fullsizerender3In a radio tribute to George Michael earlier this week, there was an extract from some old interview where he recalled how, with little contemporary music in his family home, he was compelled to rely on Radio 1 in his youth. And then I remembered an interview from Saturday morning TV in the mid-80s, when Wham! were probably the biggest group in Britain, and when a fellow pop star (perhaps Gary Kemp – equally perhaps not) marvelled at his enthusiasm for, and knowledge of all pop: ‘He knows the lyrics to everything.’ That was the thing with George Michael: he really was one of us. He was a pop fan.

Before the Internet, if you had no disposable income or wealthy parents, you had two options if you were a kid into music. Either you latched on to one band and aimed to buy every record, poster and T-shirt they ever put out, or you generalised and sampled a bit of everything – a record collection of oddities is the truly honest record collection. I was struck by how, when first famous, George Michael reminisced about not only liking The Sweet in his formative years but also buying Carly Simon’s ‘The Right Thing to Do’ on holiday, almost as if by accident. To be a pop fan, I reckon – and I suspect George agreed – is to be open to anything. Even if you don’t like it, you hear it anyway – because who knows, thirty years later, a song you thought you detested brings back fond associations of that holiday, that job, that crush, that partner, that family member who perhaps did like it.

Memories occur by accident, and it has become commonplace for professional contrarians to tut away at our reactions to celebrity deaths, as if such things are cordoned off from our real lives. It is immature, it seems, to mourn someone’s life and celebrate someone’s passing, and instead we should return to the usual ten phone-in subjects, like revisiting the same ten stale farts you once locked away in the shed. I wonder if these contrarians secretly resent that few things they say or write will be remembered in a week, let alone after they pass on. Note too that even when they do recognise someone’s death, they rarely refer to the work, merely their behaviour or that they met them. Yet the detail of pop culture is what furnishes our recall, what intersects with our own lives, and are often the elements that help to bring our missed loved ones back to life in our imaginations, momentarily perhaps, but vividly.

As we grow older, so the power of nostalgia grows with us. It unlocks your past, and often makes sense of it. It reminds you of euphoria, of despair, of a need for escape, a craving for entertainment and colour. And for George Michael to die on Christmas Day itself, when we are already at our most nostalgic thanks to family members (both present and absent), is a haunting irony.

George’s death alone evoked several specific snapshots from my own life. I thought of my dad blasting out Wham!’s ‘Freedom’ (off The Hits Album) while he was working on the bathroom and saying how great it sounded – I know you’re meant to hate your parents approving of stuff in the charts, but I’ve always believed it shows they haven’t lost interest. I also thought of buying my first compact disc player at eighteen and choosing, amongst other things, a Wham! compilation – two years after they’d split up. In turn, that CD reminded me of being thirteen, and obsessively playing their Fantastic! LP, which I borrowed off my brother – he never asked for it back. A particular favourite track on that album was ‘A Ray of Sunshine’, a joyous song emphasising the power of pop music.

At the time, thirty-three Christmases ago, I was also a fan of Thriller and The Beatles’ ‘Blue’ compilation, and how I’m now struck by how we lost important contributors to those records too in 2016. And the memories and connections don’t stop there: That time your dad helped Paul Daniels in his live act by being stuck to a chair; when you scoured record fairs seeking twelve-inch import copies of ‘Mountains’ and ‘America’; when you were traumatised by Watership Down, ‘Frankie Teardrop’ and that bit in The Deer Hunter; when you all but wore out your VHS off-air tapes of the As Seen On TV special and Fawlty Towers.

Furthermore in this tapestry: the best Willy Wonka, the first cheery weather forecaster, what the producer said to Ronnie, Hilda Ogden wishing she didn’t live at number 13, the theme tunes to Soap and Diff’rent Strokes, ‘this is the theme to Garry’s show’, ‘down down deeper and down’, ‘‘Ello darling hahahaha’, The Liver Birds, Equus, Shoot the Damn Dog, ‘Nasty Girl’, Yes Minister, Shoestring, Postman Pat and Chigley, ‘first we take Manhattan then we take Berlin’, Skating to Antarctica, Hotel du Lac, ‘you spin me right round baby right round’, Unhalfbricking, ‘September’, The Brady Bunch, ‘I Scare Myself’, Postcards from the Edge, Singin’ in the Rain, ‘Wedding Vows in Vegas’, ‘What’s the recipe today, Jim?’, ‘it’s a wonderful, wonderful life’, ‘Sound and Vision’.

