There is no fool quite like an English fool. In American films, the fool, usually played by Ben Stiller or Steve Martin, is essentially an ordinary person having a bad day. The French fool, from M Hulot onwards, has a disconcerting tug of social satire to him. Only the English fool, surely, is defined not only by his stupidity but by his elevated social class.
The death of Ian Carmichael is a reminder of how changes in class attitudes over the past decade have also altered how we laugh. Although not born into the upper classes – he was the son of an optician in Hull – Carmichael was an actor who perfected the look and the sound of a toff of very little brain.
No doubt, on some grim university campus, a thesis is being written on the dialectics of class prejudice within the English comic tradition, but out here in the sane world we can admit it is difficult not to love the character played down the years by actors like Carmichael, Jonathan Cecil and Hugh Laurie. Yet the silly ass, personified by Bertie Wooster and others, should represent everything for which we now have contempt.
The silly ass will have had, in his unwritten biography, a predictable upbringing. Born into a family whose preference for marrying first cousins has, down the centuries, severely impaired its genetic health, he will have been dropped on his head by a clumsy nanny within months of being born. What little brains that remain will have been knocked out on the rugger pitches of chilly, miserable prep and public schools. Pretty much ignored by his emotionally dysfunctional family until he could carry a 12-bore, he will have grown up to be socially inept, hopeless with girls and hardly able to tie his shoelaces without the help of a member of staff.
None of this, strangely, undermines our affection for him. When, in his twenties, he comes into money, lives in a large house with his butler and is set up for a life of work-free, goofy ineffectiveness, we simply enjoy the joke. That fairy-tale world of clubs and croquet lawns is oddly reassuring.
Of course, the upper-class fool can only belong to the past. In these prim days, it would be impossible to create such an innocent, value-free character. Over time, class has become too freighted with resentment to be entirely amusing. Perhaps the toffs themselves were to blame. In the early 1960s, Harold Macmillan played the upper-class duffer for political effect. Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who once confessed – boasted, perhaps – that he could only do sums with the help of matchsticks, was the real deal.
Since then with every decade, the joke about the sweet, privileged Englishman has been tarnished by reality. The famous and influential “Upper-Class Twit of the Year” sketch from Monty Python set the comic agenda. Since then, the toff has been portrayed in comedy either as pathetic (Ralph, the landowner in love with his gardener, in The Fast Show), venal (Alan B’Stard) or depressingly thick (Harry Enfield’s character Tim Nice-But-Dim).
These days, when figures in public life play the class card, they do it in a knowing, untrustworthy way. No one will fall for Boris Johnson in the way that a previous generation was charmed by Macmillan.
The upper-class fool, as a staple of innocent English comedy, now belongs to the past. It is rather sad.
Independent, Wednesday, 10 February 2010