Perhaps best described as the funniest nightmare you’ve never had, Blue Jam is the innovative and award-winning radio comedy that could only have come from the mind of trailblazing comic Chris Morris.
Not long before Blue Jam’s first transmission, Morris had courted controversy in the press thanks to his Channel 4 satire Brass Eye (a follow-up to the seminal The Day Today), which had duped a host of celebrities and even MPs to humiliate themselves in supporting some hilarious hoax campaigns (including against Cake, “a made-up drug”). After the media furore, Morris’s next move was to once more show his talent for confounding expectations, by returning to the BBC for a far more low-profile project, namely Blue Jam. An experimental, ambient radio comedy series, it was broadcast in a late-night slot on Radio 1, but nonetheless it displayed all the hallmarks of Morris’s warped sense of humour.
The result was quite simply unlike anything else on radio, or TV for that matter, mixing music tracks, samples, darkly comic sketches, recurring characters, and heavily edited archive broadcasts. The use of strange audio effects combined with the choice of music and unsettling material gave the show a unique, sometimes genuinely nightmarish quality, which was clearly revelled in by the writing team of Morris himself and Peter Baynham, David Quantick and Father Ted creators Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews. Many sketches concentrated on the world of medicine and the power which doctors can hold over their patients, with a typical exchange being “Doctor, I’ve sprained my knee.” “Right, well what I’m going to do is give you two hundred quid, and I never want to see you again”.
The series featured the voice talents of several of Morris’ Brass Eye collaborators, including Mark Heap, Amelia Bullmore and Kevin Eldon, as well as sporadically placed disturbing monologues delivered by Morris himself. But it was the ingenious re-editing of existing material, which Morris had used to great effect in On the Hour, that was to spark yet another controversial incident. In the sixth episode, a sketch known as ‘Bishopslips’ was broadcast, featuring a re-cut version of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s oration during the funeral of Princess Diana in which he appeared to say inappropriate remarks about AIDS and the Royal Family. The sketch was faded out before the end, but it’s not known whether this was on BBC orders or whether Morris did it himself as a stunt.
Yet another successful vehicle for his anarchic and savage sense of humour, Blue Jam won Sony awards for Best Radio Comedy and gathered a loyal cult following. As with On the Hour, it also spawned a TV version (Jam) broadcast on Channel 4 and an even more heavily edited remix (Jaaaaaam), which retained many of the actors as well as the dark sense of humour from the radio original. Walking a thin line between being hilarious and disturbing, Blue Jam showed perhaps Britain’s most original comedian at his staggeringly imaginative best.
ALAS SMITH AND JONES
Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones had first found fame together on the massively successful Not the Nine O’Clock News, and while fellow performers Rowan Atkinson and Pamela Stevenson then struck out on their own – the one starring in Blackadder, the other forsaking TV for a new career in psychology - Smith and Jones opted to stick with sketch comedy, and in doing so formed one of the strongest comedy double acts on British TV.
Each episode would begin with Mel and Griff appearing in front of the studio audience to introduce the show, usually with great difficulty (such as trying in vain to hide enormous hangovers), before giving way to a succession of quick-fire sketches with a reliably high hit ratio. The series gleefully offered a skewed take on modern life (with even its title being a twist on American cowboy series Alias Smith and Jones) and followed the template of Not the Nine O’Clock News in featuring a high percentage of visual gags, delivered with a rich mix of studio and on-location filming. They were broken up by longer spoofs (often of movies and TV adverts) and song parodies targeting anything from Madonna hits to show-tunes (about such glamorous subjects as roadside car cleaners). The show’s trademark, though, was the weekly ‘head-to-head’ chat between the pair, in which they played dim versions of themselves who’d discuss any possible topic and arrive at ridiculous conclusions (sometimes reducing each other to corpsing in the process). This of course drew comparisons with the ingenious Dagenham Dialogues of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore but, despite living in such a huge shadow, Smith and Jones at their best were downright hilarious.
As well as being gifted performers, the pair contributed their own material to the show, and were ably supported by a hugely talented team of writers including Clive Anderson, Mark Steel, Andy Hamilton, Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews. The result was one of the strongest sketch series of the 1980s and, as a recent BBC1 ‘Best of’ Series proved (The Smith and Jones Sketchbook), much of their material remains fresh and funny today.
15 STOREYS HIGH
If there was an award for the most underrated comedy of recent years, 15 Storeys High would be a strong contender. On a first glance, the title’s description seems to be the only distinguishing feature about the faceless London tower block at the heart of this cult BBC2 series, but living within its drab walls are a collection of crazed residents among whom is Vince (Sean Lock), an anti-social eccentric who wants to live by his own peculiar set of rules and ensure that his henpecked lodger Errol abides by them too. Working as a lifeguard at the local swimming pool, and with an acute phobia for being touched, Vince does his best to avoid dealing with other people but, thanks to his lack of social skills, manages to get himself into a succession of amazingly awkward situations: from teaching a swimming student with a psychotic husband, to helping a neighbour look after his new pet (a horse), to conducting a bitter feud with a gang of kids intent on destroying him.
