Writer, performer and director Marty Feldman passed away on December 2nd 1982. For a great many people born since then, their main knowledge of Feldman – if any – would be through his scene stealing turn as Igor in Mel Brooks’ classic 1974 spoof Young Frankenstein. Sadly, his contribution to the world of comedy appears in danger of being overlooked or forgotten.
A 2008 BBC documentary, Marty Feldman: Six Degrees Of Separation, described him as “a kind of missing link between the golden age of radio comedy, to the comedy hothouse of the 1960s, and finally onto Hollywood”. He was the thread which manages to connect together Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Porridge, The Goodies and M*A*S*H, as well as radio series like Educating Archie and Round The Horne, plus such films as Silent Movie, through his connections to various creative talent he worked with over the years.
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Only die-hard comedy aficionados tend to give due credit to Feldman for his part in the famous ‘Four Yorkshiremen’ skit, a piece which is typically held up as being one of the all-time classic Monty Python sketches; however, it originated on At Last The 1948 Show, and was in fact co-written by Feldman, along with John Cleese, Graham Chapman and Tim Brooke-Taylor, all of whom also appeared in its first performance. It later became part of the Monty Python troupe’s repertoire in their live performances, leading to the misconception which unfairly overwrites Feldman’s role.
Another example of Feldman’s failure to get due recognition comes with the ‘Class’ sketch, which was first performed on The Frost Report in 1966 by John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett. With its neat skewering of class structure in British society as well as its well-known quote of “I know my place”, this vignette has been cited as one of the best British comedy sketches of all time in a Channel 4 poll. With Barker having gone on to pen several sequels, you could perhaps be forgiven for imagining it was his brainchild, yet Feldman was co-writer of the original with John Law.
It was while working on The Frost Report that Feldman was to first cross paths with many soon-to-be Pythons, such as Terry Jones. A biography of Feldman’s life was published in 2011, and its writer – comedy historian Robert Ross – was a longstanding friend of Jones; when Ross mooted the idea of turning the biography into a play about Feldman, Jones said that if Ross wrote the script, he would be up for directing it. The finished play – Jeepers Creepers: Through The Eyes Of Marty Feldman – premiered at the Leicester Square Theatre in January 2016.
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Since its turn in the West End, Ross was looking to bring the play into a different medium, such as a piece for TV or radio. Cue Spiteful Puppet’s Barnaby Eaton-Jones, the man who has been behind such projects as the audio revival of Robin Of Sherwood, along with a 50th anniversary celebration of Up Pompeii! in 2019. Eaton-Jones also spearheaded a pilot for Audible of a mooted audio revival of The Goodies, so he definitely has a lot of experience when it comes to handling beloved comedy (as well as drama) properties and bringing them back to life with plenty of care and respect.
Originally written as a two-hander when on the stage, Ross and Eaton-Jones have worked to expand the play for audio, so that it has scope for a few cameos dotted here and there, as well as minor characters to help gently push things along throughout. While the central focus of the piece remains on two characters, this sprinkling of stardust provides a lovely little bonus, and the impressive range of stars assembled – in some cases for little more than ‘cough and a spit’ parts – demonstrates just how much love and attention has clearly gone into delivering the best product possible.
While Feldman is naturally the obvious draw when it comes to the play’s subject matter, it should perhaps also be said Jeepers Creepers is as much the story of his wife, Lauretta, and their sometimes tempestuous relationship. Said to be the subject of a shout-out by The Beatles in ‘Get Back’ (as the “Sweet Loretta” mentioned in the song), as well as one possible inspiration for Patsy Stone in Absolutely Fabulous, Lauretta was an ambitious social climber who pushed Marty to better himself and make the move to Hollywood.
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Jeepers Creepers is broken up into three acts, starting with the afterglow from Marty’s success in Young Frankenstein, and ending with him alone in a hotel room in Mexico leading up to his death shortly before finishing filming for Graham Chapman’s comedy Yellowbeard. The structure allows you to encounter Marty and Lauretta at three separate points in their marriage, with all the strains due to their differences, but also their obvious deep and abiding love and devotion to each other throughout all of it; despite their individual flaws, you can see why they were best friends.
The tendency when writing a biographical drama about any comedic figure appears to lean more towards emphasising their inner turmoil and sadness, taking the ‘tears of a clown’ angle. Thankfully, Ross comes to praise Feldman, not to bury him, and delivers us a very evenhanded and balanced look at the chap behind the famously protruding eyes. While giving us an unburnished look at Feldman the man, Ross manages to capture Feldman’s voice and spirit, with its authenticity helped by the use of actual quotes by Feldman, taken from interviews and archive footage.
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With two characters being at the core of the play, its success largely lives or dies on how they are brought to life. Arguably, Jessica Martin has the easier job, as Lauretta is much less of a known quantity; however, she manages to capture the very distinctive sultry, throaty tones of Lauretta. Wink Taylor has the unenviable task of portraying Marty, yet he does so with such apparent ease here that you could honestly be forgiven for thinking Feldman was still with us; it really is so uncanny just how well Taylor inhabits Marty.
The whole production is both a delight and a triumph, with so much attention to detail in every aspect; a prime example of this is a lovely – and extremely unexpected – musical cue when a particular movie happens to be mentioned. As both a celebration of as well as tribute to Feldman’s life and career, you could not ask for anything better. Feldman really is long overdue a reappraisal, so that he gets the recognition which he truly deserves; Jeepers Creepers will hopefully play a key part in that process.
Jeepers Creepers is out now from Spiteful Puppet.