Johnnie Mortimer - 1970s Sitcom Writer
The changing attitudes of UK audiences since the 70s
As well as Gothic, I like to write comedy. I focus mainly on comedic shorts or I focus on writing my collaborative TV show, that I'm currently writing with my friend.
As a woman in the 21st century, I probably shouldn't admit to liking old programmes such as George and Mildred, On the Buses and Man About the House, but I do. I love them. I grew up watching them, and I find a lot of inspiration in them.
*I wrote this late 2017/early 2018, so a few little things may have changed since then*
The following post contains language that may offend some readers. No offence is meant - I'm just quoting from old shows. I do not agree with the language used; I'm just using it for historical accuracy. I, in no way, commend the racist/sexist comments.
Comedy in the twenty-first century focuses, a lot of the time, on current events and the hardships of modern day life. Through comedy, we can look at modern life and laugh about it for a little while. Whilst this is a current fad – what with Peter Kay’s Car Share (2015-2017) and Dan Berendsen’s Baby Daddy (2012-2017), this is not a new occurrence. Making fun of modern life really took off in the seventies and early eighties, with television shows such as On the Buses (1969-1973) and Dad’s Army (1968-1977).
One writer in the late seventies/early eighties that managed to define modern life so well in his comedies, was Johnnie Mortimer. Mortimer’s first television work, hit British television screens in 1968 with Father, Dear Father, a comedy about a divorced father and his daughters. Like many of Mortimer’s works, the comedy is set in London, with a working-class family. In the seventies, it was typical to have racist and comically misogynistic humour, and Mortimer wrote in this way for his audience. In Father, Dear Father, two women are waitressing in bunny outfits and a conversation takes place,
How’d I look?
Yes, fine. You’ll do. Oh, you’ll feel a bit silly at first. But you’ll look good to them. Hmmm, your Corona Coronas are a bit low.
(The second waitress adjusts her bra).
The cigars, dear.
(Men stare as they walk away).
The period in which the series was written, reflects the type of audience it would have appealed to. Especially with elements of sexism and racism. However, Mortimer usually reverses the roles of racism for a comical effect. In George and Mildred (1976-1979), the light-hearted racism is thrown between two ethnicities, but in a surprising way. George states,
… funny you being called [doctor] White. What with being er…
Then, unusually, the doctor comes back with a comment which can be considered racist, when he tells George,
‘…all you white people look the same to me.’
We would assume in the seventies, that the English person would make the racist comments, but in this case, it’s the Indian doctor. A modern audience is more likely to find this offensive or shocking, as we have different ideas about what is acceptable. This is an example of comedy of differentiation in the seventies, whereby the audience’s prejudices are seen through the eyes of the character; this was generally the case in seventies comedies, whether it be a race argument or an argument between classes.
Another example of racist humour, is in Vance Powell’s Love Thy Neighbour (1972-1976). Powell wrote in a similar way to Mortimer, but he didn’t flip the racism. In his comedies, the white man is the blatant racist:
I’ll thank you to remember you are a guest in this country and as such, you should do us the favour of following our own customs… As a fully paid member of the union, you’re entitled to be called ‘brother’… my personal opinion of you as a nig-nog has nothing to do with it.
In this episode, a black man has joined a Trade Union but is calling the system hypocritical through the way in which they treat him. Here, the racist comment above, has no justification. The audience in the background laugh, this could be due to the fact that the situation would’ve run virtually parallel to people’s lives at the time; but the comedy comes from the extremities of what is portrayed of their own culture. Of course, now, it would be a much different story. Ideas and behaviours have changed a lot in the past forty years.
Mortimer establishes his audience with the themes he writes about. He shows the life of working class people; reflective of those who lived during this time. Mortimer wrote throughout Labour’s reign over the United Kingdom, and through the change into Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative reign.
Mortimer’s presentation of Conservatives is always as ‘toffs’ and ‘pompous’ people, to follow the opinion of his audience; again, using comedy of differentiation – comedy which points out the differences in people and exploiting them to create a humorous effect. This is especially highlighted in George and Mildred (1976-1979) with Jeffrey Fourmile. George and Jeffrey always clash, with the two of them having bad opinions of one another, due to class. Jeffrey is portrayed as a stuck up Conservative, going as far as him saying ‘don’t watch ITV.’ (Mortimer, 1979) and always referring to working class people as ‘those sort.’ (Mortimer, 1979-1981) This is also seen in Robin’s Nest (1977-1981), where Robin, who is a Labour supporter, is at loggerheads with his father-in-law, who is a Conservative. There were many bad feelings towards the Conservatives during this time, with the change of a Labour government, to the Conservatives under Margarete Thatcher, and Mortimer’s comedies echo this throughout.
