Sunday, January 29, 2006

Of Sainted Memory

Carla (see sidebar) did it.
She reminded me of a famous crime series supported by a buccaneering character called "the Saint."
So I toddled downstairs to the library and blew the dust off a selection of novels mouldering quietly on a top shelf. Found eight or ten of them, side by side with some books featuring another character called "the Toff," a few Manning Coles novels, some Perry Mason, crumbling Bonds, Ellery Queen, and one about Bulldog Drummond. My collection of Oppenheim has a more prominent place below.

Now, Leslie Charteris began his adventure series long before I was born, but it was tremendously popular - at one time or t'other a TV series (with Roger Moore?) was made featuring the Saint, Simon Templar.

What stuck in my memory though, was the salacious entendre, a running gag about the "what the actress said to the bishop."
"Things are looking up, as the actress said to the bishop" tossed off as our impudent, insolent hero observes developments.
All very English and very vintage now.

The plots, by modern eyes, are facile; the hero - an Robin Hood type who robs crooks and gives the proceeds to charity (less 10% for operating expenses) - impossible; and the social references are dated and definitely not PC - someone is described as running around like "a Red Indian."

But the prose is still a delightful, effervescent, tongue-in-cheek melange.

"The more feminine of the two, who wore the trousers.." - on a man and woman in a night club.

"Navy? One converted tug, with 5.9 quick-firer and a crew of seven, commanded by two admirals." - on the military resources of a banana republic.

Or:"...murmured the Saint, and heaved the man bodily into the middle of the orchestra - where, it may be recorded, he damaged beyond repair, in his descent, a tenor saxophone, a guitar, and a device for imitating the moans of a stricken hyena."

Charteris's style includes elegant variations such as:
"The Saint swore comprehensively under his breath, damning and blasting everything about the hotel, from the amblyoptic architect who had first conceived its fatuous layout down to the last imbecile grandchild of the paranoic plumbers who had inexplicably omitted to drown themselves in its drains..."

And unabashed similies ,which were not -when they were written - the cliches they have become, such as :
"Cookie arose, if not exactly like Venus from the foam, at least like an inspired hippopotamus from a succulent wallow."

Thank you, Carla. Enjoying old hoots.

Another thing, the Saint stories were written mainly as novelets and short stories. Yet the character of the Saint with his stick-figure signature became almost instantly popular with the public and launched Charteris's long career.


Carla said...

I had no idea of the origin of the 'as the actress said to the bishop' jokes. I just like them, and as it happens I had been turning variations over in my head wondering what the seventh-century equivalent would have been.

It was Roger Moore in the TV series, although I've only ever seen clips. I was never that taken with Roger Moore as James Bond so I probably decided I didn't much care for the Saint either. I've never read any of the books but a trip to the library is now definitely in order. I love that type of witty humour.

Sherlock Holmes was another famous instant hit from short stories. I'd guess this is partly because short stories were much more widely available 50+ years ago; perhaps they occupied the niche that the half-hour TV slot occupies now. Partly also because short story writers have to give a thumbnail sketch of a character in a handful of words, so the form lends itself to 'caricature' characters that people instantly 'get'. The downside is that such characters often aren't amenable to much development without blurring the caricature. Fine for (some of) the reading public, which knows exactly what it's getting, but sometimes the authors get bored, as Conan Doyle famously did with Sherlock Holmes.

Bernita said...

Look for the early books, Carla. Seems to me some of the later ones dispense with the gag lines and develop more remotely viable plots and lose some of the wit - but I'm only part way through my eclectic collection.
The early books were packaged with three short stories per.

Rick said...

I fondly remember the old Saint TV show!

Carla, in 7th century Byzantium the joke would likely work in its modern form - doing it in early A-S England could be trickier!

I have had some fun with "translating" modern idioms; for it's easier to get forgiveness than permission I have a character say "indulgence is more readily granted than dispensation."

Bernita said...

That's good, Rick.
But why couldn't there be a saucy serf and a libidinous master in the 6th? The ecclesiastical form might have to be sacrificed, but the basics depend on the juxtaposition of caricatures and common, normal dirty minds.There's always Danes. And sheep.I think she can do it.

MissWrite said...

I really don't remember 'the Saint' save for seeing the intro a few times. It wasn't really my style back then, but I think I was 5. I'm not sure. LOL

What does make me laugh is how 'modern' writers look down their noses at such conventions as similies and such. I happen to like an occassional similie, and I thought the one you highlighed was adorable.

Okay, but it really is interesting when you read older books like that to see the 'climate' shift in what is, or isn't politically correct. Even though they didn't have that term back, say in the 60's or whatever, the idea was still there. There were things you just didn't say... but they were vastly different from what those things are now.

Makes you wonder what our books will look like in the PC eyes twenty years from now.

Bernita said...

