In which The Author keeps a straight face
(WARNING: YouTube links can often vanish without prior notice. Please let me know if this happens, and I’ll try and sort it out.)
I remember the first time I laughed until the tears ran down my face. I was about five or six years old, watching this particular episode of The Herbs on BBC Children’s Programmes.
Years later, telling a friend of mine about it in the pub, I still found myself laughing at the absurdity of the whole thing. When I discovered that someone had posted it online, I was thrown back in time four decades and found myself in fits of giggles once again.
I can also remember the last time that something I saw reduced me to the same state of sheer helplessness. I’ve been working my way through Yahoo’s 100 Best Films list, and one night I found myself watching Duck Soup for the first time. I’ve never been a big fan of the Marx Brothers – compared to Laurel and Hardy, I’ve always found their humour to be an acquired taste at best – but there’s one sequence in the film which is well worth seeing. It’s the part where Groucho comes face to face with an impostor in a doorway, and the impostor manages to convince him that he’s looking in a full-length mirror.
Considering that it’s regarded as a classic film, I was amazed that it had taken me 46 years to catch up with it. I don’t know what my new neighbours must have thought at the time, because I was doubled up in my armchair at about midnight, howling with laughter at this little nugget of comedy gold.
So, what of the intervening forty years…?
Well, that’s a funny question, when I think about it. Not funny ha-ha, but funny peculiar. The comedy we used to enjoy as a family was the bread and butter of TV Light Entertainment in the 1970s and 80s – unmissable shows featuring Morecambe and Wise, The Two Ronnies, Les Dawson and Tommy Cooper, the genius that was Fawlty Towers and the absurdity that was The Goodies.
There were numerous sitcoms written by Roy Clarke, Carla Lane, John Sullivan, Ian La Frenais and Dick Clement, John Esmonde and Bob Larbey, Johnnie Mortimer and Brian Cooke, Jimmy Perry and David Croft, et al. The BBC had the lion’s share of the memorable ones: Citizen Smith, The Good Life, Porridge, Open All Hours, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads, Butterflies… Meanwhile, ITV had a whole host of never-repeated sitcoms such as Bless This House, Man About the House, Keep It in the Family, Pig in the Middle…
As for stand-up and sketch shows, we had the second division teams such as Little and Large, Cannon and Ball, Russ Abbott and Bella Emberg, and the Grumbleweeds. There were a host of standalone entertainers in those days as well, such as the impressionist Mike Yarwood and the character comedian Dick Emery. When we were a little older we were able to dip our toes into the BBC’s post-watershed offerings: The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Up! Pompeii, and the glorious Dave Allen At Large.
Although we followed Eric and Ernie when they jumped ship to Thames Television, we never watched The Benny Hill Show. Having caught it by accident once or twice, I soon realised why. However, ITV had a long-running show entitled simply The Comedians, which was filmed before a live ‘club’ audience, and featured the top stand-up men of the day: Mick Miller, Stan Boardman, Bernard Manning, Jimmy Tarbuck, Jim Bowen, Mike Reid, Tom O’Connor, Jim Davidson, Roy Walker, Norman Collier, and Charlie Williams, to name but some of the regular stars.
Charlie Williams was the odd man out in this line-up: the son of a Barbadian ex-soldier living in Barnsley and a local lass. As a young lad it came as something of a revelation to see a mixed-race guy (itself a novelty in those days) delivering his lines in a broad Yorkshire accent.
Of course, the rest of the line-up toned down their regular acts for a TV audience. (I remember Mike Reid playing a show in Cardiff some years ago, which was billed as STRICTLY ADULTS ONLY.)
