Beyond the Fringe

Beyond the Fringe

"Beyond the Fringe" was a British comedy stage revue written and performed by Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett, and Jonathan Miller. It played in Britain's West End and on New York's Broadway in the early 1960s, and is widely regarded as seminal to the rise of satire in 1960s Britain.

The show

The show was conceived in 1960 by an Oxford man, Robert Ponsonby, artistic director for the Edinburgh International Festival, with the idea of bringing together the best of the Cambridge Footlights and The Oxford Revue that in previous years had transferred to Edinburgh for short runs. John Bassett, Wadham College, Oxford graduate and assistant to Ponsonby, recommended jazz band mate and rising cabaret talent Dudley Moore, who in turn recommended Alan Bennett, who had been a hit at Edinburgh a few years before. Bassett also identified Jonathan Miller, a Footlights star in 1957. Miller recommended Cook. While Bennett and Miller were already pursuing traditional careers, Cook had an agent due to his having written a West End revue for Kenneth Williams; as a result, Cook's agent negotiated a higher weekly fee for him to participate, although by the time the agent's fee was deducted, Cook actually earned less than the others from the initial run.

The show's runs in Edinburgh and the provinces had a lukewarm response; however, when the revue transferred to London, produced by Donald Albery and William Donaldson, it became a sensation, thanks in some part to a favorable review by Kenneth Tynan. [See Humphrey Carpenter "That Was Satire That Was", pp. 122-23; Tynan's review is extensively quoted.] The show crossed the Atlantic to New York with its original cast in 1962, with then-current U.S. President John F. Kennedy attending a performance.

The majority of sketches were by Cook, based on material written for other revues, including "One Leg Too Few." Amongst the entirely new material, the stand-outs were "The End of the World," "TVPM," and "The Great Train Robbery." Cook and Moore revived some of the sketches on their later television and stage shows, most famously the two hander "One Leg Too Few," in which Cook played a theatrical producer auditioning a one-legged Moore for the part of Tarzan.

It had a drastic effect on the careers of Bennett and Miller, who had been preparing for lives in academia and medicine. The show continued in New York with most of the original cast until 1964, when Paxton Whitehead replaced Miller, while the London version continued with a different cast until 1966.


The revue was widely seen to be ahead of its time, both in its unapologetic willingness to debunk figures of authority, and by its inherently surrealistic comedic vein. Humiliation of authority was something only previously delved into in "The Goon Show" and, arguably, "Hancock's Half Hour", with such figures as Winston Churchill and Harold Macmillan coming under special scrutiny — although the BBC were quick to frown upon it. Mr Macmillan — according to Cook — was not particularly fond of the slurred caricature and charade of senile forgetfulness (marked by a failure to coherently pronounce 'Conservative Party') handed down on him in Cook's impersonation. Since "Beyond the Fringe" was not owned by the BBC, however, the troupe had the artistic licence to do as they saw fit. Most specifically, its lampooning of the British war effort in a sketch titled "The Aftermyth of the War" was scorned by some war veterans for its supposed insensitivity when touching upon the issue of war zone fatalities. (One British visitor to the Broadway performance was said to have stood up and shouted 'rotters!' at a sketch he found distasteful, before apparently sitting down again and enjoying the remainder of the show, while another, at the first performance in Edinburgh allegedly stood up and declared that the 'young bounders don't know the first thing about it!' and promptly left the auditorium.) In response to these negative audience reactions, the "Beyond the Fringe" team insisted that they were not ridiculing the hundreds of fatalities therein, but were challenging the perceptions held by a small proportion of the British media, via the avenue of comedic expression.


Many see Beyond the Fringe as the forerunner to British television programmes "That Was the Week That Was", "At Last the 1948 Show" and "Monty Python's Flying Circus".

As with the established comedy revue, it was a series of satirical sketches and musical pieces using a minimal set, looking at events of the day. It effectively represented the views and disappointments of the first generation of British people to grow up after World War II, and gave voice to a sense of the loss of national purpose with the end of the British Empire. Although all of the cast contributed material, the most often-quoted pieces were those by Cook, many of which had appeared before in his Cambridge Footlights revues. The show broke new ground with Peter Cook's impression of then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan; on one occasion, this was performed with Macmillan in the audience, and Miller added an "ad lib" ridiculing Macmillan for turning up to watch. In 2006, Jonathan Miller recounted that the breach of decorum this represented was a source of embarrassment to both audience and performers.

