A German Sense Of Humour

by Paul Hamilton

gerardhoffnung“I was called Gerard after a cousin… He, er… And I was called Hoffnung after Gerard.”

To hear Gerard Hoffnung’s voice, you’d think he was some decrepit habituee of the Garrick, balloon of Remy Martin by his side, half-finished Telegraph crossword over his lap, kept in his chair by the weight of medals pinned to his M.C.C. blazer. He sounded like some Goon Show hybrid, a morph of the Sanders suavity of Grytpype-Thynne and the older-than-God geriatric fuzzy-headed senilities of Henry Crun - with a spoonful of Wilfrid Lawson ham Shakespearean bewailments and bombast stirred into the DNA for good measure. He’s the plate-dropping brother Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling keeps under lock and key in the high tower, he’s a slack-brained Michael Trubshawe, a hungover C. Aubrey Smith, or a Cecil Parker waking to discover he’s piloting an aeroplane.

Truth is, he was nothing of the sort. The name gives it away, really, but it surprised me to find out Hoffnung was a German, evacuated to England in 1939 when still a schoolboy and unable to speak a word of English. Stranger still to discover that the coughing, wheezing old man interviewed by Richardson was barely into his thirties. Oddest of all is knowing that Hoffnung actually spoke like an ancient archbishop attempting Frankie Howerd impressions all the time.

Hoffnung’s encounters with urbane Canadian Charles Richardson remain masterclasses of interview-disruption and deviation. Richardson’s kick-offs to the interviews are invariably immediately fouled by Hoffnung’s curt rejoinders of “What do you want?” or irrelevant pleasantries (”You’ve had your hair cut”). The ace up Hoffnung’s sleeve is to play the uncomprehending ass:

  Richardson: Mr Hoffnung, you always appear to me to be particularly immaculate all the time.
Hoffnung [sounding hurt, slighted]: Immaculate? I don’t look immaculate; I always look very clean and neat. I don’t see how you can say that.
Richardson: That’s what I mean, you see, by immaculate…
Hoffnung: No, you said I looked immaculate. That doesn’t mean clean and neat…

… And so on until Richardson apologises for his rank offensiveness.

Hoffnung made his living as a cartoonist and, like Eddie Izzard’s penchant for people and things to be made of jam, so too did Gerard take a shine to drawing “jam tarts playing poker” or (perhaps his favourite image) “a policeman on a llama, sucking blancmange through a straw”. The occasional surreal image creeps into the interviews to unforgettable effect. This is Hoffnung reminiscing about his late cat:

Hoffnung: He was very old… He used to, er, sit at table with us, you know. That CAT! used to have a serviette tied around its hea- er, neck… er, and it, you know it used to hold a lighted candle between its paws until dinner was over… that cat did.
Richardson: Why?
Hoffnung: Well, that’s the way he liked to, er, he was, mmm, full of convention, you know, full of formality. You wouldn’t find cats like that now.

Whenever Richardson incorporates jokes (he asks whether the cat died of “fire”) or extends Hoffnung’s comic premises (such as asking whether the moon is made of green cheese after a minute of Hoffnung doing little more than exclaiming “Moon monkeys! Monkeys on the moon!”), he is cut short. Arguably, this could be because these were unscripted affairs and Hoffnung was not a natural extemporizer, someone who could develop monologues and jokes off-the-cuff. Happily, Hoffnung’s brusqueness (”Don’t cross-examine me!” he bellows at the interviewer) fits well with his persona of an upper-class loon, a bit of a spoilt brat that’s amiable for as long as everyone’s playing the game his way, but woe betide anyone who dares stem the flow of his babbling. “I don’t make provocative remarks!” he roars; “I resent these questions!” A great moment is when Richardson asks the prickly Hoffnung if he is married. “It’s none of your business whether I’m married! Of course I’m married!”

The interview being a game of cat-and-mouse, the best fun to be had from the Hoffnung/Richardson encounters to is to see what a merry dance Gerry Mouse leads Charlie Cat. An enquiry into how Hoffnung manages to cram so much work into one day ends with Richardson being told in fine detail of Hoffnung’s sleep schedule, followed by his washing routine (including brushing his tooth, which gets a rare audible giggle from Richardson), a walk around the garden, afternoon nap and then bed again. Hoffnung earned himself a gold star for telling an interminable yarn about a housekeeper. Realising his duty to the radio audience, Richardson, wanting Hoffnung to cut to the chase, asks, “Is this a long story?” “Yes!” he responds and blithely burbles on.

Hoffnung in some aspects is an ancestor to Cook’s batty Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling with his grand line of flop enterprises, discoveries and inventions. “Oooh!” exclaims Gerard, “Do you know - you see this this pipe here? Do you know this is the only pipe that makes invisible smoke? You watch…” A series of pipe-sucking sounds ensues.

Richardson: Invisible smoke?
Hoffnung: Yes! You can’t see it, can you? [resumption of pipe-puffing and sucking]
Richardson: But it’s not alight…?
Hoffnung [disappointed]: … Oh, is that what it is?

The private Hoffnung was an active Quaker, devoting time and effort to visiting prisoners and to protesting against the hydrogen bomb. None of this would be apparent in the interview tapes, although in his address to the Oxford Union, after twenty minutes of badinage and telling pidgin English jokes that are still common currency today thanks to the creations of Sacha Baron Cohen, he makes a prompt plea for the government to redirect their budget earmarked for nuclear arms to opera houses and art galleries before taking his leave with ‘That’s it!’ (He had the fear of being thought boring when being serious.) His vegetarianism, however, is the moral backbone to his individual form of hunting which he reveals to Richardson in a tape devoted to sport. Other than hunting, Hoffnung is particularly keen on the following competitive pastime:

  I like that sport where a lot of people are, er, asleep on a lawn, you know. They sit around in deckchairs - then there’s some people in the middle of the lawn, they do something. there’s a chap with a barber’s coat on… And then it starts raining, you know, and they all wake up - and somebody says “Well played, sir”. I like that a lot.

One could mourn the lazy way Hoffnung and Richardson went about their interviews - little preparation, hardly the most inspiring of subjects (the weather, for God’s sake!) - or that less than an hour of them exist. When one considers that these tapes were made mostly for fun and that they have survived at all is just cause for celebration - and that can’t be wrong.

A double-CD, ‘Gerard Hoffnung: A Last Encore’, is available on the BBC Radio Collection label.

This is an edited version of an article originally published in Kettering 8.

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