We saw a couple of these TV stars during our holidays, when Summer Season was a highlight of the UK seaside calendar. Jim Davidson headlined in Torquay some time during the late 70s, on the same bill as singing duo Peters & Lee and a host of others whom I’ve long since forgotten. In the early 80s, Little and Large topped the bill in Blackpool. A few places below them, and totally new to us, was an up-and-coming lunatic named Michael Barrymore…
Radio comedy was another source of inspiration in my teens. My mate Lee from school turned me on to The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which suited me down to the ground – comedy and science fiction in one go. At about the same time I discovered The News Huddlines, a gentle weekly satirical Radio 2 show starring Roy Hudd, June Whitfield and Chris Emmet. The Grumbleweeds were on Radio 2 as well, but nothing had prepared me for the insanity which Dad introduced me to one Saturday lunchtime. Radio 2 were repeating one of his favourite shows from the mid-1960s – Round the Horne. It was a total revelation!
Written by Barry Took and Marty Feldman, it starred the eponymous Kenneth Horne, along with Kenneth Wiliams, Bill Pertwee, Betty Marsden and Hugh Paddick, with occasional interruptions from Douglas Smith, the BBC continuity announcer (following in the footsteps of Wallace Greenslade in The Goon Show.) This slice of radio insanity did a great deal to subvert my sense of humour as a teenager – and beyond.
I remember the exact piece of dialogue that did it for me. It was a thrilling instalment of the spy movie spoof Kenneth Horne: Special Agent. Our hero had been sent to investigate a pirate radio station broadcasting from the SS Ginsberg, a Chinese junk moored on the Serpentine. (Don’t ask! Just don’t…) In his usual deadpan delivery, Horne told us how he made his way aboard, then:
‘I crawled along the deck when suddenly a figure loomed above me. I looked up and there stood a beautiful girl – wearing more leather than an Aberdeen Angus.’ (Took & Coward, 2000: p. 52.)
Regular readers will see why this line resonated so clearly with me.
The ridiculous characters, memorable catch-phrases and filthy double-entendres (which had sailed over the heads of the BBC top brass) were a step up from the Two Ronnies, who were ploughing a similar furrow during the 1970s, but without the same effect. Round the Horne had me by the short riah immediately. Of course, I was far too young and naive to appreciate the subtle beauty of this exchange, predating the Sexual Offences Act 1967 and the reforms which came in its wake.
Kenneth Horne has gone to seek some legal advice. Unsurprisingly, his solicitors turn out to be the regular camp characters Julian and Sandy (Paddick and Williams respectively.)
HORNE: Hello – Anybody there?
JULIAN: Oh, hello. I’m Julian and this is my friend Sandy. I’ve got me articles and he’s taken silk.
SANDY: Frequently. Well, Mr Horne, how nice to vada your dolly old eek again. What brings you trolling in here?
HORNE: Can you help me? I’ve erred.
SANDY: Well we’ve all erred, ducky. I mean it’s common knowledge, en it Jule?
HORNE: Will you take my case?
JULIAN: Well it depends on what it is. We’ve got a criminal practice that takes up most of our time.
(Took, 1998: p, 12)
The BBC issued several sets of cassettes in the 1990s, which Dad and I listened to hundreds of times without ever getting bored with them. Sadly, after the third series, Marty Feldman went on to pursue a solo career. In the fourth and final series, Barry Took’s new collaborators were Johnnie Mortimer and Brian Cooke. It was the early days for them, I think. The clever wordplay was still there, but much of the craziness had gone. The characters, and the writers behind them, seemed to have run out of steam.
Maybe by chance, the show’s last ever episode was an extravaganza which revisited many of the characters and recapitulated many of the show’s recurring jokes through its four series. It even included the shocking revelation that Julian and Sandy were, in fact, married, to women named Sandra and Julia! Who saw that coming? Kenneth Horne himself died suddenly in February 1969 and the show came to an end, probably not before time. However, the golden days were over about eighteen months earlier.
