The Arthur Haynes Show by Johnny Speight

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BBC Radio 7, 6 March 2011

Arthur Haynes was ITV’s biggest comedy star of the early 1960s, whose shows attracted huge audiences. He was at the height of his powers when he died prematurely in 1966, just before starting yet another series. Haynes also did radio shows for the BBC, running between 1962 and 1965. In most of his shows, both for television and radio, he used Nicholas Parsons as his straight man.

This program, dating from 1962, was a good example of Haynes’ work. He never told jokes, but participated in sketches, most of them written by Johnny Speight. Haynes inevitably played working-class characters with chips on their shoulders; in one sketch, for instance, he played a hobo who knocked on the door of a prosperous middle-class man (Parsons) and complained for the next ten minutes about how unlucky he was. Parsons tried to help him, but Haynes was so preoccupied with his misfortunes that he took little or no notice. In another sketch Haynes played a tramp visiting the public baths, and wrangling with the attendant (Parsons again, this time speaking in a cockney accent). In the final sketch of the program Haynes played a father with eighteen kids and six greyhounds visiting a head teacher (Parsons), about his son Harold. The head teacher wanted to tell the father the good news; that Harold had won scholarships to go to grammar school and university, but the father would have none of it. He was far more interested in training his sons to become jockeys or boxers, so that they could support the family financially.

Speight’s scripts revolved around the theme of class conflict: the hobo and the middle-class man, the tramp and the respectable attendant; the bourgeois head teacher and the father. They gave Haynes the opportunity to voice his dislike of those superior to him – partly this was based on jealousy (no one ever gave Haynes’s characters the chance to prosper), but partly this was a criticism of the rigid nature of early 1960s British society, where it was difficult, almost impossible, for people to change their socio-economic status. For those interested in comedy history, Haynes’s characters were strongly reminiscent of Alf Garnett in Till Death us do Part; articulate, aggressive, intolerant. Throughout his life Speight insisted that his characters were satirical portrayals of a certain type of working-class man; listening to The Arthur Haynes Show, I got the feeling that the scripts were not satiric, but rather gave voice to a member of the so-called ‘Silent Majority,’ who felt that no one listened to them. This is what made Haynes such a nationally popular figure; he said the kind of things that his audiences wanted to say, but never had the chance.

In truth, the crosstalk between Haynes and Parsons did become a little irritating, almost predictable; after about five or six minutes of each sketch, we were waiting for the punchline to end it. It was far more interesting to listen to Haynes fluffing his lines; like many comics, he found it difficult to stick to the script. Nonetheless the program provided a fascinating example of early 1960s sitcom, and how it embodied the class prejudices of that time. The producer was Richard Dingley.