Good points, Tami.

One has the exasperated impression that some writing gurus wish us to reduce our writing to the level of "Run, Spot, run. See Spot run. Oh, Spot!"

I won't give up the occasional simile and metaphor. I just won't.

Rick said...

Bernita - oh, absolutely the basic situation can be found in just about any age. I don't know the A-S period at all well, but Carla seems to.

The challenge is the particular connotations, especially of a bishop - for the joke to work in full, you need someone who is supposed to be "above" the stirrings of the flesh in the presence of an attractive, somewhat disreputable female entertainer. :)

MissWrite said...

I know, Bernita. What happened to vivid imagination? It kind of makes me laugh when the pomps shout 'show don't tell', but seem to be saying, ...and do it in three words or less (oh, and heaven forbid you throw in an 'ly' anywhere, you'll hang for sure!)

Bernita said...

Yes, I understand that, Rick.
I was trying to reduce it to the salacious enjoyment of the contrast between a public identity and a private action - the perceived hypocrisy.

And all in the first three sentences too, Tami.

Carla said...

Thanks for the tip re looking for the earlier Saint books, Bernita. I shall trawl the library catalogue and see what they come up with.

Rick - that's a good line. We all promise not to steal it :-)

'Bishop' would work in 7th-C Brittonic kingdoms because the church there had bishops (viz the story of them meeting St. Augustine. Bede takes St. Augustine's side; I beg to differ). 'Actress' is presumably a euphemism for tart, so insert euphemism of choice. In a pagan culture you'd probably gravitate to 'High Priest'. Terry Pratchett is a master of this sort of translated joke e.g. "Is the High Priest an Offlian?" and "Does a dragon explode in the woods?"

I don't get the concept of much of the Thou Shalt Not advice. Why did the language evolve all these varieties of expression if they weren't to be used? Maybe it's because the "See Spot run" school of writing (great line, Bernita) is so bland it's hard to criticise? Did anyone see the link to a critique of 'The Historian' on the Grumpy Old Bookman lately? It's a classic of the school. I read the guy's criticisms twice, then I went and read the excerpt on Amazon to get the snippets in context, then I read him again, then I concluded that I just don't read books the same way as him. What he called sloppy or ludicrous, I read as imagery, atmosphere and metaphor - possibly not all that effective but not intended to be taken literally. I can see why one might retreat to the safe ground of absolute literalness after having been on the receiving end of something like that.

But I think it's a fashion that leaves writing much the poorer, both for the writer and the reader. I agree with Bernita; I like imagery and I don't see why those of us who do shouldn't be allowed to read it and use it. If the literary Puritans want plain white walls instead of stained-glass and carvings that's their affair, but who said they should impose their tastes on the rest of us?

Bernita said...

Very well put,Carla.
Thank you.

Had the impression though that bishops and other high churchmen were not particularly expected to be either celebate or continent during that period, and leamen were familiar adjuncts to the establishments.
Doesn't matter, I think it would go over really well.
So much historical fiction lacks that touch of everyday ribadry.

I suppose the neo-puritans are motivated by amateur excesses, but damn! We all don't need to wite like a black and white TV or regress to silent movies.

Carla said...

You're thinking of St Augustine The Hippo, aren't you? My reading is that chastity and continence may not have been expected, but were certainly admired as a standard - see Bede's eulogising on the ascetic lifestyles of the Irish missionaries to Northumbria. There were also some tight-lipped remarks about licentious behaviour in St Aebbe's monastery, although I can't remember the source, which tells me that monasteries were expected to be at least a bit more above that sort of thing than the rest of society. So it's not stretching a point too far. There might also be something interesting to be done with the Anglian High Priest, if you take the interpretation that the High Priest was symbolically feminised (the relevant passage in Bede comes just after the sparrow story), but as that's not widely known now I'll have to set up all the cultural connotations beforehand. This isn't just cheap-laugh levity; I write and read historical fiction to try to imagine the mindset of an earlier culture, and it never rings true to me if there's no humour. I should think people have been telling jokes since words were invented. Since we've got the Oxford Book riddles extant I've got a starting point for plausible Early English humour. Brittonic is more of a problem, but the Four Branches of the Mabinogi (not the later romances) is a start; Rhiannon has some wry humour. Pictish I'm just having to guess.

Bernita said...

Not especially, Carla, more generally, thinking of the Culdees and some 12th c. bulls against co-habitation, as well the the surprising number of characters whose grandfathers seems to have been abbots or some such - even though I realize that some embraced the Church and orders after producing offspring.
Should work regarding monastic orders though.Can't really see any valid objection. Regardless, the jokes are usually directed at those in authority and we know they must have been made. You are to be commended for introducing them into a narrative.

Carla said...

My apologies. It was 'continent' that triggered the association.