The Carry On… films were always on TV when I was younger. Like Round the Horne, they were a treasure trove of wordplay and double-entendres, which still play a huge part in my verbal repertoire to this day. I still think one of Talbot Rothwell’s finest (and most understated) lines occurs in Carry On Up the Khyber. I must have watched it a dozen times as a youngster, but I really don’t remember encountering these lines until Dad bought it on VHS years later. Picture the scene, if you will:
The Qasi of Qalabar (Kenneth Williams) is hosting a council of war to try and unite the rebel tribes against the British in India. The leader of the Burpah tribe, Bungdi Tin (Bernard Bresslaw) has brought his people along. At least some of them are British troops in disguise. After their meal, the entertainment arrives, in the form of skinny, buck-toothed, half-naked Cardew Robinson. After watching a couple of stupid magic tricks and hearing some atrocious one-liners (where was Tommy Cooper when we needed him?), the Qasi loses patience:
Qasi: Get rid of this idiot! Bring on the dancing girls!’
Bungdi Tin: (Claps his hands) ‘Fakir – off!’
From Round the Horne it was a short jump backwards in time to Hancock’s Half Hour, which the BBC also repeated around this time. Written by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, Tony Hancock’s radio show was often a triumph of script over situation. (As was Galton and Simpson’s other great success, Steptoe and Son, when you think about it.) The basic formula was this, in a nutshell:
Grasping but gullible Hancock, egged on by his even dafter mate Bill Kerr, gets embroiled in a crooked money-making scheme dreamed up by Sid James. Tony’s various female sidekicks (in turn Moira Lister, Andrée Melly, and Hattie Jacques) try and talk some sense into him, and Kenneth Williams provides extra characters as and when required.
That was pretty much the format for the early radio series. Once in a while, of course, an episode came along which transcended the usual framework. Everyone knows The Blood Donor and The Radio Ham (both of which post-date the Kerr/James/Williams/Jacques era) but for my money the greatest Hancock’s Half Hour ever is the little-heard Sunday Afternoon At Home, dating from April 1958.
The scene is 23 Railway Cuttings, East Cheam. It is a Sunday afternoon. Tony, Sid, Bill and Tony’s secretary/housekeeper Miss Griselda Pugh (Hattie Jacques) are bored. Incredibly bored…
And that’s the set-up! It really is as simple as that. In spite of its apparent cosiness, to my mind it’s thirty minutes of the finest comedy ever committed to the airwaves. My locker in Waterstone’s staff room used to have a photo of Tony Hancock stuck to it, staring at the camera in his Homburg and astrakhan coat, with a pasted-on speech bubble: ‘Stone me, what a life!’
It’s the first line the Lad Himself utters in this episode, apart from a few exasperated sighs to begin with.
If Charlie Chaplin could make comedy from a park bench, a policeman and a pretty girl, Galton and Simpson spun pure gold from this most basic of situations. For thirty glorious minutes we share the tedium of a suburban Sunday afternoon, with wonderful exchanges like this:
TONY: I think I’ll go to bed.
MISS PUGH: You’ve only been up an hour.
TONY: That is by the way and nothing to do with it. I might just as well be in bed, there’s nothing else to do. I wish I hadn’t got up now. Your dinner wasn’t worth getting up for, I’ll tell you that for a start.
MISS PUGH: Oh, I don’t know, I ate all mine.
TONY: That is neither here nor there. You also ate Bill’s and Sid’s and mine. I thought my mother was a bad cook, but at least her gravy used to move about. Yours—? Yours just sort of lies there … and sets—
MISS PUGH: That’s the goodness in it.
TONY: That’s the ‘alf a pound of flour you put in it!
Time passes, slowly. They suggest various means of escape from this cramped suburban prison. They’ve read the paper (and shaded in all on the Os and Ps and Ds on the front page.) There are two films showing in the local cinema, but everyone’s seen them. The other cinema’s closed down. It starts raining. The pub is closed, of course, as they did on Sundays in the 1950s. (They opened later on a Sunday evening and closed earlier. All-day drinking was a thing of the past and/or the future.) They decide they don’t like the pub much anyway. They briefly contemplate going to see their mate in hospital, but manage to talk each other out of it. They’ve all forgotten the change to British Summer Time, but that only manages to put an hour out of their misery. Their claustrophobic resentment of each other comes to the surface as the time passes – very, very slowly:
MISS PUGH: I think I’ll knit myself a sweater.
