The BBC Two sketch show It’s Marty ran for just 12 episodes between 1968 and 1969, yet, without its trail-blazing, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, a year later, might have proved too much for the national sensibility. Its star was one of Britain’s great clowns, Marty Feldman, whose face, with its long chin and eyes bulging in a minimum of three directions, gave notice that there was surrealist trouble ahead, a warning which, perhaps to their owners’ advantage, the Pythons’ ordinary good looks never did.
Among Feldman’s most famous sketches were The Loneliness of the Long Distance Golfer, an international football match in which a Paraguay potentate pursues the Queen into the back of the net, and a skit that has Toulouse Lautrec ask a model if she minds him painting her in the nude and then remove his own trousers. In collaboration with Barry Took, these sketches were written as well as performed by Feldman. Although by post-Fast Show standards they are long-winded, moments within them still fizz with a rare manic energy.
One, in retrospect, reads autobiographically. Feldman enters a vet’s surgery with a huge wicker basket containing, unseen, a restless, owl-eating, masturbating monster. “I would like a litter from him, or a clutch,” he explains to the alarmed Tim Brooke-Taylor, whose cat box sits demurely on his lap. Mid-sketch Feldman is seized into the basket and emerges the worse for wear. It ends weakly — sketches generally did, which was why the Pythons abolished punchlines — with John Junkin leaving with a similarly boxed aberration and warning Feldman not to bother: the vet has no idea how to treat it.
For the monster substitute Feldman’s talent. Feldman took it to Hollywood in the Seventies. Like the vet, Hollywood, once Mel Brooks had used him in Young Frankenstein (1974) and Silent Movie (1976), had no clue how to handle Feldman’s talent and his films, The Last Remake of Beau Geste (1977) and In God we Tru$t (1980), sank. In the end, this uncontainable talent of his destroyed him. That, at least, is what many of us assumed when, after a period of silence, we learnt in December 1982 that Feldman had suddenly died at the age of 48 of a heart attack.
We must thank Mark Flanagan, who befriended Feldman’s widow Lauretta, for correcting this predictable, if dynamically illustrated, narrative by uncovering Feldman’s autobiography, completed but never read (not even, up to her death five years ago, by the inconsolable Lauretta) and stored for nearly 30 years in their Los Angeles attic. While Hollywood did disillusion him, he was not defeated by it. He died on location in Mexico filming the pirate comedy Yellowbeard, full of plans.
Much of eyE Marty (the typography is Feldman’s joke against the disease, Graves’, that caused his protruding eyes) is a love letter. He met Lauretta Sullivan, a secretary at a children’s talent agency, in 1958 in one of the jazz clubs he both frequented and played in. He had been drunk, he writes, for what seemed like days. Her extraordinary beauty, outer and, by all accounts, inner, bears testament to his character. He not only looked like the unlikeliest of husbands. Promiscuous, ill-disciplined and depressive, he was the least sure of bets.
Born into Jewish mercantile respectability in East London in 1934, Marty rebelled at school and entered an adolescence of picaresque madness that included periods of sleeping rough, impersonating an American to “pull birds”, and association with gangster lowlife.
In Paris he met his musical hero Charlie Parker, who only, he reports, wanted to talk about snooker. By 15 he had worked at an ad agency, attended art school and, through Dylan Thomas’s recommendation, seen a collection of his poetry published. Terrified of critical appraisal, he fled London for a job in a boot factory in Leicester, from which normality he joined a variety act playing a Red Indian sidekick to a bloke from Peterborough who styled himself the fakir Tayonwana and blew himself up as his act’s finale. As Feldman writes, in relation to Spike Milligan: “I hate eccentrics. I much prefer loonies.”
Eventually Feldman abandoned the sax for comedy writing and joined forces with Took, labouring on TV sitcoms, radio’s Round the Horne and The Frost Report where he co-authored the indelible “I look up to him and he looks down on me” class sketch with John Cleese and the Ronnies, Corbett and Barker. It was Cleese who insisted that in 1967 Feldman join the cast of At Last the 1948 Show, ITV’s forerunner to Python, thereby overruling its producer, David Frost, who thought Feldman’s “grotesque looks” would repel viewers. Feldman writes he never looked back in anger, merely “sideways in suspicion”.
The greater betrayals of Hollywood do bring Feldman as close to bitterness as he gets in this unvarnished account. He drank too much, partly to alleviate the chronic back pain aggravated by doing his own stunts. In confusion, he suggested to Lauretta they should be allowed other sexual partners. Her considered reply was to throw him out and he stayed with Cleese until, after much begging, she took him back. (The begging was Cleese’s.)
In the final passages of the book, however, written in the six months up to his death, wisdom and calm fall upon the pages. Directing movies may have been a mistake. He needs to perform regularly. He cannot write alone. Sketches are what he writes best.
Feldman repeatedly professes that his true talent is writing. Given his hand in sketches such as the Four Yorkshiremen (a pre-Python classic written for At Last), who can deny that? Yet although it is a pleasure to hear the voice of an unghosted memoirist, perhaps because it is unrevised, this is not a very well-written book. It is disorganised. The language can be clichéd and clumsy. Even the nonsense poems that are thrown in gratis face severe scansion challenges. Feldman’s life, however, is extraordinary, one of self-generation and a recklessness that would be unbelievable were Feldman’s candour not so fastidious.
Another early Feldman sketch finds Cleese in a railway compartment irritated unto violence by the inane interruptions of his fellow passenger, a wing-collared Marty. In the end, Feldman simply disappears, but his voice persists. This too is a prophetic metaphor for Feldman — his early death, his lingering influence and, yes, his genius.
eyE Marty: The Newly Discovered Autobiography of a Comic Genius by Marty Feldman, Coronet, 320pp, £20. To buy this book for £17, visit thetimes.co.uk/bookshop or call 0845 2712134