Euan McColm: Gene Wilder's genius was a gift to humanity

Comedy is no laughing matter but its practitioners can lift the shadow from tragedy, writes Euan McColm

Gene Wilder, as Frederick, and Peter Boyle as The Monster perform Puttin on the Ritz in Young Frankenstein, just one of the classic films that were lit up by Wilder's genius. Picture: Contributed

We were at the Edinburgh International Book Festival when we heard Gene Wilder had died. It knocked the wind out of us.

Everyone in the company had a favourite moment from his career and so we talked about his magnificent portrayal of Willy Wonka, about The Waco Kid in the still-fresh and hilarious Blazing Saddles, and about the scene from Young Frankenstein where Wilder, as Frederick, and Peter Boyle as The Monster perform Puttin’ on the Ritz (if, by any chance, you do not know the film of which this scene is such an essential part, I urge you to rectify this state of affairs as soon as you possibly can).

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Others will more eloquently describe those qualities that made Wilder such a compelling performer. They will capture more poetically than I could his tenderness, the fragility he brought to characters, and the mania that would simmer before exploding through the surface and smashing the cinema screen into a billion tiny pieces.

It is important that they do because Wilder was a practitioner of the highest art and his gift to us merits our respect.

On returning home on Monday evening, I read the tributes paid to Wilder by friends, such as the writer and director Mel Brooks, and those he inspired. All that sorrow. All that love.

But the thing that really stopped me in my tracks was a statement issued on behalf of the actor’s family. Oh, boy.

Gene Wilder died, aged 83, from complications caused by Alzheimer’s Disease. He and his family had decided, when he was diagnosed, that they would not make public his illness. The family statement contained the reason.

It was not because of vanity but because, whenever a kid spotted him in the street and shouted “it’s Willy Wonka!” Wilder didn’t want a parent to feel compelled to talk with them about his illness. He did not want to make something joyous into something sad and confusing.

I read this statement to my girlfriend and she asked if I was crying. In fact, I had inadvertently rubbed a flake of spicy Wotsit into my eye.

But, of course, I was deeply moved. Wilder’s secrecy was a wonderful kindness.

Tim Ferguson of the Doug Anthony
 All Stars makes no secret of his illness. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis over 20 years ago, the Australian comedian is now in a wheelchair and living on borrowed time.

Perhaps you remember when the All Stars first came to the UK, 30 years ago. The trio made regular appearances on late night Channel 4 comedy shows and stormed the Edinburgh Fringe, year after year.

The All Stars sang wonderfully vulgar songs, continually falling off a tightrope and landing on the side marked “bad taste”.

In 1994, Ferguson broke up the band. But didn’t tell his colleagues the reason he’d done so was that doctors had diagnosed his MS. In time, he could no longer keep that to himself. The All Stars came back to the Edinburgh Fringe this year and their show was one of the greatest things I have ever witnessed. Ferguson is as enthusiastic about saying the unsayable as he ever was, but now his terminal illness is a rich source of material.

During the show, the tone shifted and he spoke of the fleeting nature of existence. “One of us in this room,” he said, “is going to be the first to die.” And then, after a beat, “It’ll probably be me. So the pressure’s off.”

We howled with laughter at this darkest of gags. “Don’t clap!” he implored. “You haven’t got the time.”

Ferguson wagged a finger at us all and urged us all to do whatever it was we wanted to do with life while we had the chance. “I’ve got three words for you, people: tick f***ing tock. Tick f***ing tock.”

It was a spine-tingling moment, a perfect, brief slow movement in a symphony of the shocking.

Just as Wilder’s decision to keep his illness a secret was an act of selflessness, so Ferguson’s decision to laugh in the face of his is, too.

Life is a hell of a business and we endlessly seek some meaning or at least some understanding of what it’s all about. And great comics – truly great comics – help us in this quest just as much as the most celebrated writers and philosophers do.

The death of a singular comic talent – Victoria Wood, say, or Bob Monkhouse or Rik Mayall, or the peerless Les Dawson – is as great a loss to us all as the passing of any “serious” artist.

Comedy, at its finest, is as serious as any art and the tendency of some to dismiss it as somehow lesser than other forms continues to frustrate me.

Comedians – often strange and troubled people – are, to me, heroic figures. I am not alone in feeling this way, am I? We can all mark the years with memories of great comedy; it stays with us, its truth burrowed into the bones of us.

Gene Wilder, I salute you. Thanks for pulling up a seat in my memories of childhood. Tim Ferguson, I salute you. Thanks for reminding me of those three important words: Tick f***ing tock.