TONY: Well, that should solve the unemployment problem in the wool industry. Which reminds me – you were going to knit me a string vest.
MISS PUGH: Haven’t got any string.
TONY: You could unravel that shopping bag.
MISS PUGH: Wouldn’t be any good, haven’t got any needles.
TONY: Use your fingers, they’re thick enough.
BILL: Let’s play Murders!
TONY: You open your mouth once more, they won’t be playing Murders, mate, they’ll be investigating one.
There’s a brief moment of respite when the couple opposite go out, and they take the opportunity to share some small-town gossip while peering through the window. Then it’s business as usual again. The piano’s locked and nobody knows where the key is. Tony puts a record on the turntable, but the spring gives out and the music grinds to a halt. They can’t watch Bill and Ben as the TV’s broken. Bill’s suggestions become more absurd: ‘If we had a dog, we could take him for a run.’
After another couple of minutes, the Lad Himself utters a line which I’ve used myself, with variations, for the last twenty years or so:
‘I’ll have one of me pills on Saturday night and wake up on Monday.’
Just when you think the day can’t possibly get any worse, the next-door neighbour (Kenneth Wiliams, of course) decides to drop in and doesn’t leave until the small hours. It’s the nightmare scenario…
You may ask why this particular episode struck such a chord with me. It’s very simple. The South Wales Valleys in the late 1970s (and the late 1980s and the early 1990s, come to that) could have been effortlessly twinned with East Cheam in the late 1950s. On a Sunday afternoon there was nothing to do, nowhere to go, and by teatime it was usually raining. In Frank’s Café, on Gadlys Road, I played the tabletop Space Invaders game with my school pal Keith one wet Sunday afternoon. There was quite literally nothing else to do! We were close to leaving school, so that makes it 1983 or so. (That was the last time I played a video game, apart from the quiz machines in pubs.)
(You can find Sunday Afternoon At Home
, and a wealth of other radio comedies, to stream via RealPlayer, at the Old Time Radio
This tale of suburban desperation leads me neatly on to my next comedy hero: Reginald Perrin. I’d missed his first outing on BBC1, but when it was repeated in about 1979 or 1980, I fell in love with it immediately. The star of the show, the matchless Leonard Rossiter, died while I was in my first year at Brunel. The BBC repeated the series shortly afterwards. It was even better the second (third?) time around. Dad had the three Penguin paperback editions of David Nobbs’ Perrin novels, and I’ve have read the first two many times. (Like Round the Horne, it went a series too far, really. The third one, in which Reggie sets up a commune for the middle-class and middle-aged, was a nice idea which didn’t really work in practice. The fourth series, tacked on for no special reason a decade or so ago, was a valiant effort at raising the dead. With no Leonard Rossiter, there could be no Reggie!)
For Xmas a few years ago Mother bought me The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (the first series) on DVD. I was ill with flu over New Year, so I watched all seven episodes in one afternoon. For a few hours I was fourteen years old again, revelling in Reggie’s slow descent into madness, complete with the catchphrases, the hugely irritating family, the annoying work colleagues, and the hippopotamus. (If you’ve never seen the series – and why not? – that last bit won’t mean anything to you!)
It was comedy which I could relate to, after all: I was a commuter; I worked in a commercial environment; my boss was a wanker; I had sexual fantasies about a colleague…
I can relate to him even more now. I’m 46(-ish); I’m losing my hair; I’m losing my motivation; I keep thinking about sex, I can’t start doing anything about sex. Play For Today is long gone, but I expect I’d fall asleep halfway through it if it was still on TV. Goddess help us if I’m ever asked to give a speech about my work. Just try this long but extremely representative clip for size:
For a little while I understood exactly what the author was on about. In 1975, Ronnie Barker had reviewed The Death of Reginald Perrin (David Nobbs’ original novel, which he later adapted for TV) and said, ‘I laughed 287 times and cried twice … I still feel as if I am Reggie Perrin as I walk around.’ Shortly before I finished in the book trade, I knew exactly what Mr Barker had meant. If anyone could have subbed me the train fare to the Dorset coast, I think I’d have ‘done a Reggie’ myself by that stage. (I didn’t know at the time that Ronnie Barker himself had been Mr Nobbs’ first choice to play Reggie. He was a fine comic actor, but I don’t think even he could have topped Leonard Rossiter’s manic performance.)
