What makes a ‘comedy legend’? Surely attributes such the ability to make people laugh would count? Cross-generational appeal? Maybe. Work that stands the test of time? Probably. It’s not hard to argue that Laurel and Hardy are comedy legends and Cannon and Ball are not. Sit your kids down and show them Way Out West and The Boys In Blue in the same sitting and see which they laugh at and which they beg you to turn off.
Robert Ross attempts to claim Marty Feldman as a comedy legend in his new biography of the long-departed writer, performer and terrible jazz musician (Marty Feldman: The Biography of a Comedy Legend, Titan Books, £18.99). It’s a claim you will question primarily depending on your age. To those over about 45 Feldman was the writer of the likes of Round The Horne and the Frost Report and a writer performing his own material on At Last The 1948 Show and his own Marty series. To the younger audience he’s simply the bug-eyed bloke from Young Frankenstein. Both groups have probably already forgotten the rest of his best-forgotten Hollywood films (In God We Trust, anyone?). What this book definitely demonstrates, however, is that Feldman is very much the lost man of the Goons/ Fringe/ Python era of British comedy - he is overlooked by the public, his best material goes under acknowledged and his TV shows unrepeated, despite being hugely popular in the their day. There really was more to Marty, though, than a bug-eyed hunchback.
Feldman was born between the wars to a poor, barely working class Jewish family in London’s East End. He felt the calling of both jazz and showbiz early in life and by his teenage years progressed erratically from living rough in London to touring the country playing self-confessed appalling jazz trumpet and drums while touring in a terrible music hall act. This lifestyle and a devotion to Buster Keaton instilled in him a determination to become a comedy writer so he began to write gags for comedians. When he teamed up with the more established comedy writer Barry Took in the mid 50’s he found his style and stride and the pair became two of the most successful radio and TV writers of the day. Feldman then moved in front of the camera in some influential 60’s shows before his own TV series brought him to the attention of Hollywood. He finally found worldwide fame as Igor (or is it Eye-gor?) in Mel Brooks’ horror pastiche Young Frankenstein. A couple of poorly received self-written and directed films later he was out of favour in Tinseltown and died of a heart attack in 1982 while shooting Python-oriented turkey Yellowbeard in Mexico. It’s an arresting tale and one told in a thorough, if not entirely flowing, style.
Feldman is very much the lost man of the Goons/ Fringe/ Python era of British comedy - he is overlooked by the public, his best material goes under acknowledged and his TV shows unrepeated.
Author Robert Ross has his established credentials in the comedy biography/ tribute genre. He had a best seller with his Monty Python Encyclopaedia and he’s written fact-heavy books on Last of the Summer Wine, Fawlty Towers and extensively on the Carry On films. It’s his writing style, honed on those near-reference volumes, which is the main drawback with this book. He’s compiled the content from existing quotes with Feldman’s friends and contemporaries, new interviews with the likes of Michael Palin and Terry Jones and, crucially, tapes of Feldman’s own reminiscences recorded for an intended autobiography. There’s little grace to the writing, it bolts together information in a sometimes clumsy way and leaves the reader enjoying the story if not the delivery. To give him his due, Ross has been characteristically thorough, with seemingly every job Feldman ever undertook included, but there’s a selective thoroughness when it comes to Feldman’s private life. For example, he covers Feldman’s teenage hard drug use in exactly 4 words (‘He would inject heroin’ When? Where? For how long? We need to know!) and simply doesn’t bother to find out what his subject’s original family name was (Feldman’s parents changed their name on arrival from Kiev, surely this information is available on some kind of public record?).
The book flows significantly better once Feldman has found fame - probably because there are then more public interviews and documents to mine – and his Hollywood ascent and decline is documented in a more entertaining way than most of the films Feldman made. However, in spite of his higher public profile the book then becomes almost entirely concerned with his professional life. We learn little about the man beyond a few probably-exaggerated reminiscences from Feldman himself and occasional, under-explored references to alcohol and drug abuse. Feldman was highly respected by his faithfully discreet friends and colleagues and compared to many tears-of-a-clown-style comedy figures his private life was obviously relatively sensation-free but it would be nice to have had more details on how he lived, if only to place his comedy in some sort of context. What happened to him day-to-day and how it translated into his work is never satisfactorily relayed.
One final gripe is that the entire subject of how Feldman got his trademark bug eyes is covered in one brief, unconvincing paragraph (Feldman claims a boy poked a pen in his eye, causing a thyroid problem but conflicting reports elsewhere blame Graves’ disease mixed with a squint); it really isn’t impolite or prurient to delve a little deeper into the feature that helped bring the man so much fame and, if only for the sake of posterity, the real cause should have been researched and stated.
This book sets out to be the definitive biography on Feldman and it certainly covers his professional output with admirable determination but Marty the man generally eludes the reader throughout. As there aren’t any other major Feldman biographies out there this book only becomes definitive by default rather than merit.
Despite the book’s faults, though, Feldman’s is truly a tale worth the telling. Here was a man who contributed significantly to British cultural life, who all involved agree was an inspired writer, a thoroughly decent friend and who was clearly a very funny performer. Thirty years after his death he’s on the verge of dropping off the radar entirely and while Ross doesn’t quite convince that Feldman was a comedy genius he makes a good case for his reinstatement in the story of British comedy and in the affections of public at large.
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