To laugh for a living

02 November 2006


ROUND ABOUT this time of year, little groups of people will be getting intense, anarchic, or side-splittingly amusing in church halls. It's not the Scouts, obviously, but latter-day troubadours rehearsing their shows for the Edinburgh Fringe.

I took a couple of shows there myself, and performed in the Netherbow theatre in the Royal Mile. Call me "Mr Sentimental", but I dropped in there recently, 25 years on, to walk the stage again. Only I didn't, because it is being ripped to pieces by strong men in hard hats and big boots. It's redevelopment, progress, and a reminder that I cannot go back in time.

I did get some radio and TV work out of the shows, but probably my big chance had already come and gone. At university, I had gone along to the rooms of a student called Richard Curtis, to audition for a show he was doing with a friend of his, Rowan Atkinson.

I wasn't what he was looking for, which was a shame. But then, who is to say I would have been happy with endless creative outlets, mass adulation, effortless sex appeal, and barrow-loads of money?

Charlie Chaplin had all those
by the age of 30. His gnawing ambition and gift for visual comedy made him the most famous man in the world, long before the age at which Jesus went public. This Cockney sparrow stepped off the London stage, and into the new silent movies sweeping the United States. The Little Tramp, the character he created, was naughty, bright, subversive, and sought attention - not unlike Chaplin himself.

But if his great gift was comedy, his great passion was justice for the downtrodden and the marginalised - a passion that led to his eviction from the United States as an undesirable, while the Statue of Liberty wasn't looking.

As he reflected on his life from wealthy exile in Switzerland, it was he who declared himself second-rate, feeling he had never truly married his genius with his passion. He had cheered people up, but he had also wanted his comedy to change the world.

The more profound search in his life was for a love that would embrace and accept him for who he was. After many awkward relationships with women, some under age, his search came to an end with
Oona, who shared his exile and his dying, and was probably his best punchline. 

Meanwhile, for today's troubadours, nervously shouting rude words in church halls while avoiding the nursery's large sandpit, I pass on the advice given to the young Chaplin as he was just starting out: "There are two rules for comics: know who you are, and remember where you came from."

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