[A digression: In 1974, the Labour MP John Stonehouse left his clothes on a beach in Miami and turned up some weeks later in Australia. As David Nobbs points out in his autobiography I Didn’t Get Where I Am Today, by that time the manuscript of his novel was with the publishers. Mere coincidence. Ten years ago a man named John Darwin had rather more success at ‘doing a Reggie.’ In March 2002 he went missing, presumed drowned, after the wreckage of his canoe was found off the north-east coast of England. He managed to hold out until December 2007 before walking into a police station and claiming to have amnesia.]
On Radio 4’s Loose Ends on Saturday December 1 2012, Clive Anderson interviewed Mr Nobbs. He is a remarkably young-sounding 77 years old and has just published a new novel. He said that the success of Reggie Perrin made the essential difference between his being a largely unacknowledged comic novelist, and being a TV scriptwriter whose work is still fondly remembered. Even now, nearly forty years after the book, people still talk of ‘doing a Reggie.’ That’s an extraordinary measure of how much his writing has contributed to our popular culture!
In the late 1970s and early 80s there was a seismic shift to what became known as ‘Alternative Comedy.’ Its spiritual home was London’s Comedy Store, a venue which had been set up as a UK version of the Californian original. Bernard Manning and his ilk wouldn’t have lasted long on that stage. The new performers were mostly university graduates, staunchly left-wing, angry, pro-feminist, pro-gay, anti-racist, anti-sexist, and (most importantly) anti-Thatcher. Gags, sketches and one-liners went out in favour of lengthy tirades against the government, the police, the judiciary – in fact, the entire Establishment. (The home of of the original Satire boom had been Peter Cook’s venue in London, named with deliberate irony The Establishment Club.) The foul-mouthed punk children of the Satire Boom came home from a night on the piss and set out to deliberately upset their parents and their parents’ friends.
In most cases they succeeded admirably. The first encounter most people had with the new culture was on TV – BBC’s The Young Ones, and Channel 4’s The Comic Strip Presents… both hit our screens within days of each other. I didn’t particularly like the Channel 4 efforts, but The Young Ones was essential viewing for our A-Level gang. Mother made a point of walking the dog whenever it was on, as she couldn’t stand it. I suppose it had hit its target in that regard.
The Alternative Comedy scene and its various spin-offs gave rise to a host of comedians who went on to become household names: Ben Elton; Ade Edmondson and/or Rik Mayall; Dawn French and/or Jennifer Saunders; Stephen Fry and/or Hugh Laurie; Alexei Sayle; Harry Enfield and his chums; Hale and Pace. They all had TV shows, of varying quality, throughout the late 1980s and early 90s.
The absolute cream of the crop was Blackadder. What could have been a short-lived average comedy show was rescued from oblivion by the arrival on the writing team of Ben Elton, in time for the second series. His extraordinary wordplay elevated low comedy to high art, and created a timeless programme which bears repeated viewing. A few years ago, Sarah and Judith (the French girls) and I were in the pub watching a Blackadder anniversary special, and totally failed to get their heads around the dialogue.
‘It is too fast!’ Judith gasped, after one staggering exchange between the scheming Edmund Blackadder and the incredibly thick Baldrick. And she was right – even with subtitles, they’d have been hard-pressed to follow what was going on. It wasn’t the best way to learn English as a foreign language, after all. (Then again, I could have thrown them in at the deep end and shown them the Reginald Perrin DVD.)
