Men to boys

I was in my teens when Morecambe and Wise were in their BBC glory days, each Christmas Special more keenly anticipated and more rapturously received than the last. They were quite funny, but their culture (Northern music hall) and their comedy (visual, song and dance) seemed old fashioned to someone growing up with Monty Python. My father loved them, though he shared far less of their background than me, and that placed them firmly in the older generation.

One of the surprises of the affectionate BBC documentary about Morecambe and Wise was discovering how young they were at their peak. Eric was just 43 when he suffered his first heart attack in 1968. And yet he looked 20 years older to me. Dressed in suits, with close cut hair (or receding hairlines) they looked like men.

When they began their double act, in 1941, European culture had no concept of teenagers and saw that gawky, embarrassing transition from childhood to adulthood as little more than tiresome for everyone involved. Boys could be working at 14 and their greatest aspiration was to be accepted as men, which meant – in an age when the military was a part of every male life – wearing the uniform of manhood: short hair, a suit and tie, and no facial hair. Teenage boys adopted it as soon as they could (the transition to long trousers being a kind of secular bar mitzvah) and stayed with it through life.

Saturday night, Sunday morning

How things have changed. In one of the entertaining switchbacks that society keeps making (once only the rich could afford white bread, now it’s only the poor) everyone wants to pass for younger than they are. Middle aged men dress like characters from Happy Days, and recycle fatuous slogans: ’50 is the new 30′. (Tell that to your prostate.)

It’s not important in itself, of course. It’s just one instance of how humans make and remake their stories about themselves, and by extension remake their realities. But it marks the shift in social power from the old to the young since Morecambe and Wise first stepped into a variety club stage. Since we have become a much older society in that same period, it suggests that we are far from reconciled with that change. Or perhaps just that, like humans everywhere, we want most what we haven’t got.