20 April 2020
By Tim Koch
Tim Koch visits the bark side.
Humour does not usually age well. When Monty Python’s Flying Circus was first broadcast between 1969 and 1974, my friends and I were devoted fans. Although a few classic sketches and most of the feature films can still amuse, nowadays I find that any viewing of the original television shows is disappointing, and it is something that I avoid; I prefer to remember Python as I reacted to it at the time. Thus, a comic novel that was first published in 1889 and that has never been out of print since must be something special – especially when it continues to generate adaptations and homages in various languages and genres for television, film, radio, audiobooks and the theatre. Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome Klapka Jerome (1859 – 1927) is such a work.
Any HTBS Type who loves messing about on the river probably does not need any introduction to Jerome’s classic story of three idle and inept young men and a badly behaved dog enjoying (or not) a boating holiday on the Thames at the height of the Victorian boating craze. Recently, I rediscovered on YouTube a particularly charming 1975 BBC television adaptation (HTBS first recommended it in 2009). At only just over an hour long, it misses out parts of the original, but it still has much to commend it.
Forty-five years ago, most film and television went at a much slower pace, something that those raised on modern media find difficult to accept but which is actually more appropriate for a gentle story of three dim-witted chaps gently paddling up the Thames. Further, the credits reveal some interesting names. The ‘three men’ in this 1975 version are Michael Palin (having just finished the last Monty Python TV show), Tim Curry (then little known but about to come to prominence in the film of The Rocky Horror Picture Show) and Stephen Moore (a Shakespearean actor who would bring the same casual lack of concern that he portrayed in Three Men to many future television roles). More remarkable even than this fine cast is the fact that the production was dramatised by playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard. Stoppard’s career was already well established as, by 1975, he had most famously written Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, The Real Inspector Hound and Jumpers. I can only speculate that working on Three Men was something that he particularly wanted to do. See for yourself.
If Three Men has a singular hero, it must be the dog, Montmorency. Many productions think that any breed will do, but Jerome chose a fox-terrier for good reasons:
Fox-terriers are born with about four times as much original sin in them as other dogs are, and it will take years and years of patient effort on the part of us Christians to bring about any appreciable reformation in the rowdiness of the fox-terrier nature.
Montmorency was the only one of the four reluctant to go on the trip. He apparently realises, long before the humans, that life at home is far more comfortable then on the river. However, the boating holiday did give him ample opportunity to carry out his raison d’être:
Montmorency’s ambition in life, is to get in the way and be sworn at. If he can squirm in anywhere where he particularly is not wanted, and be a perfect nuisance, and make people mad, and have things thrown at his head, then he feels his day has not been wasted. To get somebody to stumble over him, and curse him steadily for an hour, is his highest aim and object; and, when he has succeeded in accomplishing this, his conceit becomes quite unbearable… Harris said I encouraged him. I didn’t encourage him. A dog like that don’t want any encouragement….
Jerome later said that the character of Montmorency ‘developed out of that area of inner consciousness which, in all Englishmen, contains an element of the dog’. I am not sure about this but certainly believe that the English/British love of dogs stems for the fact that the traditional ‘stiff upper-lip’ precluded open affection for humans but did allow the most extravagant displays of sentiment towards canine companions. The Anglo-Upper-Lip is somewhat flabby these days but, in times when it was a stiff as a newly built eight, rowers in particular seemed highly attached to their dogs – as any number of old crew pictures show.
The public’s fascination with dogs was recently illustrated by my post on the video of the BBC’s ‘Voice of the Boat Race’, Andrew Cotter, commentating on his two dogs wolfing down their food. When first I wrote about it, the clip had got 8.9 million views on @MrAndrewCotter. As of three days later, it is 9.5 million. Andrew’s latest effort, ‘Game of Bones’ reached 15.1 million views three days after posting. It is as if people have nothing else to do. The irony is, of course, that these viewing figures are far greater than they would have been for the Boat Race had it taken place. Next year, the Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race will probably be replaced by a couple of dogs licking themselves.
Dogs seem keen on the Boat Race, though, looking at my puparazzi pictures, they mostly seem to be Cambridge supporters. I suppose this is because, if you can sit, shake hands, and roll over on command, you can get a Third in Land Economy from Trinity (or a Lower Second if you don’t pee on the carpet).