The major problem at this point in time was that TV comedy was becoming far too self-referential. When I was younger, Morecambe and Wise, or Round the Horne, or (on kids’ TV) Crackerjack and Rod Hull and Emu were able to present spoofs of something which everyone knew. We were all familiar with the legends of Robin Hood and King Arthur, or pantomimes such as Aladdin or Cinderella. Even if we hadn’t read the books, we all knew the basic stories behind classic yarns like Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde or A Christmas Carol.
The writers were able to insert lines which worked on several levels. As youngsters we’d laughed at the slapstick. As young adults we laughed at the double-entendres. Just like we had at the Carry On… films
Things had changed by the early to mid ’90s. I remember chatting to Glenn in work one day about the new series of French and Saunders, which had started a couple of days earlier. Apparently they’d done a spoof based on the film Thelma and Louise, which I hadn’t seen at the time (and still haven’t seen in its entirety. It’s lined up as part of Operation Moviegoer.) I told him that I found mugging up on four decades of popular culture simply to watch a half-hour comedy show too much of an effort.
That wasn’t the only problem, though. There was no guarantee that the result would have been the effort anyway. I’d always found French and Saunders to be 90% unfunny at best, and I certainly wasn’t going to waste my time watching their latest offering. It seemed as though their entire output revolved around satirical takes on films and TV shows. Their scripts lacked any measure of originality and spark. Without the seeds sown by far greater writers, they’d have had nothing at all to work with.
A similar criticism could be applied to far too many of the ‘comedians’ on television at around that time. Harry Enfield and his chums had started off by penning witty, clever scripts and devising a roster of diverse and quirky characters. What Round the Horne had managed to pull off on the radio, Harry Enfield, Paul Whitehouse, Simon Day et al were trying to do on TV. It was absurd, funny, and clever – at first. However, it soon decayed into the antimatter equivalent of Round the Horne. Messrs Took and Feldman had started with the catchphrase (‘Hello, I’m Julian and this is my friend Sandy’, or ‘Ah, hello my dearios’) and worked from there.
By way of contrast, The Fast Show became a series of elaborate sketches, each one designed for one purpose: to lead to the delivery of a single predictable punchline, week after week. The phenomenal wit and erudition which Round the Horne had displayed was replaced by repetition for the sake of it. Even comedy was dumbing down.
At around the same time, my student friends were pissing themselves laughing at the antics of Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer. I’d first encountered Mr Reeves in strange circumstances a couple of years before. A Darlington-based band named DAN (with whom I was in contact) had packaged an LP with a free Vic Reeves flexidisc entitled ‘The Howling Wind.’ I played it once. It was a sub-Elvis pastiche, nothing to write home about. It’s probably still in the archives at home.
By the time the girls had finished their degrees, ‘Vic and Bob’ were huge TV stars and their show Big Night Out was essential post-pub viewing for the current student intake. I watched it once or twice and couldn’t make head nor tail of it. A few years later they moved on to BBC and a stupid panel game named Shooting Stars, which I found equally opaque.
Which brings me to my next exhibit, M’lud – Matt Lucas. The first time I set eyes on this grotesque homunculus was on Vic Reeves’ show, when he was ‘George Dawes.’ George Dawes was a strange hairless adult baby who used to sit at a drumkit, clad only in a nappy (US: diaper), and perform brief sub-Robert Wyatt solos on cue. As my young friends might ask: WTF? I was none the wiser, even when one of the broadsheet newspapers profiled this freak in a long interview feature.
This dumbing down wasn’t confined to the TV, either. Radio 4 used to have a impressionist show named Dead Ringers. Alastair McGowan, Jan Ravens, Jon Culshaw et al would perform sketches, monologues and prank calls in the voices of Tony Blair, William Hague, George W. Bush and other key players on the political stage. They’d pad out the political material with great takes on celebrities like Terry Wogan, David and Victoria Beckham, and Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor (his prank calls were the highlight of the entire programme!) but the satirical edge was always honed and ready to draw blood. However, the last time I listened to it, it was almost entirely structured around spoofs of radio shows like The Archers – undoubtedly funny if you know the source material, but way wide of the mark if you don’t. It was like French and Saunders all over again.
