Culture Magazine

Humour’s Not a Universal Language – It’s a Matter of Personal Or National Opinion

By Thejohnfleming @thejohnfleming

Humour’s not a universal language – it’s a matter of personal or national opinion

I have sat through some weird shit in my time

Michael Powell’s movie Gone To Earth, Robin Hardy’s movie The Fantasist and Edinburgh Fringe stage show Sally Swallows and the Rise of Londinian. They spring immediately to mind.

And I can now add to that an ‘acclaimed’ Finnish ‘deadpan comedy’ movie The Other Side of Hope.

I was invited to an “influencer preview screening” in Soho yesterday afternoon. It was in English, Finnish and Arabic. With English subtitles.

The first person I saw when I arrived was Scots comic Richard Gadd. His factual movie drama Against The Law is being screened on BBC2 at the end of June.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

“I’m the lead actor in The Other Side of Hope.,” he told me, apparently slightly affronted that I had not known.

Some people will turn up to the opening of an envelope. I will turn up to anything which has the likelihood of free tea and salmon sandwiches. It does not mean I read the fine details of any press release.

“How come you are the lead in a Finnish film?” I asked Richard Gadd.

“Because,” said Richard Gad, “I am half-Finnish.”

“Heavens,” I said, slightly embarrassed, “I didn’t know that,”

“Well I am,” he told me, slightly wearily.

Humour’s not a universal language – it’s a matter of personal or national opinion

Thom Tuck (left) and Richard Gadd at Soho House yesterday

The next person I saw was comedian, writer and variably-hirsute thespian Thom Tuck, currently touring Britain in Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman.

“Are you playing Willy?” I asked.

“No,” he said slightly wearily. “He is in his 60s.”

I thought it unwise to mention anything about ‘playing with Willy’ so, changing the subject, I said: “I didn’t know Richard was half-Finnish.”

“I only know how to swear in Finnish,” Thom replied.

“Don’t let me stop you,” I told him.

“Kusipää…” he said. “Vittu pois… Kivekset.” Then, looking at Richard, he asked: “Was my pronunciation OK?”

“Pretty good,” said Richard, generously.

As for The Other Side of Hope – the film we had come to see…

Well, as for the film…

What can I say…?

One selling synopsis for it is:

MORAL CLARITY IN PLURALITY
A poker playing restauranteur and
former traveling salesman befriends
a group of refugees.

It is about a Syrian immigrant from Aleppo during the current civil war who is in Finland as a refugee.

The film won the Silver Bear Award for Best Director at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival and rave reviews for it include:

“Combines poignancy with torrents of laughter” (5-stars. Daily Telegraph)

“’Surreal and screamingly funny” (5-stars. The Times)

“I laughed, I cried, I shrieked.” (5-stars, Observer)

It currently has a 91% Rotten Tomatoes score.

People say comedy is a universal language.

Well, I am here to tell you it is not.

Humour’s not a universal language – it’s a matter of personal or national opinion

Rikki Fulton, Scotch & Wry: too straight-faced for the English

I remember working for a cable or satellite TV channel (I can’t remember which) and, in trailer-making mode, I sat through three episodes of Scotch & Wry, a legendary successful BBC Scotland TV comedy show which I had never seen and which I don’t think had been screened on English terrestrial television. It was absolutely terrifically funny,

After seeing the three episodes, I went back into the office.

“Have you seen Scotch & Wry?” I started to say. “Isn’t it absolutely…”

“Yes,” said someone. “It is utter shit, isn’t it?”

That was the general English view in the office and I think it was because star Rikki Fulton et al performed everything utterly straight-faced. I think deadpan comedy works with Scots audiences, not so well with English audiences and it may ultimately be a Scandinavian thing,

I worked in a Swedish TV company with Swedes, Norwegians and Danes. Each nationality’s sense of humor was slightly different and the Swedes in particular were very, very straight-faced though equally humorous.

My experience of Finns is mostly meeting them on holiday – particularly in the former Soviet Union and, as a result, in cliché mode, I think of Finns as very very amiable but almost always paralytically drunk (there are licensing problems in Finland and the exchange rate between blue jeans and vodka in Leningrad was highly in favour of the Finns).

All this comes as an intro to my opinion of The Other Side of Hope.

Humour’s not a universal language – it’s a matter of personal or national opinion

The film very-noir in its original Finnish: it translates appropriately as “Beyond Hope”

It was like watching zombies perform some dreary social-realist drama about Syrian immigrants in a gray city. It made Harold Pinter’s dialog and pauses seem like Robin Williams speeding on cocaine.

The film opened with a woman wearing curlers in her hair. She was sitting at a table on which stood a spherical cactus with thin spines sticking out. I thought: This may be a commendably weird movie.

Well weird it certainly was but, for me, utterly titterless. Not a single titter dropped from my lips, missus.

There was a 10-15 minute section towards the very end of the film which showed signs of very straight-faced, deadpan humor involving a restaurant. But even that was titter-free.

I have obviously missed something.

It is oft – and truly – said that Tommy Cooper could walk on stage, do nothing, say nothing and the audience would laugh. I have often wondered if some American or German or Latvian who had never seen Tommy Cooper before would have laughed.

And there is the never-to-be-forgotten lesson of Scotch & Wry.

I am prepared to believe The Other Side of Hope has them rolling in the frozen deadpan-loving aisles of Helsinki. It left me totally enjoyment-free. It was a bleak film about a Syrian immigrant in Helsinki in which people didn’t say much. But, then, I did enjoy Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness, I like eating kimchi and, as a child, I enjoyed cod liver oil.

The Other Side of Hope has had great reviews. It can survive without me.

As a coda to all this, I should mention that, as we went into the screening room, Richard Gadd told me he was not half-Finnish and he did not appear in the film at all. He had just been invited along to see it because he is an “influencer”.

This turned out to be true.

He is not in the film.

Yesterday afternoon was just totally weird. I also met a man in a tube train who was wearing a giant banana on his head like Carmen Miranda. He was not smiling. He may have been an actor of Finnish origin.

Oh, alright.

I made that bit up. I did not meet a man in a tube train who was wearing a giant banana on his head.

The rest is true.

Though I am beginning to think I may have dreamt the whole of yesterday.


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