Clive James: ‘Coogan and Brydon are the funniest couple since Laurel and Hardy’

The extras do uncanny impersonations of corpses, and sometimes can’t keep it up

Anyone who relishes what happens when Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon sit opposite each other in a restaurant will know that the real focus of the entertainment is on the actors at the other tables who are pretending not to laugh. While Coogan and Brydon do uncanny impersonations of 007, the extras have to do uncanny impersonations of corpses, and sometimes they can’t keep it up. They crack a rib. And they are, of course, quite right. Coogan and Brydon are the funniest couple since Laurel and Hardy.

And it’s all done just by evoking stuff we’ve seen already. But there’s no “just” about it. Such accurate mimicry demands deep concentration. The basic shtick of their echolalic duel to the death depends on Coogan being even more fanatical about getting it right than Brydon is. Indeed, Coogan might not entirely be bluffing when he suggests, in a voice nearly his own for once, that mere hilarity might not always be the whole aim. The true intention is to borrow a state of being.

This bold contention would cover the case in those passages of their duet when Brydon is even funnier than Coogan. Seeming not to care, Coogan goes off into a trance of his own, like a great duellist who, tired of killing, trails the point of his épée in the short grass of the chateau lawn. The flesh is sad, alas, and I have read all the books. Students of the couple will go on arguing into eternity about the metaphysical aspects of their deadly contest, while the extra at one of the spare tables goes on pondering the consequences of honking her fruit parfait all over the cameraman.

With the top politicians all in showbiz, the essential requirement for survival is to pretend you aren’t. Earlier this month, I caught a long moment of histrionics from Theresa May that could sink her if she does it again. She was sitting in the House of Commons and pretending, with her shoulders shaking in a paroxysm of carefully calculated uncontrollability, to be convulsed at Jeremy Corbyn or some other Labour luminary of equally low wattage. I myself laughed helplessly when Corbyn first proposed his concept of nuclear submarines minus their missiles, but I am not prime minister of Great Britain. May might soon not be that either, if she keeps getting caught hamming badly for the cameras.

The shaking shoulder laugh, incidentally, was pioneered by Edward Heath, who did not profit from it, and even further back there was Harold Wilson and his pipe; both of them imitated on television by Mike Yarwood. As Julius Caesar proved when he forgave Catullus, politics and showbiz are in each other’s pockets.

Contributor

Clive James

The GuardianTramp

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