He was the lynchpin. Tim was the hero of the first story I got to tell, the man who links ISIHAC today with Cambridge Circus 57 years ago. How could he leave the party this early? And how can we keep the party going?
Before the broken news about the loss of our dear funny friend Tim Brooke-Taylor even had half a moment to sit there, ruining an already deeply fragile Easter Sunday, certain media commentators had already disgorged their rent-a-eulogy articles onto the internet, some taken out of cold storage, some blethered to order, and the last thing I want is to consider myself even near any such coat-tails…
But the passing of such a truly wonderful guy, such an incurably hilarious and hugely important comedian, and such a key part of my embarkation on this non-tax-qualifying career, can’t go without a very sad salute here. In a way that adds an extra dollop of sadness, the Coronavirus situation makes it hard to process the news, and the enormity of the loss, simply because we’re all on red alert, expecting the worst. Losing my dad last July, then the sudden, totally unexpected devastation of losing Neil Innes at the turn of the year, and now, only three months after the joy of seeing him on stage reunited with Bill and Graeme, we lose Tim. The loss may seem immediately less planet-screechingly horrifying, simply because of the terrible circumstances, the expectation of bad news every day – but still, it surely wasn’t supposed to happen this way. The real import of Tim’s loss will take a while to become clear.
Every comedy fan knows his part in creating the Four Yorkshiremen sketch, but Tim’s lack of top-drawer writing credits still did him a life-long disservice, making him seem an actor amid a host of writer-performers. But just because Bill Oddie and Graeme Garden formed a symbiotic relationship, it did not mean that the widely beloved, gregarious Tim’s co-writing credits with so many many comedy legends over the years were unimpressive, and they were only partly symbolic of his comedy greatness. For a start, he could improv any of his contemporaries off the stage.
There would clearly be no ISIHAC without him – it may be Graeme’s baby, but Tim was always the First Among Equals, and the scheme required his nod to grow out of the ashes of ISIRTA, and he’s been there ever since. Losing Jeremy Hardy so early was an unthinkable tragedy – I’ve been slowly eking (eek! eek!) out his tribute book for weeks – but now we’ve lost the venerable fountainhead of the greatest hotbed of LAUGHS we’ve enjoyed for the last oh-so-nearly-50 years. And with the best will in the world – and argue for its survival to my last breath as I always will – I do fear for the future of Clue. Losing Willy and Humph and Jeremy hurt. But losing Tim is more like the carpet being decisively whipped out from under everyone’s feet. He was too important a part of the structure to just pop off like this.
As it happens, having had the pleasure of one final chinwag with Tim back in Bristol for Slapstick in January, there was a growing idea of re-releasing my first book, The Clue Bible (AKA The Fully Authorised History of I’m Sorry, I Haven’t a Clue) to mark the 50th anniversary of ISIHAC’s first episode in 1972. I mentioned it to Arrow Books, but it got lost amid the hellfire of early 2020. Since the original publisher had long left, I had allowed the floated idea to just float away as these things seem to, but Graeme and Tim were very happy to let an update be published. Now, it would of course be an even bigger tribute, a heavier full stop.
Tim’s kindness on the release of my first book has always been a source of comfort throughout the ensuing 13 years of toil – as a life-long Beatles fan, he was keen to hear all about Fab Fools when I mentioned it. He gave me a short quote which I have used on my CV ever since, but perhaps I can share his immediate response to receiving a first edition of the first book:
Yes okay, I was harsh on YMBTH – though less so than Bill and Graeme. I wasn’t a fan, to be honest, that was the golfing, ‘Milton Sitcom’ side of Tim which aided his detractors for so long. But all that, and ‘Me & My Girl’ aside (great though he could be even in that), any of his closest collaborators, world-famous comedians all, will tell you that they bowed to Tim’s natural funny bones and ability to give a performance with absolutely no limit, be he conveying pathetic fear, or bigoted fury, or embarrassing ditziness, he always went that further mile, which no other performer could quite muster.
In fact, when the touring show I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again Again (a glorious show inspired by my declaration of the need for ersatz ISIRTA in the Bible) was first set in motion by Barnaby Eaton-Jones of Offstage Productions, it may have seemed that the lanky deadpan pathos of Cleese or the sprightly gnomic music of Oddie would be the hardest thing to somehow recreate, but really it was Tim whose presence seemed impossible to just cut and paste.
It’s no secret that I consider the first draft of the script I wrote to kick off ISIRTAA perhaps my finest bit of commissioned writing craftsmanship. Sad to say – not least as it’s obviously not my material – but I felt I put together a sample script which just SANG of the brilliance of ISIRTA like nothing else, it really had this golden clockwork construction which somehow bedazzled me. Inevitably, in production, this ideal of mine necessarily got taken apart, and never reached the heights of the imagined show – something which of course happens to every creative dream, and the New Wonder Team still provided the most ecstatically pleasurable evening in the theatre everywhere they played. Sometimes, beyond our wildest dreams, with Tim in the cast. Yes, I got to see the real Lady Constance, live. And Grimbling. And Totteridge. I never dreamed I would get that extreme pleasure – I was born in 1978, years after the characters were supposedly put away for good. I’m so grateful to everyone in the ISIRTAA camp for giving me that privilege.
But my original vision took the central nugget of what made ISIRTA work and used it to power the tribute version – it was always core to the show that the reason the Wonder Team put everyone though such corny madness was in the name of JOKE PRESERVATION: that the crappy old howlers and puns which made up Radio Prune were this mad gang’s duty to look after, and that the fresh tribute show was all about honouring that sacred duty.
It was, of course, always Tim, the everyman, the posh hero, who was the key protector of these ‘jokes’, and his utterly hysterical – in every sense – grand speeches of proud and obsessive joke conservation inspired a key part of the script, which I felt was an absolute heartbreak to lose, an essential fuel. So long after being commissioned to write the rough script outline, I’m sure there’s no harm in sharing this unused extract, sketched out back when guesses were being made as to which performer would be ‘filling the shoes’ of any Radio Prune employee, before the wise decision was made not to even try to replace any of the performers per se:
You can hear so clearly what Tim would have made of that ‘Ben’ speech – nobody could ever get close to his passionate extremity of comedy preservation. And without his wonderful loving protection, I fear for the future of those dear, grey-headed old jokes.
In meagre tribute to the great man, I’ve uploaded a heavily edited version of our interview for The Clue Bible, 12.5 years after recording it. The original 2-hour-plus chat was already heavily edited down to cut out the majority of my rookie interview attempt, my obsequious verbal diarrhea, but it’s still a rather intimate chat, packed with wisdom from the sharply intelligent, totally filthy and unstoppably hilarious comedy hero. Here he talks about John Junkin and The Beatles, about the sadness of there being no ISIRTA tribute (years before ISIRTAA came along), and so much more.
Now this vile virus has finally stopped the unstoppable, what little I have to share, I will, because I owe Tim Brooke-Taylor more than most. Thank you, Tim Brown-Windsor. There had better be tributes in abundance.
We are all teapots today.