I missed 'On the Margin' when it was originally transmitted on BBC2 in '66, but I saw the repeats (Jan-Feb '67), which attracted so much attention that just about every adult in Britain (including me) saw the BBC1 transmissions (May-July) that same year. 'On the Margin' was a fascinating hotch-potch of cutting-edge comedy, leavened with serious interludes of original music ... and poetry by John Bejeman. (Although Betjeman's famous poem about your mum and dad, and what they do to you, was conspicuous by its absence.) I'm embarrassed to confess that my own favourite portions of 'On the Margin' were the vintage film clips of old-time music-hall comedians ... including Max Miller, Arthur Askey, Jewel & Warriss and Flanagan & Allen. Over the decades, I've been able to track down most of those music-hall clips (from their original sources) and savour them again, but it now appears that most of the original footage from 'On the Margin' no longer exists. Fortunately, the scripts survive in Auntie Beeb's archives, and we can live in hope that they will one day be re-enacted, in the same way that Paul Merton has 'remade' some classic Tony Hancock sketches.
Head writer Alan Bennett, fresh off his success with 'Beyond the Fringe', was also the principal performer here, ably abetted by an excellent repertory cast, plus guest appearances by 'Fringe'-mate Jonathan Miller, John Fortune and (in serious mode) Michael Hordern. Director Sydney Lotterby (mocked in the BBC's corridors as 'The Man with a Million') directed this series skilfully with his usual economic efficiency.
One recurring serial sketch, 'Streets Ahead', dealt with two competitive couples in NW1. Other sketches lampooned trendy figures of the moment, such as Angry Young Man playwrights. 'On the Margin' hugely anticipated Monty Python with a surprising tendency to inject gay humour into its sketches. Bennett was hilarious (and hilariously credible) as a series of camp antiques dealers and swishy window-dressers. This was, of course, decades before Bennett came out in real life.
'On the Margin' occurred roughly halfway through Britain's renaissance of satiric comedy, which Bennett had helped to start in 'Beyond the Fringe'. It's notable that most of this comedy was extremely hostile towards Britain, the British people, the British government and the British way of life. 'On the Margin', intriguingly, managed to score its satirical points while still expressing a deep sense of patriotism and a love of British traditions. Bennett and his comedic cohorts seemed to be proposing ways in which Britain might improve, whilst other satirists of this era were merely slagging the nation and its government.
As it appears that only a few scraps of footage survive from this milestone series, the best chance seems to be a re-staging of the scripts. In the 1970s, Bennett re-worked his notorious 'Norwich' sketch from this series for the 'Pleasure at Her Majesty's' benefit. Let's have more, please! I'll rate 'On the Margin' 10 out of 10, and I don't believe that nostalgia is colouring my opinion.
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