With its deliberately low-key tone, 15 Storeys captured a real essence of modern life’s everyday mundanity and pettiness, and initially ran for two series on Radio 4 before being snapped up for TV. Basing several storylines on its successful radio forerunner, the television version heightened the show’s drabness by both filming on location in a south London estate and maintaining a washed-out, colourless look throughout. The grim appearance was well counterbalanced, though, by each episode’s serving of surreal plots and hilarious moments – such as when Vince’s discovery of a new cut-price East European supermarket leads him to become hooked on its own brand energy drink, Blue Rat (“all the energy of a rat, in a can”).
Sean Lock, the show’s star and co-writer, may be best known now for his TV panel game appearances but he deserves plaudits here on two counts: firstly for the scripts he co-wrote, which delightfully interspersed the main narrative with short vignettes of life in neighbouring flats; and secondly for his very funny portrayal of social misfit Vince, striking up a great chemistry with co-star Benedict Wong (as the kind but naïve Errol). Running for two series on TV, 15 Storeys High suffered from being buried in the schedules and never found the ratings it deserved, but it was a consistently funny watch and remains a bona fide hidden gem.
2004: THE STUPID VERSION
Review of the Year shows have become a regular tradition in the festive TV schedules but Armando Iannucci’s hilarious, jilted look back at 2004 was a very different animal indeed. In a year that included a US Presidential Election, the Hutton Report’s publication and the Athens Olympics, Iannucci was offered a rich choice of satirical targets and The Stupid Version took full advantage.
Brought in to comment on the year’s top stories were a panel of some of the country’s top TV comedians (including Adam Buxton, Stewart Lee, Matt Holness and Richard Ayoade), whose soundbites formed a timely satirical riposte to the ‘talking heads’ who were flooding the banal but ubiquitous “I Love…” style programmes. These interview segments were not only funny themselves but provided the glue to link together a wide range of sketches which showcased ingenious re-editing of archive clips, including memorably transforming a George Bush US election debate performance into a rendition of Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York. Equally impressive was a well-judged sprinkling of special effects to bring to life such images as an elephant running loose inside parliament, and the dangers posed by the poorly designed Diana Memorial Fountain (notably its field of live landmines). Other original ideas included mocking up a reality TV show starring Tessa Sanderson, Ian McCaskill and Paul Daniels’ son Martin without actually filming it, and ‘interviewing’ former contestants on BBC game shows who revealed the awful truth about Dale Winton and Anne Robinson (“somebody brought into the green room a basket of puppies, which she killed with a hammer”).
Condensing the events of the year into a giddying hour of comedy, 2004: The Stupid Version was one of the freshest seasonal shows for a long time, and proved to be a prototype for the brilliantly inventive humour that Iannucci was to use again later in future-based comedy Time Trumpet.
With its long evolution and starry creative team, Absolute Power would make for a fine episode of Comedy Connections. The key characters of PR gurus Charles Prentiss and Martin McCabe first appeared in Mark Tavener’s 1989 satirical novel In the Red, which along with its sequels was adapted for a successful set of series on Radio 4. These shows had featured the acting talents of comic greats Stephen Fry and John Bird, who at this point played the roles of TV commissioners, but the characters of Prentiss and McCabe were so strong that they became natural fodder for a spin-off series of their own, and Fry and Bird were the perfect candidates for the respective starring roles.
Based on historian Lord Acton’s famous saying that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, the series focuses on the Machiavellian scheming that goes on in the backstabbing world of modern public relations. In its Radio 4 incarnation, Prentiss and McCabe’s involvements were almost always political, with the pair often finding themselves fighting on behalf of opposing clients. As the series progressed, Prentiss also met his match in female equivalent Gayle Shand (Tamsin Greig) with whom he enjoyed a passionate love-hate business/pleasure relationship.
Transferring to TV, Absolute Power boldly shed its old radio skin, and a new tagline heralded its new direction: “Spin is dead, long live PR”. Written by Guy Andrews, Andy Attenbury and the BBC’s own Mark Lawson, the show’s primary focus now shifted away from politics into the wider world of celebrity-obsessed culture. By Now Fry’s character of Charles Prentiss was a fully-fledged Prince of PR Darkness, with Bird’s McCabe as his intelligent but bumbling partner, always surprised at the sheer depths to which Prentiss will sink to achieve his aims. Their company is staffed by equally believable PR types played by a top-notch cast, including the sharp but unfortunately honest Alison (Zoe Telford), smooth PA Nick (Nick Burns) and James Lance as cynical Prentiss-apprentice, Jamie. Over two series, which saw Prentiss’s scheming eventually land him a brief spell in prison, viewers were privileged to the rare sight of some of the country’s top comic talent engaging in an unusually topical sitcom, highly relevant to the modern PR age. Without making the kind of giant waves that might be expected of such a classy cast, it was nonetheless a sharply written, smoothly executed show, often served up with a deliciously biting wit.
