Bounderby vs. Four Yorkshiremen

by Mark Wallace

Charles Dickens’ comic sensibility is perhaps somewhat underappreciated in the 21th century: like the readers of the 19th century, we like his books, but profer very different rationales for this predilection. In certain respects, though, Dickens’ humour hasn’t dated at all. This struck me yesterday, when I was watching the 1977 Granada serial adaptation of Hard Times for the first time. I realized that the speech of Josiah Bounderby, played here by Timothy West, closely anticipates the classic At Last the 1948 Show/ Monty Python sketch, “The Four Yorkshiremen”. The series’ scriptwriter, Arthur Hopcroft, does an excellent job pruning Bounderby’s dialogue and bringing his best lines together in a couple of effective scenes. The raw material, though, is all Dickens’s – and, being Dickens, it may require pruning, but no embellishment.

“When it was paving-stones and attics and warehouses for me, it was the opera and Mayfair and Lords and honourables and white satin and jewels for you… WASN’T IT!?” –   Timothy West as Bounderby in Hard Times (1977)

In two early scenes in the serial adaptation, Bounderby, eating gluttonously all the while, gives out a great deal of information about his young life: he spent his tenth birthday in a ditch – not a dry ditch, either, there was a foot of water in it; his mother bolted, and he was cared for by his drunken grandmother, who kept him in an eggbox; he learned his letters from a cripple in St. Giles; a paving-stone was his bed – in short, he concludes with relish, he comes “from the scum of the earth”.

Later, when he admonishes young Tom Bounderby for arriving late to dinner, and Tom retorts that when he (Bounderby) was young he didn’t have to dress for dinner, Bounderby responds:

Dress! Dress! Dress for dinner! No dinner to dress for in my house! No house to have dinner in!

That line could have come directly from Four Yorkshiremen:

-I was happier then and I had nothin’. We used to live in this tiny old house with great big holes in the roof.

-House! You were lucky to live in a house! We used to live in one room, all twenty-six of us, no furniture, ‘alf the floor was missing, and we were all ‘uddled together in one corner for fear of falling.

The similarities throughout are rather striking, enough to make one wonder if Cleese, Chapman, Brooke-Taylor and Feldman (the authors of the sketch) did Hard Times in school. In recent years, HT has been the scourge of many a young student, but it’s interesting to note just how close Dickens’s humour is to a more contemporary style, if not, indeed, a direct influence. In support of the contention that it’s the latter, I cite the name of one of the Four Yorkshiremen, mentioned at the very beginning of the sketch: Josiah. Even the first name is the same as Bounderby’s! Therefore it appears we must give Dickens some credit for one of the truly classic comedy sketches of its era.