Once upon a time my wife and I went on holiday to Greece, and we found ourselves on a sunny day in an ancient ampitheatre called Epidavros where there was hardly anyone except us, and my wife went right to the top of the back of the auditorium and told me to go to the middle of the stage and pretend to be an actor and say something, to see if she could hear it clearly right up there, and I positioned myself in the middle of this blinding white place, with the olive trees and cicadas all around, and I opened my mouth, and looked up at my expectant far-off wife, and what do you think I came out with?
Not, ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen ...’
Not, ‘To be or not to be...’
No, what I said without thinking was: ‘A Handbag!?', which is not a thing I would have chosen to say, if I had been given time to think, although its incongruity was very effective, and it got a laugh from my wife. But the reason I said it, I realise now, is that it is one of those great theatrical moments along with lines like “Is this a dagger that I see before me .. ?” and "Very flat, Norfolk...", the difference with 'A Handbag!?' being that it's only one word, and in itself it's not in the least funny. There are many famous funny lines from The Importance of Being Earnest, and that is not one of them. It's not a line at all. It's a moment, a moment made famous by Dame Edith Evans, because if she had not made it seem unutterably tragi-comic in the film, nobody would now be going around saying it. And thanks to her, the word "handbag" now has funny overtones, which it never had before.
People sometimes say that certain words are funny in their own right. I don't believe this. Some words seem funny because they sound a bit risque, and some words have an odd shape, but I really don't believe that any words are intrinsically funny. If they were, there would be words that people found funny two hundred years ago that are still funny, and I don't think there are any. Words become funny by agreement. The word "Rhubarb" has become comic because it's the agreed word for crowd noises. The name "Baldrick" became funny after Blackadder had spat it out a few hundred times. The place name "Scunthorpe" became a funny northern name by lack of competition. Private Eye has been trying to do the same for somewhere in London for many years by using the name Neasden as an Aunt Sally, and they have half succeeded, but not enough to make it really worthwhile. The Monty Python lot tried the same trick with the word "spam", which probably crops up more than any other single word in their shows, but was it overall a worthwhile investment of effort? I am not sure it was, meaning, No, I'm sure it wasn't. Spike Milligan tried it too, with the word "bazonka". "Not to mention bazonka," one of his characters would say. "Bazonka?" came the reply, "I thought I told you not to mention bazonka !" Milligan would say, but I'm not sure his heart was in it. Eric Morecambe used to yell out, "Arsenal!" at stray moments, and people laughed, but I think that may have died out with him.
Years ago I was lucky enough to see the great comic actor Alastair Sim on stage in a revival of an A W Pinero play called The Magistrate. This was a late Victorian comedy about a very respectable magistrate who, after a night on the town with his gadabout nephew, finds himself locked up in the cells for various bits of misbehaviour he can't quite remember, and therefore terrified to give his real identity, but the only detail I can remember about the play now is that Sim's character kept being offered a kind of sweet called a jujube, and kept saying: ‘A jujube!?’ until by dint of repetition it became quite funny and we all laughed every time, even though few of us had the faintest idea what a jujube was before that evening. The act of repetition which is lavished on spam and Neasden and Baldrick over many weeks had been practised on "jujube" in one evening, and it had become an overnight catch phrase a hundred years later, which is quite some achievement.
And yet it is all doomed to disappointment, because even when a word is agreed to be funny it doesn't get recognition. Look at a modern book of quotations under "handbag". Look at any ancient dictionary of quotations under "handbag". You won't find Oscar Wilde's line in any of them. I know, because I have just tried half a dozen, and the only reference to handbag at all came in two quotations from Julian Critchley and Michael Heseltine, no doubt under the influence of Margaret Thatcher, the nearest that modern life has produced to Lady Bracknell. I have never heard anyone using either of the remark from Messrs Critchley or Heseltine. I have often heard people use the line written by Oscar Wilde and improved by Edith Evans. For every ten times that someone says "A handbag", you can bet that at least once someone else will say: "A Handbag ?" just as if you say "infamy", there is a good chance that someone within earshot will echo Kenneth Williams and say: "They've all got it in for me...".
The thought I'll leave you with is that perhaps deep down all English conversation aspires to the state of a music hall routine. Oh, no, it doesn't. Oh yes, it does. Oh, no, it doesn't. Oh yes, it does. Oh, please. Do us a favour. Ooh, missus ! No, it's the story of my life... I bet you say that to all the girls ... FADE OUT
WORD OF MOUTH 2003