I AM NOT AN ANIMAL
It’s become very tricky to find an animation that doesn’t feature some type of talking animal, but it’s even more rare to find one that actually explains why the animals can talk in the first place. Yet this was the starting point for I Am Not An Animal, an ambitious comedy series written and directed by Peter Baynham.
We meet its cast of eccentric anthropomorphic characters living happily in the lap of luxury, relaxing by chatting away, discussing arthouse films. Unfortunately, they owe their intelligence to the fact they are unwitting experimental subjects at Vivisec-UK, an animal testing laboratory working on ‘Project S’ (to create animals that will tell their owners “I love you”). The magnificently strange seven inmates - including horny Scottish monkey Hugh, a pitbull called Winona with a crush on Tim Robbins, showbiz sparrow Mark and a horse by the name of Philip Masterson-Bowie – escape when a gang of animal rights activists storms the lab. The only one not to make it to freedom is Kieron the cat, whose head is removed and grafted onto the head of an ape, transforming him into a henchman for Vivisec who then hunts down the lost inmates while our heroes attempt to start a new life in the wild.
Like many of the best American animated comedies the show had a distinctive look of its own, mixing a low-fi collage look with computer effects, and Baynham (co-writer on The Day Today, I’m Alan Partridge and recently Borat) was able to call on an A-List cast of British voice talents, including former Spitting Image mimic Steve Coogan (playing Philip and Mark), Amelia Bullmore (Winona) and Kevin Eldon (Hugh). The mix made for entertaining viewing and, while wider audiences may have been put off by the show’s dark tone and its controversial subject matter, it achieved both a cult following and a run on US TV screens, an uncommon feat for a British animated TV comedy.
MONTY PYTHON’S FLYING CIRCUS
The 1960s satire boom opened up the way for a fresh, inventive generation of young comedy writer-performers to flourish on TV and to take comedy in a new and exciting direction. Among them were five graduates from the Oxbridge comedy scene, all of whom became contributors to The Frost Report and whose stand-out talents were soon rewarded with prominent roles in new hit sketch series: At Last the 1948 Show starred ex-Cambridge Footlights John Cleese and Graham Chapman, while Do Not Adjust Your Set featured ex-Oxford writing partners Michael Palin and Terry Jones alongside another former Footlight, Eric Idle. The two shows had a similar, zany feel and Do Not Adjust Your Set was spiced up further by the inclusion of some hilariously surreal animations by an eccentric young American upstart named Terry Gilliam. Forming a strong mutual respect, the six decided to team up and work together on “something new” and with the help of Barry Took (who was then a comedy consultant at the BBC) they were given their own series, famously being told “you can have thirteen shows, but that’s it”.
Having toyed with several names (including Owl Stretching Time and The Toad Elevating Moment), the group settled on the appropriately bizarre Monty Python’s Flying Circus – ‘circus’ being suggested by the BBC, and Monty Python being envisaged by the team as the perfect name for a sleazy entertainment agent. Their writing effectively threw away the rulebook of traditional sketch writing, dispensing with punchlines and allowing sketches to blend into each other or simply stop abruptly. It was a technique already pioneered by Spike Milligan, but the ruthlessly self-critical Pythons mastered it. Gilliam’s unique animation style became crucial, segueing seamlessly between any two completely unrelated ideas and making the stream-of-consciousness work. Flying Circus was fortunate too in being broadcast in colour, unlike their previous shows – helping transmit to viewers the Pythons’ vibrant, crazy ideas.
The show took a short while to find a fanbase but grew into a phenomenon, so much so that George Harrison claimed the spirit of the Beatles had passed onto Monty Python. Episodes often had a surreal and barely identifiable theme, and the Pythons joyfully weaved sketches throughout every show so viewers had no idea where they would be taken next. It’s one of the Pythons’ astonishing achievements that a single edition could throw up characters like The Spanish Inquisition, who remain as memorable as any of the weekly repeated caricatures in recent series like The Fast Show or Little Britain. Flying Circus did have its share of recurring items - John Cleese’s BBC link man and his announcement “And now for something completely different” became a catchphrase, while characters appearing in multiple episodes included a rubber-chicken-wielding knight and various members of the dim-witted Gumby family. But such moments seemed to be the icing on the Pythonic cake, always outbalanced by fresh material.
The Pythons took on virtually every acting role themselves, the main exception being attractive women (usually played by ‘honorary Python’ Carol Cleveland), and each cast member developed his own specialities. Terry Jones could portray both middle class English gentlemen and ratbag old women; the towering Cleese and Chapman mastered pompous authority figures but could also do a fine line in cantankerous old ladies; Idle often played more feminine women as well as TV anchor roles and slimy, more sinister men (as in his famous Nudge, Nudge sketch); and Palin, perhaps the most gifted comic actor of the group, could make his own anything from Cardinal Ximinez of the Inquisition to sleazy end-of-the-pier variety compères. Gilliam, who spent much of his time slaving over the animations, was usually handed supporting roles which, over time, became some of the filthiest characters in the scripts.