Sound and vision – the fabric of our lives. Once, when a celebrity passed on, if you were lucky, you got a repeat of something they were in, or a compilation of clips. As Spitting Image once put it in a parody of TV news obituaries, ‘The scheduled episode of Quincy has been postponed, unless it was Quincy who died.’ But online interaction now means we can celebrate how moments from their lives enriched ours. Because we lived through such an extraordinary age of popular culture, because we ourselves are ageing, our presents and pasts are going to keep colliding. But it is these passions that keep us young and lively – and in an era when apparently ‘Brexit Means Brexit’ is supposedly a grown-up maxim and where a President-elect wears a fucking baseball cap, we need all the rays of sunshine we can find. If that means seeking out comedy, music, literature and cinema that warms our heart one more time, so be it.


fullsizerender2Desolation Jests is a new Radio 4 sketch comedy series which reunites the actor David Jason and the writer David Renwick. The last time the two worked together for radio was in 1980. Back then, Jason was a guest performer in the final episode of The Burkiss Way, a tirelessly inventive series in the vein of Monty Python, and scripted by Renwick and Andrew Marshall. It was, incidentally, the teenage Armando Iannucci’s favourite radio show. Jason’s one-off role in Burkiss was as an oleaginous continuity announcer who persisted with grovelling links regarding the Queen Mother’s eightieth birthday. Radio 4 panicked after its first broadcast, and the repeat a few days later snipped out all of Jason’s royal links, consequently running several minutes short. (It has never been repeated in full, but you can listen to it here.)

Neither David has made a new radio series since the early 1980s. Both became giants in television – Jason as Delboy Trotter, Skullion in Porterhouse Blue, Pa Larkin, and Detective Jack Frost, while Renwick continued his association with Andrew Marshall on Whoops Apocalypse, Hot Metal and Stuff with Alexei Sayle, before creating the hugely successful Victor Meldrew and Jonathan Creek.

In fact, Desolation Jests is Renwick’s first full series of anything since BBC1’s Love Soup. His pursuit of the perfect intricate plot in his television work has somewhat obscured how gloriously anarchic his sketch writing can be, so it’s a pleasure to announce that he’s revived that latter quality. Like Burkiss, Desolation Jests is all about the elaborate, conceptual spoof. In a distortion of Desert Island Discs (note the rhythmic similarity of the two titles), John Bird plays the Plomleyesque host and invites a guest to imagine that the world has been obliterated, that they are the last human being alive, and that they’ve been given the keys to the history of comedy. Which sketches would they choose? First to unlock the archive is the gangster Frankie ‘Flesh Eater’ Harris.

Demonstrating his versatility and superb grasp of pastiche, Renwick has of course created all the archive material, aided by Gareth Edwards’ sensitive production. Harris (Jason) revisits favourite sketches like the legendary ‘endoscopy scene’ from the Klutz Brothers’ classic ‘A Day at the Proctologists’, and a send-up of Mastermind from the 90s series ‘Fatman and Littlegirl’, itself a nod to Renwick’s own classic sketch on The Two Ronnies, in which a contestant’s specialist subject was to answer the question before last.

Renwick’s mastery of form and content has not deserted him, and completing the illustrious cast are Rory Bremner and Jan Ravens. Most encouragingly, his taste for silly character names and angry imagery remains, most notably in an item that imagines a more punitive Honours system, in which recipients are awarded a subscription to the Daily Express, or (in Kelvin Mackenzie’s case) deserved recognition as a health hazard.

The connection between Renwick and Jason stretches way back to October 1971 when the former began contributing to Radio 4’s weekly satirical series, Week Ending, in which the latter was already a cast member. Renwick was a 20-year-old reporter on the Luton News, and was not at university – unusual in an Oxbridge-dominated radio comedy world. When Ian Greaves and I wrote our exhaustive history of Week Ending, he stressed how important the show was to his development as a writer, especially when writing material for regular performers like Jason: ‘It was an early lesson that people are funnier than jokes.’

Forty-five years later, and Renwick is back writing for Jason. And it’s worth bearing this in mind – most comedy sketch shows are the work of several people. Rare is the comedy writer who is flexible and resourceful to shine in so many different styles, although there are a few: Victoria Wood, John Finnemore and (in his great Radio 4 series of monologic items, One) David Quantick. Now – belatedly – we can add David Renwick to that list.


Desolation Jests is on Radio 4 on Tuesdays at 11pm, or on iPlayer. My 2008 book on the history of Week Ending, Prime Minister, You Wanted to See Me?, which I wrote with Ian Greaves, is available from here.



qt-panelWhen I first went on Twitter, probably around the middle of 2009, livetweeting disposable TV shows was an attraction of the site. Question Time was undoubtedly one of these. But it gradually became an endurance test where not even Twitter accompaniment could detract from its deathly formula of rehearsed quips, point-scoring and gassy pub opinions you hoped had been silenced with the progress of civilisation.