In modern times, many writers still use the theme of clashing classes and cultures to instil comedy into their sketches. A more modern example of this is Everybody Loves Raymond (1996-2005). An upper-class father doesn’t like his daughter’s new family because of their class, interactions between the two, always end up with the upper-class father insulting the other. For example:
HANK: Well is what one says when one is shocked, but not particularly surprised, by someone’s boorish behaviour.’
Furthermore, with regards to culture, The Burnistoun Lift sketch (2011), is a good example of how modern writers use comedy of differentiation now. In this sketch, the writer (Iain Connell) plays on the incomprehensible speech of the Scottish characters. There is a historical disliking between the English and the Scottish, and whilst there is no real hatred or dislike, the clash of supposed ‘upper and lower class’ is always highlighted in comedy. However, the difference with modern times, the writer insures that the characters laugh at themselves, allowing the audience to laugh at them too. This isn’t so much seen in the seventies, whereby the audience may laugh at someone who isn’t laughing with them.
No specific studies have been written about Mortimer himself, but has been mentioned in a few, which highlight a new argument over whether re-runs of old comedies should be allowed on television today. In recent times, Ofcom have described that:
Seventies comedies would not be allowed on television screens today because they were so racist and offensive…
Also, many people argue that they should be removed from television as they are ‘no longer suitable for today’s more enlightened audiences.’ (Richards, 2014). This being said, people also argue that a modern audience wouldn’t be influenced by re-runs and if they were, they
…don’t know their history – they don’t understand their history and they don’t know anything about the British Empire.
And that Mortimer’s comedies, and other seventies comedies were
‘accurate portrayal of a bygone era’
Whilst not to the same extent, these comedy tropes are still used in modern day television shows. They are not intended to insult, but merely flip the coin on what is considered ‘typical racism.’ For example, in Goodness Gracious Me (1998-2015), the Indian community are making fun of the English man’s name because they can’t pronounce it. This sketch echoes what minorities went through when they first began emigrating to England.
We have a new man. He is from England, so let’s be gentle with him. His name is er… Jo… Je.
Jannuthan! … Janalayan? Juntawala! You English with your complicated names… You’re not in jolly England anymore, sipping tea and doing the Morrissey dancing. Why are you making everyone’s life difficult, by giving yourself a silly, hard to pronounce, foreign name? I don’t see you progressing very far in this business with a name like that.
Yet again here, we see a reversal of difference, but the characters laugh at themselves, thus validating the audiences’ laughter.
Another trend set by Mortimer, was characters insulting others, who were not the same as them. Whether it be due to class, race or even what part of the country they are from. Modern comedians have adopted this comical trick. Miranda Hart has used this form of comedy throughout her comedy career. She won a competition in 2001, writing in a similar style to Mortimer. In her script, she imitates a woman from the north, and teases her about her accent:
You couldn’t pitch an idea, no one would understand you, being from the north… you’ve got to be articulate in my business.
A slight northern twang in my accent has never –
No, can you just stop there. I’m not getting any of it.
I can be articulate.
Once again, Hart (as a modern comedy writer), also ensures that she laughs at herself. This also creates a close bond with the audience, highlighting the validity of the laughter.
Mortimer began his career as a cartoonist. He faced a lot of rejection but it was during this period in his life where Mortimer learnt ‘the lessons of brevity and pace in comedy.’ (Jones, 1992). From here, Mortimer began writing for radio. He wrote for Round the Horne, where he began to get more recognition for his talent in writing. Mortimer began writing for Tommy Cooper, and from then, his writing went from strength to strength. Before his first big hit series – Father, Dear Father (1968-1973) – he wrote two series for Bernard Cribbins. Many of Mortimer’s works, were the longest running series on Thames TV.
Starting out as a cartoonist may have helped Mortimer when using visual comedy. This type of comedy communicates to an audience on a different level, and evokes dramatic irony. It helps the audience perceive actions in a different way; they know something is wrong, but the character doesn’t. Mortimer uses visual comedy in ‘George and Mildred – ep. My Husband Next Door’ (Mortimer, 1976). The visual comedy last 01:80 and shows George trying to wallpaper his neighbours front room, but a series of events – from stepping in wallpaper paste, so pasting the wrong side – makes it hard for George to do a proper job. Songs from The Second Floor (2000) by Roy Anderson, also uses this form of comedy. The film uses ‘laconic visual gags’ (Walker, 2001) to connect with the audience. As well as writing his own programmes, he was the comedy advisor to Thames; helping budding writers get onto the scene. Once he had a bibliography of work behind him, he began writing stage plays for theatres in the UK. He wrote two: When the Cat’s Away and Situation Comedy.