Flying Circus ran on TV for four series and spawned spin-off records, books and even German-language specials. Cleese backed out of the last season (barring the odd cameo) to concentrate on a new sitcom with wife Connie Booth (Fawlty Towers), but Python-mania continued unabated nonetheless. The shows became a massive phenomenon in the States and the team (with Cleese) toured their new fanbase, performing an acclaimed live show at the Hollywood Bowl. With a huge and growing global following, the Pythons were encouraged to continue working together on three hilarious and groundbreaking feature films, while the Flying Circus, which started it all, has come to be seen as probably the most ingenious and imaginative comedy show ever to grace British television.
The chronicles of the Blackadder dynasty, made over the course of six years but spanning 1485-1917AD, have treated audiences to one of the most intelligent, hilarious and daring sitcoms seen on British TV.
The initial concept was the brainchild of Rowan Atkinson and his Not the Nine O’Clock News producer John Lloyd, and together with co-writer Richard Curtis (whom Atkinson had met while studying at Oxford University) they fleshed out the bones into an alternative take on British history after the Wars of the Roses. Debuting in 1983, the first series revealed for the first time that Richard III was not an evil, hunchbacked villain but really a noble king, accidentally killed after the Battle of Bosworth Field by one of his own side, Edmund Plantagenet, a snivelling fool and the self-styled Black Adder. The show boasted high production values and an impressive cast featuring Peter Cook and Brian Blessed, but with modest ratings a second season was in doubt until BBC1 Controller Michael Grade showed faith and commissioned a new run (on a reduced budget), vindicating the theory that strong sitcoms sometimes take time to find their feet. Ben Elton signed on as co-writer alongside Curtis, and together they tweaked the formula to make the subsequent three series bona fide classics.
Set in Elizabethan times, Blackadder II established Edmund as a wily and cunning swine forced to deal with such contemporary issues as Puritanism and foreign adventuring, with dubious assistance from the dumb and dumber pair of friend Lord Percy (Tim McInnerny) and manservant Baldrick (Tony Robinson) - whose ancestors had served the Edmund of series 1 and who were now firmly established his loyal but useless comrades. Stephen Fry (Lord Melchitt), Patsy Byrne (Nursie) and Miranda Richardson’s wonderfully histrionic performance as the Queen completed an enviable principal cast, and the series was a masterclass in great mainstream comedy.
Its follow-up, Blackadder the Third, won just as many fans. Transporting the characters to The Regency period, Edmund is even more cunning than his Tudor counterpart but he finds himself lower in status, a humble butler to the Prince Regent and attended only by his faithful yet reliably dimwitted dogsbody, Baldrick. Hugh Laurie’s hilarious turn as the idiotic Prince George gelled perfectly with Atkinson and Robinson’s already strong on-screen relationship, and across the series the unlikely trio were forced into hilarious encounters with foes including highwaymen, William Pitt the Younger, The Duke of Wellington and the Scarlet Pimpernel.
In the late Eighties the Blackadder timeline was expanded further by several one-off specials, beginning with a short Comic Relief episode set during the English Civil War - Blackadder is an unlucky cavalier cursing himself for choosing the wrong side and trying to hide King Charles (Stephen Fry) from the victorious Oliver Cromwell (played with gusto by Warren Clarke). Later that year (1988), the spectacular Dickensian Blackadder’s Christmas Carol (1988) sees impoverished philanthropist Ebeneezer Blackadder being exploited by several freeloaders over the festive season. Then on Christmas Eve Blackadder is visited by a ghost (Robbie Coltrane), who accidentally leads him to the conclusion that “bad guys have all the fun”. So come Christmas morning, a now villainous Blackadder wreaks his revenge upon all his unwanted guests, even insulting a pair of charlatans parading as Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. He only realises too late that they were the real royal couple, about to reward Blackadder for his unyielding kindness.
A superlative fourth series of the show managed the extraordinary feat of making side-splitting yet respectful jokes in the setting of the trenches of the First World War, demonstrating again the brilliance of the writing (which satirised the futility of the conflict) and bringing together all the key cast from the previous series. After the incredibly powerful and poignant finale, when Blackadder leads his troops over the top, fans were desperate for more but despite consistent rumours the writers resisted. That is until the millennium, when an episode was commissioned for the new Millennium Dome. depicting Blackadder as a rich man who, together with Baldrick, embarks on a time-travelling adventure (during which they bring about the extinction of the dinosaurs). Despite the hype, it was a disappointing entry in the canon, book-ending the show in a similar way to the entertaining but rough-edged original series. Hopes are occasionally raised for a fifth full season, but whether or not that materialises Blackadder remains a timeless, and for its legions of fans peerless, classic of British comedy.
