Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Very nearly



One of the most famous scenes in British television comedy. Ever.

Which means it's up against a lot of competition.

To the uninitiated (it is nearly 50 years old) I'll briefly explain. Ok, here goes.

Tony Hancock, (bloke in hat) is donating blood. He feels it's his patriotic duty to help the nation. And he rather hopes he'll get some kind of reward as a result: some token of appreciation, like a badge saying 'he helped others so that others may live'. As he puts it.

So he enters the surgery (after having pratted around the waiting room like a pompous arse for ten minutes) and the doctor takes a small sample of blood via a pin prick on the end of Hancock's thumb to determine the blood group.

Which of course Hancock thinks is all the blood he needs to give and so prepares to leave for the recovery room and the tea and biscuits he's heard about. (And hopefully, that badge.)

Not so says the doc, we need to take a pint of your blood. To which Hancock replies, using words which have since been carved in stone:

"A pint? That's very nearly an armful!"

It's beautiful. The comedic equivalent of a Mozart concerto or a Johnny Marr chord change. The writers, Galton and Simpson, could easily have left it at 'armful' or 'nearly an armful'. But they didn't.

They wrote 'very nearly'.

Like all acts of genius it walks the tightrope of soaring success across the deep, rocky valley of utter failure. One word less, one word more, and the whole gag dissolves into a mild titter. But it's become the most famous rejoinder ever uttered on telly.

Why is it so good?

Because, by saying it the way he says it, Hancock sounds like he knows what he's talking about. Even though he's never given blood before he's claiming to know the exact blood capacity of every individual part of the human body. It's as though he's been thinking about it for ages prior to visiting the surgery and has worked himself into a right old state worrying. It's also the first proof of what we have long suspected, namely that in spite of his bravado he's a complete coward. Proved conclusively when he later faints at the size of the needle.

And it also fixes the amount of blood so deeply in the audience's mind that they'll never forget it. They will quote back the line in all its precision for they know, even at the moment of first hearing, that it's so utterly perfect a mis-quote would destroy the sense of how funny is it.

So there we go. Two little words that prove to be the foundation for an entire half-hour comedy episode. And stand as a challenge to every comedy writer who has come after. Beat that.

Very nearly.

Very actually great.

1 comment:

paul said...

Excellent post. I love it when people truly understand comedy. Why? Because there is so much bad comedy.