Which brings us more or less up to date.
I’ve never watched The Mighty Boosh. I don’t think I ever listened to it when it made its first appearance on radio. I once saw Noel Fielding doing a spot on Live at the Apollo and wondered just when exactly that weekend I’d been spiked with LSD. Once again, I found myself wondering WTF?
The same goes for the televised version of Little Britain, featuring the aforementioned Matt Lucas. That was the point where ‘character comedy’ and I parted company for the last time. I’ve already referred to Harry Enfield’s reliance on sketches which led to the inevitable catchphrase as punchline. Little Britain took this to the absolute limit. Once you’d watched the first show, you’d seen their entire repertoire. Everything that happened subsequently was nothing but a minor variation on the first performance. I watched it twice, in the pub. The second time I thought I was watching a repeat.
The only radio comedy to have successfully transferred across formats recently was On The Town With the League of Gentlemen
. I saw their superb live show in London in 2001. Yes, it’s that
long ago since there was a decent character comedy on BBC. (See The Only Straights in the Village
I once worked briefly with a girl who lived in the town that became Royston Vasey, that fantastic surrealistic creation of Jeremy Dyson, Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith. I imagine that the town would have been a lot like Aberdare, only with fewer charity shops. My step-niece Beth was turned onto The League of Gentlemen as a youngster. I don’t think I’d have let her watch it, personally, much as I had been protected from Monty Python and Dave Allen when I was young.
I didn’t know how deeply it had affected her until we visited the Rhondda Heritage Park, when she was only about nine or ten years old. I decided to show her what a proper old Valleys mining village was like – the high street with its half a dozen shops, the chapels, the school, the club, the narrow dead-ending terraces. As we emerged onto the main road, we saw a queue of people waiting for a bus into Pontypridd. In a single slow movement they all turned and stared at us, like extras from a 1950s SF film. Beth nudged me and said, in her broad Nottingham accent, ‘Hey, Steve, they know we’re not local.’
As has happened very often, once the four collaborators went their separate ways, the blend was lost. Psychoville was okay at best. One series would have been plenty. I made it halfway through the second series and gave it up as a bad job. Apparently they’ve got something new on the stove for next year. Please forgive me if I give it a miss.
As a music fan who despises tribute acts with a vengeance, it’s somewhat ironic that the greatest live comedy performances I’ve ever seen have been tributes to Tommy Cooper, Morecambe and Wise, and Round the Horne. Even though everyone in the auditorium knew what was coming next, we were rolling in the aisles.
Soon afterwards, in university, I decided that it was time to show the kids what real comedy was all about. On a Friday afternoon, waiting for Gill A. to arrive, I cranked this up on the projector:
Collapse of twenty or so Stout Parties
Once the Beatles went their separate ways, they never again came close to matching the sum of their parts. The same is true of Monty Python, the League of Gentlemen, the Mary Whitehouse Experience (David Baddiel, Rob Newman, Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis), and a host of other successful comedy partnerships. There’s an inexplicable comedy alchemy which is impossible to recapture after the correct spacetime alignment. When Ronnie Corbett teamed up with some of his former writers in The One Ronnie a few years ago, you knew that something was missing. It wasn’t just his former comedy partner, Ronnie Barker. Everything else was wrong.
Paul Merton (a superb comedian and enthusiastic comedy historian) tried his best to re-enact some of Galton and Simpson’s scripts, as a Hancock for the 1990s. It was an epic fail.
David Nobbs has confessed that trying to drag Reggie Perrin into the 21st Century, even with the terrific comedy actor Martin Clunes in the title role, was probably pushing the envelope too far.
Don’t flog a dead horse.
More to the point, never try and genetically engineer a new horse from the corpse.
About five or six years ago I posted a Facebook status which said:
There are three English sentences guaranteed to strike terror into my heart. One is ‘Replacement Bus Service.’ The second is ‘last orders, please!’ The third is ‘Now, new comedy on BBC Radio 4.’
