1 AUGUST 1987, Page 41


Seeing the funny side

Wendy Cope

Last week I remembered to watch Loving Memory (BBC 2), the second of 1:011Y Harrison's programmes about the rituals that help us to deal with death. Reflecting on possible reasons why I forgot it the week before, I decided it was not so Much because the subject might be de- pressing as because I am irritated by the idea of television people persuading poets to write to order. This attitude is the result of too many telephone calls from people with bright ideas for things they would like Me to write, and I admit it is a bit irrational. Although poets need to be on their guard against churning out verse for money, there is no doubt that commissions sometimes stimulate good work. Judging by the programme I saw about funeral customs in Naples — this commission has worked out very well. When Harrison first appeared on the screen, speaking lugubrious quatrains in a lugubrious Yorkshire voice, I had some doubts. However, they evaporated quite quickly. He wove all the necessary in- formation into his poem with impeccable craft aad at the same time struck exactly the right note, never patronising and some- times moving. 'Though there's no sham about it when they grieve/And Mimmo's death broke everybody's heart,/The prayers they make encourage him to leave —"They need their dear departed to de-

part.' Does it work when it's written down? I think so, but it would be interesting to see the whole script. It is worth mentioning, for the benefit of anyone who hasn't discovered it already, that Tony Harrison has written a remarkable sequence of sonnets about his relationship with his parents and their deaths. This is included in his Selected Poems, published by Pen- guin.

Harrison, although he writes with re- spect of Neapolitans praying for the souls of the departed, makes it clear that he has no belief in life after death. On Friday night's Wogan (BBC 1) the Bishop of Durham took advantage of an opportunity to set the record straight about his views. 'I do not,' he told Terry, 'deny the risen Christ.' In my notebook I wrote, 'There is something very bizarre about this.' Of course, there is no reason why a bishop shouldn't appear on a down-market chat show and proclaim the risen Lord to ten times as many people as watch any reli- gious programme. And if it did seem odd to see him cheered like a pop star as he walked on to the set, what of that? I have always stuck up for the Bishop of Durham because he manages to annoy both my evangelical relations and my High Church friends. All the same, I couldn't help feeling that the whole interview could have been a sketch from Monty Python's Flying Circus.

One of the wonderful things about Mon- ty Python was that it put you in a frame of mind that made everything else on televi- sion seem equally funny. Once, confused by regional variations in the schedules, I sat and wept with laughter at the beginning of a programme called A Cornishman's View of the North East. After five minutes or so it dawned on me that this wasn't a Python sketch at all but a perfectly serious travelogue. I haven't, up to now, been watching the Monty Python repeats on BBC 1, perhaps because I was afraid they wouldn't seem funny any more. On Satur- day night I found out that at least half of it is just as entertaining as ever. There was the sketch about the mosquito hunt (`You hate him, then you respect him. And then you kill him') and the one with Eric Idle and Michael PalM as two camp judges ('I used my butch voice'). And then there was Beethoven trying to compose his Fifth Symphony and being interrupted by Mrs Beethoven (`Ludwig, have you seen the sugar bowl?'). I could almost be tempted to go out and buy the video.

I planned to watch Mrs Thatcher on Favourite Things (BBC 2) but I became absorbed in my favourite thing, viz. writing something that no one commissioned, and I missed the first ten minutes. Mrs Thatch- er showed viewers some porcelain and Queen Victoria's sketchbook. She read some lines by Rupert Brooke and spoke about poached eggs on Bovril toast. But mostly she talked about being Prime Minis- ter. That is really her favourite thing.