All the right words – just not necessarily in the right order

All the right words – just not necessarily in the right order

It is often said that the key to great comic delivery is timing. I would go further and say it’s the key to great writing too. But before I get into that, let’s examine the power of timing in the best way possible — Morecambe and Wise.

Absolute masters of delivery, Morecambe and Wise knew exactly when to pause and when to rush on – when to interrupt and when to let the line breathe. It takes years of experience to develop that instinctive ability and make it look effortless. So it was not surprising that Eric Morecambe was incredibly concerned when Andre Previn couldn’t make rehersals for his guest spot on the 1971 Christmas Show. The world famous conductor of the LSO had been invited onto the show as a celebrity guest and to perform a sketch. Yet just before two weeks of rehearsals were to begin, Previn’s mother fell ill and he had to fly to New York. Previn didnt return until the day of the recording and learned his lines on the flight.

Morecambe wanted to pull the sketch. Previn had never performed comedy before. They had no rehearsal time and probably only a technical camera rehearsal before they would perform the sketch live in front of an audience. The result is probably the most popular and loved of all Morecambe and Wise sketches. I have seen this sketch hundreds of times and still laugh. Just like a great piece of music, even though I know every note and every beat, I never tire of it.

The words — and the jokes — may stay the same, but the delivery and impeccable timing makes it always as enjoyable as listening to a virtuoso performing a symphony. Or, more appropriately, a concerto.

There is a point about four minutes thirty seconds into the sketch where Eric visibly relaxes and ad-libs his glee, relieved that the sketch isn’t only going to work, but has the potential to be something special. The moment when he realises Previn has not only memorised the script but is ad-libbing his delivery of those words like jazz. The moment when Previn says he’s going to collect his baton. “It’s in Chicago”. Morecambe lights up, exclaiming ‘Pow’ as he is knocked back by the unexpected delivery of the line.

In a recent documentary, Eddie Braben – the writer of the sketch and an idol of mine – admitted that he had not written the pause into the line. As he had written it, the script would probably have looked like this.

ANDRE PREVIN

Alright. I’ll go get my baton. It’s in Chicago.

However, Previn delivers the line as if it were written like this.

ANDRE PREVIN

Alright. I’ll go get my baton.

ANDRE turns to leave.

ANDRE PREVIN

It’s in Chicago.

In retrospect, it is no surprise that Previn had masterful instinctive timing. He is a musician, after all. Everything is about beats and pauses – when to speed up and when to relax into addagio. He was able to give the words a cadence and rhythm that wasn’t on the page and his performance (and deadpan delivery) is one of the reasons the sketch is so well loved.

As writers, we have an enourmous control over the timing of our words. Whether our prose is read aloud or merely an internal dialogue with the reader, it follows the same rules as music or even comedy. We often talk about sentences that flow, words that have rhythm, but often it is the punctuation and the placement on the page that gives the words the lyrical quality we aspire to.

Braben could easily have formatted Previn’s lines as above and the reader would sense the same comic timing as contained in the final performance. The break and extra stage direction may be superfluous, but they help give life to the words for the benefit of the reader, even though the final audience will never see them.

Even the break of a paragraph can create that sense of a subtle pause capable of making all the difference in building meaning and subtext and lyricism into your prose. Line breaks, commas, exclamation points, dashes and more – I find myself continually using them to hopefully transform my writing into something more closely akin to conversational speech. And that rhythm and timing then helps me to accentuate certain words, draw out particular meanings or aid easier comprehension.

Poets, of course, have known this all along. But many professional writers don’t think in terms of timing. Instead, grammar becomes the only yardstick. And sometimes not even then. Read any corporate business document – especially a legal one – and it becomes difficult to find any sense of flow or rhythm. All writers should be trained to think not only in terms of vocabulary and grammar but also in timing and delivery.

Whether read aloud to an audience or read internally to the mind’s ear, the result is the same. Your words are a performance, often without rehearsal.

Comments

  1. Christopher Parsons says:

    Thank you for an eye-opening article based on one of the best comic duos and timing geniuses of all time in British comedy!

  2. donald king says:

    I think people really did love Morecambe & Wise, in the way they loved Laurel & Hardy. Ditto Dad’s Army and Steptoe & Son. Maybe people will still love One Foot In The Grave. These people had wit and humour and grace. They seemed like decent human beings, albeit with all their flaws. On the contrary, I don’t think anyone’s going to ‘love’ Jimmy Carr or Russell Brand.