|Beyond the Fringe|
On Broadway circa 1962 to 1964. From left, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett, Peter Cook and Jonathan Miller.
|Written by||Alan Bennett
|Date premiered||22 August 1960|
|Place premiered||Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh|
Beyond the Fringe was a British comedy stage revue written and performed by Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett, and Jonathan Miller. It played in London's West End and then in America, both on tour and on New York's Broadway in the early 1960s. Hugely successful, it is widely regarded as seminal to the rise of satirical comedy in 1960s Britain.
The show was conceived in 1960 by an Oxford graduate, Robert Ponsonby, artistic director for the Edinburgh International Festival, with the idea of bringing together the best of revues by the Cambridge Footlights and The Oxford Revue, which had both transferred to Edinburgh for short runs in previous years. John Bassett, a graduate of Wadham College, Oxford, who was Ponsonby's assistant, recommended Dudley Moore, his jazz bandmate and a rising cabaret talent. Moore in turn recommended Alan Bennett, who had had a hit at Edinburgh a few years before. Bassett also chose Jonathan Miller, who had been a Footlights star in 1957. Miller recommended Cook.
Bennett and Miller were already pursuing careers in academia and medicine respectively, but Cook had an agent, having written a West End revue for Kenneth Williams. Cook's agent negotiated a higher weekly fee for him, but by the time the agent's fee was deducted Cook actually earned less than the others from the initial run.
The majority of the sketches were by Cook and were largely based on material written for other revues. Among the entirely new material were "The End of the World", "TVPM" and "The Great Train Robbery". Cook and Moore revived some of the sketches on their later television and stage shows, most famously the two-hander "One Leg Too Few".
The show's runs in Edinburgh and the provinces had a lukewarm response, but when the revue transferred to the Fortune Theatre in London, in a revised production by Donald Albery and William Donaldson, it became a sensation, thanks in some part to a favourable review by Kenneth Tynan.
In 1962 the show transferred to the John Golden Theatre in New York, with its original cast. President John F. Kennedy attended a performance on 10 February 1963. The show continued in New York, with most of the original cast, until 1964, when Paxton Whitehead replaced Miller, while the London version continued with a different cast until 1966.
The revue was widely considered to be ahead of its time, both in its unapologetic willingness to debunk figures of authority, and by virtue of its inherently surrealistic comedic vein. Humiliation of authority was something only previously delved into in The Goon Show and, arguably, Hancock's Half Hour, with such parliamentarians as Sir Winston Churchill and Harold Macmillan coming under special scrutiny — although the BBC were predisposed to frown upon it. Macmillan — according to Cook — was not particularly fond of the slurred caricature and charade of senile forgetfulness (marked by a failure to pronounce 'Conservative Party' coherently) handed down on him in Cook's impersonation. Since Beyond the Fringe was not owned by the BBC, however, the quartet enjoyed relative carte blanche. The only protocol they were obliged to adhere to stipulated that their sketches be sent to the Lord Chamberlain for approval prior to performance (a requirement abolished in 1968).
Most specifically, its lampooning of the British war effort in a sketch titled "The Aftermyth of the War" was scorned by some war veterans for its supposed insensitivity. One British visitor to the Broadway performance was said to have stood up and shouted 'rotters!' at a sketch he found distasteful, before apparently sitting down again and enjoying the remainder of the show, while another, at the first performance in Edinburgh allegedly stood up and declared that the 'young bounders don't know the first thing about it!' and promptly left the auditorium. In response to these negative audience reactions, the Beyond the Fringe team insisted that they were not ridiculing the efforts of those involved in the war, but were challenging the subsequent media portrayal of them.
As with the established comedy revue, it was a series of satirical sketches and musical pieces using a minimal set, looking at events of the day. It effectively represented the views and disappointments of the first generation of British people to grow up after World War II, and gave voice to a sense of the loss of national purpose with the end of the British Empire. Although all of the cast contributed material, the most often quoted pieces were those by Cook, many of which had appeared before in his Cambridge Footlights revues. The show broke new ground with Peter Cook's impression of then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan; on one occasion, this was performed with Macmillan in the audience, and Cook added an ad lib ridiculing Macmillan for turning up to watch. In 2006, Jonathan Miller recounted that the breach of decorum this represented was a source of embarrassment to both audience and performers.
The show is credited with giving many other performers the courage to be satirical and more improvisational in their manner, and broke the conventions of not lampooning the Royal Family or the government of the day. However, the show wasn't all that satirical, merely making fun of things — such as war films — though even this was a step forward in comedy. Shakespearean drama was another target of their comedy. There were also a number of musical items in the show, using Dudley Moore's music, most famously an arrangement of the Colonel Bogey March which resists Moore's repeated attempts to bring it to an end.
The show prefigured the Satire Boom of the 1960s. Without it, there might not have been either That Was the Week That Was or Private Eye, the satirical magazine which originated at the same time, that partially survived due to financial support from Peter Cook, and that served as the model for the later American Spy Magazine. Cook and Moore formed a comedy team and appeared in the popular television show Not Only... But Also, and the 1967 film Bedazzled. Cook also launched his club, The Establishment, around this time. Many of the members of Monty Python recall being inspired by Beyond the Fringe.
The retrospective show Before the Fringe, broadcast during the early years of BBC 2, took its title from this production. It consisted of performances of material that was popular in theatrical revue before the advent of Beyond the Fringe.
The show's success was not limited to the UK. In 1962, it also opened in South Africa. Next it arrived in the US. First the Broadway Company opened on October 27, 1962, then it was performed by the National Company in 1963. Subsequently, opening on October 8, 1964, the National Touring Company took it on a nationwide tour for six months as Beyond the Fringe '65 under the auspices of Alexander H. Cohen, with the cast consisting of Robert Cessna, Donald Cullen, Joel Fabiani, and James Valentine. Slight changes were made to adapt the show for American audiences, for instance the opening number (discussing America) was retitled "Home Thoughts from Abroad".
The show was revived in slightly altered form in Los Angeles in 2000 and 2001 by Joseph Dunn's ReEstablishment Theater to critical acclaim.
All four original members of Beyond the Fringe feature prominently in the play Pete and Dud: Come Again, by Chris Bartlett and Nick Awde, although performed by other actors. Appropriately, the comedy drama had a sellout run at the 2005 Edinburgh Festival Fringe before transferring to London's West End at The Venue, in 2006, in a version starring Kevin Bishop as Moore, Tom Goodman-Hill as Cook, Fergus Craig as Alan Bennett and Colin Hoult as Jonathan Miller. It subsequently embarked on a nationwide tour.
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