shop. Not back to the betting shop again.
Interviewer: Er, yes, I was going to ask you actually Gerald, do you have a ‘mate’..?
You can gamble. Splutter all the money on horses you want. Live the good life. Play your 45 folk vinyls until they’re worn out. But not back to the bookies like that.
Gorilla: Yeah, I’ve got lots of mates, erm, there’s the professor, there’s his son Toby, there’s Raymond next door..
Interviewer: Er, no, actually…
Gorilla: Oh, I see, oh I see what you mean, crumpet, crumpet!
Not now Smith, not now.
Now, Smith. Now.
“You didn’t tell me you were friendly with Raymond.”
The audience almost too shocked to laugh.
Laughter like the sound of a faint alarm.
Raw nerves and laughter all mixed up.
Knowing what’s going through their heads:
The professor’s going to lump the gorilla.
The gorilla’s going to swing at the professor.
If this isn’t living in the Biblical sense, what is it?
A love triangle. An envy triangle.
All the horrible domestic rows we know about taking place the length and breadth of this country every night.
All condensed and vacuum-sealed into nine words.
And there, unseen, the all-too potent Raymond.
And for one moment, he, the actor, had got into their heads with the sharpest of snapshots of their lives.
No need for self-doubt on that one. It was a given.
You could bet on it.
Story copyright Aidan McGee 2015, with script attributed to Richard Curtis and Rowan Atkinson quoted from Not The Nine O’ Clock News, Series 2 Episode 5, BBC2, 28th April 1980.