The show is credited with giving many other performers the courage to be satirical and more improvised in their manner, and broke the conventions of not lampooning the Royal Family or the government of the day. However, the show wasn't all that satirical, merely making fun of things — such as war films — though even this was a step forward in comedy. Shakespearean drama was another target of their comedy.

There were a number of songs in the show, mainly using Dudley Moore's music. Some have credited it with the rise of the Satire Boom of the 1960s. Without it, there may not have been either"That Was the Week That Was" or "Private Eye" magazine, which originated at the same time, and that partially survived due to financial support from Peter Cook, and served as the model for the later American "Spy Magazine". Cook and Moore formed a comedy team and appeared in the popular television show "Not Only... But Also", and the 1967 film "Bedazzled". "The Establishment Club" was also launched around this time. Many of the members of Monty Python recall being inspired by "Beyond the Fringe".

The retrospective show "Before the Fringe", broadcast during the early years of BBC 2, took its title from this production. It consisted of performances of material that was popular in theatrical revue before the advent of "Beyond the Fringe". [imdb title|id=274239|title = Before the Fringe]

The show was revived in slightly altered form in Los Angeles in 2000 and 2001 by Joseph Dunn's ReEstablishment Theater to critical acclaim.


*(Said by Squadron Leader to Flight Officer Perkins): "I want you to lay down your life, Perkins." "Right sir!" "We need a futile gesture at this stage. It will raise the whole tone of the war." "Yessir!" "Get up in a crate, Perkins." "Sah!" "Pop over to Bremen." "Yessir!" "Take a shufti." "Right sir!" "And don't come back." "Yessir" "Goodbye, Perkins. God, I wish I was going too." "Goodbye Sah! – Or is it au revoir?" "No, Perkins."

*Peter Cook as E.L. Wisty: "Yes, I could have been a judge, but I never had the Latin. I never had the Latin for the judgin'."

*Cook as Macmillan recounting a summit meeting with U.S. President John F. Kennedy: "We talked of many things, including Great Britain's position in the world as some kind of honest broker. I agreed with him when he said no nation could be more honest, and he agreed with me when I chaffed him and said no nation could be broker."

*Cook to Moore in "One Leg Too Few": "Your right leg I like. I like your right leg. That's what I said when I saw it come in Mr. Spiggot. 'Lovely leg. Lovely, lovely leg.' I've got nothing against your right leg, Mr. Spiggot. The trouble is, neither have you."

*Alan Bennett as falsetto-voiced vicar, in "Take a Pew": "But my brother Esau is an hairy man, and I am a smooth man." (Quoting Genesis 27:11)


*Beyond the Fringe, UK, Parlophone, audio lp, mono, 1961, PMC 1145
*Beyond the Fringe (Original Broadway Cast Recording), USA Capitol, audio lp, mono, 1962, W1792 - also stereo SW1792
*Alexander H Cohen Presents Beyond the Fringe '64, USA Capitol, audio lp, mono, 1964, W2072 - also stereo SW2072
*Complete Beyond the Fringe [Box set] , EMI Audio CD, 21 October 1996, ASIN: B000006SW2
*Beyond the Fringe, Acorn Media DVD, October 5 2005, AMP 7990, ISBN 1-56938-799-0. "The complete 1964 gala farewell performance"


*Smiles, Roy (2008) "Afternoon Play: Good Evening" (BBC Radio 4)
*Cook, P. "et al." (2003) "Beyond the Fringe" ISBN 0-413-77368-X
*Carpenter, Humphrey (2000) "That Was Satire That Was" ISBN 0-575-06588-5
*Cook, W (Ed) (2004) "Goodbye Again" ISBN 1-84413-400-8
*Bennett, Alan (1994) "Writing Home" ISBN 0-571-17388-8
*Paskin, Barbra (1997) "Dudley Moore" ISBN 0-330-35322-5
*Thompson, Harry (1997) "Peter Cook" ISBN 0-340-64969-0


External links

* [ "Some Fickle Circumstance"] - a comprehensive history and overview of the show.
* [ "Sound Of Young America"] - podcast documentary about "Beyond The Fringe"

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