Actionable Offenses: The Victorian Derek and Clive Album

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

If anyone ever tries to tell you the Victorians were prudes, you can now whip out audio proof to show them otherwise.

Somehow, I missed the release of Actionable Offenses back in 2007, probably because I was focused on the time on graduating high school and beginning my undergraduate career. Interestingly, at the time it was released to the public, I was spending a lot of my time listening to its modern equivalent, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore's Derek and Clive albums, which I never imagined myself describing as a spiritual successor to anything. (As someone who considers herself a comedy historian, that really does feel weird to type.)

Anyhow, before Comstock managed to enact his obscenity laws, in the 1890s more than a few comedians and some amateurs took pleasure in recording inappropriate sketches and stories on wax cylinders. These would be listened to on phonographs, and most of these recordings were destroyed when Comstock's reign of terror began. Fortunately, a few managed to survive in various archival institutions and were preserved well enough to be combined into this CD, which can be purchased from Archeophone Records, a favorite of archivists and historians.

I've written a bit about Victorian sexuality here before, as it's one of those research areas I'm fascinated by (namely because most people don't know that the Victorians were as lurid as we are now), but this is a really great example of the Victorians doing something we all do now - speaking into a recording device and saying naughty words. We all did it when we were 13, after all. There are trends we historians notice that don't actually change much from generation to generation, and the discovery of swear words and sex is one of them, especially when it comes to somehow recording it (whether it's written, drawn, or recorded). For some prime examples of Victorian written pornography, I can direct you both to The Pearl, a magazine published between 1879-1881 before being shut down for obscenity, and author Robin Wolfe's hilarious and delightful finds on her blog tagged with 'Victorian Porn Fridays.'

To close, I'd like to go back to Derek and Clive. For the unacquainted, what happened was simple: Peter and Dudley rented a studio, got drunk, and said really stupid and explicit things into an audio recorder. Once sobered up, Peter started sharing the tapes with friends, which made Dudley really uncomfortable until he realized it was extremely popular. The two ended up doing a couple more albums as Derek and Clive, but the break-up of their double act (which always makes me cry like a baby) prevented any more from happening.

The amazing thing, though, is that the boys were not the first to make money off of obscene recordings, and they certainly won't be the last. Actionable Offenses does historians a great service by putting the 1890s Derek and Clive-esque recordings together and making them accessible to researchers (and purveyors of smut, of course), but the amazing thing is that the recordings actually stand the test of time. They're still funny today in the way I imagine Derek and Clive will still be funny to 13-year-olds everywhere in 100 years. Dirty words just never get old.