Beyond the Fringe was a British comedy stage revue written and performed by Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller. It played in Britain's West End and on New York's Broadway in the early 1960s, and is widely regarded as seminal to the rise of satire in 1960s Britain.
The show was conceived in 1960 by Robert Ponsonby, artistic director for the Edinburgh International Festival, with the idea of bringing together the best of the Cambridge Footlights and The Oxford Revue that in previous years had transferred to Edinburgh for short runs. Ponsonby's assistant was John Bassett, who knew Dudley Moore, who in turn recommended Alan Bennett who had been a hit at Edinburgh a few years before. Bassett also identified Miller who had been a Footlights star in 1957 who in turn recommended Cook. While Bennett and Miller were already pursuing traditional careers, Cook had an agent due to his having written a west end revue for Kenneth Williams; as a result Cook's agent negotiated a higher weekly fee for him to participate but by the time the agents fee was taken off Cook actually earned less than the others from the initial run.
The show's runs in Edinburgh and the provinces had a lukewarm response but when it transferred to London, produced by Donald Albery and William Donaldson, it was a sensation thanks in some part to a favorable review by Kenneth Tynan. The show transferred with its original cast to New York in 1962 with President Kennedy attending a performance. A version continued to run there until 1964, while a London run with different cast continued to 1966.
The majority of sketches were by Cook based on material written for other revues, including "One Leg Too Few". Amongst the entirely new material the stand outs are "The End of the World", "TVPM" and "The Great Train Robbery". Cook and Moore revived some of the sketches on their later television and stage shows, most famously the two hander 'One Leg Too Few' in which Cook played a theatrical producer auditioning a one legged Moore for the part of Tarzan.
It had a drastic effect on the careers of Bennett and Miller, who had been preparing for lives in academia and medicine. The show continued in New York with most of the original cast until 1964 while the London version continued with a different cast until 1966.
The revue was widely seen to be ahead of its time, both in its unapologetic willingness to debunk figures of authority, and by its inherently surrealistic comedic vein. Humiliation of authority was something only previously delved into in the Goon Show, with such figures as Winston Churchill and Harold MacMillan coming under special scrutiny--although the BBC were quick to frown upon it. Mr MacMillan -according to Cook- was not particularly fond of the slurred caricature and charade of senile forgetfulness (marked by a failure to coherently pronounce 'Conservative Party') handed down on him in Cooks' impersonation. Since Beyond the Fringe was not owned by the BBC, however, the troupe had the artistic licence to do as they saw fit. Most specifically, its lampooning of the British War effort was scorned by some war veterans for its supposed insensitivity when touching upon the issue of warzone fatalities. (One British visitor to the Broadway performance was said to have stood up and shouted 'rotters!' at a sketch he found distasteful, before apparently sitting down again and enjoying the remainder of the show.) In response to this the Beyond the Fringe team insisted that they were not ridiculing the hundreds of fatalities therein, but were challenging the perceptions held by a small proportion of the British media, via the avenue of comedic expression
Many see Beyond the Fringe as the forerunner to British television programmes That Was The Week That Was, At Last the 1948 Show and Monty Python's Flying Circus,
As with the established comedy review it was a series of satirical sketches and musical pieces using a minimal set looking at events of the day. It effectively represented the views and disappointments of the first generation of British people to grow up after World War II and gave voice to a sense of the loss of national purpose with the end of the British Empire. Although all the cast contributed material the most often-quoted pieces were those by Cook many of which had appeared before in his Cambridge Footlights revues. The show broke new ground with Peter Cook's impression of then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan; on one occasion this was performed with Macmillan in the audience, and in 2006 Jonathan Miller recounted that the breach of decorum this represented was a source of embarrassment to both audience and performers.
The show is credited with giving many other performers the courage to be satirical and more improvised in their manner, and broke the conventions of not lampooning the government of the day or the Royal Family. However the show wasn't all that satirical, merely making fun of things — such as the war films — however even this was a step forward in comedy. Shakespearean drama was another target of their comedy.
There were a number of songs in the show, mainly using music by Dudley Moore. Some have credited it with the rise of the Satire Boom of the 1960s. Without it there may not have been any That Was The Week That Was or Private Eye magazine, which originated at the same time, survived partly due to financial support from Peter Cook, and served as partial model for the later American Spy Magazine. Cook and Moore formed a comedy team and appeared in the popular television show Not Only... But Also and the 1966 film Bedazzled. The Establishment Club was also launched around this time. Many of the members of Monty Python recall being inspired by Beyond the Fringe.
Quotations from the show