Beyond The Fringe (Online review)

Beyond The Fringe (Online review)

When four young men from quite different backgrounds got together in the early days of the Sixties, who could have imagined that they would conquer London and Broadway with a simply staged show that ran for years and is often quoted as kick starting a satire boom which helped to dismantle class divisions in the post War/end of Empire days? Actually formulated as part of Edinburgh’s official annual festival – as opposed to that upstart off shoot the Fringe – this month marks the 60th anniversary of its debut and, luckily, a recorded for television version from 1964 still exists so we can all see what the fuss was about.


Beyond The Fringe is remarkably sparse in its use of set, costumes and props – apparently more of a financial choice than an artistic one  – and bucked the then trend for glossy revues with star names. For although Alan Bennett, Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller and Dudley Moore were to go on to stellar careers they were then just a group of unknowns and an unlikely bunch of unknowns at that. Miller intended to be a medic and Bennett was headed towards a life in academe; only Cook had a professional agent having written for West End revues starring the likes of Kenneth Williams. Yet they had the sort of chemistry that meant they were greater than the sum of their parts.


Targets of their commentary are wide ranging and cover most of what might have been regarded as institutions of the British way of life… as it then was. Thus, in rapid succession politics, religion, the law, the class system, high art, America, censorship and education are picked apart and shown to be wanting – no big deal now, but back in the day… There’s even a few digs at the Royal family, an absolute no go area at the time and when the then Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, attended a performance, he found himself the subject of a Peter Cook parody. Alas, that particular sketch hasn’t made it into this recorded version presumably because the topicality had disappeared when Macmillan stepped down the previous year. For although there was a solid core of sketches making up the performance, the performer/writers kept the show alive by making substitutions and trying out different material – a sketch about the Great Train Robbery is obviously a relatively recent addition as that only took place in 1963.

Actually, it isn’t really about the robbery so much as a commentary on the perceived police incompetence in failing to bring the perpetrators to justice. For this is what many of the sketches do; they lampoon and ridicule those who, in Bernard Levin’s glowing review “really needed it”. The second half, for instance, starts with a biting piece of satire about the constant threat of nuclear annihilation and has Cook climbing into a large paper bag to illustrate the government’s ludicrous civil defence policy. The quartet also has plenty of opportunity to go solo. Dudley Moore parodies various composers of the time such as Benjamin Britten and Kurt Weill; Jonathan Miller muses on the art world. Peter Cook introduces us to a character that went on to have a life of his own, the inimitable E.L.Wisty, in a monologue about wanting to be a judge but becoming a miner instead. Most famously Alan Bennett parodies a vicar’s sermon where the main metaphor equates life to a tin of sardines – “We are all of us looking for the key”.

So, does it still hold up? Yes and no. The performances themselves seem rather mannered by today’s standards and some of the writing is aimed so high it is likely to go over a lot of heads ( I admit I failed to follow the humour in a Bennett/Miller duologue in which two philosophy dons have a discussion). There are definitely pieces that are so much of their time that they now wouldn’t look out of place in a museum and there are couple of sketches which would almost certainly prove offensive in the climate of 2020 – Jonathan Miller impersonating an African President and all four just being outrageously camp for no particular reason. But there are some which are timeless examples of comedy sketch writing which are still able to raise a laugh many years on – for instance, Cook and Moore’s “One Legged Tarzan” (unless you’re a unidexter, I suppose).

Bearing in mind that the recording is the best part of sixty years old the quality is not too unsatisfactory and it’s better to have it in this form than not at all. If you’re interested in theatre history you’ll want to see this (ditto Cook and Moore’s outing twenty years later with Behind The Fridge) and reflect that all the participants, bar Bennett, have gone from us now leaving a large hole which many modern day so called satirists have failed to fill. Perhaps that’s because Beyond The Fringe took down so many targets at once. One more point to finish – keep an eye on the audience; anything less socially and culturally diverse is impossible to imagine.

Beyond The Fringe is available on You Tube. Click here

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