BIRDS OF A FEATHER
It’s proved to be very rare for a British sitcom to place at its heart the (mis)adventures of a group of female lead characters, but in doing so with Birds of a Feather writers Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran not only bucked the trend but found a formula to create a much-loved ratings smash.
The premise saw two sisters, Sharon and Tracey Stubbs, who’ve been living very different lives with very different experiences of marriage, suddenly brought together when both their spouses are convicted of armed robbery. For hard-up Sharon her husband Chris’s crime comes as no surprise but Tracey, who’d been living a nouveau riche dream life in Chigwell, is shell-shocked to find her beloved Darryl could be a criminal. Together the sisters must get used to their enforced new circumstances and Sharon moves in with richer Tracey, both to keep her company and enjoy the mod cons of her plush home. They’re rarely left alone, though, thanks to the nagging presence of sex-mad neighbour Dorien Green.
Actors Pauline Quirke and Linda Robson, who were cast as Sharon and Tracey respectively, had been friends since childhood and trained at theatre school together. Having already appeared in previous Marks & Gran sitcom Shine on Harvey Moon, they made the roles of the Stubbs sisters their own and their chemistry and shared sense of timing made the show a joy to watch. While the culture clash between Sharon and Tracey sparked much of the humour, undoubtedly the icing on the cake was delivered by Lesley Joseph as serial adulterer Dorien, and her portrayal of this insatiable man-eater often stole scenes and even entire episodes. While early series kept close to the plotline of the husbands’ incarceration, the scripts became increasingly ambitious, including a 1993 Christmas special set in Hollywood. A massive hit from the word go in 1989, Birds of a Feather eventually clocked up nine seasons and remains not only a classic comedy but also, as a female-centred long-running series, a truly rare gem.
BEYOND OUR KEN
Beyond Our Ken was a sketch vehicle for radio entertainer (and former RAF Wing Commander) Kenneth Horne, devised by his co-writer Eric Merriman at the request of the BBC. Its title – both referring to Horne’s name and punning on the word ‘ken’, meaning knowledge – aptly demonstrates the joy of wordplay that was at the heart of the humour in this long-running and influential series, bridging the 1950s and 1960s.
With Horne at its centre, each show featured a wide variety of sketches written by Merriman (and Barry Took, in earlier series) and acted out by a strong supporting cast including Kenneth Williams and Bill Pertwee. Jokes were aimed both at the vagaries of everyday life and at contemporary celebrities, with recurring characters including cook Fanny Haddock (played by Betty Marsden and parodying Fanny Craddock), and Bill Pertwee’s finely observed impersonation of Frankie Howerd (as Hankie Flowered). Williams particularly delighted in the opportunities for jokes based on innuendo and double entendre (foreshadowing his work in the Carry On films), and although the show was placed in early jeopardy when Horne suffered a stroke after the pilot recording in 1957, his recovery cleared the path for seven highly successful seasons.
Beyond Our Ken ended in 1964, after an apparent falling out between Merriman and BBC producers, but after only a year’s hiatus the format was resuscitated by Barry Took and Marty Feldman, as Round the Horne. Using the same cast, the revamped show became an even bigger hit and grew into one of the BBC’s true classic radio comedy series. It ran until 1968, Horne dying a year later. While Beyond Our Ken might have been outshone by its successor, it shared much of the same DNA that made Round the Horne one of the greats.
BANG BANG, IT’S REEVES AND MORTIMER
Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer had created their own particular brand of zany humour in the early 1990s, with their sketch vehicles Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out (Channel 4) and their first BBC show, The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer. It was with their next move, though, that they made it really big, melding their surreal style with a self-mocking celebrity quiz format to create the smash hit Shooting Stars for BBC2. After several series the duo decided to return to their favoured sketch format, where they were freer to run riot, and the result was Bang Bang, It’s Reeves and Mortimer.
Each episode would open with a musical number, such as Vic and Bob desperately trying to remember the words to ‘True’ by Spandau Ballet, followed by a madcap mix of studio-based antics and filmed sketches with high production values. As in their previous series, the pair would often have senseless rows which would quickly degenerate either into their signature slapstick fights or, in one episode, Vic – despite Bob’s pleas - turning into a crab. Large chunks of every show were devoted to filmed segments, including a recurring item (‘The Club’) spoofing the ubiquitous docusoap format, and standalone filmed sketches such as Vic’s discovery of a ship’s engine in the middle of a road and his futile attempt to take it home. Meanwhile, in the studio each week would appear Vic and Bob’s whiny alter-egos Donald and Davy Stott, who’d interview and humiliate a celebrity (from Damon Hill to Caprice) and usually end up corpsing in the process.
