THE TALL, stick-thin man on the TV screen clambers out of his broken down Mini. Wagging a finger at it in consternation, he shouts: "I've laid it on the line to you and I've just about had enough. I'm going to give you a damn good thrashing!" He dashes off-screen and then returns with a leafy branch and thrashes the stalled vehicle vigorously. The audience sitting in front of the telly bursts into loud laugher.
The man in question is Basil Fawlty, the fictional hotel owner created and played by one of Britain's best-known - and most eccentric - comedians, John Cleese. The audience are participants in the first of three workshops on comedy held at the British Council in Bratislava.
Fifteen people took part in the first session, presented by Senior Teacher Rob Lewis. The aim of the workshop is to give people an idea of what Bratislava's Learning Centre offers, and to discuss the nature of British humour.
"It's difficult to say what the particular characteristics of British humour are", says Lewis, "but there seem to be two distinct strands: one is the music-hall, slightly cheeky, often physical humour. The other is a constant search for 'alternative' ways to make people laugh. It may be satirical, black humour or even violent."
Lewis has divided the sessions into three different periods. The first, on September 30, dealt with the 1950s, 60s and 70s. The second, on October 7, is dedicated to the 1980s and the third, on October 14, looks at the 1990s. As well as the workshops there are two film evenings scheduled: October 12 and 19. Lewis hopes this may be the start of a regular film club.
"I think most people will be able to find something they can appreciate [at the workshops]. There are often cultural references in comedy performances, but watching comedy can lead to a better understanding of a country which is now much closer to a lot of Slovaks," said Lewis.
Judging from the first workshop, the second two will be well attended. The Slovak participants - mainly English teachers but also "ordinary" members of the public - reacted with glee to a clip from the 1957 film Lucky Jim, an adaptation of the novel by Kingsley Amis.
Denisa Valacsaiová, co-organizer of the comedy season, thinks that Slovaks can get a lot out of the evenings. "I think Slovaks can appreciate British comedy but of course it depends on how well they understand the cultural background. It requires a certain knowledge of historical and social facts, as well as language," she said.
The past five decades have seen quite distinct developments in British comedy. The gentle humour depicted in Lucky Jim gave way to political satire. Peter Cooke, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett, who went on to become a highly successful playwright, parodied formerly sacrosanct institutions such as the monarchy and the Church. "What really signalled the start of the satire boom was when Peter Cook lampooned the then prime minister, Harold MacMillan," said Lewis.
The two dominant tendencies in British humour that Lewis identified - satire and alternative - were perfectly captured by perhaps Britain's most famous comedy export, Monty Python's Flying Circus. He showed a skit called Hell's Grannies, in which groups of delinquent old ladies - "layabouts in lace" - attack fit young men. This clip was poking fun at the media's tendency to create "moral panics" about social issues such as vandalism and mugging. This sort of reversal of stereotypes is now a stock-in-trade of British humour.
Despite the easing of what is permissible on TV (swearing and crudity are now common), actual programme formats have not changed that much: the situation comedy, the stand-up comedian and the topical satire endure.
However, with the rise of the reality show in the 1990s, an opportunity for a new type of comedy arose. The Office, one of the most popular television comedy programmes in Britain since Cleese's Fawlty Towers, is a hybrid of situation comedy and documentary set in an ordinary working environment in Slough, near London.
Considered an extremely funny show, viewers can be forgiven for thinking it a documentary. Excerpts from The Office are being screened at the British Council on October 14, so Slovaks can judge for themselves.
One of the movies that the British Council intends to show in October is Four Weddings and a Funeral, starring Britain's best-known contemporary film actor, Hugh Grant, and Rowan Atkinson, who became famous worldwide as the hapless Mr Bean.
If the film evenings are successful, then Lewis intends to make the film club a regular thing and expand the idea to British Council Learning Centres in Banská Bystrica and Košice.
"Comedy offers opportunities to reflect on changes in British society over the last 50 years," he said.
To register for the British Council's comedy workshops and film screenings, please call 02/5443-1074 or visit www.britishcouncil.sk. Places are limited to 20 people. British Council is located on Panská 17.
10. Oct 2005 at 0:00 | Rod Pritchard-Smith