Aired: 14 October 2013 at 6.30pm, BBC Radio 4
Repeated: 20 October 2013 at 12 noon, BBC Radio 4
Curator: Humphrey Ker
Steering Committee: Jane Bussman, Richard Ingrams, Sir Howard Stringer
Humour columnist ‘Beachcomber’ – the pen name of writers D. B. Wyndham-Lewis and J. B. Morton – came up with a device to combat the problem of elderly judges falling asleep in court. The ‘Judge-Nudger’ would wake the judge by means of a mild electric shock when a button was pressed by the usher. Beachcomber reported that it was only used twice; in the first instance it set fire to Judge Denning’s robes, and in the second it didn’t work at all because the usher had also fallen asleep. The story is almost certainly a humorous invention - which is not to say it isn’t a good idea.
Francis Galton - polymath, half-cousin of Darwin, father of the theory of eugenics and the first person ever to publish a weather map – also invented a ‘gumption reviver’. This was a bucket-like contraption that periodically dripped water on his head to keep him awake during long hours of study.
In 2011, the Irish Road Safety Authority warned that the technique of some drivers who trap their hair in the car’s sunroof to keep them awake on long journeys, does not work.
In 1978, an American inventor called Hrand Muncheryan invented a cap that could detect when the wearer’s head was tilting and would set off an alarm; the device was intended to keep drivers awake.
When Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic, the Spirit of St Louis had some stability problems. Lindbergh encouraged them not to change things, though, as having to continually adjust helped him to keep awake for the 33 hour flight.
Champion angler Phil Hunt has narcolepsy and has to hire a minder to stop him from falling asleep and drowning.
Journalist and Editor
Richard Ingrams is a columnist, biographer, broadcaster, amateur historian, wit and publisher. He was one of the founding fathers of Private Eye, as well as being its editor for 23 years. He is currently the editor and founder of The Oldie magazine, which has been described as Private Eye for grown ups.
Richard comes from an aristocratic family. His grandfather, Sir James Reid, was Queen Victoria’s personal physician and confidant. It was to him that the queen entrusted her extensive burial instructions: inside her coffin he was to place a lock of her servant John Brown’s hair, and his photograph (wrapped in tissue paper so her family would not notice) was to be put in her left hand. She was to wear the gold wedding ring that had belonged to Brown’s mother. Sir James’ grandson comments that:
‘You don’t do that for a great friend. My mother believed that Queen Victoria had married John Brown. I don’t know how she knew. My grandfather left instructions that all his diaries were to be burnt, which is, in itself perhaps, suspicious.’
Ingrams’ father, Leonard, worked in intelligence during the Second World War, but never talked about his work. It wasn’t until he read the diaries of British secret agent Robert Bruce Lockhart that Richard discovered his father had been sent by the Foreign Office to interview imprisoned Nazis after the war.
Ingrams was educated at Shrewsbury, where he was in the same house as William Rushton, later a co-founder, cartoonist and humorist at the Private Eye. He went on to read Classics at University College Oxford. In 2011 he married his goddaughter, Sara Soudain. They had not seen each other for 30 years, since she was 14, until they met in the Appeal Court when Sara, a medical researcher, was fighting a case involving a fraudulent neurologist - an action that cost her job. ‘This is the kind of thing that happens to me’, says Ingrams. ‘My life has been a series of strange chance meetings with people.’
You can’t, at my age, get away from the idea that you may not be here for much longer. Possessions don’t mean so much to you...I want to give things away to people.
Jane Bussmann is an award-winning comedy writer and journalist. She has worked on over fifty shows and developed comedy for NBC, HBO, the BBC, ITV, Granada and Channel 4 among others. She also became the person who broke the story about African warlord Joseph Kony’s kidnapping of over 60,000 children for use as child soldiers.