Let loose once more with a no-holds-barred approach, the Reeves and Mortimer style remained an acquired taste – for fans of their zany humour the new show was a welcome treat, complete with guest performances by Matt Lucas and David Walliams; for viewers who didn’t ‘get’ it, Bang Bang… may well have been a frustrating watch. While the tighter format of Shooting Stars was a more consistently funny watch, Vic and Bob had made a new show that was refreshingly and utterly unpredictable, rating it themselves amongst their best work to date.
This series about the lives of three couples living in adjoining terraced houses, from the pen of writer and comedian Andy Hamilton, seems on the surface to be about as cosy and conventional as British sitcoms get. But its twee-sounding premise hid an inventive and original comedy with much to admire in both its strong writing and performances.
Each episode focused on the bedtime chat between retired couple Andrew and Alice Oldfield (Timothy West and Sheila Hancock) whose marriage has reached Meldrew-esque levels – i.e. a curmudgeonly, world-weary husband bleating about his petty worries to his long-suffering wife. But while One Foot in the Grave was peppered with slapstick and surreal moments, Bedtime was quieter and much more real, with variety added by the action regularly switching from Andrew and Alice to the night-time goings on in their neighbours’ homes. The clever conceit of exploring characters through what they say in that brief period before sleep is something all viewers can associate with, and it enabled Hamilton to turn his sights onto a range of contrasting co-habiting couples and their varied but equally messy lives. In the first series, we see young partners Paul and Sarah struggling with their newborn baby while actress Sapphire conducts an affair with TV celebrity Gulliver; in series two they are replaced by Simon and Faith (who are wrestling with commitment issues), and a single father trying to balance his relationships with son Ralph and glamorous girlfriend Stacey. The show attracted a classy cast to support the always excellent West and Hancock, including not only Doon Mackichan and Alun Armstrong but also an early role for Hollywood starlet Sienna Miller. Throughout, the writing was well-observed and sustained a gentle, bittersweet tone that sat well in its unusual late night weekday slot on BBC1. To enhance the day-by-day story, the show was broadcast on consecutive nights as a mini-series. The result was a low-key but intelligent and highly enjoyable sitcom.
A decade after his last BBC1 sitcom (The Thin Blue Line), during which time he’d moved on to penning smash hit West End musicals, Ben Elton returned in 2005 to the TV genre that he’d already mastered with The Young Ones and Blackadder. His new project, Blessed, was a more domestic scenario and starred Ardal O’Hanlan and Mel Giedroyc as married couple Gary and Sue Chandler, who are struggling with bringing up their babies – especially in contrast to their depressingly perfect neighbours Bill and Mary (Robert Webb and Sally Bretton), for whom parenthood seems to be a breeze. On top of their home troubles, Gary gets no respite in his day job as a music producer, mainly thanks to his oddball ensemble of session musicians (stoner guitarist Ronnie, singer Vicky and drummer Styx), who show no sympathy but are busy drowning in their own relationship problems.
The show had a curiously different feel from any of Elton’s previous sitcoms, no doubt in part because the writer this time took on directing duties too. Also unlike his previous shows, and perhaps reflecting a trend in the wake of The Office, the decision was taken not to use a laughter track but to replace it with musical stings akin to the style of many hit American comedies. The high production values suggested the show had lofty ambitions but unfortunately they weren’t matched by the jokes, and the finely crafted trademark Elton rants (which Rowan Atkinson had delivered so brilliantly in Blackadder) somehow didn’t gel when voiced by O’Hanlan’s portrayal of Gary. The result was a rare misstep for such a giant of British comedy and, despite rumours of a second series, Blessed ran for only a single series.
The character of jailbird Norman Stanley Fletcher was originally conceived for a one-off comedy, Prisoner and Escort, forming one of Ronnie Barker’s 1973 season of TV pilots (under the banner Seven of One). The BBC picked it up the next year for a full series, but neither they nor writers Dick Clement and Ian Le Frenais can have known quite what a phenomenon they’d created with the show they thought of calling Bird or Stir, before settling on another euphemism for life behind bars, Porridge.
When the new show first aired in 1974 it was greeted with outrage in sections of the tabloid press, shocked at the notion of a comedy programme glorifying prison. Little time was needed, though, before any complaints were drowned out underneath a chorus of critical acclaim and public adoration for what remains one of the most classic British sitcoms ever produced.
Fletcher himself is an old hand at ‘doing time’, and we meet him serving a five-year stretch at HMP Prison Slade for breaking and entering – each episode would begin with the booming voice of the judge (recorded by Barker) passing sentence and the stark slamming of prison doors. Fletcher expects to enjoy a single cell but he’s forced to share with a first-time offender, a naïve, young Brummie called Lennie Godber (played by Richard Beckinsale). Fletcher reluctantly taked Godber under his wing and helps him to ‘keep his nose clean’ but together they always end up getting into trouble (often for reasons beyond their control), either with other inmates or the prison officers at Slade.
