“She’s my Grassy Corner Girl, shy and sweet, And my heart is a whirl when we meet, Just we two in my canoe, With none to come between, But we’re never quite alone, We’ve Cupid for our chaperone. She’s my little Grassy Corner Queen.”
When up-and-coming London writer P.G. Wodehouse, later to create Jeeves and Bertie Wooster, was invited to write those lyrics by a Cambridge University undergrad, Kenneth Duffield, the year was 1907, the Grassy Corner was a favorite trysting spot, and the Cambridge Footlights Revue was in its 24th year. No one could have guessed that 103 years later, the annual show would still be going strong, would still be delighting audiences, and would have become a Mecca for aspiring English writers and comedians.
The show that launched the careers of John Cleese, Eric Idle, Graham Chapman, Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie, Sacha Baron Cohen, and dozens of others, makes its first U.S. trip in years when “Good For You,” the latest exercise in Cambridge wit, makes its way to the McCarter Theater on Wednesday, September 29.
It’s doubtful if those Wodehouse lyrics would make the final cut today. The show has evolved over 127 years from a burlesque with men in dresses to a sharp, humorous commentary that will demonstrate to the American audience what the young Brits, at least the young Brits of Cambridge, find funny.
Daran Johnson, a recent Cambridge graduate, is co-director of the show with Liam Williams. Speaking by phone somewhere in England, he enthuses, “I was in the show last year and the year before, and certainly of the three I’ve been involved with, it’s the best one. Which is one of the reasons we are taking the show to America this year.”
Johnson explains that the five actor show is loosely themed around the idea of advice, “things that are good for you, hence the title. With eight people writing, we wanted to have kind of a tentative theme that accounts for about half the show.”
The show traditionally makes its debut during Cambridge’s annual May Week, a celebration of the end of classes, complete with races, cricket matches, and parties. In a twist that future students like John Cleese and Eric Idle might have thought up, May Week takes place in June, over two weeks. Back in 1883, seven undergraduates, members of a newly formed drama society, decided to add to the festivities with a production of a parody of popular tragedies, Bombastes Furioso. It went over well, and the Footlights May Week Revue has been a tradition ever since (with time out for two wars).
The first Footlights shows stuck firmly to the basics of Victorian stock pieces, but within a decade, more and more original material began to creep in. Since 1892 the shows have been completely written by the club members. Starting in 1910 the Footlights began to make their way out of Cambridge for limited runs, first in London, and more recently, at well-regarded venues like the Edinburgh Festival.
Over the years, the club began to be regarded as an excellent training ground for performers and writers. A peak creative period began in the mid 1950s when Jonathan Miller (now a prominent stage and opera director) and later, the now-legendary comedian and writer Peter Cook, became involved. In 1960, with Cook fresh out of school, the two teamed up with future playwright Alan Bennett and future movie star Dudley Moore for a revue, “Beyond the Fringe,” which played at the Edinburgh Festival and then became an enormous hit in London and New York. Since much of the material was written by Miller and Cook, the show became looked upon as an example of Cambridge humor, and Cook particularly was given credit with starting a new trend away from the British music hall style of comedy and towards social and political satire.
The effect was so total and immediate that even today, the Footlights show is compared to the shows Cook and Miller had worked on. It was worst for the poor sods who had to follow in the years right after Fringe. Critics sniped about the 1963 show, “A Clump of Plinths.” One wrote, “There is little to indicate that its cast have read a newspaper since 1960,” and another said snarkily, “Have they got a new Jonathan Miller among them? No.” But there was a John Cleese and a Graham Chapman in the show, both of whom were to help change British comedy again just a few years later with Monty Python.
Today’s group deals not only with the long shadows of Cook, Miller, and the Pythons — Eric Idle headed up the 1964 and 1965 shows — but also the brilliant group who arrived in the early ’80s: Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson, et al. And the list just keeps on growing: Sacha Baron “Borat” Cohen and other names that fill the casts of British sitcoms and sketch shows.
The current group bears up remarkably cheerfully under the heavy burden of proudly keeping up the Footlights’ reputation. This year’s show just finished up a month-long run in Edinburgh, and according to Daran Johnson, “It went down really well. We got a total sell-out, which was nice; it’s the first time in quite a few years. And the critical reaction was the best it’s been for a long time.”
Johnson acknowledges that as a Footlights member, “you get compared to people who have come before, and always unfavorably. Stephen Fry said that when he was in Footlights, it was horrible because they were always being compared to Cleese and Chapman and Idle. The thing people forget is that when Hugh Laurie and John Cleese and Peter Cook were in Footlights, likely it is that they were rubbish, just learning how to do it. But it’s a really good starting point, and always a good indicator of what British comedy is. It’s always got its finger on the pulse of the nation comedically.”
