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Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Beyond the Fringe

We were strolling through Border's over the weekend, just having finished our weekly troll for books, when we paused by the DVD section on our way to check out. My wife pulled the second season of "Bob Newhart" off the shelf, and we put that on the list for a couple of weeks hence. As she replaced it, my eye was drawn to the title next to it. My eyes bugged out and my jaw flapped open. They had finally released "Beyond the Fringe" on DVD.

This, for me, was monumental.

I've been hearing about Beyond the Fringe for more than 25 years now, since before Dudley Moore was in 10, at least back to the time that Cook and Moore appreared on Saturday Night Live and proceeded to cock things up by daring to be both funny and to-the-point, qualities rare on that program.

I've seen clips from the performance captured on this DVD. It was the farewell performance of the show, which had started at the Edinburgh Festival in 1960 and then transerred to London's West End where it became a smash hit. The four performers (Peter Cook, the aforementioned Mr. Moore, Jonathan Miller, and Alan Bennett) took Beyond the Fringe to Broadway for a year before returning to London. A legend was born.

I've been aware that it had been filmed for about ten years. Way back in the hazy '90s, I watched A&E's Biography of Dudley Moore, and there were clips of Beyond the Fringe in that. I was quite struck by the look of it, the aesthetic of the show itself. In place of elaborate costumes, they wore suits that they supplemented with hats, as needed. The set was a connected series of three platforms with a couple of flats attached to them. It was barebones basic theater, and even though I know that economics drove most of those choices, I liked it anyway.

So, the other night, I actually got to watch Beyond the Fringe. It was sublime. It was funny. It was beautifully staged. It made thoughtful points and was often just plain silly. One sketch, concerning Civil Defense preparedness in the shadow of the H-Bomb was frighteningly relevant here in the day of Homeland Security. When they demonstrated one method of warding off the effects of a nuclear blast, I had to think of the current administration. The protective device was a large paper bag that one pulled over one's head and body as protection. This seemed to me about as sound as using duct tape and plastic sheeting to protect one against chemical weapons.

I found much of the satire still effective, and it is for that very reason: They got beneath the headlines (mutally assured destruction) to the underlying ideas (fear as the basis for governance) of the things they were satirizing. Peter Cook's portrayal of the Head of Scotland Yard, updating the progress in the hunt for the perpetrators of the Great Train Robbery could have been any of the boobs who talk about dealing with terrorists these days. He hides his incompetence behind a smoke screen of words. (Interviewer: So, you think criminals are responsible? Cook: Oh, no! I think criminals are very irresponsible.) One feels certain that Mr Cook's Inspector would have assured the then-Prime Minister that catching the perpetrators was a "slam dunk." Plus ca change....

Cook is the funniest of the four and Bennett the best actor. Moore is very funny and easily the most musical. Jonathan Miller is, well, Jonathan Miller, intelligent and sardonic. Highlights include the above-mentioned Scotland Yard sketch, the above-mentioned Civil Defense sketch, Dudley palying "Colonel Bogie's March" from The Bridge on the River Kwai as though it had been written by Beethoven, Cook's monologue of a proto-E.L. Wisty sitting on a bench and explaining why it was he became a coal miner rather than a jurist, Bennett as an Anglican priest giving the homily on the text (allegedly from Genesis) "My brother Esau is an hairy man and I am a smooth man," the famous sketch "One Leg Too Few," and Jonathan Miller flailing about the staged after being stabbed in their Shakespeare parody. And everything else.

If you like British comedy in the line of The Goon Show and Monty Python and if you still chuckle at Sir Arthur Grieb-Striebling (or is it Strieb-Griebling?) detailing the menu of The Frog and Peach, you will definitely enjoy Beyond the Fringe.

N.B. There are a few glitches with the sound, but the journey is still well worth it.

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