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Friday, 4 March 2011

Me & Arthur Haynes, BBC4

After exhuming stars of silent films, Paul Merton jumps forward a few decades to enlighten us with another neglected comedy genius, Arthur Haynes.


Merton follows the same format he did when lauding the silent stars. An amusing lecture punctuated with clips to elucidate each point he makes. Only here there is one important difference. He is able to call on the wit and wisdom of Haynes’ straight man, Nicholas Parsons (who looks well for 87).


With Parsons, Merton is able to crawl inside the story of Haynes, feeding Parsons a notion of what he wants to talk about and letting Parsons recount what Hayne was like. This is made better by the evident rapport between Merton and Parsons from their time on Just A Minute together.


Perhaps the biggest revelation is how well the sketches have aged. In the context of the whole programme you build up an affection for the performance of Haynes and Parsons and the scripts of writers such as Johnny Speight.


Although many of the sketches follow a formula – Haynes playing himself, Parsons playing a vicar, a policeman or some other establishment figure – the way in which the two interact is redolent of every classic double act of the TV era from Pete and Dud, the Two Ronnies, Morcambe and Wise, Ant and Dec to Walliams and Lucas. And it’s this interplay that is humorous.


Watching a few of sketches without an introduction of who Arthur Haynes was might leave you feeling a little cold to a quaint comedy sketch from fifty years ago. But after getting to know them, the conflict between protagonist and antagonist is just as funny as any other era.


We also got an insight into the way TV has changed. With the shows broadcast live and Haynes a little lazy in learning his lines, Merton brought out numerous examples of where he forgot his lines and had to be prompted by Parsons. Or it might be that Parsons would corpse and the pair would have to muddle through until they regained their composure. Parsons, meanwhile, explained how health and safety worked in the early-60s: it was non-existent. With no rehearsals, live broadcasts would feature gushing flames singeing Haynes’s eyebrows off (or near enough).


Unlike the stars of silent screen lauded by Merton, we hadn’t really heard of Arthur Haynes and Merton did seem a little upset at the way he has ostensibly been erased from television history. And judging by the gems he brought out to back up his case, it’s a sentiment we can only agree with.

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