Bussman’s first break came at the age of 19 with a column called On the Razz for The Guardian. By the age of 22, she had written her first sketch show pilot and landed a full-time job at the BBC producing ‘off-the-cuff topical jokes’ for their radio presenters. Her career took her from Radio 4’s Loose Ends to ITV’s Sundays and The Treatment via the BBC’s The Now Show. In 1998 she and David Quantick wrote and performed the sketch series Bussmann & Quantick Kingsize, which featured characters so grotesque that they were both put on probation by the BBC’s Light Entertainment Department. Bussman has also written for the Emmy Award-winning Smack The Pony, The Fast Show, Armando Iannucci’s Friday Night Armistice and Chris Morris’ legendary satire Brass Eye, as well as doing a stint as a staff writer on South Park.
In addition to her comedy, Bussman works as a journalist, writing travel and celebrity pieces for magazines like Glamour and In Style. Celebrity journalism paid the bills when she moved to Hollywood to write a movie. She grew so fed up with the lifestyle there that she decided instead to Google ‘the most evil man in the world’ and found Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony, who had kidnapped between 20 - 64,000 children. She flew to Uganda to investigate further, although she says that she actually went to impress peace activist John Prendergast. When she arrived, the enormity of the story made her intent on exposing Kony’s crimes to the world, as she proceeded to do.
Bussman turned her experiences into a book, The Worst Date Ever, and a live comedy show called Bussmann’s Holiday, which was a hit at the Edinburgh Festival and had a subsequent sold-out run at London’s Soho Theatre. It went on to play in New York and Sydney, and won Best Comedy at Perrier rivals the Tap Water Awards.
Could anyone ever design a device to register how funny a joke is? At present, there is no reliable system – especially as individuals all have a slightly different sense of humour. The best way still seems to be ‘try it with an audience and see’.
The script for the Marx Brothers film A Night at the Opera was tested and retested for ‘laugh-worthiness’ in front of paying audiences that packed huge theatres in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Salt Lake City. Writer Maurie Ryskind recorded audiences’ reactions, timed laughs, analysed groans and reworked the script for the next day’s show.
However, the amount and frequency of laughter is not the only factor that determines how funny we find something. In a survey conducted by Lovefilm, Airplane was found to generate the most laughs – three a minute, to be precise – but users voted Life of Brian, which got 1.2 laughs a minute, as the funniest film ever made.
I weighed nine stone and I remember a doctor telling me it would take a major operation to get me down to a Hollywood weight.
Sir Howard Stringer’s life was saved by a stroke of luck while he was, to some extent, skiving off. In Vietnam, he and some fellow soldiers were tasked with filling sandbags. It being very hot work, they took an unauthorised break to have a rest and get a drink. During this time the Vietcong ambushed the quarry where they would have been working.
Sir Howard Stringer was born in Cardiff and went to 11 different schools before his 16th birthday. After studying at Oxford, he worked at CBS TV network in America. There he found himself unexpectedly drafted into the US army and spent two years fighting in the Vietnam War for which he was awarded five medals. When asked about them, he said: 'You get some medals for simply showing up. And I was actually in charge of medals.'
When Stringer returned to the US he worked at CBS as a journalist, producer and executive, and became president of the network in 1988. He won nine Emmy awards as a television writer, director and producer including one for The CIA's Secret Army, an exposé of the US's undercover war against Fidel Castro after the Bay of Pigs confrontation.
In 1995 Stringer set up TELE-TV - a media company that set out to design a pioneering interactive TV service for people to view video on demand - before leaving to join the Sony. He became CEO of Sony in 2005, making him the first foreigner ever to run a major Japanese electronics firm.
Stringer was knighted in 1999 - surely the only Chief Executive who is also a decorated Vietnam vet to kneel before the Queen – and in the same year he was inducted into the Royal Television Society's Welsh Hall of Fame. He is an avid collector of literature and has a library of first and rare editions, among them complete sets of Graham Greene, John le Carre and Ian Fleming and a very rare edition of John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps.
I think I'm a bit prone to new adventures.