GRAEME GARDEN INTERVIEW
(contributed by Lisa Manekofsky)
COTSWOLD CHARACTER: GRAEME GARDEN
By Cotswold Life on February 24th 2012
Comedy genius Graeme Garden is one of the stars of the first ever Chipping Norton Literary Festival, sponsored by Knight Frank, in April.
Goodie-goodie-yum-yum, says Katie Jarvis.
Now here's the thing. When I meet Graeme Garden, I am wearing the following: an open-weave oatmeal jumper; fluorescently pink (though not in a good way) skinny jeans; and heavy walking boots. If this were a Max Wall Lookalike Contest, I'd be deeply disappointed not to come at least a solid second.
"I am sorry," I explain, earnestly, the millisecond he opens his front door, "but I've just moved house. It was a struggle even to put this outfit together." For a fleeting moment, I have an image of someone in dungarees emblazoned with the letter 'G', intermittently and entertainingly intoning 'Funky gibbon' on stage. And I wonder whether an apology is strictly necessary. Which indeed it isn't. But not for hylobatidae (gibbon family) reasons. It could be considered surprising to have a journalist open with an extreme outfit-apology, but you wouldn't know it.
As Graeme quietly, warmly ushers me in, his wife, Emma, whirlwinds through the house (a 200-year-old Oxfordshire Cotswold cottage), sitting me down, brewing coffee, making me feel they've been anticipating my visit for years. I could have turned up in reindeer antlers and a wetsuit (my second choice) without anyone becoming overly concerned.
It's a relief. Because Dr Graeme Garden is my comedy hero. While others are more showy, louder and more ebullient, his jokes are so clever, they can slip under the radar. (I can still recall, when I was about eight, hearing him end a programme with, "If you've enjoyed this half as much as I have, then I've enjoyed it twice as much as you." It's not only funny; it's a lesson in how to construct a joke.) His CV says it all. An inadequate 'highlights' résumé runs thus: he fronted the Cambridge Footlights (while studying to be a doctor); cowrote and played in the BBC radio series I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again; along with Tim Brooke-Taylor and Bill Oddie, he wrote and starred in The Goodies (who can ever truly eradicate from their darkest nightmares the Armageddon that was Kitten Kong?); in I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, he not only redefines humour but the English language itself (his revised dictionary meanings include: apres-ski - I've finished the yogurt; and dumbstruck - a white van).
I should be in awe, but the convivial atmosphere means we all flop naturally round the ancient Aga - me, Antony the photographer, Graeme and Em - not so much interviewing as throwing in comments whenever the fancy takes us. Such as: I listen to you all the time in I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue (my favourite programme ever) and I never even knew you were here in the Cotswolds. (It's not like I've seen a trandem whizzing through Chippy or anything. And it's way off the Mornington Crescent map.)
"We were living in London, but we both were rather attracted to the idea of living in the country," Graeme explains. "We were looking for somewhere that was reasonably priced, and a friend of ours told us there was a little alleyway of affordable Cotswold housing before you get into the Cheltenham/Bath side."
Affordable? Affordable? According to the Times, Chipping Norton is about the only place on earth with property that's recession-proof. "Ah, well, since we came, the M40 happened so we're posher than we used to be." Umm. I was thinking more of the metaphorical fast lane being driven by the likes of David Cameron and Jeremy Clarkson.
"Ah, yes. I was MC-ing the Chipping Norton Music Festival just after the whole hacking scandal/Chipping Norton set stuff came out, and somebody said to me, 'The Guardian is here.' I said, 'The Banbury Guardian?'; and they said, 'No, THE Guardian. and the New York Times'.
"The Guardian journalist then collared me and asked what the people of Chipping Norton thought of the Chipping Norton set. So I got on the stage and asked, 'Are we pleased to be associated with the Chipping Norton set?' Murmur, murmur. 'Or do we not like it?' Murmur, murmur. "So, complete indifference."
You heard it here first. (Or second, presumably, if you read the Guardian.) Certainly, the move to the Cotswolds has been a triumph. Their son, Tom - now 27 and working as a conceptual artist in Sweden - went to the local village school, then on to Chipping Norton comp. "I thought going to a village school would be a good experience for young Tom, and it was for me, too. In fact, someone I knew from my local primary - which was near Preston in Lancashire - is a Morris dancer who lives near us in Finstock. I saw him at an event with bells round his leg and a cheese on his head." (Now there was a primary school that fostered individuality.)
In fact, the young Graeme went on to a posh school indeed, for he was sent to board at Repton, in Derbyshire, at the age of eight. Not that his was a dyed-in-the-wool public-school family: originating from the north east of Scotland ("where nobody is terribly posh"), his grandfathers were a farmer and a shopkeeper. For the first three years of his life, Graeme never saw his dad - an orthopaedic surgeon, who was stitching people together on the battlefields of the Second World War.
When he returned, the family moved 'south' to Preston, where Dr Garden senior pioneered motorway trauma treatment for casualties of the newly-built Preston bypass. When Graeme won a prized place at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, to study medicine, it looked as if his costly education had paid off. But, interestingly, he also underwent a social Damascene conversion. He tells of bumping into a grammar-school boy and automatically feeling superior. "I realised I didn't like what the boarding school education did to me, which was make me feel part of an elite that I hadn't really earned."
It was far from the only way that Cambridge was to change his outlook and, indeed, his life. For mystical reasons, Cambridge in the early 1960s was a magnet for comedy talent. He found himself in Footlights - the university's am dram club - with the likes of John Cleese, Graham Chapman and Eric Idle, who went on to form Monty Python; Clive James, Germaine Greer, Richard Eyre, Miriam Margolyes, Tony Palmer, Stephen Frears and, of course, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Bill Oddie.
