I loved French at school. My first French teacher was Mrs Gaskell, a Frenchwoman married to a Brit. We sat in two rows in a dark room and looked at pictures on a filmstrip which Mrs Gaskell rolled to and fro and then watched and listened as she spoke the text. I particularly remember the sentence:
Monsieur Thibeau va chercher du bon vin à la cave.
We never had wine in our house, and I had never seen a cellar, but oh how I loved the idea!
Later, my teacher was a very strict Yorkshireman, Mr Powell. Our textbook was ‘A la page’ and was full of funny stories about a little boy called Zazou, illustrated by sparky line drawings. I fell in love with Georges Moustaki, flicked through Paris Match (our school had a subscription) and could not wait to actually get to France. When I did, I loved every single molecule of the place and arrived grumpily back home in England impatient to leave again as soon as possible.
Because I loved French, I was very good at it, so good that I was offered the chance to learn German. Oh dear. There was no German equivalent of Mrs Gaskell, no sparky Zazou. Our boring textbook’s cover was in the colours of the German flag, and that black stripe mirrored my experiences with the language. I hated and saw no point in adjectival endings. I mostly couldn’t wait until the end of the sentence to find out if a war has been won or lost (German putting the most important verb way at the end of the sentence). And to be honest, neither my teachers nor my text books (‘Aus dem Leben eines Taugenichts’, printed in old German font), were very inspiring.
Anyway, all this meant by the time I actually shook the dust of England off my feet and arrived in Germany, I could speak some German, albeit badly, and understood most of what people said to me.
What I didn’t understand was why people would suddenly say to me, in English, ‘White wine with the fish?’ although we were not eating or drinking, or ‘Cheerio Miss Sophie!’ although they knew Sophie wasn’t my name. All was revealed several years of puzzlement later, when a German friend started talking about ‘Dinner for One’, a short film which every German must watch at least once on New Year’s Eve and which they find screamingly funny. It’s in English and stars English actors (Freddie Frinton and May Warden) and so they are all of the opinion this must be a British production.
The Guinness Book of Records claims that Dinner for One is the most repeated TV programme ever: the production was filmed in front of a live audience in 1963 in Hamburg and is shown every year not only in Germany but pretty much all over the world. We have seen it in a hotel in Bangkok and also on a Lufthansa flight to New Zealand. Now you can watch it not only in English, but also Plattdeutsch (Low German), and Latin. The only place you won’t be seeing it is in the UK, where it has never been shown.
What makes something funny has to do with experience and history and memories. I don’t think I know anybody now who will know why ‘Egg and chips and a mug of cocoa and straight up to bed’ makes me laugh. It’s a line from ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’, a radio series which starred the greats: Tony Hancock, Sid James, Kenneth Williams, Hattie Jacques and Bill Kerr (Rumour has it he was raised by a herd of rogue kangaroo). Those series, later developed for TV, were part of my childhood and later I listened over and over again to tapes and CDs in my car as I drove hundreds of kilometres every week.
Hancock is funny because he’s tragic, and Tony Hancock, bedevilled by self-doubt and riddled by alcohol, ended up committing suicide in a hotel room in Australia in June 1968.
I was 12 at the time and I think his death was the first time I realized that a person I thought was successful, and must be happy, wasn’t.
It feels inappropriate to wish you a Happy New Year: 2020 has made all of us more wary.
My Mum planned her funeral most exactly, to be uplifiting, and this is the music, by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams she chose:
Let’s see what 2021 holds in store for us!