KEITH NEWBERY Oh how we laughed, but I don’t know why

Television has been running a series of programmes about the history of light entertainment, featuring some of the better-known exponents of this vague and strangely unsatisfactory genre.

Amazingly (since some of the programmes were hosted by Paul Merton) it has been mostly a cynicism-free zone.

Older viewers were left to reflect on how easily they were once amused. Younger viewers were left to ponder why anyone wasted their time watching this kind of stuff in the first place.

I come into the former category and found myself stirring uneasily at the fact that I once found Beat the Clock on Sunday Night at the London Palladium compulsive viewing.

It was dreadful, parlour-game nonsense, which would be defended these days as ‘innocent fun.’

Innocent it certainly was. But fun? The comedians back then were mostly of the bland, bow-tied variety and memories of them emphasised the long and often dark journey humour has travelled in the past 50 years.

There were no stream-of-consciousness performers around in those days, and observational stand-ups were virtually unheard of.

Instead, they were gag and patter merchants who had just emerged from the variety theatres and brought most of their material with them.

We then went through the pre-political correctness era, when ethnic minorities, women and gays were considered fair game. It was a time when even Lenny Henry exploited the colour of his skin and encouraged audiences to laugh at him rather than with him.

The 1980s brought about a sea change in public taste, and performers like Ben Elton sneered at the capitalist lifestyle they would later be only too eager to embrace.

Then black comedians like Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor made people laugh because they were funny – not because of the colour of their skin.

In the years to follow, the boundaries of taste were gradually stretched until they finally snapped altogether. Swearing and bad taste is the currency of humour these days.

We now have creatures like Frankie Boyle achieving notoriety because people are too embarrassed to show they are not really amused by him.

It means we have turned full circle, for when you are exposed to the excesses of nasty little people like Boyle, the banality of performers like Norman Vaughan suddenly becomes a fond memory.