“I am a librarian and an Englishman”

Given the plentiful raw material that many people think librarians offer for casual humour you would think that proper comedians would be able to make something genuinely amusing out of that raw material especially if you applied the talents of some of Britain’s best comic scriptwriters to the task. Sadly you would be wrong. The results can charitably be described as uneven, even after you have eliminated the abysmal Sorry! about which more later. If you include Sorry! the results are pretty lamentable.

The legendary Two Ronnies had a couple of goes at librarians although given their overall brilliance neither was amongst their best sketches. One, the Confusing Library sketch, opted for a favourite fantasy of librarians themselves.. The Library is confusing because all the books on different subjects are mixed up and, unable to find the book he needs Corbett seeks help from the only half bothered librarian (Barker of course) who explains that it’s easy to find the books because they are all arranged by colour “all the blue ones over

Its a big green book. They're upstairs

Its a big green book. They’re upstairs

here all the red ones over there it was the architect’s idea”. Slightly bewildered and still unhappy Corbett is assured to hear that that they are of course subdivided …into small ones on the top, large ones on the bottom. Badgered by Corbett the librarian slowly and resentfully looks up the elusive book in the catalogue and tells him he’s found it…  “it’s a big green book. They’re upstairs!”  Ronnie Barker does a wonderful job as the superior and dismissive librarian doing an early version of Norman Stanley Fletcher’s accent and attitude but the ending is not one of their best but if you are really interested it is still available on the internet. Their other effort also still available played on the traditional silence of the old public library here complete with harassed female librarian, bun, wire-rimmed glasses cardigan the whole lot. Enter Corbett standing in front of the prominent SILENCE sign very loudly announcing he wants to join the library and told of course by the librarian to speak quietly, only he can’t that’s why he wants to join the library, to borrow a book called How to Stop Shouting. When the other library users complain and Corbett persists at the top of his voice the librarian calls for the Chief Librarian, Barker obviously, who when told the problem, tells Shouting LibraryCorbett the book is out and anyway its useless because he read it and it didn’t work and of course does this at the top of his voice only for another reader to announce he is reading it and it useless as he is now shouting too and so on until they are all shouting. It’s not up there with Fork Handles but its better by a very long way that some of the others.

Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie have long since gone their separate ways, Laurie to be a US TV superstar and Fry to become a sort of latter day Oscar Wilde impressionist but early in their career they were a double act but were awfully uneven. Laurie after some stereotypical behaviour from an obstructive librarian finds a copy of the book that he is looking for on the last ten years of test matches between England and the West Indies only to find that it has been almost completely gutted except for a few strips of text. Complaining that the book is incomplete the librarian responds with the best line of the sketch; “have you read it before… then how do you know there are bits missing?”.

The male librarian (Stephen Fry playing the role of Stephen Fry) appears to support his colleague explaining that although the book includes only the words ”The West indies are not very good at cricket” that was how it was delivered to them.  Laurie’s claim that the statement isn’t true anyway and that England hasn’t beaten the West indies for 14 years is met by the belligerent Fry claiming that that England has won every test match since the war and offers copies of Wisden to prove his point, Wisden that is a single sheet of cut and paste that says “England is great and better than everyone else at cricket” and lambasts Laurie’s as one of those people who will insist on running down the English “I am a librarian and an Englishman, or rather an Englishman who just happens to be a librarian. If the day should come when I have to choose between being a librarian and an Englishman…” I told you they could be uneven but it is way better than a much later attempt to extract dubious humour from librarians.

England is great and better than everyone else at cricket...official, Wisden

England is great and better than everyone else at cricket…official, Wisden

Robert Webb provides one of the most uncomfortable if not deeply disturbing portrayals of a librarian that I can recall in his sketch series with David Mitchell. Openly mocking the lowbrow book that the female reader wishes to lend he then goes on to mock her taste, lifestyle and everything about her until she is reduce to a hopeless self-pitying wreck, at which point Webb says “How about a date”. I think I am too old to grasp the humour of Mitchell and Webb but even so this was just misogynist rubbish quite apart from its offensive calumny of librarians. It is a world away from what must be one of the best uses ever of libraries as a premise for a comedy programme.

Hancock’s Half Hour back in 1960 featured an typically manic visit to his local public library with Hugh Lloyd as the world weary librarian sneering at Hancock’s pursuit of a cheap thriller until he requests The History of the Holy Byzantine Empire, the Complete HancockRoman Law, Plato’s Republic and Homer’s Illiad and thinks he may have misjudged Hancock who of course promptly puts the books on the floor to help him reach the lurid thriller on the top shelf. The mime that Hancock is forced to perform to explain to his mate Sid the plot of another thriller to avoid all the shushing from the readers is worth the effort to find it on YouTube on its own*.

Finally if we absolutely must I will return to Sorry!.   For almost 20 years through the 1970’s and 80’s the Ronnie Corbett and Ronnie Barker were the undisputed kings of TV comedy with their celebrated series The Two Ronnies. When their hugely successful partnership ended in 1989 the two went on to solo projects. Ronnie Barker went on to even more fame and acclaim as the legendary Fletcher in the magnificent Porridge one of the most popular comedies of all time Corbett went on to a solo vehicle called Sorry!. There has never been a more appropriate title for a TV show.  Sorry! demonstrated just where the comic talent lay in their partnership despite the fact that the scripts were from the duo who had fed the Two Ronnies partnership so effectively.  In the so called comedy Corbett plays a hapless, helpless overgrown middle aged schoolboy, Timothy Lumsden, terrified of his domineering mother and despite his desperation to get away from her utterly incapable of sorting out his life and particularly finding a girlfriend. He is of course a librarian. Somehow or other, presumably to justify the king’s ransom they paid Corbett to stay with the BBC, it ran to seven series which is at least seven too many. It is so irredeemably awful I am astonished that it has not been indicted at the relevant international court for crimes against light entertainment but it has at least thankfully sunk into well-deserved obscurity although clips are available on the internet but I advise you not to watch it alone or when you are depressed or in fact at all…..ever.

Still to come to complete librarians on TV we still have Dr Who, Buffy and The Cookie Monster but that’s for next time

*Thanks for reminding me Phil.

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