Paul Casserly watched too much TV as a child.

The life of a bung-eyed genius

From left - Marty Feldman, Gene Wilder, Peter Boyle and Terri Garr in a scene from the movie Young Frankenstein, 1974. Pic Getty
From left - Marty Feldman, Gene Wilder, Peter Boyle and Terri Garr in a scene from the movie Young Frankenstein, 1974. Pic Getty

There's a hole in my neighbourhood
Down which of late I cannot help but fall

Elbow - Grounds For Divorce

I've always wondered what the hole in the Elbow song was, a bar I surmised, or a perhaps brothel?

For me the hole I keep falling down is attached to the Wi-Fi router that's attached to the VDSL copper network.

I find myself falling down a Twitter hole, an Instagram crevice and latterly a YouTube too.

It was during one of these YouTube tumbles that I came upon a wonderful documentary about the late great comic actor, Marty Feldman, while looking for something else.

Gene Wilder had just died and I wanted to see if I could find some Young Frankenstein, the Mel Brooks movie and my favourite Wilder comedy. And there he was, that bung-eyed genius who has stolen nearly every show he's been in.

Marty Feldman's working life is given a satisfying survey in this BBC production from 2006.

It's called Marty Feldman: Six Degrees of Separation, the Six Degrees part of the title is possibly a slightly lame attempt to sex up the biography with a concept -- so mid 2000s. Thankfully, the filmmakers don't push it, in fact my bet is they had it imposed on them by an executive, and give it enough lip service just to get away with it. Although, it has to be said, Marty was connected to many people, some big names among them. He wrote skits that starred the Two Ronnies and John Cleese, starred in Mel Brooks movies and was even a star witness at the obscenity trial of the counterculture magazine OZ.

He wrote comedy for living as young man. The radio series Round The Horne, was a blockbuster of its time and it was Feldman who co-wrote it along with Barry Took. The show featured the camp comedic skills of Kenneth Williams, and ran from 1965-1968, re-runs were still being played weekly on RNZ National up to the millennium.

Those bulging eyes, with one roaming off all over the shop, lizard-like, were not present in photos of the young man. Feldman had an operation that was carried out to address a thyroid condition. When he returned from the hospital his eyes had bulged and bunged into that trademark Marty Feldman gaze.

He was a prolific and talented writer - working for vintage comics like Frankie Howard, before joining John Cleese, Graham Chapman and Tim Brooke-Taylor (The Goodies) for At Last, The 1948 Show.

Then Cleese, and Michael Palin wrote for Feldman, launching his successful TV series Marty and helping him become a star. The show includes a recurring skit in which Marty plays a cockney bishop who annoys passengers in a railway car.

It's funny, and I've never seen it before, though it feels familiar as I have seen the work of Monty Python.

This is where the degrees of separation start the cross over into revelation. You, as I certainly did, may have thought that classic Four Yorkshiremen skit (I was born in cardboard box, middle of t' road ...) was pure Python, but it was written by Marty Feldman, along with Cleese, Graham Chapman, and Tim Brooke-Taylor.

The original footage of the sketch, with Feldman as one of the moaning Yorkshiremen, features and is also on YouTube. The Pythons and Feldman parted company as his star rose and, as hinted by John Cleese, Marty started to disappear up his own arse.

The soon-to-become Pythons had written a swag of material for season 2 of the hit show Marty (two Baftas), but the gags were rejected. Perhaps they were crap? Seems unlikely, as they were all used successfully by the Pythons, just a few years later.

From here, we follow Marty to Hollywood and on to the set of Young Frankenstein, the Gene Wilder vehicle that had taken me here in the first place.

What a moment in time, Mel Brooks, Wilder and Feldman, all at their best.

Marty also had a good line in chat show banter.

While promoting the film he told a story about when he learnt that Peter Boyle, who played the monster, had to spend four hours a day in makeup, he asked how long he would be down for.

Marty was connected to many people, some big names among them. He wrote skits that starred the Two Ronnies and John Cleese, starred in Mel Brooks movies and was even a star witness at the obscenity trial of the counter culture magazine OZ.

"Just in and out" came the reply, "and I'm playing a freak with a hunchback" jokes Marty, eyes bulging from his deadpan mug.

Mel Brooks once said of him: "He smoked sometimes half a carton of cigarettes daily, drank copious amounts of black coffee, and ate a diet rich in eggs and dairy products." Perhaps that goes some way to explaining the heart attack that killed him aged just 48, while on set in Mexico. Comic co-Star Dom DeLuise (Silent Movie) puts the coffee intake at 50 cups a day, which I read as a polite way to imply that Marty was on drugs. It's not touched on in the film but Eric Idle is more forthcoming on his online blog: "There were rumours of cocaine abuse, and clearly the heart attack was massive, though probably survivable in LA. I was always told the story of the ambulance being stuck in Mexico City traffic, which is amongst the worst in the world, so that makes some sense."

All through the film Feldman talks of his idol, Buster Keaton, the silent movie legend who informed so much of his work.

"I feel about Keaton what the average organ player feels about Bach." He says. "It transcends influence."

Fittingly, both men ended up falling down a similar hole in their neighbourhood graveyard, at Forest Lawn in Los Angeles.

Marty Feldman: Six Degrees of Separation, YouTube.

- NZ Herald

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