Self-styled ‘1982 Stars in Their Eyes Michael Bolton Regional Finalist’, Bill Bailey is one of Britain’s finest comedians both on TV and on the stand-up circuit. Raised in the West Country and trained classically as a musician, he mixed up theatrical work with stints playing lounge piano and jazz keyboards before an urge to mix jokes into his music led him to begin a stand-up career in 1989. Initially performing as half of double act ‘The Rubber Bishops’ (with Martin Stubbs and then Sean Lock), Bailey’s first solo show - ‘Cosmic Jam’ - earned a Perrier nomination in 1995, and just two years later he was starring in his own BBC2 series (Is It Bill Bailey?), offering a hilarious mix of stand-up, sketches and songs. Although it was disappointingly not re-commissioned, the show cemented a partnership between Bailey and co-star Simon Pegg, which has since resurfaced in both Spaced (Channel 4) and 2007 movie Hot Fuzz. Bailey has since had further TV success, as the deranged Manny Bianco in sitcom Black Books as well as making reliably funny turns on Never Mind the Buzzcocks and QI, and with sell-out tours he continues to excel in stand-up. In 2007 he broadened his horizons by both producing and appearing in sketch compilation Pinter’s People in the West End, and with his uniquely surreal wit and unrivalled skill at musical comedy he remains one of Britain’s most popular comics.
Growing up in Ealing, west London in the socially turbulent 1970s, Sanjeev Bhaskar learned from an early age that humour and impressions could be used as a shield from confrontation. His comedy ambitions blossomed while studying for a marketing degree and, encouraged by friend and musician Nitin Sawnhey, Bhaskar realised nobody was writing from the experience of being British and Asian. Together the pair started gigging as stand-up double act ‘Secret Asians’ and were eventually spotted by producer Anil Gupta, who invited Bhaskar to join his team for a new Asian sketch series, Goodness Gracious Me. A huge success on Radio 4 and then BBC2, this consistently funny show made the versatile Bhaskar a star and he followed it up with another hit, The Kumars at No.42, (alongside his wife and Goodness Gracious Me co-star Meera Syal). This novel format saw him play TV host Sanjeev Kumar, who tries to broadcast a celebrity chat show from his parents’ living room, and its success was crowned by winning an International Emmy. As well as guest-hosting Have I Got News For You? Bhaskar has since acted in a number of dramatic roles for both TV and film.
Rowan Atkinson is one of Britain’s best-loved comic actors, whose continuing exuberant performances shield the surprising fact that he’s been at the top of his profession now for some thirty years.
Born in Durham, Atkinson studied electrical engineering in Newcastle and then at Oxford, where he met writer and future serial collaborator Richard Curtis and first honed his physical comedy style with the Revue. He took a hit stage act to the Edinburgh Fringe, and in 1979 was invited by producer John Lloyd to join the BBC’s new satirical sketch series Not the Nine O’Clock News. A massive hit, the show itself was relatively short-lived but it made Atkinson a star and provided the springboard for his next major project, a historical sitcom co-written with Curtis – The Black Adder. Atkinson took the starring role as the conniving Edmund Blackadder, and although he handed over co-scripting duties in later series to Ben Elton, his brilliant (arguably career-best) performances – mixing his characteristic physical style with a delicious comic timing - lit up one of the most enduring of all British sitcoms.
A second collaboration with Curtis spawned the hapless Mr. Bean character whose slapstick escapades both on TV and latterly in two feature films have become global smash hits. While police-based sitcom The Thin Blue Line (written by Ben Elton) may have been a misstep in the mid-Nineties, Atkinson remains a hugely popular and bankable star with a rare (and perhaps recently underused) gift for comedy, that has prompted Stephen Fry to offer the accolade "It is as if God had an extra jar of comic talent, and for a joke gave it to a nerdy, anoraked northern chemist."
Rory Bremner’s comic gifts served him well from an early age, when he used his impressionist skills to gain popularity as the school mimic, impersonating teachers as well as famous sports commentators Brian Johnston and Richie Benaud. His taste for comedy grew and, while studying French and German at Kings College London, he became part of the capital’s cabaret scene. Soon he was getting work on Spitting Image and radio satire Week Ending, and in 1988, aged just 27, he’d landed his own BBC TV comedy show. He moved to Channel 4 in 1993, since when his satirical stand-up/sketch series has been a mainstay of the schedules, with its brilliant mix of spot-on parodies of celebrities and politicians, and collaborations with double act John Bird and John Fortune. As the impersonation ‘market’ grew more crowded in the late Nineties, with competition from Alistair McGowan and Dead Ringers, Bremner has concentrated more on political material. And as the Blair era became increasingly controversial, so Bremner’s knife sharpened and his shows have provided the most cutting satire on offer in the TV schedules. As well as writing a book on the Blair era with the two Johns (You are Here) Bremner has proved to be a true polymath, using his language skills to write translations of dramas and opera libretti for new productions.