Authority and hypocrisy, as you said earlier. The medieval church seems to have been riddled with hypocrisy (otherwise I suppose Luther wouldn't have got anywhere).

Thank you; I wonder if any of the three-headed gatekeepers will agree? Many people seem to think humour is either disrespectful or misapplication of a modern mindset; I've already been ticked off to that effect by someone (but she writes very lyrical and very serious HF so it wasn't a great surprise).

Bernita said...

Didn't realize humor was a 16thc. invention.
Surely, they don't think people were paper doll woodcuts out of a Book of Hours?
For that matter what about the one showing Ethelred or Edwin or someone on the po with his braes around his knees? Grinning like a hyena too.
The Gnomic Verses certainly indicate a sense of pun and those surely are reliable to the period.

Carla said...

Not familiar with that woodcut, Bernita. Have you got the reference, by any chance? Or a link?

It ought to be poor Ethelred Unraed from his hapless persona in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle ("He then rendered his country the only service that was in his power, by dying."). There's a modern poem that goes something like:

"Summer's dried the Cheviot tract
The Pictish chief rides south
To cram the steaks his winter lacked
Into his hairy mouth
But who comes here? A monk? astride
An armour-plated neddy?
And murmurs, 'Men, the war is off...
For Ethelred's unready.'
Ethelred! Ethelred!
Spent his royal life in bed
One shoe off and one shoe on
Greatly loved by everyone."

I forget the rest, but it would go with the woodcut.

Bernita said...

Carla, I am sorry, I do not.
Just saw it in passing months ago, while checking out something else. Braes? Garderobes?
Now that I think of it, I believe the drawing was in colour.Illuminated?
Knew I should have printed it out.
Did a quick search just now which tended to produce Maxwelton's and other non-applicable topics.
It would go beautifully.
Should I find it again, will send you the link.

Rick said...

There was certainly plenty of humor by Chaucer's day - much of it quite earthy, the Miller's Tale being an all too obvious an example. "And well he wot, a wommyn hath no berde!" ;)

Not specifically humor, I read recently that Lady Charlotte Guest's (?) translation of the Mabinogion, still more or less the standard, cut out an awful lot of sexy stuff - not surprising, considering her era.

Poor Ethelred! Not that he deserves any better reputation than he's got, but my understanding is that unraed actually meant "not taking advice," not "unready." Though the mistranslation does fit him well enough!

Ivan Prokopchuk said...

Ladies, ladies,
Aren't you killing the joke?
It should be gotten on first sight.
A bishop
An actress.
A bishop's package presumably larger than a canon.

Tsavo Leone said...

Ivan; Nicely put.

Ladies; I think you're taking this a bit far...

... as the Actress said to the Bishop.

I'd always been of the opinion that the whole "... actress said" gag was more a product of the post-war saucy postcard era, as exemplified by the later 'Carry On' films. Indeed, said films managed to transpose the gag in to a variety of different eras... though they always managed to retain a certain sense of Britishness, which is strange considering that double entendre is a French phrase.

Bernita said...

They must have been around in the 30's, Tsavo, because that's when Charteris incorporated them into his novels.

Don't think so, Ivan, we heard him groan.

Tsavo Leone said...

Perhaps it's a variation on the whole "What the butler saw" imagery of the immediate post-Victorian era then, which might make more sense considering the implications one might draw from any liaison between said Bishop and said Actress in that era.

Argh! My face... my face... what's happened to my face!

Bernita said...

I think it is more likely a product of some musical hall skit inherited from travelling troupes and probably much older than Victoria.I'd pick the Restoration period, for choice.
That's the scariest one of all, Tsavo.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Geez, I hadn't heard that bishop joke phrase since I was a kid with 'the Saint'. But it's amazing what a climate shift we've had about sentence wording!

Tsavo...I'm sorry buddy. the clown is ~gulp~ me and Dennie hate clowns, remember the post. ~shiver~

Bernita said...

I'd forgotten them entirely until Carla pulled an updated variation.

Paul Adams said...
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R.J. Baker said...

Oh, to long for Pussy Galore...

...and how apprapo to follow spam from whiskers holistic pet products.

Ivan Prokopchuk said...

But in all friendliness, I fear the cat sank on your French spelling.

Paul Adams said...
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R.J. Baker said...

Ivan, overall my spelling sucks, French more than most...

Carla said...

If the spammers annoy you, Bernita, you could try turning on word verification and see if that helps.

By the way, the line "He then rendered his country the only service in his power, by dying" doesn't come from the AS Chronicle as I mistakenly said, it comes from a 19th-C historian. Sorry about that.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Carla. Don't usually get enough to worry about. I find their pitches hilarious.
But I might have to if they interrup R.J.s fantasies.

R.J. Baker said...

Hey, that was a character in 007's Gold Finger, though it could double as a fantasy.