Martin Stiles Comedy Collection

Jon Shepherd, Assistant Archivist, writes about a new collection to the British Stand-Up Comedy Archive, the Martin Stiles Comedy Collection:

Alternative comedy: a style of comedy that rejects established stereotypes (especially racist or sexist) and often containing a political component.

In the 1970s traditional club comedians of the time often relied on jokes targeting women and minorities. A dislike of this led a group of performers at London’s Comedy Store to begin to pioneer an approach in opposition to the mainstream of British comedy.  It eschewed a reliance on a standardised structure of a sequence of jokes and punchlines, tending instead to be somewhat more free-form.  What resulted was more akin to comedy’s answer to punk.

Martin Stiles was and no doubt still is a keen fan of comedy.  He spent many years as a devoted follower of live stand-up, and both radio and tv comedy shows.  This led him to do two things.  Firstly, he created a detailed comedy index of comedians, producers and writers.  For each he listed the individual’s tv and radio comedy credits, often including the relevant year of transmission for each.  Secondly, he assembled a wonderfully impressive collection of comedy scrapbooks.  Stiles attended as a member of the audience the recording at the Paris Studio in Lower Regent Street, London of a vast array of comedy shows.  This he did several times a month, sometimes several times a week!  Each scrapbook includes newspaper cuttings, many from the Radio and TV Times, tickets for the shows and flyers sent out by the ticket unit to promote the recordings of the shows.  Some of these items are autographed by the performers featured.  The shows involved include many famous programmes such as Red Dwarf, The Mary Whitehouse Experience, Whose Line is it Anyway, I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue and Knowing Me Knowing You…With Alan Partridge.  Many were pilots and by necessity includes some shows which didn’t make it beyond the pilot stage.

Martin Stiles comedy scrapbooks

This methodically assembled collection reads like a who’s who not just of British comedy from this delightful period of change but also more generally of British cinema, theatre and public life then and now.  Casual fans and aficionados of the following performers may be interested in the collection; Stephen Fry, Rowan Atkinson, Robbie Coltrane, French and Saunders, Tony Robinson , Emma Thompson, Kenneth Branagh, Hugh Laurie, Lenny Henry, Ben Elton, Harry Enfield, Harry Hill, Paul Merton, Rory Bremner, Adrian Edmonson, Rik Mayle, Nigel Planer, Jonathan Ross, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Bill Oddie, John Cleese, Alexei Sayle, Jack Dee, Victoria Wood, Julie Walters, Mel Smith, Griff Rhys Jones, Ruby Wax, Tracey Ullman, Mark Steel, Jasper Carrott, Floella Benjamin, Humphrey Lyttleton, Clive Anderson, Robert Llewellyn, Craig Charles, Chris Barrie, Graeme Garden, Roy Hudd, June Whitfield, Leslie Phillips, Shane Richie, Jim Broadbent, Andrew Sachs, Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer, Peter Capaldi, Eddie Izzard, Geoffrey Perkins, Rupert Graves, Patricia Routledge, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Eric Idle, Frank Skinner, David Jason, Sandi Toksvig, Ronnie Barker, Douglas Adam, Bob Geldof, Kenneth Williams, Wendy Richard, Martin Clunes, Danny Baker, Ulrika Jonsson, Morecambe and Wise, Meera Sya, Frankie Howerd, Les Dawson, Noddy Holder and many, many  more…

Items from the Martin Stiles Comedy Collection

If you fancy delving back into the fascinating world of comedy of the late 80s and early 90s then please contact us on or +44 (0)1227 82 3127.

Martin Stiles Comedy Card index

Bad women or victims? A Girl’s Cross Roads

Although it was a little while ago now, I’d like to take the opportunity mention the exciting event which I was involved in a couple of weeks ago: a read through of one of the Melville melodramas.