Why such an explosion of talent? "I don't know," he muses. "It was a time when comedy was going through a bit of a sea change, I suppose. The jolly comfortable comedy that had seen people through the war had become more edgy and satirical and critical. And teenagers were invented and had spending
"We came in on the coattails of the satire boom. The Americans - Mort Sahl, people like that - had kicked it off. And then Peter Cook and co did Beyond the Fringe and we followed on. We were labelled satirists, although we tried very hard not to be." Because? "Because we didn't want to compete. We did silly jokes, which turned out to be satirical anyway. The Goodies, oddly enough, was a very satirical programme."
So why wasn't he a Python rather than a Goodie? "I wasn't asked. I think it was down to all sorts of circumstances. We were all doing different things so it was a question of who was working with whom at what particular time. Tim and I and Bill ended up doing a show called Broaden Your Mind, while the Do Not Adjust Your Set people got together with Cleese and Chapman and did Monty Python. It would have been different had the personnel been in different combinations."
Whether written in the stars or sheer serendipity, Graeme, Tim and Bill ended up working together on their own show - and the first series of The Goodies went out on November 8, 1970. Each of the men played an exaggerated version of themselves: Tim (later with his Union flag waistcoat) was the patriotic wimp; Graeme, the mad scientist; and Bill was mainly defined by his facial hair. Colourful, surreal, slapstick, clever, it was a Tom and Jerry cartoon made flesh.
"I flinch occasionally when I see it described as a sketch show because it specifically wasn't. I also flinch when I see it described as a sitcom. It wasn't that either." In fact, each episode was a mini story, inspired by whatever was current and popular. Despite its light touch, it was, as Graeme says, deeply satirical. Their anti-apartheid programme, for example, came close to being banned. "Apartheid was rife in South Africa at the time, and we had a go at it. (In the Goodies' episode) all the black people left South Africa because they didn't like it and they had to have something else to be prejudiced about. So they had apart-height and Bill (who's 5ft 3in) was a second-class citizen. Bill and about 20 jockeys. We had some fairly bleak jokes in there: a piano with all the black keys down one end and all the white keys the other."
When the BBC did its big '70s season, it was suggested using an episode of The Goodies to illustrate each year of the decade, from punk to Kung Fu. The BBC decided not. To this day, it's unclear why the corporation is so curmudgeonly about repeating it. It was innovative both in terms of its humour and its technical effects; it was incredibly popular, and – what sincerer accolade can you get? - even had one of its viewers die laughing. "The wife actually wrote to us and said thank you for making his last moments so happy."
Is it hard to be so funny, professionally? To be comic on cue? "It is quite hard. I usually like to have a bit of time to work it out. Emma has this great thing that she asks me a question and it takes me ages to answer it." "I've got used to it now," she says. "I just think, I'll go off and have a cup of tea. And then he'll give me the answer and I'll think: What was the question?" But he is quick, and that's never more apparent than on Radio 4's much-adored I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue. Although a proportion of it is prepared, much is ad lib. "The audience do quite like it if we fall flat on our faces. You can sometimes hear the sweat on the radio. One of the stickiest moments was in the very early days when John Cleese and Bill Oddie were doing it; they both hated it. John Cleese once, given some silly game to do, objected to it so much he poured his glass of water into the microphone."
Was Humph as lovely as he seemed? "He was lovely. He was quite a strange character - very, very private. He didn't let anyone have his phone number and, in fact, after he died we had a reception after the funeral at his home and his (jazz) band were there. It was the first time they'd ever been and they'd worked with him for years." Is Samantha really gorgeous? "Absolutely. For a woman of her age." Ever actually met Mrs Trellis? "We keep her at a distance." "Sven's pretty fit too," Emma adds. She and Graeme met when he turned to acting after The Goodies finished. He toured in several plays with the Cambridge Theatre Company, and did a year at the National. Emma's impressive career includes the RSC (she was in the original West End cast of Privates on Parade). Although she gave up when Tom was born, she's recently acted in two improvised films by independent filmmakers. One of them – Late September - is due to run at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in March.
The two of them are a great comic double-act: ("I'm actually a doctor so, if all else fails, I could theoretically go back and do that." "I'll go elsewhere, thank you."); and both talk warmly of Graeme's children from his first marriage - Sally, an assistant head teacher in Banbury, and John, a musician and composer who has toured with the Scissor Sisters. It must help that both he and Em know the entertainment business inside out. "Yes," Graeme acknowledges. "It's nice to know that, when I do have to go away, Emma understands. I'm off to the Slapstick Festival in Bristol soon, and then in Australia for a couple of weeks to do a TV series we're setting up there - an Australian version of The Unbelievable Truth."
The two of them are as funny as each other in their different ways. He tells a classic parrot-from-a-brothel joke to illustrate humour; she simply describes the two of them trying to climb an icy hill in Chipping Norton last winter. I'd like to be a fly on the wall in this house, I say, listening to their banter. Graeme shakes his head. "We only talk to each other when we've got the press in," he says, deadpan. "By the way," he adds, turning to Emma, "I didn't know you'd done movies." "Well I didn't know you were famous," she retorts.
Chipping Norton Literary Festival, sponsored by Knight Frank, presents An Audience with Graeme Garden on Saturday, April 21. For more information on the festival, which runs from April 20-22, visit www.chiplitfest.com