The Museum of Comedy: British Humour Explored

Hattie Jacques and Kenneth Williams in a Carry On film still

It had me at ‘free tea and biscuits’. I’ve been to more museums than I can count in my 26 and 3/4 years, but never have I been offered a free cuppa and snacks as part of the deal… until now. Evidently, the Museum of Comedy isn’t your average tourist attraction, but the promise of a good old-fashioned English treat, alongside decades of authentic comedy memorabilia, worked wonders.

The Venue

Based in a church undercroft between Tottenham Court Road and Holborn, this small but mighty two room venue covers the history of British comedy, from variety acts to TV sketch shows and stadium tours, and all that’s in between.

The Tommy Cooper Room, a space for video clips by day and gigs by night, is curtained off from the main exhibition area, where there’s a bar at the back, complete with cut-out of Del Boy from Only Fools and Horses. I wonder how many people have posed next to him, muttering: “Play it nice and cool, son, nice and cool, you know what I mean?”

Bloomsbury Way Church setting for unique entertainment museum and gig venue
Notice anything funny about the hazard sign on the floor?

Opening Acts

As the Tommy Cooper Room was closed for an event rehearsal, I was given a concession ticket (£4 instead of the usual fiver). Told that my tea and biscuits would be available at a moment’s notice, I began to browse the cabinets in the main room, taking in everything from a genuine Sooty puppet to a Lily Savage poster and a Carry On film running in the background on VHS.

Distinctive props were dotted around, like the pig snout from The League of Gentlemen, and there were overviews of sitcoms like Father Ted, as well as plenty of posters and bizarre pieces of spin-off merchandise.

Memorabilia from comedians of the 20th and 21st century in the UK including props and books
You could spend ages poring over the collection.

On the Bill

One of the earliest acts mentioned was completely beyond my radar – Little Tich, a 4″6 performer, broke into the music hall and pantomime scene in the late 1800s (luckily there wasn’t any mention of his blackface performances). Other blasts from the past included Charlie Chaplin, whose film was playing above the bar, and Max Miller. Many more names were vaguely familiar, and seeing them in the collection has made me want to do a little research.

Some of my personal highlights were the framed stills from The Two Ronnies’ Fork Handles sketch, inventories from panto performances, Monty Python sections, and the original chairs from the Leicester Square Theatre. There was also a decent tribute to Tony Hancock, including a replica of the plaque placed outside his house by the Dead Comics Society. Another relic that caught my eye was the elusive ‘funny bone’ in a jar.

Pythons autobiography of surreal sketch comedy troupe
This hefty autobiography was one of many on the shelves.

Home-Grown Humour

Whilst American comics and comedy shows regularly steal the limelight, Britain will always have a strong comedy scene of its own. British humour is distinctive – we’re not afraid to be self-deprecating, we never get over awkward encounters and we don’t fear political correctness (something I was reminded of when I visited the Donald McGill Museum).

Let’s be honest: for every formulaic re-run of Friends you idly watch, there’s a piece of British comedy gold you could be enjoying instead. Maybe that’s why there are so many attempts to remake the classics and recapture the magic.

Books about comedians, TV actors and timeless sketch shows such as Hancock's Half Hour
Remembering some of the big names in the business…

And Now For Something Completely Different

I was pleased to see women weren’t ignored in the collection, as the museum’s bookshelves included biographies of Victoria Wood and Liz Smith, and I spotted photos of Ruby Wax, Hattie Jacques and Miranda Hart dotted around. However, the exhibits did feel dominated by straight white men (Steptoe & Son, Russ Abbott, Reeves & Mortimer, even Jeremy Beadle) – just like our panel shows are.

Comedians come in many forms, and it would be great to see the museum showing a broader spectrum, such as the famous Two Soups clip from Victoria Wood As Seen On TV, a sketch from The Javone Prince Show, or a prop from Acorn Antiques. In fact, the diversity issue has recently been taken up by Catie Wilkins, who’s making a documentary about racism, sexism and classism in the comedy industry. I reckon this would be the ideal place to screen it.

Tommy Cooper black and white photos in exhibition with his famous hat
Figurines, fez hats and a Carry On plate. Not to mention a ‘funny bone’.

Time for Tea

At this point I’m sure you’re dying to know how the tea and biscuits were. Well, they beat most of the London cafes hands down on the presentation front (proper cups and saucers!), and the snacks were good old-fashioned British favourites too. It was fairly surreal to sit snaffling a Bourbon and a Custard Cream beneath Lily Savage’s wig, but it was much more relaxed than the prospect of sipping weak tea and fighting for elbow room in Starbucks.

I’d be interested to see how the museum’s collection evolves, and what they’ll collect in the next few years (hopefully nothing from Dapper Laughs or Keith Lemon). Though the space isn’t vast, there’s definite scope for more exhibits here, especially from the acts playing the Tommy Cooper Room. An early hit from next year’s calendar is a tribute to the classic Radio 4 show, Round the Horne, proving – yet again – that some jokes never get old.

Museum layout including props and candlelit bar area
Not an elephant in the room, but a bear. Wearing a fez.

Visiting Notes: You can find the Museum of Comedy at the Undercroft, St. George’s Church, Bloomsbury Way, London WC1A 2SR. Opening times vary daily, so check the website before you travel. Entry is £5 (adults), £4 (children) or £15 (family), including tea and biscuits. However, if you book an evening event, your museum entry is included in the ticket price.

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