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We all tend to have a sense that if something is complicated and difficult, it is bound to be better than something that is simple and straightforward. Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture, for instance, is considered by almost everyone to be a better piece of music than Baa Baa Black Sheep.
This is certainly the case with acting. The purists with their mad hair and illuminated ballpoint pens will tell us that performing in a soap opera is nothing more than reading out words and slamming doors. For real acting, we are directed towards Olivier in Richard III, Brando in On the Waterfront, and Gielgud in Hamlet. These are the colossuses, the giants. The men who bestride oceans with their talent.
Yes, I’m sure. But actually the best piece of acting I’ve ever seen came from Paul Whitehouse in The Fast Show. Olivier, I’m sure, was jolly good at strutting about on a stage, slamming important documents into the palm of his hand and making himself heard at the back. But as Rowley Birkin QC, Paul was in a different league.
Each week he simply sat in a chair, by a fire, with a drink, and cheerily mumbled his way through an anecdote in which only one word in 50 was even halfway audible. And yet you always got the gist. And you always laughed . . . right up to the very last episode, when he told how his wife had died. For a comedian to make you cry, in a comedy show, without really saying anything . . . well, I doubt you will see genius to match it in your lifetime.
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