Just lately, I’ve become fascinated (and mildly obsessed) with the song ‘The Man Who Makes You Laugh’ – Anthony Newley’s stab at the ‘tragic clown’ subgenre. My favourite version is the studio recording from The Singer and His Songs, Newley’s 1978 LP. Newley possessed a uniquely eccentric instrument, and it’s here given full rein – whether crackling on the cusp of an elongated vowel, or gargling through a bolt of forced vibrato. It’s a voice that reminds me of Algie’s discourse on the piano in The Importance of Being Earnest: ‘I don’t play accurately – anyone can play accurately – but I play with wonderful expression.’ Sometimes you need an Ethel Merman; for all her warbling extremity (and deafness of tone), no one else can touch ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’ (a sunnier take on ‘The Man Who Makes You Laugh’). Sometimes you need a Newley too.
Sadly, this recording has never been issued on CD. But better than the LP, there exists an old tape from the Parkinson show. This provides the bonus of Newley’s physical performance. And it is performance, undeniably: an Expressionistic pantomime for the song’s every line. It’s oddly charismatic. Unexpected too, coming from a man with those heavy eyebrows and thick-set, potato-headed features – unchanged from his adolescent breakthrough, as the Artful Dodger in David Lean’s Oliver Twist. This ruggedness sit at odds with a decidedly fey quality. It finds its best expression in Newley’s hands: sometimes propitiating, sometimes flapping uncontrollably, but always in nervy motion, never for one moment still. Newley’s physical dexterity fleshes out the song’s unfailingly bold lyrics – the kind of thing I’d be too cowardly to set to paper. The words are rough-hewn, but always daring, risking the banal to become breathtakingly poetic. So whilst there are images that don’t quite fly (‘the custard pie that life just loves to throw’), others are perfect, and perfectly surreal (‘the monster with the thousand eyes is shouting to be fed’). The exemplar of this poetic type might be the Newley-Bricusse ‘Pure Imagination’, which conducts Roald Dahl to Elysium: ‘If you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it…’
Newley’s lyrics capture so many of the masochistic pitfalls of performance: slaving for Norma Desmond’s ‘people in the dark’, the cycles of addiction, even the bloody reviews (a particular insight: even the glowing verdict ‘the laughter machine’ reveals itself as harmful). But more than detail, there is staggering embarrassment. Voice and movement and lyric scrape against each other like tectonic plates. It’s a performance seedy, degraded, fawning, frantic, spasmodic, mincing; painful and pitiable and, beyond all, chilling. The feeling of embarrassment only increased in aftertimes, when Newley often seemed intoxicated on stage. The song is so cunningly engineered that this added new force.
‘Entertainer’ is as close to a target as I can find for the song. For Newley rather strangely conflates the stand-up comic (‘my home is any microphone that’s free’) with the circus clown (‘prepare your painted face’). But by the time Newley’s staring at his reflection in the dressing-room mirror, he is all of we dispossessed performers: ‘I ask my own reflection and I see – the funny man is me!‘ Funny men, the lot of us. Newley deserves to be recognised alongside his fellow tortured entertainers. It’s a battlefield that stretches far beyond Archie Rice. I think of ‘He’ in Andreyev’s He Who Gets Slapped, perhaps the most iconic tragic clown. Lon Chaney played him in 1924, in the first ever production from the fledgling MGM – a studio no doubt responsible for a score of dispossessed entertainers. Britain has yielded two great Shakespearean actors: Edward Lionheart in Theatre of Blood and the Wolfitian ‘Sir’ in The Dresser. The former kills the critics who scoffed at his Lear; the latter kills himself by playing Lear. My personal favourite is Gwynplaine in Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs (sublimely incarnated by Conrad Veidt in the silent film). The fellow with the permanent smile – a rictus grin – irreparably carved into his head. Gwynplaine’s only hope of survival is the carnival.
I rail against the commonplace of the tortured entertainer. It’s become such a stereotype that it requires great originality and even greater style to warrant attention. In writing my play about Henry Irving – optimistically scheduled for performance in early 2058 – I did everything I could to avoid the stereotype (not easy with Irving, whose emotional life was peculiarly barren). Stereotypes are often so for being founded in truth. Yet the truth is rarely pure and never simple (thanks again, Earnest). A lesson of ‘The Man Who Makes You Laugh’ is that we performers need a measure of self-indulgence. We crave it. Thrive on it. A bitch and a moan and a grumble. Arguable, I suppose, that this is an anodyne to the frustration and privation of pursuing any career as an entertainer. But I suspect the sort of strange individual (and we are all of us strange) who makes a living standing in front of other people would anyway want an outlet for that self-indulgence. The fool must die, but he’ll make sure it’s by his own hand. He’s going on his own terms: ‘Look at ME! Look at ME! I’m the FUNNY MAN!’
