When I left Oxford in 1963, I only wanted to do one thing: write humour. In my last university days I met another young man who also wanted to be a comic writer, called Terry Jones, and together we determined to collaborate on some of the most brilliant comedy scripts ever to hit the BBC. By the time we had written together for a year and had nothing accepted, it began to dawn on us that either the BBC was blind to talent or we were doing something wrong.
It was Terry who worked it out first.
One day he took me aside and said: ‘Look, Miles, I think to be honest we are going in different directions. I want to write stuff to be performed, preferably stuff that I can perform myself, whereas I think you just want to write for the printed page. I honestly think we would be better off going our separate ways. Together it's not going to work. In any case, there's a friend of mine just leaving Oxford called Michael Palin who I want to write with ...
What Terry was saying (apart from the fact that he wanted to write with Michael Palin) was that I was a humorous writer by bent and he was a comedy writer. He wanted to get up on stage. I wanted to see my words in print. He wanted to see his face on TV. I wanted to see my name at the top of articles. How right he was, was proved by the fact that half a dozen years later he was one-sixth of Monty Python's Circus, while I was one-sixth of the staff of Punch magazine. In other words, he was facing firmly into the future and I was facing fearlessly into the past.
Because the pedestal occupied by the humorous writer, and probably by the cartoonist too, has been forcibly repossessed, and they have both been replaced by the comedy writer, and the strip cartoonist and the animator. There is still a place for a humorous columnist like me, as there is for the travelling rug, the open log fire and the individually hand crafted stink bomb, but I have to recognise that history has passed on by another route, into television and film, and that I am in danger of becoming part of a heritage industry.
Nevertheless, there was a time when the humorist and the cartoonist were the most modern comic performing animals it was possible to conceive, and Punch was the repository of the best of them, and if we look back to its golden days we will see both at their best. Not only that, but I was incredibly lucky to be able to be a staff member of Punch while it was still within hailing distance of its great days.
At any rate, the things that made me laugh out loud were almost all written or drawn within the last fifty years or so. Now, I know this is not conventional wisdom. I know that the golden age of Punch cartooning is generally said to centre on Leech and Keene, and later on Phil May and du Maurier, and that the great writers of Punch were the A.P.Herberts and E.V.Knoxes and H.F.Ellises from before 1950. Well, yes and no. Yes, they drew and wrote beautifully. No, they don't seem that funny any more.
But then it was always said of Punch that it wasn't funny any more. The accepted wisdom in this century is that the dentist's waiting room was the proper place for it, and even in its heyday it was considered normal to laugh about it. Auberon Waugh used to maintain that even very good and funny writers were bad in Punch. Private Eye used to send out rejection slips marked ‘Why not try Punch?’ Timothy Shy, in World War II time, used to excuse limp jokes by saying ‘Good enough for Punch.’ Going back a century, a Victorian editor of Punch once said to W.S. Gilbert, ‘Do you know, we get hundreds of jokes send in every week!’ ‘Really? Then why don't you print some of them?’ said Gilbert caustically.
In my experience the only people who were ruder about Punch than these outsiders were the staff itself. We were so conscious of the great cartoons and good things done by Punch in the past that it was rather depressing to bring out a weekly issue and realise that nothing in it was nearly so good. It was also depressing to bring out issues in which there were good things and have nobody notice, just because nobody expected Punch to do anything new or good. We felt the weight of the millstone of history round our necks. We felt the force of inertia of a somewhat dozy readership. But as much as anything we felt that we had to fight against the editor as well, whoever he might be.
This was especially true of the tenure of William Davis, in the 60s and 70s. Davis felt that he had to drag the magazine kicking and screaming into the twentieth century. He wasn't the first. Malcolm Muggeridge had been hired in the 1950s to get rid of the old readers and attract a new set. His brand of modernism had managed to get rid of the old but not attract the new, which had helped Punch on a downward slide in circulation which was never to be halted in the next two or three decades.
In a vain attempt to staunch this, Davis nailed his colours to the cause of being in touch, that is, being topical, being political, being satirical. Nothing wrong with that, except that Private Eye and TW3 were already doing it much better, and Punch was the wrong magazine to do it with. There seemed little point in our planting little squibs under the Vietnam War, or Scottish nationalism, or the three-day week, if we were always a week late and didn't add anything to it. Look back through the Punch of the 1979s and 1960s, and you will find a lot of dead humour washing around in the shallows, attached to long-forgotten TUC leaders, and car strikes, and now unrecognisable Cabinet ministers. We all know the sensation of opening an ancient volume of Punch and wondering exactly why Gladstone is getting cross about Bulgaria (or rather, not caring in the least why he is doing it) but you can get exactly the same effect in recent Punches. Who IS Jack Jones? What WAS the Cod War?
(There was one week when I was actually acting editor of Punch because both editor and deputy, Davis and Alan Coren, were away. I put into that issue things which I liked because I thought they were good and funny, including one of which I am quite proud, because it was the only portion of his autobiography ever penned by Paul Desmond, the saxophonist with Dave Brubeck. It is a very funny piece, and when Davis came back and saw it in Punch he exploded. ‘I turn my back for a week, and rubbish like this gets in!’
To get to the Punch library you have to go through some ultra-modern offices and then pass back a hundred years into the leather-lined library, where the first time I visited it a Japanese scholar was silently scrutinising the private letters of Tom Taylor, the Victorian editor of Punch whose main claim to fame was that he wrote the play at which Lincoln was assassinated . . .
Help! I am sinking back into history already, succumbing to the historical spell of Punch again. I don't really want to go back down that road. I escaped from Punch fifteen years ago, and have lived a comparatively normal life ever since, despite what Terry Jones forecast.
A pity he and Palin didn't write more. They could have been very good humorous writers, those two, if they hadn't gone off and wasted all their time making films and going round the world...
The Pick of Punch, Folio Society 1998