Question Time began in October 1979 on BBC1 and is likely to continue in its late Thursday slot, along with Andrew Neil’s cartoon series This Week, until we all die. Maybe it is intended to be a release, a cathartic summing up of the week’s talking points, but for many years, it’s felt like a groaning messageboard thread that cannot be locked. The current climate urgently needs a discussion programme heavy with explanation, detail and nuance, but Question Time’s lust for beige spectacle – yes, almost live from a civic hall and part-time theatre in Knobham – means that it both lacks the depth of a documentary and the pizzazz and glamour of a talk show.

Current affairs is complicated and god knows, we need experts to make sense of it all – not just to explain but to explain why it’s complicated. But there is no time for explanation on Question Time. The panel table must (must? really?) house five guests and a Dimbleby, plus an audience baying for blood and exposure. With a maximum of 10 minutes for most questions, there’s little room for much beyond upping the anger ante. No-one is really listening to each other, or even to themselves, and they spend a lot of the allotted time complaining that another subject is being ignored. (Though my favourite – as noted by a friend – is when people call for a discussion on immigration during a discussion on immigration.)

As we know, the loudest, most certain, most provocative voices dominate. The audience are bellowing eggs; the panel a queasy mix of reluctant ministers, frightful backbenchers and people off of Dragon’s Den. The glittery lift twat Neil Farridge is perhaps Question Time’s archetypal panellist these days; despite failing to win seven by-elections, his leathery pillar-box face and ashen racist patter has appeared 32 times on the programme (so far), and its producers know that, quite cynically, if he appears, their ratings will go up. You wish that more measured political voices would appear, and then you reason that the more measured wouldn’t want to do it. Why would they? I wouldn’t want to.

At some point about three years ago, I could stand Question Time no longer. It helped that Thursday nights now had a distraction for me: a weekly pub quiz, a more benign, harmless kind of question time. But my frustration with Question Time already ran deeper. You could laugh at, say, Jacob Rees-Mogg’s head, but then powerlessness took over, and then anger – and it seemed to me that going to bed angry was a bad idea. (So was waking up angry, and eventually, I dropped the Today programme like a boiling turd for the same reason.)

Anger is fine if it leads to explanation and analysis and understanding. But if Question Time used to manage these emotions properly and usefully, it no longer seems to bother. It and others like it confuse ‘balance’ with ‘extremism’. I would be more interested if more effort was taken to engage with the ‘don’t knows’, the ‘not sures’. Surely they are the ones who could inspire fruitful, expansive discussion. But in an environment where we are encouraged to create outrage or to react to it, subtlety is insufficient.

The problem may lie with the word ‘argument’ or ‘debate’. I prefer the word ‘discussion’ in which two or more people (but better if it’s only two) test each other’s viewpoints and their own. Listening to oneself is as important as listening to one’s ‘opponent’:

‘Am I making sense?’

‘Have I changed my mind, and can I admit it?’

‘Am I not sure, and can I admit it?’

Imagine if people said this kind of thing more often on Question Time or Any Questions or Today. Some call it dithering. I simply call it thinking.


fullsizerender1Andrew Sachs, who died last week aged eighty-six, was an actor of remarkable versatility and experience. Born in Berlin in 1930, he had lived in Britain since the age of eight, when his family fled Germany to escape the Nazis. From the 1950s onwards, he became a regular fixture on radio and then television, and his ability to inhabit a character so completely meant that he was perhaps not always immediately familiar. Much later, so ubiquitous was his voice on TV documentaries in the 1990s that he was an obvious choice for the role of a dry narrator on Peter Kay’s breakthrough television series. That Peter Kay Thing consisted of six individual pastiches of docu-soaps, the most famous of which – ‘The Club’ – spawned Phoenix Nights.

As far back as 1958, Sachs was also cutting his teeth in the world of physical farce, as part of Brian Rix’s repertory company, both in theatre and sometimes on television. Several members of Rix’s company (his wife Elspet Gray, Derek Royle, Joan Sanderson, as well as Sachs) would later become associated with a 1970s series now so famous that it’s sometimes forgotten that it is also in the grand tradition of farce.

