Jeremy Beadle: comic genius

Ignore the cant-fuelled attacks by envious members of the chattering classes on Jeremy Beadle. He was a man who ‘got’ humour.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Culture

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Why was Jeremy Beadle consistently voted one of the most hated people on television, but also one of the most popular characters on TV? I’ll tell you why: it’s down to cant, hypocrisy, envy and a complete misunderstanding of the concept of comedy. Jeremy Beadle was, in fact, hilarious.

For readers unfamiliar with the man, Jeremy Beadle (who died on Wednesday) was basically Britain’s answer to Allen Funt of Candid Camera fame. He was a television practical joker, who in the 1980s programmes Game For A Laugh and Beadle’s About, would set up members of the public. For instance, a bogus council inspector would announce to someone that his house was going to be demolished, or that her car was going to be towed into the sea. For the next few minutes, we would watch as the unwitting punter went into paroxysms of anguish and terror, first pleading with the impostor about to ruin their life, and then unleashing a torrent of abuse at everyone around. Then along came Beadle, with his beaming, smug grin, dressed as a policeman or traffic warden, who proceeded to unmask himself in front of the hapless victim.

Beadle (right) with his fellow
presenters on Game For A Laugh

And you know what? The reaction was always one of delight. Relief. Even joy. You’d think your first impulse would be to punch Beadle in the face, but Beadle, like Funt, realised how to work a practical joke. The best practical jokes are not those that simply humiliate you (I had the cellophane-over-the-pint-glass gag done to me the other week at my local, and I only pretended to laugh), but the ones that make you endure a rollercoaster of emotions. Shock, horror, fear, anger, bewilderment, acceptance – then gleeful relief. This is why Beadle’s ‘victims’ always embraced him and nearly always signed the release clause for her or his footage to be broadcast on air. I watched some re-runs of Beadle’s About on cable comedy channel Paramount 1 some weeks ago, and unlike most shows from my childhood, they are just as good as I remember them.

So why did everyone allegedly hate Jeremy Beadle? It’s for the same reason they allegedly hate Jeremy Clarkson and Noel Edmonds: because they are envious that lower-middle class vulgarians made such a fortune by being vulgar – and by being brilliant at it. The chattering classes loathed him because they detested anyone who was popular on television on Saturday nights – the plebeian slot. And especially on ITV. And most of all in the 1980s, that decade that it is so fashionable to hate (when in fact the ‘selfish’, ‘yuppie’ 1980s only really existed from Thatcher’s re-election in 1983 until Black Monday in October 1987). Beadle’s ‘cruelty’ was almost perceived as a metaphor for Thatcherism.

Victor Lewis-Smith pursued a particular vendetta against Beadle, missing the point that all the best comedy is about cruelty. Why do you think Bond villains in films cackle? Because they are torturing someone. It’s the same reason that Johnny Knoxville will laugh at Steve-O in Jackass when the latter has a leech attached to his eye-ball. Beadle was funny because he appreciated the essence of comedy: we laugh at people who fall over in the street.

A career built on humorous cruelty is, perhaps, an odd choice for someone born with a shrunken hand due to Poland Syndrome. From the outset, and throughout his career, Beadle was the subject of playground and personal taunts about his stumped fingers. You’d think someone who was the subject of personal humiliation would be more sensitive to the feelings of others. Or perhaps his career was an avenue in which he exacted revenge on the world, on taking the piss out of a culture that took the piss out of him?

In any case, judging by his obituaries, he sounded a rather nice and certainly erudite man. He did, as Smashie and Nicey would say, do a lot for charidee. Former Game for a Laugh co-presenter, Henry Kelly, called him ‘a thoroughly good guy’, while Sir Alan Sugar called him ‘one of the greatest comedy talents of our generation’. Sarah Kennedy said of Beadle: ‘He wasn’t just a prankster. He was so clever and had a love of literature.’

Mind you, as the Daily Telegraph’s obituary editor, Andrew McKie, wrote this week, Beadle’s erudition could veer into the arena of fastidious pedantry (1). And as McKie sagely points out: ‘It always seems so lazy, doesn’t it, when an obituary concludes that someone was “paradoxical”? And yet, if we were all honest, most of the people we know, or knew, are, in one way or another.’

Yes, and Jeremy Beadle was more paradoxical than most. He was a very intelligent man who most intelligent people hated, and yet it was his brilliantly stupid, puerile acts that made him a hero to stupid people – hence, the lavish frontpage coverage given to him in the Sun newspaper on Thursday. In public, he was hated; in private he was loved. He was a man who suffered because of the human urge to mock the afflicted, but himself took pleasure from winding people up.

We are all paradoxes, which is why Jeremy Beadle will in posterity be regarded with ambivalence. For both clever people and idiots, understanding contradictory people like Beadle may simply be beyond them.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV reviewer and an obituary writer for The Times (London). Visit his blog here.

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spiked-issue: TV

(1) Jeremy Beadle: loved and hated, Daily Telegraph, 31 January 2008

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