Who do they think they are?
Will Kemp, marathon morrisman and comic, assesses David Walliams
He’s no fool
Comic actors raising money by feats of endurance is not new. Eddie Izzard running consecutive marathons, and David Walliams swimming down the Thames, are only following a four centuries old trend.
I set that trend. Me. Will Kemp. Will Shakespeare's favourite fool before he discovered comic subtlety.
Who better, then, to understand what David Walliams has just achieved?
Mmm. I'm not sure that I do. I hesitate to say it, but I don't think he's quite the fool I was.
What I did was no less remarkable.
David Edward Walliams (born Williams)
Photo: David Walliams, thesun.co.uk
Photo: Nine days wonder, allposters.co.uk
Photo: Kemp tribute jig, metro.co.uk
Photo: Walliams swimming, guardian.co.uk
Will Kemp’s opinion was interpreted by Will Coe, October 2011
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114 miles of this and 140 miles of that. Equally exhausting.
I jigged and morris danced all the way from London to Norwich, a distance of one hundred and fourteen miles in the company of my tame musician, Thomas Slye. Thirty odd miles shorter than David's recent swim and yet I took a day longer to do it, nine whole exhausting days. I wrote a book about it, 'Nine days wonder', a money-making exercise which I found to be even more tiring than nine day's jigging. I also got a big bag of coin from the Mayor of Norwich for putting his city back on the map.
Besides jigging versus swimming, there are two obvious differences between my feat and David's. I kept in character and I kept the coin.
Compared to me, David Walliams isn't a fool. Not in my book.
That swim down the Thames - it wasn't funny, not the act of a real fool like me. David swam down a very dirty river dodging turds and worse for over one hundred and forty miles yet he didn't try to raise a single laugh. He wasn't even putting himself though hell to make money for himself. That's not the behaviour of a fool. I know because I was one. The best in the business until Will Shakespeare started writing me out of his plays.
Should my achievement seem any less than David's because I acted the fool all the way and pocketed all the proceeds? Definitely not. He may have raised over a million pounds from splashing about in a river but I broke people into over a million smiles. They were lining the route every day and not just clapping as they did for David - they were falling about laughing. Laughing is what fools should make people do and what they should be well rewarded for. Especially when everybody lives in the shadow of something as fearsome as the Plague.
It isn't that humour's changed since my time. In spite of the silly caps, swimming, which David does a lot of, has never been funny. Morris dancing, which I did almost to death, is and always has been.
Everybody in the world swims so it's a bit dull. David has swum the Channel, the Straits of Gibraltar and half the Thames but has he invented a new and funnier way of swimming? Will the 'Walliams' be the next daft event in the Olympic pool? Not a chance. Even David Walliams couldn't think up anything to top synchronised swimming.
Swimming isn't something a fool would do to get the world watching. Morris dancing is. The reason why morris dancing is funny is that only the English do it. The English aren't known for being ridiculous so it's amusing to watch us when we are. The Austrians came up with the waltz and the Latins have turned any number of sexy frolics into dances, but we English are happier making idiots of ourselves than prancing around like stallions. If we had to have a national dance it suited us to borrow from the French. In France, when I was a visiting apprentice fool, I discovered that it was an upper class custom for a dancer to come into the hall after supper with his face soot-blackened to look like a Moor, his forehead bound with white or yellow taffeta, and jangly bells tied to his legs.
I turned that into morris dancing jigs which I took all around Europe and they loved it. I was the English fool, which sat comfortably with the sense of superiority felt by the French, Spanish, Italians and even the Dutch at the time (Dr Dee had only just come up with the idea of the British Empire, we were still a long way from having one).
I did a very long jig to make myself more famous as a fool and a lot richer. David has done a very long swim to make himself more serious, and less fortunate people a lot richer.
He's not the complete fool I was. Instead, David is the tearful clown. A man prone to depression. A man who wants to be liked more than he wants to be laughed at. I can't really argue against the world being more enriched by tearful clowns than complete fools. The fool is more selfish than the clown which is not a particularly happy place to be either. I have to face the truism which doesn't threaten David - that the only happy fool is an idiot. Which makes me unhappy or stupid.
I hope that by not being a fool like me, David hasn't actually been very foolish.
I was risking injury on my journey to Norwich. My every fourth step was a hop, which gave my forty nine year old joints a hammering. Then there was all the backwards steps, which made the hundred and fourteen miles a lot longer.
What I didn't risk was Weil's disease.
From a fool to a clown, best wishes that the rats didn't get you.
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