The serious side of comedy
Harry H Corbett talks deeply about his comedy series Mr Aitch in 1967
In his comedy series ‘Mr. Aitch’ Harry H. Corbett has created a new character. In this article he talks to geoffrey godbert about his approach to humour and reveals just how serious the whole business is to him.
‘“Mr. ‘Aitch” has existed since the year dot. I want to put him in a specific period of time, as he really is.’
Harry H. Corbett means what he says. And that means serious dedication, in time and energy, to finding the comedy of today, in today’s terms.
‘I’ve always been an actor on my own,’ says Harry H. Corbett. ‘It’s my job to forecast the way I think comedy will develop in the next few years. If “Mr. Aitch” is not a success, I won’t have been right. But, basically, I know I’m right about it. Domestic comedy will go because it has to. The family – as I was brought up to understand it – is in the process of breaking up. In my era it was a terrible fight to get away from the family. Less so now. And as I have to face more new facts about living, so I want the public to face up to the facts, too.’
The perfectionist in Harry H. Corbett compels him to criticise his latest television creation. ‘Out of the first seven “Mr. Aitch” stories,’ he says, ‘I think 50 per cent of what happened has been good. I don’t take notice of the reviews of the show and the only really valid “outside” comments I’ve had about it come from show-business writers. They say: “It’s bloody interesting, Harry, but it hasn’t come off yet. It’s not a failure – far from it – there are important seeds in it.” And I feel the same. “Mr. Aitch” is a developing feature, someone I’m coming more and more to terms with.’
Harry H. Corbett does not write his own material. ‘I get close to what I want, a feeling, without completely being able to describe it in words. The scriptwriters are the bridge between what I feel and what, eventually, I say. Which means that I’ve got to appreciate their sense of humour, too, and say lines sometimes that I, personally, don’t think work. Humour is a contributive thing, an amalgamation – with a single object in mind, unless you’re doing a one-man chat-up show. But people don’t really believe in them. To be believable, comedy has got to be enacted – before your very eyes – in a dramatic context. And the only way I “rewrite” lines is in action, when I’m involved in the production.’
Harry H. Corbett is convinced that television is going through a ‘writers’ era’. ‘The satire boys started it all,’ he says. ‘It didn’t matter what people looked like because what they said made them instantly recognisable characters. So now, sheer acting characterisation matters less and less as people begin to concentrate on what is being said. Theatricality is going – television seems to deal less and less with acting, as such – and comedy scriptwriters’ words can be read in their own right, and be very funny. Consequently, what is said in a series like “Mr. Aitch” becomes a platform for certain conceptions of living. I am trying to become an interpreter of the comedy problems of today.’
Taking on this role brings its difficulties, privately and publicly. ‘By nature, I’m a desperately serious person. Privately, perhaps I can be unconsciously funny, otherwise I’d have to polish my “lines” and wait for the right moment to say them. It’s how you tell a funny story privately that makes it a public item of humour. Privately, I feel that I’m odd – I don’t know why – but the best way I can put it is that I have a perverse sense of humour.
‘I’m aware of the wicked sickness in mankind, the overwhelming ailments of mankind which produce a numbness and then an embarrassed laugh. So seriousness is often outrageously funny – must the pompous man always be pricked? I feel that unconsciously, on the private level and consciously, on the public level. What we’ve got to get over are elements of sickness when we try to deal with certain issues. For example, it’s sick to have a go at coloured people all the time – you know, the camera suddenly zooms close-up on the only negro in a band – there must be other ways of approaching it.’
During the run of ‘Mr. Aitch’, Harry H. Corbett goes home at the end of each day to spend the evening alone. ‘I wouldn’t go 50 miles away in a fog during the show. I like television – the whole thing – and I’ll watch it until there’s nothing to watch. Of course, I can’t forget the idea of comedy and two of my favourite shows are “Dick Van Dyke” and “Bilko”, both American. I seem to be able to predict most English comedy programmes – though Morecambe and Wise, and “Till Death Us Do Part” are very good – but the Americans put a certain unpredictable fire in their comedy language. I think you have to go back to Restoration comedies to find the same quality in England. “Steptoe” had the language thing to a degree. And “Mr. Aitch” is getting it more and more.’
Harry H. Corbett gives the life-span of ‘Mr. Aitch’ some four years. ‘Not only on television. I remember I didn’t want to rush out of “Steptoe”, but comedy series inevitably turn cannibal and feed off themselves. When a show has eaten enough of itself, then, I think, it’s time to turn to something new. I’ve got “Mr. Aitch” pretty well planned in my own mind, but I wasn’t prepared, as it were, for the extension of four more programmes in the present series. I now know I’ve got to go on that bit longer and by selection and balance continue the essential momentum of the show.’
Harry H. Corbett turned to go, the script of his next programme in his hand. ‘What I want when I’m working is a private quiet. Ideally, I’d like to be alone in a soundproof room.’
About the author
Geoffrey Godbert (1927-2017) worked for Rediffusion on 'Ready Steady Go!' before going on to be a published poet.