It’s no laughing matter

One of the main gripes of the author behind the popular ITV detective series, Grantchester, is that the producers take out all of the jokes from the novels on which the show is based upon.

James Runcie, son of Robert Runcie, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, is the author of Grantchester Mysteries, six novels about a crime-fighting vicar, stretching over a twenty-year period starting from the 1950s.The novels have been adapted for television, starring James Norton and Robson Green.

The author told an audience at the recent Crimefest in Bristol that the jokes are stripped from the novels by producers because they are trying to get a varied tone on the television show. “It needs to be truncated to fit the allotted time, and the jokes come out,” he explained.

Runcie made his remarks during a panel session to illustrate the current plight of the comic crime fiction writer.

The sad fact of the matter is that there is no money in comic fiction writing in Britain, forcing writers to quit the subgenre altogether.

Runcie said that writers get paid more for scaring people than making them laugh. Yet there is black humour when crime goes wrong, he pointed out. “Even at funerals when families come together they say the wrong thing at the wrong time, but there is a loving humanity about it,” he said. However, a novel with no humour would probably be less sympathetic to the subject, in his opinion.

“Comedy is always considered flippant, but it’s harder to be funny than sombre,” he went on to tell the audience. “A world without humour is not worth living.”

The television and radio comedy writer, Nev Fountain, who has recently moved into serious thriller writing with his new book Painkiller, agrees that there is humour in every aspect of tragedy, sometimes involuntary.

“Spike Milligan’s war diaries are dark and the funniest parts are when the soldiers are together and talking about death,” he told the audience. “Humour shows intelligence. It’s not difficult to switch to writing serious books because when you write dialogue, you just leave the jokes out.”

Fountain maintains that while it is easy to write revulsion and horror, it is far more difficult to write comedy banter. The only must in such writing, he says, is to take death seriously, and making sure it does not turn into a pantomime.

While there appears to be only room for a few comic fiction writers in the market, there seems to be no limit to the number of writers in serious crime fiction, he says.

Ruth Dudley Edwards, whose satirical crime novels targets academia, the civil service, the House of Lords and the Church of England, says the lot of a funny writer, is not funny. She agrees there is no money to be made in comic fiction, which she thinks is strange when there is demand for the genre.

She asked the audience why readers didn’t want to pay for it. Clearly, the audience did want to pay for it, judging by their positive response. Their only problem is that they can’t find it in the bookshops.

At least that seems the experience in Britain, because in the US it is not too difficult to find crime fiction and TV crime shows with sprinklings of comic relief.

American writers of detective novels are given licence to crack jokes and have punch lines. They seem to have no reservations about mixing death and comedy.

British agents and publishers are wary of taking on manuscripts with a sliver of humour as they think it is risky because humour is open to interpretation.

Cosy mysteries series from the UK in fact do well in the US, and the jokes on shows like Vera are understood on the other side of the pond.

Humour can also be used to great effect to offset the grimness in many books. In fact, a hilarious dialogue can sometimes save a book or a film. And who doesn’t like film noir with wise-cracks? The trouble is finding the right balance.

British humour is renowned the world over and travels well like its rock music. It’s virtually a brand that tells its audience to prepare for rib-cracking laughter.

One of the major stumbling blocks about comic books, it is argued, is that written comedy is difficult to translate well. But in an increasingly English-speaking world, cultural references present translators with less problems than in the past, and one only has to look at the acceptance of Woody Allen in France to realise the divide is not so great.

That’s not to say there aren’t limits to how faithful a translator can be to the original text to get a chuckle. To cater for the humour-challenged Germans, the publishers of the German edition of James Runcie’s Grantchester Mysteries decided to tackle the problem head-on. Over a span of 20 pages it spelt out fully why his book should make them laugh. Now that’s hilarious, isn’t it?

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at www.tomclaver.co.uk

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