Technically, Sachs did not write Fawlty Towers – his co-stars John Cleese and Connie Booth did that, combining logic, structure, absurdity and psychologically rich characters – but Cleese has been careful to point out how much he, as Manuel, helped expand and enrich their scripts, along with the rest of the cast, to give the end product a profoundly hilarious emotional truth. Manuel’s physicality, gesticulations and faltering attempts to communicate and understand were a joy to watch – especially when he began to absorb his surroundings, as when he adopted Basil’s exasperated ‘cuh, cuh’ grunts in times of crisis. (Basil’s own grasp of Manuel’s native tongue, incidentally, despite his claim of learning ‘classical Spanish, not the strange dialect he seems to have picked up’, relies heavily on adding the lettter ‘o’ to French words, and shouting ‘arriba’ from Speedy Gonzalez cartoons.)

Or the moment in ‘Communication Problems’ (aka ‘Mrs Richards’) when, having been compelled to keep a secret by Basil, he is then told he can reveal the truth after all. Cue a theatrical clearing of the throat, and the proud declaration: ‘I know nothing.’ Manuel has painstakingly learnt and reproduced his crucial line. Unfortunately for Basil, he has delivered it at exactly the wrong moment. As Cleese has remarked, if Manuel were sullen and uncooperative, it just wouldn’t work: ‘It’s his sheer eagerness that makes all the incompetence funny.’

We are now so word-perfect on Fawlty Towers that it’s startling to recall that, like many hits, success was by no means guaranteed. The Internet has made the wider public aware of a brief memo sent in the BBC Comedy Department on 29 May 1974. Ian Main, a script editor in the department, had been sent a draft of what became the pilot of Fawlty Towers. He wrote the following terse reply to the then-Head of Comedy, James Gilbert:

‘I’m afraid I thought this one as dire as its title.

It’s a kind of “Prince of Denmark” of the hotel world. A collection of clichés and stock characters which I can’t see being anything but a disaster.’

Cue hails of derisive laughter. Imagine turning down Fawlty Towers, comparing it to some short-lived Ronnie Corbett vehicle. What a fool! How could Ian Main have missed out on the genius of the greatest sitcom ever made. Etc etc.

Except it’s hard to tell from such a brief response what Ian had actually been sent. After all, there is no cast yet (certainly no Sachs or Prunella Scales), he has no pilot episode to relate to (‘A Touch of Class’ was taped just before Christmas ’74), and so he is reading it cold, save for knowing that it was the bloke from Monty Python and his then actor wife. Was it even a final draft, as we would know it? It would surprise me if Cleese and Booth, in the face of that damning response, hadn’t snatched that script back and rewritten it substantially. They were, after all, perfectionists; they would spend at least two months writing an episode, withholding any attempts at writing any dialogue until three weeks into the process.

Ian was right about the title, though. It’s terrible. ‘Fawlty Towers’ sounds like a Crackerjack spin-off starring Peter Glaze running a funny hotel assisted, or should that be hindered, by some annoying gonks.

Furthermore, Cleese may be a comedy giant, but not everything he produced was automatically gold-standard. As evidence, check out ‘No Ill Feeling’, a proto-Fawlty half-hour he submitted in 1971 for the ITV sitcom series, Doctor at Large. The series’ lead character Dr Michael Upton (played by Barry Evans) is booked into a hotel run by an officious, humourless and near-robotic proprietor and his equally forbidding and much taller wife. He is then plagued by a ghastly wise-cracking fellow guest (a thankless task for guest star, Roy Kinnear).

It demonstrates that if you get farce even marginally off-balance – if the mathematics are approximate rather than exact – it becomes grotesque and shrill and unfunny. But while it beggars belief something so mirthless came with Cleese’s name on it, it must be stressed that Doctor at Large wasn’t his creation: he was one of many writers on the series, and the Doctor format was a production line like a US sitcom, where up to 25 shows a year were taped. Compare with the time and care Cleese and Booth gave to writing Fawlty Towers – although even there, each episode had only five days allotted for rehearsal, and just two hours on a Sunday for a studio audience recording.

It’s possible that Ian Main had simply not noticed Fawlty Towers’ potential, but it’s easy to ridicule his judgement in hindsight. Few artistic creations immediately emerge fully-formed: think of each of your favourite books, films, albums and TV shows and chances are, there’s an embryonic version somewhere that ‘wasn’t quite there’. Teamwork made Fawlty Towers a thing of brilliance and Andrew Sachs, as Manuel, was as much a part of that process as anyone, whether it was how he elegantly poured cream into Mr Hutchison’s briefcase; how he performed “She” with rudimentary guitar accompaniment; or how he laughed along with Sybil’s ‘Uncle Ted’ anecdote, vainly standing on tiptoe to share the joke.

Fawlty Towers: The Complete Collection is widely available on DVD for under ten quid these days, and not just from Amazon, and it also contains John Cleese’s audio commentaries, which are a masterclass of the genre, even if his laughter levels can be alarming.