The only sitcoms which have made me laugh in recent years are Coupling and Not Going Out. I have Alison the barmaid to thank for turning me on to the former, and Clare from Waterstone’s for the latter. Maybe they speak volumes about my life as a sad single bloke. Or maybe it’s because the writing, the characters and the performances came as such a breath of fresh air.
Coupling was my first exposure to the ingenious, witty, and ever-so-slightly-warped writing of Steven Moffat. It was like watching Friends, but sharper and much more British. More recently, I’ve found Not Going Out, with Lee Mack, Tim Vine and Sally Bretton, to be a sheer joy. Once again, it’s a very simple set-up. A single guy named Lee shares a flat with his best mate Tim’s sister Lucy. He fancies her, but she can’t stand him. From this little acorn, a huge comic oak tree grew, with huge potential for barbed gender-war one-liners.
[A digression: Watching Not Going Out one night, I was reminded of the time a few years ago when everybody thought Shanara and I were an item. Someone asks Lee if Lucy is his wife. He replies, ‘No – she thinks I’m useless, she hates the sight of me, and we never have sex, but we’re not actually married.’]
I gave up on TV comedy ages ago. Outnumbered, the only decent BBC sitcom, appears and reappears in the schedule like a weird four-dimensional object.
Radio 4 keeps churning out more and more crap at the 6.30 p.m. weekday comedy slot: Count Arthur Strong; Cabin Pressure; Ed Riordan’s Week; Rudi’s Rare Records; The Hole in the Wall Gang; Some Goddess-awful thing sitcom written by, starring, and produced by Johnny Vegas a few years ago. (Useful tip: Never listen to a show which is written by, produced by, and stars the same person.)
The only safe zones these days are Monday and Friday evenings. Monday is either Just a Minute or I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue. Clue is still essential listening. It has been since Willie Rushton was a regular. Fair play to Stephen Fry, for arguably the best entry ever in The Uxbridge English Dictionary:
Countryside: = Killing Piers Morgan.
Not only was it broadcast once; it made it into the repeat, then into Pick of the Week, the ISIHAC Xmas special, and Pick of the Year. Now, that’s really pushing the envelope!
Friday evening alternates between The News Quiz and The Now Show. (If you haven’t heard the latter, it bears out my long-held belief that Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis were in fact the imaginative, funny (and totally underrated) half of The Mary Whitehouse Experience.)
Currently, Wednesday evening is home to Mark Steel’s in Town, in which Croydon’s finest bolshy comedian visits an obscure town and regales its residents with little-known aspects of its history. (I’d love to invite him to come to Aberdare and see what he makes of the place.)
I wonder what will replace Mark Steel’s show once it’s finished its current run. It’ll probably be a cutting-edge sitcom about a media executive living in trendy Spitalfields. He’ll be called Dominic, and spend his lunchtimes eating goat’s cheese and grilled vegetable wraps while worrying about his on-off relationship with Tabitha, a feisty Irish girl who works as a freelance photographer. In the evening he’ll schmooze around the bars of North London, visiting exhibitions by conceptual artists (engaging in lame jokes about pickled cows all the while) and dropping names to his fashionable mates. His best friend Rupert will work as a PR man for a record label. At weekends, Dominic, Tabitha, Rupert and Rupert’s partner Alex (who could be male or female, leading to parental anxiety and confusion over the exact nature of said ‘partner’) will all go to Borough Market and make oh-so-clever quips about veganism and organic farming. It’ll be written by, produced by, and star someone called Dominic, who studied Radio Scriptwriting at a former polytechnic, and joined the BBC as a graduate trainee…
(Actually, somebody write this idea down – I feel a cutting-edge BBC radio sitcom coming on!)
NOBBS, D. (2002) I Didn’t Get Where I Am Today. (London: Heinemann)
TOOK, B. (1998) Round the Horne: The complete and utter history. (London: Boxtree.)
TOOK B. & COWARD, M. (2000) The Best of Round the Horne. (London: Boxtree.)