Wednesday, 16 July 2008


Explosions can be funny. Nerve-wrackingly unpredictable. Once a fuse is lit, and you know it’s going to happen but you don’t know when, the only way successfully to deal with a big bang is to laugh. Even if the bang turns out to be an anticlimactic whimper, it’s funny. Never return to a lit explosive – unless of course you are in the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, whose membership has always involved a certain amount of risk. Its leader, Viv Stanshall, accidentally and unpredictably died in a fire in Muswell Hill in 1995, don’t forget.

The Bonzoes are from the Big Bang era. No, they’re not that old, but they are all of an age when National Service was a predictable part of male growing up. When guns and bombs were still considered educational. Spike Milligan was the first to process his own explosive wartime history into comedy. Hell for him, great for us.

Watching the Bonzoes’ June gig I was struck by the similarity of the humour. Milligan-style anarchy in the UK. It was a group of mainly old men having a great and silly time, on and off stage. It was only when Roger Ruskin Spear’s explosive robotic device failed to blow up – and he foolhardily but funnily returned to try and fix it - that you saw the link between the post war humour of explosions, National Service and its demise, the Bonzoes and Groovy Old Men. Milligan, Spear and any other post war comedian that coaxed a laugh out of an explosion was relieving his and our post-war tension by laughing at destruction. (A doctor writes.)

Most official histories portray National Service as beneficial and worthy of revival. It licked men into shape. It taught discipline, and in some cases unarmed combat. It will knock some sense into today’s knife-wielding teenage youth. However, I would guess that most men who had to do it thought it a waste of time. The threat of orthodox warfare receded and an even bigger nuclear bang was being perfected in the wings, as they square-bashed, target-practiced and jumped out of aeroplanes. It was a big big bang that would make their service redundant. The irony wasn’t lost on many of these guys. In the later fifties, National Service became a joke, and quite a good one. It also pitched together men of all classes and backgrounds, perfect conditions for sharing the fun. What today’s youth lack is a sense of the absurd. Put ‘em in uniforms and show them how to blow stuff up, that’s what I say.

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