50 years on from Beyond the Fringe: Pete, Dud, Alan, Jon & me
By Nicholas Leonard
Beyond the Fringe, starring, from left, Jonathan Miller, Alan Bennett, Dudley Moore and Peter Cook,
Fifty years ago tomorrow, one of the most famous festival shows of all time made its debut. Nicholas Leonard was there
THE ONLY time I have ever been present at the start of a social revolution was 50 years ago, at 10:45pm on 22 August 1960 in the Royal Lyceum Theatre. The occasion was the first night of a production called Beyond the Fringe and, like everyone else in the audience that night, I did not realise a revolution had begun.
The theatre, in fact, was barely a third full. Not many people who had gone there earlier in the evening for a production of The Seagull by Chekhov noticed a modest poster in the foyer that read, uninformatively, "Don't Forget - 10.45 - Beyond the Fringe".
I was in Edinburgh doing the publicity for the Oxford Theatre Group, which was staging a play and a late-night revue in the Cranston Street Hall on the Royal Mile. Many of those involved in these productions went on to become well known in television and the theatre, including Giles Havergal, Esther Rantzen and the late John Wells.
We had heard that the advance box office sales for Beyond the Fringe were disappointing, and we went along to provide some support. Two of the cast, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett, were Oxford graduates while the other two, Peter Cook and Jonathan Miller, had been to Cambridge.
The four of them were brought together to put on the show when Robert Ponsonby, the director of the Festival, decided that a late-night rival to the proliferation of shows on the Fringe would be a good idea. His assistant, John Bassett, played the key role in getting them together.
From the moment the curtain went up on Beyond the Fringe, it was obvious that it was very different from what was then the standard revue fare of musical numbers and lightweight, jokey sketches. The show started with Dudley Moore playing the national anthem on the piano, but as the audience obediently stood up in deference to the Queen, Peter Cook appeared demanding to know: "Who is that fellow who keeps coming in and playing God Save the Queen?" To which Jonathan Miller replied: "I don't know, but he's obviously not English. You can tell by the way he plays the whole thing sitting down."
Beyond the Fringe is now credited by social historians with triggering a satire boom that led to innumerable offspring, including Monty Python's Flying Circus, Spitting Image, and Have I Got News For You. It also provided Peter Cook with enough money to be able to underpin the wobbly finances of Private Eye in its early years and to a launch a satire nightclub in Soho called The Establishment. I went there one night in 1962 with Esther Rantzen and we watched John Fortune and Eleanor Bron do a sketch that compared the marketing of politicians with a campaign for the sale of bananas and ended with the punchline "unzip a Labour councillor".
Reading the original script of Beyond the Fringe now, what is striking is how little "satire" there was in it. Much of the material, such as Alan Bennett's legendary sermon ("My brother Esau is an hairy man but I am a smooth man") was simply very, very funny.
So, too, of course, were the satirical items. The then prime minister, Harold Macmillan, was the highest-profile target. All theatrical scripts had to be submitted for censorship and approval in those days to the Lord Chamberlain's Office and a few years earlier it would certainly have banned the portrayal of living politicians, but even in Whitehall, 15 years after the end of the Second World War, attitudes towards the preservation of authority and the establishment were starting to ease.
The censors did cut out lines of homosexual endearment in the show (two men addressing each other as "love") but they allowed in the parody of Macmillan which, half a century later, still seems pretty topical.
Peter Cook, as Macmillan, informed the audience about his meeting with the then US president, John F Kennedy: "We talked of many things, including Great Britain's position in the world as some kind of honest broker. I agreed with him when he said no nation could be more honest, and he agreed with me when I chaffed him and said no nation could be broker."
By far the most controversial item in the show was The Aftermyth of War. One member of the audience at a pre-London performance in Brighton was so incensed that he stood up and denounced the "young bounders" on stage for being unpatriotic.
This was the now legendary sketch which, far from being unpatriotic, attacked the ignorant and unnecessary sacrifices of wartime: "I want you to lay down your life, Perkins. We need a futile gesture at this stage. It will raise the whole tone of the war."
"Beyond the Fringe slays everything it touches," said an enthusiastic review in the Edinburgh Evening News, and it became the runaway hit of the Festival with long queues for tickets and audiences standing in the aisles every night as the word got around that it was the most hilarious show in town.
The show was so successful in Edinburgh that the following year an expanded version of it was staged in London, to critical acclaim. Macmillan was in the audience one night and had to suffer a spontaneous denunciation of his failings from Peter Cook. In 1962 there was an equally successful transfer to Broadway where President Kennedy went to see it.
While Cook died in 1995 and Moore in 2002, Bennett and Miller are still very actively involved in theatre, television and the arts.