The Footlights Club puts on four main shows a year, with the End of the Year Revue as the highlight. Secondary in popularity is the annual pantomime.
The pantomime, it should be noted, is a long-standing British tradition that should not be confused with its silent American meaning. Since the 1800s, the pantomime has been a perennial Christmas season show, based on folk or fairy tales (Aladdin, Puss in Boots, Cinderella) and involving songs, actors in animal costumes, classic stage villains (feel free to boo), and lots of slapstick and audience participation (“Look behind you!”). The pantomime performed each year at Footlights keeps its tongue firmly in cheek.
There is a perception, unfairly perhaps, that Cambridge in general and the Footlights in particular consists of a bunch of elite young people thumbing their noses at the real world. Footlights alumni dispute this. In “Monty Python Speaks!” by David Morgan, John Cleese is quoted as saying: “What I liked about Footlights is that there was a wider cross-section, so you got English people but you also got scientists, historians, and psychologists. Also, there was much more a mix of class. A lot of the other clubs tended to have a predominant class or predominant attitude; the Footlights crowd were very mixed and very good company, very amusing, and a lot less intense and serious and dedicated than the drama societies, who (it seemed to us) took themselves a bit more seriously.”
Daran Johnson agrees and explains that some student sketch groups at other universities pick five people at the start of school, and “that’s it for the year. Whereas at Footlights, you will get around 50 people who will be involved, and every show, regardless of whether you are on the (Footlights) committee, you have to audition. Even the president of Footlights auditions; in fact, the president did audition for this show, and wasn’t cast. It’s not just an Old Boys Club. Often in the past, it’s been perceived in the media as a bit privileged. Which is nonsense. It’s a completely different group every year. It’s not like John Cleese is calling you up and asking what you need. A lot of the people I know, the only reason they came to Cambridge was to do Footlights. It’s another one of the strengths of the club — because anyone can get in, you do get the chance, and it keeps it exciting and fresh.”
Not an Old Boys Club, perhaps, but a boys club, nonetheless, for many years. Although women have been part of Cambridge life for over 100 years (albeit with limitations for much of that time), and were often in the casts of the shows, they were not allowed to officially join Footlights until 1964, when then president Eric Idle lobbied for full female memberships. One of the first members was future feminist Germaine Greer.
Miriam Margolyes, best known today as Professor Sprout in the Harry Potter films, was a cast member in the 1962 show, which featured John Cleese, Tony Hendra, and Graham Chapman. She was, according to Robert Hewisohn’s 1983 book “Footlights! A Hundred Years of Cambridge Comedy,” “deeply hurt when she was not allowed to attend the cast party because she was not a member.”
In an E-mail, Margolyes says, “In 1962 women were only allowed to join the Footlights Club as guest performers. I was the only female performer among eight men. I don’t remember much about it, except that it was not a happy experience. The prevailing minor public schoolboy mentality was corrosive and exclusive, and a pushy fat Jewess was regarded as a pushy fat Jewess. Luckily, my audience appeal was undeniable.”
How much have things changed? “About 80 percent of the people who auditioned for “Good For You” were men and 20 percent women,” says Johnson. “The show has four men and one woman: exactly representative of the number of people who auditioned. What tends to happen is, as a general rule, if it’s writing and performing, you get overwhelmingly more men, but if it’s just performing, like the pantomime, you get overwhelmingly more women. I honestly don’t know why that is. The president of Footlights last year was a woman, and in recent years, some of the women from Footlights have gone to success in British TV.”
It has been a while since the Footlights show has been in America. After the success of “Beyond the Fringe,” the 1963 End of Year Revue, retitled “Cambridge Circus,” came to New York by way of London and New Zealand. The show had a brief unsuccessful run on Broadway, but did much better when it moved to a small theater in Greenwich Village, and the cast even ended up on the Ed Sullivan Show. But U.S. tours of Cambridge shows have been few and far between. The current show will visit Princeton and Yale, and perhaps Chicago.
Johnson promises that the show has not been re-tailored for American tastes. “It’s more or less the same show. What we’ve changed are references that might not carry across, mostly topical references. And there is the sense that if I went to watch an American sketch group performing in my town, I wouldn’t want to watch them perform in a very British style. That’s part of the novelty and appeal.”
The other part of the appeal is the chance to watch some talented young people who may just be the Next Big Thing. After all, someone has to be the first to discover a new and sillier walk.
The Cambridge Footlights Revue, Matthews Theater at the McCarter, 91 University Place, Princeton. Wednesday, September 29, 8 p.m. Cambridge University’s student-written and performed revue. $20 and up. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.