Born in 1929, Ronnie Barker studied architecture and briefly considered a career in banking before choosing acting. He trained in repertory theatre, joining Aylesbury Rep in 1948 before being invited by Sir Peter Hall to move to the London stage. Thereafter he appeared in several plays as well as 300 radio episodes of The Navy Lark. In the 1960s Barker moved into television comedy, performing sketches on The Frost Report and meeting there his future comedy partner Ronnie Corbett. Their Two Ronnies shows, beginning in 1971, featured some of the all-time classic sketches (Four Candles often topping public polls) and showcased Barker’s rare mastery of English wordplay. The series became a TV institution and ran for 17 years, but the perennially shy Barker famously submitted sketches under the pseudonym ‘Gerald Wiley’ to ensure his work was judged solely on merit. Further proof, if any were needed, of Barker’s gift for comic acting came in the 1970s with his two great sitcom performances, as Arkwright in Open All Hours and especially as prison lag Fletcher in Porridge. Into the Eighties, The Two Ronnies continued to pull massive audiences and Barker starred in a final sitcom as short-sighted removal man Clarence, before he retired from showbusiness in 1988 to set up an antiques shop, citing ill health. Other than a handful of rare appearances, including as Churchill’s servant in the acclaimed 2002 BBC drama The Gathering Storm, Barker remained true to his word to bow out while still at the top, although he did reunite with Corbett a last time for The Two Ronnies Sketchbook (BBC1), a greatest hits package linked by some new material from the pair. It proved to be his final appearance. Barker died in 2005, his status assured as one of British comedy’s towering talents.
Said to be the only comedian, at least working today, who’s licensed to drive a supertanker, Peter Baynham worked in the Merchant Navy for several years before dipping his toe into comedy waters by touring his stand-up character ‘Mr. Buckstead’ (a psychotic poet) and writing material for Radio 4’s topical comedy Week Ending. It was this radio show that was to prove a formative milestone in his career, as there he met Stewart Lee, Richard Herring and Armando Iannucci, all of whom he was to collaborate with regularly throughout the 1990s.
Iannucci invited Baynham to join the brains trust behind seminal news spoof The Day Today and in the mid-Nineties the pair teamed up again, this time on-screen, together with David Schneider to present satirical review series The Saturday Night Armistice. Meanwhile Baynham both wrote and performed on Lee and Herring’s Fist of Fun, but by the late 1990s his acting roles became rarer as he concentrated on writing. He joined forces again with Iannucci and Steve Coogan to pen the acclaimed sitcom I’m Alan Partridge, and with Chris Morris on Brass Eye and Jam, before writing and directing his own BBC2 series, jilted animation I am Not an Animal. Baynham’s writing continues to go from strength to strength, and in 2007 he was Oscar-nominated for his work on the screenplay for Borat.
Morwenna Banks’s credits as a highly versatile comedy performer and writer stretch back to her time in the Cambridge Footlights in the early ‘80s, alongside Nick Hancock, Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis. After winning roles in Radio Active and Week Ending for Radio 4, her first big break in TV came when she was teamed up with Jack Docherty and Gordon Kennedy for Channel 4’s hit sketch show Absolutely. It offered a perfect outlet for Banks’s chameleonic ability to take on a wide variety of characters and accents (most famously playing a little girl with a very warped sense of wisdom). Her talents won the rare accolade of being noticed in America, where she was hired as a performer in the final series of Saturday Night Live before landing a role in global hit sitcom Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Refusing more offers from L.A. Banks returned to Britain and in 1998 was given her own starring vehicle in another ‘Absolutely’ production for newborn Channel 5. As well as reprising her young girl routine she introduced a host of new characters and, despite the show’s low budget and unashamedly low-brow humour, her charm helped it find favour with critics if not huge viewing figures. Since then Banks has continued to appear in high-profile comedies including Saxondale and The Return of Harry and Paul, and in 2007 again showed her versatility by writing and starring in ITV pilot The Abbey, spoofing celebrity rehab centre The Priory,
A leading light of the early 1960s satire boom, John Bird trained among the startlingly talented generation of performers who were pumped out seemingly annually by the Cambridge Footlights. Writing, directing and performing several shows there, he also met long-time comedy partner John Fortune and, despite starting a PhD, he soon gave it up to concentrate on a career in the arts. Bird starred at Peter Cook’s satirical nightclub The Establishment before touring a show to Chicago, his commitments abroad preventing from taking up the anchor role on groundbreaking new TV series That Was the Week that Was (the position was filled instead by his then-flatmate David Frost). Nonetheless he became a familiar face on TV screens, in series including The Late Show and Not so Much a Programme, More a Way of Life. His appetite for razor-sharp satire continued throughout the Seventies, for instance by recording albums adapting Alan Coren’s books on Idi Amin (when the Ugandan dictator was at the height of his power), and his enduring partnership with Fortune remains a force today. In the early 1990s their much-loved interview sketches (The Long Johns) found a perfect home within Rory Bremner’s firebrand Channel 4 shows. Their segments are unfailingly rib-tickling, often featuring savage attacks on government, sometimes simply quoting policy papers because they were funnier than anything they could have written, and occasionally sparking a bout of corpsing in one another. Bird’s accomplished acting has been seen over the years in many dramas (eg. El C.I.D.), as well as a starring turn in sharp PR-based sitcom Absolute Power, and after more than forty years in the business he still ranks among Britain’s best loved satirists.
