Various Artists: Fool Britannia (él Records)

et fool-britannia

Various Artists
Fool Britannia
él Records/Cherry Red

Political scandal can often inspire popular culture, especially when the parties involved are felt to be deserving of their fate. To watch the mighty fall—what’s more fun than that? But sometimes cultural movements dwarf the times they are in or the incidents from which they were born. No better example can be found than the Profumo affair, which rocked the establishment and resulted in the fall of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and his Conservative government. él Records‘ double disc compilation Fool Britannica provides a fascinating document of the cultural reaction to Profumo. (Click here to read an in-depth history of the scandal, which is too complex to detail here.)

It’s easy to understand why Profumo would be such an intriguing scandal, for it involved sex, infidelity, international espionage, violence, disgrace, and even death. Comedians had a field day with the headlines and the oft absurd details, and they used this to their advantage. One of the best British comedy albums of the era, Fool Britannica, dealt exclusively with Profumo. Over fifteen hilarious sketches an all-star cast, including Anthony Newley, Peter Sellers, and Joan Collins, took turns mocking the absurdity of it all. Sketches involving a politician giving testimony but dropping double entendres as he speaks makes for delightful comedy, while the routine about Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip is a howler that invokes nonstop laughs, as does the sketch about writing a song about the women involved, Christine Keeler an Mandy Rice-Davies. The fictional scenarios might require some background knowledge of the case, but for the most part these routines are hilarious on their own.

The ephemera offered as bonus material is quite compelling and delightful. One big attraction is the inclusion of Introducing Mandy, a four-song EP recorded by Mandy Rice-Davies in the wake of the scandal. To call the material “interesting” is a bit too generous; curiosity is quickly waned after the first minute of “You’ve Got What It Takes,” and the rest of the EP is…well…crap. Historically interesting crap, to be sure, but crap nonetheless. It sort of boggles the mind to think such a scandalous figure would be given a recording contract—especially one with limited talent, but that’s capitalism for you! Much better is the controversial single “Christine” by Miss X, the pseudonym of Janice Blair; it’s wonderful parody, and was banned by the BBC for being “too soon.” Also featured here is the original cast recording of Anthony Newley’s blockbuster, Stop The World, I Want To Get Off, selections regarding Profumo taken from the comedy show That Was The Week That Was, as well as highlights from the soundtrack of the 1989 Profumo biopic, Scandal. (Please note that Dusty Springfield’s hit comeback single was a highlight of her recently reissued album, Reputation.)

The passage of time might have faded the memory of the Profumo affair, but even so, the effect it had on British popular culture was a mighty one, and it resulted in some truly fabulous, innovative, and biting comedy. Fool Britannia was a massive success in its time, and is a wonderful artifact that still holds up five decades later.

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