Lucille Ball / Primates

I don’t know what I know about ‘primates’ (that’s a very human word – we are, as it weren’t, the top dogs). Is it true, as Trevor Griffiths has a character say in his play Comedians that we are the only animal that laughs, and is it true that when chimpanzees, as in the PG Tips adverts, were exhibiting fear when they grinned? (Apparently there is some debate about chimpanzees and laughter; and we share 96% of our DNA, which is the highest percentage.) The PG Tips ads ran for fifty years from 1956 to 2006, which is supposedly a record. (If Wikipedia is to be believed, PG is short for Pre-diGestive.)

I only say this because, in my fastidiously obsessive way, I have now moved on from listening to old Lucille Ball radio shows to watching only slightly less old TV shows (they are easily available on DVD, rather to my surprise, although I cannot think why this came as such a sudden delight. It used to be said that, at any given moment, I Love Lucy or The Lucy Show was playing on TV, somewhere in the world). And in the episode I glued myself to this evening, she performed with three chimpanzees, the set-up being that she wanted to prove that she could get a new job, and winding up as a baby-sitter to three chimpanzees – referred to, throughout the programme, as monkeys, incidentally.

It takes seconds to adjust to Ball’s exceptional timing. We give film so much more status than television that we tend to overlook the astonishing ability of players who made their name on TV. In this particular episode, almost the whole show required a poker-face routine with three animals, which she carried off with such skill that I felt like applauding. There is nothing on TV like it now (this is an observation, not a hostile criticism). Probably the routine would be illegal today. I expect that it is cruel, but I don’t know for sure. (Sound of fence-sitting.) It was Lucille Ball who grabbed the limelight.

Lucille Ball

Lucille Ball

I can’t think of anyone else – unless it is Phil Silvers – who stole the show on television so frequently and at such a high standard. The scripts are pretty good on the radio as on the TV, and so is the small supporting cast, but Lucille Ball’s wide-eyed gaze and throaty repartee, and natural gift either for slapstick or for comic characterisation – well, they astonish me each time. I think what’s interesting is that, although the premise is nearly always that her alter ego is in some way incompetent, she never patronises her character. She is also a superb mimic. In one episode, Silvers himself appears as glib time-and-motion man (they still exist, but we don’t call them that), and Ball almost instantly falls into a perfect impersonation of Silvers’ rapid-fire, high octane character.

I know what this is. Fan-mail, half a century too late. It comes as no surprise to learn that she was also the most astute businesswoman going. She wound up buying the studios that first hired her. Brilliant.

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