Danny Baker’s name has been virtually a fixture in British television and radio listings for the last twenty years. His broadcasting career was in fact prefaced by a stint in music journalism during which he was poached by the NME, first as a receptionist before contributing reviews and interviews. Baker’s experience in music made him a useful recruit to Janet Street Porter’s ‘youth TV’ drive in the early 1980s (appearing on 20th Century Box), and in 1986 he landed the role of roving reporter on Michael Aspel’s irreverent magazine series The Six O’Clock Show). Baker’s wit and energetic style caught the eye of radio bosses and in 1989 he was handed his first presenting job, on GLR Weekend Breakfast (produced by good friend Chris Evans). Since then Baker’s voice has had numerous homes on the airwaves, including his much lauded Morning Edition show on Radio 5 as well as stints on Radio 1 and Virgin Radio. Baker’s sometimes combative style has often courted controversy, most infamously getting him fired from BBC Radio Five Live after an angry outburst about a referee. Nonetheless regular TV work also flowed throughout the 1990s, including on The Big Breakfast and hosting Win, Lose or Draw and Pets Win Prizes. Baker’s influence grew off screen too, as his sharp wit saw him being hired as writer for a wide range of programmes including TFI Friday and Jonathan Ross’ scripts at The British Comedy Awards. His broadcasting career continues to go from strength to strength, and his award-winning shows on BBC Radio London attract star guests and a large, loyal following in the capital.
David Schneider was making audiences laugh as early as his college days at Oxford in the early 1980s, when his physical comedy act was a refreshing contrast to the stand-up boom at the time. It was there he met friend and future collaborator Armando Iannucci, who in 1991 recruited him as a key cast member for Radio 4’s news parody On the Hour and its TV transfer, The Day Today, as well as for the spin-off spoof chat show Knowing Me, Knowing You, starring Steve Coogan’s alter-ego Alan Partridge. Schneider consistently breathed life into a remarkable variety of memorable characters, most memorably as BBC Commissioning Editor (and Partridge’s nemesis) Tony Hayers, a role he was to reprise hilariously in the later sitcom I’m Alan Partridge. A gifted writer, Schneider gained further on-screen fame in the mid-Nineties when co-presenting topical satirical series The Saturday Night Armistice with Iannucci and Peter Baynham, which again demonstrated his versatility as a comic performer. He has since appeared in a number of feature films, including Mission Impossible and 28 Days Later, and has branched into writing books, drama and a witty regular newspaper column.
A man who, as a teenager, assumed he’d become a clergyman simply because he looked like one, Alan Bennett instead chose a career in the arts and became one of Britain’s greatest writers of the latter half of the twentieth century. After gaining a first class history degree at Oxford, Bennett was well set for a career in academia. But while at university he’d become a stand-out performer on the Oxford cabaret scene and when Edinburgh Festival director Robert Ponsonby came looking for the greatest Oxbridge comedy talents for a new show, Bennett was recruited - on the suggestion of fellow student Dudley Moore. The resulting production was Beyond the Fringe, written and performed by Bennett and Moore alongside Cambridge starlet Peter Cook and Footlight-turned-doctor Jonathan Miller. Its dazzling, unprecedented success saw Bennett and his colleagues become the toast of the comedy world. After taking the show to London and Broadway, Bennett contributed sketches to TV shows including BBC-3 before stretching his wings with his own varied six-part series On the Margin. The show was highly regarded but is now lost, falling victim to the BBC’s policy of wiping tapes.
After On the Margin Bennett changed direction, venturing into a new career as a playwright. In 1968 his first play, the school-based Forty Years On, starred John Gielgud alongside Bennett himself and received strong reviews, forming the springboard for a string of highly acclaimed plays both for the stage and television. He later mastered the monologue form with Talking Heads (1987), telling the funny yet bittersweet stories of six repressed characters, all down on their luck. So revered have they become that not only did Bennett produce a second set of monologues in 1998 but they’ve become a staple on school syllabuses as an acknowledged modern literary classic. Bennett’s plays have also been making the transition from stage to screen, with his adaptations of The Madness of King George and The History Boys being among the most critically lauded British films of recent times.