Poem Of The Week - 'Revival' By Keith Hutson
Steve Whitaker, Literary Correspondent
Like the funniest of men, he had that look:
bad health crossed with indestructibility.
Fans would slap and cuddle him.
It takes a certain type of body to appear,
night after night, as if a gang's manhandled
it into a dinner suit; face folded
like a heart attack was homing in.
It was. But he'd soaked several up already;
recovered with a crack:
Treading boards is my best exercise!
After the last, wrapped in an overcoat
on Blackpool prom, he'd seemed robust enough,
just pale. And people like him, whose fathers
died in harness, whose mothers bore silent,
determined lives, they never bow out barely used.
One way or another they sweat buckets,
under stress, and make that state hilarious.
That's why we wet ourselves when they collapse
at the Palladium. And why it's only right
to raise another smile, to bring them back.
The collapse, and subsequent death, of Tommy Cooper live on TV at Her Majesty's Theatre in London on 15th April, 1984, was shocking not only because it heralded the end of an illustrious comedy career, but also because of the sardonically apt drama of his passing. He was sixty three.
The rash of comics who died at relatively young ages over the following two decades makes disconcerting reading, and lends intuitive truth to Keith Hutson's opening line in 'Revival', that they often have 'that look: / bad health crossed with indestructibility.' The list is a litany of illness, mental breakdown, and a commitment to 'carry on': Sid James (also on stage) at sixty two; Eric Morecambe, after several heart attacks, at fifty eight; Kenneth Williams at seventy two; Les Dawson, after a heart attack, at sixty two.
Of the many layers of interpretive glue binding Keith Hutson's fine volume, Troupers, from which this poem is taken, the overwhelming inference is of an affectionate homage to those eponymous 'troupers' who go to make up the history of British music hall, light entertainment and comedy. The poet has learned from personal experience: a former writer for Coronation Street and for many stand-ups, he is steeped in the nuance and jargon of his occupation. His palpable insight is borne out of first-hand knowledge.
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What emerges is a drive to evaluative equality which also shapes Hutson's work. 'The best performers, and their material', he has said in interview, 'are up there with any culturally iconic genre', and the extent of his reverence is rightly visible in 'Revival'.
The poem, whose ambiguous title suggests the restoration of a flagging career as it ironises the failure to revive life after cardiac arrest, is a simply rendered, deeply moving celebration of stoicism and a 'show must go on' commitment to audience in the face of crushing physical decline. Taking an unconventional view of the comic's existence, Hutson betrays his own love for comedy artistry as he acknowledges its cost.
Wrapped in the 'folded' face and ill-fitting suits of apparent failure, the comic yields, instead, the ingredients of greatness: we need comedians to gurn, to mishap and to give evidence of human weakness. The heart attacks 'homing in', in Hutson's perfect metaphor for inexorability, are catalysed by the unspoken elephant in the room - the cigarettes and alcohol, which are paradoxical embellishments to a decline visible in the laugh lines and jowly good-humour of the comic's audience-facing demeanour.
The hugely recognisable demeanour, and slapstick falls, temporarily remove the audience's collective antennae when expectations are met. Which is why they 'wet themselves' when comics collapse on stage. The sweat expended and stress suffered to keep the audience in stitches justify commemoration, make it 'only right / to raise another smile, to bring them back.'
Troupers is published by smith/doorstop
Poem Of The Week - 'Revival' By Keith Hutson, 31st March 2018, 9:54 AM