While the richly comic dialogue between the two cell-mates was a joy to watch, Clement and Le Frenais’ wonderful writing didn’t stop there, and they populated HMP Slade with a host of memorably eccentric characters, from kindly but senile Blanco (played ingeniously by a young David Jason), disgraced dentist Harris and dim-witted Warren to the irascible Scot MacLaren, conman Ives and the prison Mr Big, Harry Grout. While Fletcher’s knowledge and experience saw him regarded highly by most fellow inmates, it didn’t stop him being used and blackmailed from time to time by Grout, who’d often force Fletch into tasks against his will.
It was Fletcher’s day-to-day job to juggle life on the landings with not getting caught by the wardens, which meant taking advantage of the kind-hearted and soft-natured Mr Barrowclough, and sidestepping the eagle eye of the harsh, suspicious Mr MacKay (portrayed with delicious menace by Fulton McKay). Episodes would usually involve Fletcher and Godber getting into trouble but somehow scoring a minor victory, usually against MacKay. The glee Barker injected into Fletcher’s little triumphs was magical to watch.
A revue show commissioned at the tail end of the early1960s satire boom, BBC-3 followed in the wake of That was the Week that Was and Not So Much a Programme More a Way of Life, and it called upon many of the writers and performers who’d made such an impact in these previous series. However, by the time it reached screens in October 1965 the cutting edge of British comedy had moved on and BBC-3’s mix of stand-up, songs and discussions felt tired and formulaic by comparison. In fact Ned Sherrin, comedy producer and satire svengali at the BBC, wished in hindsight that the show had stuck with its alternate title ‘It’s all Been Done Before’ (which remained the name of its theme song), in order to pre-empt criticism.
With a cast including John Bird, John Fortune, Denis Norden and a young Bill Oddie, there was no dearth of talent on board but, what with David Frost concentrating on the more biting Frost Report and the ingenious duo of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore blazing a trail with Not Only…But Also, it was perhaps inevitable that BBC-3 would look stale. Nevertheless, during its one run of 24 episodes it plugged away with parodies of politicians (including John Bird’s notable Harold Wilson impersonation), and its writing team was bolstered by the addition of Alan Bennett, who was encouraged to contribute material on seeing Cook and Moore’s success. One of his sketches, a monologue about Virginia Woolf, later resurfaced in his stage play Forty Years On.
BBC3’s limited impact is best shown by the fact that its chief claim to fame, or rather notoriety, arose not from a sketch but a live discussion about stage censorship, during which critic Kenneth Tynan argued that “rational people” no longer found the f-word “diabolical, revolting or totally forbidden”. However, in making his point he ended up uttering the f-word for the first time on British television, stirring a storm of protest and (according to Sherrin) doing wonders for viewing figures.
Edinburgh Fringe veteran Simon Munnery made his name during the 1990s with stand-up shows based upon his two alter-egos, ‘Alan Parker: Urban Warrior’ and comic philosopher ‘The League Against Tedium’. While both personae gained exposure with a BBC radio series, it was in his guise as ‘The League’ that Munnery caught the notice of TV executives and in 2001 he fronted Attention Scum, his own experimental comedy vehicle for BBC Choice/BBC Two.
‘Comedy vehicle’ is an unusually apt description for the show, based as it was around The League driving around the country in a converted transit van with a mission “to discover England and confuse it”. Visiting evocative locations such as Glastonbury and Tintagel, the spine of each episode would comprise the League standing on top of his van in a car park, preaching his bizarre philosophies to small, baffled crowds. His musings could take in any subject, from wealth (“money doesn’t grow on trees? Yes it does, it’s paper!”) to love and war (“in love as in fighting, the winner has an eight-foot pole”),
The League also frequently appeared pacing about the countryside, sermonising to the viewer, with his comic snippets broken up by chains of surreal sketches and the occasional ‘Pythonic’ animation which were often deliberately incomprehensible – as if to make the point, they’d be book-ended by huge question marks or exclamation marks appearing on screen. Episodes also featured a clutch of recurring sketches, including Johnny Vegas’ guest role as a 24 hour news anchor “who’d been up for 24 hours” and the regular musical segment ‘Kombat Opera’, complete with sedated vampire on piano. Catherine Tate, Kevin Eldon and Richard Thomas joined Vegas in a strong supporting cast, and director Stewart Lee later revived Kombat Opera for its own six-part run in 2007.
Although it left itself liable to accusations of being too self-consciously clever, Attention Scum! certainly never suffered from a lack of invention. However, it was unable to find the success later enjoyed by Lee and Thomas’ musical spin-offs (including Jerry Springer: The Opera) and, despite Parker’s continued cult following, the show ran for only one series.
With its cheerful opening titles, introducing the cast members through a jovial ballroom dancing sequence, Bruiser seems at first glance to be an incongruous name for this short-lived BBC2 ensemble sketch show, but throughout each of its six episodes there lay under the surface a sharp, dark edge to its humour. And if the series itself is not widely remembered, it’s notable not least for bringing together an immensely talented group of young performers who have since joined the ‘A’ list of British comedians.