All of which makes me think of Stephen Fry. Few entertainers have been more determined to indulge on their own terms. I’ve just finished More Fool Me, Fry’s latest volume of autobiography. His first, Moab is my Washpot, was a formative experience for me. I encountered it when I was about fourteen. A revelatory explosion of unrequited love, wrecky homosexuality, feeling unable to ‘join in’ and generalised unhealthiness. Here was a life I understood very well. But in a sort of ‘word made flesh’ way: never had I imagined that an inner life could emerge so perfectly phrased. The second volume, The Fry Chronicles, whilst critically acclaimed, left me cold. Inevitable, in retrospect: how on earth could it follow the first one? But I was now noticing a certain pattern. Fry’s prose style knits together a chain of ghastly self-descriptions, embellished with superficial admonishments to the reader. To paraphrase:
I’m a foul, fat and ugly waste of skin, and I know you’re telling me off that, dear reader, for which you are utterly, utterly right, for writing hatefully of oneself is a dreadful habit, which only proves me a foul, fat and ugly waste of skin, and you mustn’t pity me for thinking that, for I know my foulness and fatness and ugliness to be the truth of me – to descriptive depths quite beyond your imagination…
It’s impossible to locate a crack in Fry’s armour. There’s simply no way to attack him. He’s in there first, doing it all on his own terms, just like Newley’s grandstanding entertainer. Self-revelation may be no more than a desperate self-protection.
Fry’s third memoir, More Fool Me, was critically roasted (not least in this weaselly, if insightful, piece) – but so much so that I found it surprisingly good (though still not up to Moab). This time, I was prepared for Fry’s style. No transparency now. It has hardened, callous-like. And it has become the whole show. A performance about performance, rather like ‘The Man Who Makes You Laugh’ – the showbiz biog Fry once claimed he’d never stoop to write. A slightly ugly spectacle, but it’s hard to look away.
At this juncture, I should add that I don’t view self-indulgence as being the worst of all activities. It has to be carefully regulated, lest it prove self-destructive. But, to my way of thinking, it’s a fairly basic human need. Perhaps self-indulgence isn’t exactly the right phrase. Narcissism, maybe? Fry’s accused of narcissism quite often now. His fin de siècle career renaissance – the films, the books, the BAFTAs, QI above all – has rendered him ubiquitous, triggering the tediously predictable backlash. I think it’s unfair to accuse Fry of straightforward narcissism. It strikes me that one of the defining features of narcissism is that it doesn’t like hard work. Staring at one’s reflection in a pool is passive, not active. And Fry is a furiously hard worker; were it possible to earn a right to narcissistic self-regard, he’d have done so many times. But can any entertainer be free of narcissism? For someone, anyone, to stand on a stage they have to think, however deeply: ‘I AM EXTRAORDINARY!’ Even if he’s extraordinary for being such a waste of skin. Perhaps when narcissism turns active, it manifests as the necessary self-indulgence of the entertainer.
As it happens, ‘The Man Who Makes You Laugh’ was not Newley’s first stab at the tragic clown. Much more famous is ‘What Kind of Fool Am I?’ from Stop the World – I Want to Get Off. It’s been covered by just about everyone (tortured entertainers all), but the Newley version proves most expressive. In this clip from Hollywood Palace, there again are those mesmeric, freewheeling, tell-all hands. And the full-face clown makeup suggested in ‘The Man Who Makes You Laugh’. The lyrics are a fog of narcissistic revelation: ‘It seems that I’m the only one that I have been thinking of…’ – ‘What kind of man is this? An empty shell!’ – ‘Why can’t I fall in love – like any other man?’ The last is particularly telling. Fry-like: affirming distinction. Shit, but extraordinary in it.
Newley’s self-revelations – more accurately self-protections – show where the entertainer’s self-indulgence truly lies. It’s out in the uncharted hinterland between narcissism and masochism. For the performer knows he will suffer, must suffer. We all know what we’ve signed on for – how could the prevalence of the tragic clown leave us in doubt? Unless we assume that we’ll be the first ones to crack it and locate unforced happiness in making entertainment. Which is purely narcissistic. Feeling hard done to is, bizarrely enough, a not unattractive part of the deal – especially for these performers, like Newley, who perform performance. Newley’s desire to suffer is redeemed by his compulsive need to tell everyone about that suffering. It’s the transformative effect of performance. Shit is converted into art; death into life. So if we must self-indulge, far better we do it on the stage. It drains the poison from our systems in a way that enriches.
The transformation also reveals that the suffering was never abject. It’s all a part of the show – a part without which the show really couldn’t go on. How Merman would scoff. Thus do Newley and Fry go arm-in-arm into their showbiz sunset. A flapping, sinuous flipper, hooked in the tendril of that bin-liner full of yoghurt.