If you’re a regular reader of the blog, you’ll probably have noticed how I keep talking about the Melvilles – a theatrical dynasty who reached the peak of their success around the turn of the nineteenth century through to the 1930s. Two of the Melville brothers, Walter and Fred, were immensely successful in running theatres and producing (and often writing) hugely popular plays. One of the genres they specialised in was melodrama, and they created their own niche in this type, with the ‘Bad Woman’ dramas.

Cutting from an unidentified newspaper (0599996/1)

Cutting from an unidentified newspaper (0599996/1)

As part of UoK’s Melodrama Research Group, I was asked to provide something for one of the evening discussion sessions; although the majority of the group are film specialists, this time we looked to the stage for inspiration, and decided to do a read-through of one of these once popular but now largely forgotten plays.

I chose ‘A Girl’s Cross Roads’ by Walter Melville as our piece, largely because it wasn’t too long (so it should fit into the two-hours allotted), and because we had already created a surrogate of the manuscript for teaching purposes (this means that we can provide access to the text without further damaging the original). The play was first performed in 1903, although we do not know where this performance too place. It has, as far as we know, never been published (like most of the other Melville plays in our collection) and has been subject to very little academic study. While I suspect that this play was revived later by the Melvilles, I felt privileged to know that this would probably be the first time the play had been read-through in around 100 years.

Publicity image from 'Stageland', September 1905

Publicity image from ‘Stageland’, September 1905 (0600336)

It’s a gripping plot, heavily reliant on past misunderstandings, mistakes made in life and no small amount of coincidence, but proved to be an exciting read. The story centres around Jack Livingstone, who has married and lives a comfortable life until his wife, Barbara, with secrets of her own, begins to suspect that he does not love her. Through a range of conversations at the beginning of the play, it transpires that Jack is not in love with Barbara after all, and now regrets not marrying his childhood sweetheart Constance. Of course, the plot does not stop there: the villains Cuthbert Lumley and Tilly Vane, the ‘bad woman’ of the piece, discover that Constance is ignorant of her inheritance and plot to steal it by marrying her to Cuthbert. With Barbara struggling to cope with the knowledge that her husband wishes he had never married her and past problems with alcohol, Tilly hopes that once Constance is married, she will be free to marry Jack herself.

Publicity image for the play from 'Stageland', September 1905

Publicity image for the play from ‘Stageland’, September 1905 (0600336)

The play unfolds with surprising speed and with a significant amount of humour, not to mention a vast array of characters which our 7 strong cast managed by doubling and tripling up to cover all the parts! The read-through proved just how humourous the play was written to be, which is much clearer when reading it aloud in parts. Although there is a lot of slapstick which the small room and the limited acting experience of our group couldn’t quite do justice to, the script itself has some unexpected laugh-out-loud moments.

Most interesting to me, however, was that the play was not so stereotypical and one dimensional as the title (and stage melodrama’s posthumous reputation) led me to believe. Admittedly, there was little character development and little subtlety, but the plot was strong and the actors, particularly in the female roles, were given great opportunities to exercise their character talents. One character was developed throughout the play is that of Barbara (admirably played by Dr. Helen Brooks), who fluctuates between a victim of circumstance and of the hero, Jack, an obstacle to be overcome and a woman whose inability to maintain strict Edwardian control over herself led her to destruction.

Cutting from an unidentified newspaper (0599996/1)

Cutting from an unidentified newspaper (0599996/1)

Far from being a moral diatribe on how women should behave, this play used the three female characters to explore very different choices made in life. These choices prove to be the girls’ cross-roads in life, although it’s never made clear to which girl the title refers. Tilly Vane in particular, the villainess, has several monologues in which she regrets her life and the outcast which her choices have made her. All three women find their lives shaped by men, whether or not they want to be, and this offers a rather more complex message than that of Walter Melville as a ‘woman hater’, as he was accused.


There’s more information and some discussion about the read through on the Melodrama Research Group’s blog, and we do hope to have some more read-throughs in the future, now that we’ve been well and truly bitten by the Melville bug. It just goes to show that, even after 110 years, the Bad Woman dramas can still intrigue and entertain us, as they were written to do.