Mixing bizarre characters with send-ups of television genres including satellite channels and BBC schools revision programmes, the quick-fire style never failed to keep viewers guessing what might crop up next. The recurring gags often worked well, including an appallingly thoughtless American TV reporter and the imagined hit interview series ‘Outdoor Wee’, a set of mid-urination conversations with the stars, among whom retired cricket umpire Dickie Harold gets somewhat carried away. A pre-Peep Show Mitchell and Webb led both the cast and writing team, and several sketches show early hallmarks of their later TV and radio double act. They were supported by longstanding collaborator Olivia Colman as well as a fresh-faced Matt Holness and Martin Freeman. Following a growing trend at the time, Bruiser was broadcast without the addition of a laughter track, which in places suited its jilted humour but offered no hiding place when jokes misfired. Overall, despite so much talent on screen and a writing team that included Ricky Gervais, the series underachieved and with a surprisingly low count of laugh-out-loud moments it wasn’t recommissioned for a second run. Nonetheless it did sustain a vibrant energy, kept alive by a fresh and gifted team of comic performers learning their craft.
A MANY SPLINTERED THING
A Many Splintered Thing starred Alan Davies as Russel, a frustrated composer who dreams of achieving musical greatness but actually spends his days writing jingles for cheesy TV adverts. He’s happily married to wife Susanna but when she goes away to visit her mother over Christmas, Russel drunkenly stumbles into an affair with flower shop worker Elly (Kate Ashfield) and finds himself at the centre of a love triangle. As he starts to obsess over Elly he finds himself racked with guilt, but his sex life with Susanna suddenly improves too - how can he make a decision when he’s having a great time with not one but two lovers?
This question of infidelity was the dilemma that stoked the central plot of this six-part series, but it was not the only running strand. Russel also had to deal with his peculiar agent Alistair, the source of all his uninspiring composing jobs, while Elly was the subject of attention from her lesbian colleague Camilla (Josie Lawrence) at the flower shop. Writer Geoff Deane, who went on to co-script British film comedy Kinky Boots, was scaling a mountain in attempting to craft a classy post-watershed sitcom for BBC1, and at best A Many Splintered Thing can be said to be a modest success. The casting of Alan Davies as Russel split audiences, with some warming to his likeability even when playing an adulterer but others finding it hard to square his low-key performance with his ‘sex-god’ character. The glossy production values and lack of any laughter track both certainly lent the show a sophisticated air, but they also laid bare the comparatively few laugh-out-loud moments, and despite the strong cast and stylish direction it ran for only one series.
BEN ELTON: THE MAN FROM AUNTIE
The prodigiously talented Ben Elton was at the vanguard of the alternative comedy scene in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, both as a writer and performer. While he sustained a prolific output of hilarious sitcom scripts including The Young Ones and Blackadder, he also developed a unique stand-up style based upon a breathless, motormouth delivery. There was simply nobody to march his rambling monologues, delivered at express speed and complete with wild digressions taking in all manner of bizarre observation. Having compered Saturday Live and then in 1989 being given the prestigious job of presenting BBC1’s Wogan during its regular host’s holidays, in 1990 Elton was given his own BBC starring vehicle, The Man from Auntie.
The show started off as virtually a rolling stream of stand-up, showcasing Elton’s trademark style and interspersed occasionally with soundbites from a range of talking ‘potato heads’. Cleverly breaking up the flow, these were reminiscent of the surreal cutaways of talking inanimate objects that had peppered The Young Ones. The Man from Auntie was perhaps unlike any other mainstream show in its open treatment of politics, and with Elton unafraid to put forward his openly left-wing views he quickly antagonised sections of the tabloid press, who labelled him “dangerous”. Often, though, his targets were simply the ridiculous aspects of modern life.
After a four-year hiatus a second series reached screens in 1994, with a slightly rejigged formula. Longer sketches saw Elton playing a host of characters, usually without any attempt at impersonation (for Des Lynam, a wig and fake moustache would suffice) across parodies of TV adverts and other programmes. The star remained his sharply satirical self and took aim not just at the Tory government (although of course they still featured strongly) but anything topical that took his fancy. The rapid-fire stand-up was still the backbone of each show, but by breaking it up with a more varied range of sketches and short ‘news headline’ style gags, the new series seemed to have a stronger structure. Each episode still climaxed with a final long monologue, in which Elton used his signature method to conjure up a bizarre world populated by a succession of surreal images and characters. His machine-gun delivery and excitedly gesturing style lent himself to lampooning by other comics, especially Rory Bremner, but Elton remained a highly popular star, and in 1998 he returned with a new format, The Ben Elton Show. However, with the Tory government finally deposed, and offering an unlikely regular guest slot for Ronnie Corbett, he never quite recaptured the bite that had coursed so strongly through the veins of The Man From Auntie.