Mortimer highlighted gender assumptions – reflecting on the issues faced at the time for gay people. In Man About the House, Robin Tripp, was a man who was into fashion and liked to look his best. His hair was long and he wore what was considered to be ‘outlandish’ clothing. A running joke of the programme, was people assuming he was either a woman, or he was gay. In the seventies, being gay wasn’t as frowned upon as it had been before, but it was still a touchy subject. The older generation – for the most part – were still against it, but opinions were changing.
Brian Cooke wrote similarly to Mortimer during the seventies, and they even collaborated on some screenplay scripts. Their work on Father, Dear Father inspired a spin-off film in 1973 with the same title. The series also was used to create a ‘follow up’ show in Australia. Mortimer and Cooke wrote the first episode. Mortimer’s other works have also encouraged other adaptions. For example, George and Mildred and Man About the House (1973-1976), were both adaptations for American audiences, called The Ropers (1979-1980) and Three’s Company (1977-984). These two programmes also inspired a book to be published in 2010, which included contributions from the cast and a phrase dictionary of the seventies.
Despite only being an active writer for twenty years, Mortimer made a huge impression on comedy. By running parallels through his work and real life, he was able to capture a wide audience, and encourage them to continue watching his much-loved television series’. Mortimer captured the zeitgeist of the seventies as well as attitudes and beliefs surrounding the newly instigated pop culture and Conservative politics of England. Whilst a twenty-first century audience would have considered his works racist, misogynistic and dated, it worked perfectly for the seventies. Mortimer began the trope of making characters laugh at themselves to legitimise the audiences’ laugher. Mortimer paved the way for future comedians to express their work through mediums that people of all classes can access and enjoy.
Mortimer, Johnnie (1968) Bunny Girls on “Father, Dear Father” – YouTube. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C2RgfPJSXCM [Accessed 28 April 2017]. (Mortimer, 1968).
Mortimer, Johnnie (1976) George and Mildred -Your Money or Your Life – YouTube. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TKz_dwlkg8A. [Accessed 28 April 2017]. (Mortimer, 1976).
Powell, Vince (1972) Nig Nog – YouTube. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Osjfs4paFAU. [Accessed 28 April 2017]. (Powell, 1972).
Mortimer, Johnnie (1979) (http://www.pinkdylan.co.uk/). 2017. One Way UK: FREE Puppet Script – Lent (George & Mildred). [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.onewayuk.com/page.php?id=345. [Accessed 28 April 2017]. (Mortimer, 1979).
Romano, Raymond (2003) Everybody Loves Raymond s07e24 Episode Script | SS. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.springfieldspringfield.co.uk/view_episode_scripts.php?tv-show=everybody-loves-raymond&episode=s07e24. [Accessed 28 April 2017]. (Romano, 2003).
Knaption, Sarah (2014) Racist 1970s comedies would be banned now, says head of Ofcom – Telegraph. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/11316397/Racist-1970s-comedies-would-be-banned-now-says-head-of-Ofcom.html. [Accessed 28 April 2017]. (Knaption, 2014)
Perry, Jimmy (2014) Racist 1970s comedies would be banned now, says head of Ofcom – Telegraph. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/11316397/Racist-1970s-comedies-would-be-banned-now-says-head-of-Ofcom.html. [Accessed 28 April 2017]. (Perry,2014)
Bhaskar, Sanjeev (2015) Goodness Gracious Me – If You Thought Indian Names Were Complicated!! – YouTube. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d-UNcnMo8fo&t=68s. [Accessed 28 April 2017]. (Bhaskar, 2015).
Hart, Miranda (2001) Miranda in the Sitcom Trials at Edinburgh Fringe – YouTube. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0-jXbfVBULQ&index=1&list=PL69020E394F073EC2. [Accessed 28 April 2017]. (Hart, 2001).
Mortimer, Johnnie (1976) George and Mildred – My Husband Next Door – YouTube. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pjr4v3IK8jw. [Accessed 28 April 2017]. (Mortimer, 1976).
Walker, Alexander (2001) Songs From The Second Floor (Sanger Fran Andra Vaningen) | London Evening Standard. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.standard.co.uk/goingout/film/songs-from-the-second-floor-sanger-fran-andra-vaningen-7433471.html. [Accessed 28 April 2017]. (Walker, 2001).