One of the finest plays broadcast by the BBC was Comedians by Trevor Griffiths. Griffiths had previously written the BBC’s esteemed 13-part look at the collapse of Europe’s ruling dynasties in the run up to and at the end of the First World War, Fall of Eagles. A socialist playwright dedicated to writing for television, nevertheless, in 1975, he wrote Comedians for the stage. It proved popular enough to transfer to Broadway, after which the BBC asked him to adapt it for TV.
The play is set in a Manchester evening class for aspiring working-class comedians that’s taught by Bill Fraser and includes Jonathan Pryce among its students, each student representing a different style of comedy. The action switches from classroom to stand-up club and back again, as Fraser gives notes on performances, praising the conventional, damning the unconventional. Except everything’s not quite as it seems and the play deals in serious analysis of the choices made by comedians in their acts.
“…A joke that that feeds on ignorance starves it’s audience. We have the choice. We can say something or we can say nothing. Most comics feed prejudice and fear and blinkered vision, but the best ones, the best ones… illuminate them, make them clearer to see, easier to deal with. We’ve got to make people laugh till they cry. Cry. Till they find their pain and their beauty.”