As in any country, there are regional differences between English people in terms of culture and characteristics, but something that unites us is our humour. Much of it is self-deprecating. Many outsiders may be puzzled by our use of sarcasm, often well hidden, and irony, and the fact that it is delivered in a deadpan style makes people wonder if we are joking or not. Although British people may enjoy the hi-energy, in-your-face, North American style of a Robin Williams or Jim Carrey, it’s not really where we come from. Add to that the fact that nothing is sacred – even sacred topics – it could be inferred that we intend to shock and offend, when the truth is that, for English people, humour is often a kind of medicine; something to fall back on when we feel threatened, when things go badly – a way of saying, “Everything will be OK, don’t take life so seriously”. In my opinion, this attitude of being able to laugh at anything, including ourselves, stems from a feeling of knowing who we are, being comfortable in our own traditions, and above all, from nearly a millennium free of the yoke of oppression of a conquering power.
One of the stereotypes of the regional differences in England is the “North-South divide”. Supposedly, the south, and particular London and its surroundings, is where the affluent people live in their mansions, living a comfortable carefree life – the “soft Southerners” to those born north of Birmingham – whereas the North is full of industrial cities, the textile workers of Manchester, the docks and immigrant population of Liverpool, and the shipbuilders of the North East. There is still an element of truth in this image – the cost of living, and buying a house in many parts of the north is still, on average, lower than in the south, but with the growing affluence of the middle class, and the decline of the British manufacturing industry, the difference is less marked than it was in the early to middle twentieth century.
Maybe, then, it is no coincidence that a large proportion of England’s most famous comedians came from the North. If we zoom in on Liverpool, we see what was traditionally a rough, tough port, with few opportunities for advancement. Going with the theory of humour as a way of getting through life, we also see that in Liverpool, humour would be top of anyone’s list of the characteristics of the average ‘Scouser’. It might be thought that life was good for four lads from Liverpool, “living the dream” and boasting ever-growing bank balances, and to a certain extent it was. However, the pursuit of happiness through playing the music they loved, and not having to do a “proper job” had its major drawbacks, and the same scouse humour that kept them going through the lean years, and in some cases, difficult childhoods and adolencences, served them just as well through the years of non-stop touring, TV shows, personal appearances, and the inane questioning of a thousand interviewers.
John, in particular, developed an acerbic wit to cope with the absence of a wayward father, and the cruel, premature death of his beloved mother. The fact that he was quick-witted even while Julia was alive may be put down in part to her influence as a carefree, free-spirited woman, and John being torn between her, and the stricter, straight-laced Aunt Mimi. In the early days of the Beatles’ fame, he continued to have conflicting situations in his life. He felt that he had sold out by becoming the besuited, lovable, mop-top that Brian Epstein had insisted on, and it grated with his own self-image of the leather-clad, tough guy, leader of gang. Indeed, he probably felt that he was no longer the leader of the gang, and the group was being molded more in the image of Paul, whose eagerness to please, and recognition of the need to be more businesslike was more apparent. After the infamous incident at Paul’s twenty-first birthday party where he beat Cavern DJ, Bob Wooler, to a pulp after the latter made insinuations about the relationship between John and Brian, he recognized that he had to control his anger, and that his sardonic wit could be just as potent a weapon.
George Harrison, on the other hand had a largely untroubled childhood, and his humour tended more towards the sarcastic, rather than acerbic. The fact that he was the “baby” of the group, joining at 15 years old, against the older Lennon’s initial better judgement, and had to show that he could stand up to the jibes, probably brought out the innate wit gained from being part of a happy, fun-loving family. That he delivered the lines in a dry, flat scouse drawl added to the comic effect.
Paul McCartney’s brand of humour was rarely sarcastic or cutting. It was more the good-natured, knockabout variety that came from a large extended and loving family background that was used to getting together and having fun. He has always been the kind of person who likes to please people, the charmer, (Paul McCharmly, as Lennon called him) and although in his repartee with John he could give as good as he got, he usually shrugged off his partner’s more caustic barbs.
Perhaps Ringo’s sense of humour is the most typically British. He plays the “ordinary guy” to a tee, with a sense of the ridiculous and self-deprecation. It is well documented that he was a very sickly child, and the resultant shortage of formal education caused him to often use strange expressions or malapropisms, meaning he could often be assuming unintentionally. It is also hard to look past the fact that he grew up in the Dingle, one of Liverpool’s rougher areas. In the early days, he was often perceived as the genuine comic figure of The Beatles, due to his looks and his small stature, appealing to children, but equally to grandmothers who didn’t much care for that “noisy music”. His laid-back personality allowed him to take this on board, and play the willing butt of the jokes of his bandmates.
The characters that we see in The Beatles’ first movie, “A Hard Day’s Night” are pretty much The Beatles’ themselves. The scriptwriter, Alun Owen, himself a Liverpudlian, observed the members of the group, and wove into the script many things they said, as well as leaving room for them to improvise, something encouraged by the director, Richard Lester. It is difficult to imagine, for example, that Owen wrote Lennon’s subtle “coke-sniffing” scene into the script.
George Martin recalled that he wasn’t over-impressed by the Beatles as songwriters, when he first heard them. They were undoubtly, even as streetwise Liverpool lads, a little in awe of this older, schoolmasterly figure with the cut-glass accent, but when George Harrison dared to crack a joke against him, the others exchanged a few cautious glances, then joined in. Martin was instantly won over, and later admitted that he signed them as much for their personalities as for their musical ability, if not more so. He did, of course, later concede that their songwriting and creativity blossomed exponentially in a very short time. George Martin had worked with many top-notch British comedians at Parlophone, and despite a radically different background to The Beatles, really did share their impish sense of humour.
It took a while for their distinctive humour to seep into The Beatles’ compositions and recordings, given that their earlier career was carefully managed to establish, and then maintain, a clear commercial path. Only when it was obvious that anything they touched would turn to gold did we start to detect, for example, in “Girl” – George and Paul taking an adolescent-style delight it singing “tit-tit-tit”, or Paul’s mischievous contribution of the last verse of Lennon’s “Norwegian Wood”, suggesting the burning-down of the protagonist’s home: “So I lit a fire, isn’t it good, norwegian wood?” If this was just a case of dipping the toe into the water, they would later – to mix metaphores – let their hair down in songs such as, “All Together Now”, “You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)”, and “The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill”.
There is so much more to be written about the humour of The Beatles, as it touched every aspect of their lives, careers, and art. Suffice to say that The Beatles wouldn’t have been The Beatles without their humour. Of course they created some of the best music of the twentieth century which would stand alone as an achievement itself, but the aura that surrounds them is in no small part due to their infectuous personalities, and to a certain extent, we can thank the city of Liverpool for that.
© Copyright 2017 Philip Kirkland. No original part of this work may be reproduced in whole or in part in any manner without the permission of the copyright owner.