Classic TV

Lost Gems: Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling, A Life in Pieces (1990) and Why Bother? (1993)

Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling had a long and illustrious career as a comedy character. Originally created by Peter Cook for Beyond The Fringe and Not Only… But Also, he was an aristocrat used by Cook to satirise any number of things as well as for pure surrealism. But he’s probably best known for his attempts to get ravens to fly underwater.

Dudley Moore: Is it difficult to get ravens to fly underwater?

Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling: Well, I think the word difficult is an awfully good one here. Yes, it is. It’s nigh impossible… There they are sitting on my wrist. I say ‘Fly! Fly you little devils!!’… (then) they drown. Little black feathery figure topples off my wrist and spirals to a watery grave. We’re knee deep in feathers off that part of the coast… not a single success in the whole forty years of training.

DM: Does this makes your life a miserable failure?

SAS-G: My life has been a miserable failure, yes.

Probably his finest hour, however, was in Christmas 1990, when over a period of 12 days on BBC2, he explained to Ludovic Kennedy what gifts he’d like for Christmas in A Life in Pieces. These five-minute sketches allowed Sir Arthur to look back over his life in exchange for gifts of a partridge in a pear tree, two turtle doves and so on. However, his reminiscences exposed him unwittingly as a coward, liar, murderer and many other things.

If you have an hour or so, even though they haven’t been released on DVD, you can enjoy on YouTube all 12 episodes of A Life in Pieces:

That wasn’t the last the world heard of Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling, however. He went on in 1994 to record for Radio 3 a series of five interviews, Why Bother?, with none other than Chris Morris. During the interviews, Sir Arthur talked about his experiments on eels, his role in the racial violence during the 1992 Los Angeles riots following the Rodney King trial, his military career, including his time in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp during World War II, and his habit of strangling his business partners, as well as his next project: cloning from the fossilised remains of the infant Christ.

The interviews were completely improvised and Morris says:

It was a very different style of improvisation from what I’d been used to, because those On The Hour and The Day Today things were about trying to establish a character within a situation, and Peter Cook was really doing ‘knight’s move’ and ‘double knight’s move’ thinking to construct jokes or ridiculous scenes flipping back on themselves, and it was amazing.

Thankfully, the BBC has, in its wisdom, released Why Bother? on CD, but it’s also available on YouTube. Alas, Peter Cook died in 1994. He is much-missed.

On the impossibility of knowing whether Chris Morris is joking or not

So I went to a showing of Four Lions followed by a Q&A with Chris Morris, Sam Bain and two of the film’s stars. Very funny film that’s also full of pathos – you should go see it if you haven’t already.

However, Chris Morris did discuss some of the research he’d done, which involved talking to some very odd people, as you’d expect from a film about suicide bombers. And there was one story he told that shows you just how hard it is to tell if he’s making things up or not.

The story was that he’d been to see a guy who, as a teenager, had put a fake bomb in WH Smith’s to protest about The Satanic Verses. Now he’s working as a security guard for the Crown Prosecution Service – to be precise, as a nightwatchman. Even though he’s afraid of the dark.

So one night a moth sets off an alarm on the eighth floor of the building he’s supposed to be guarding, and he calls the police, not just because he’s afraid of the dark, but because he thinks the moth is possessed by the spirit of his cousin who wants to get back at him for something.

What do you think? BS or not?

PS There was another story about how he persuaded some guy that it was possible to train crows to talk. Again…