SKETCH APOCALYPSE

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.

 

DON’T GO TO BED ANGRY

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.

‘THERE IS TOO MUCH BUTTER UNO DOS TRES’

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.

ON HOT TAKES

146It’s still early days for this new blog. Design-wise, it’s far from ready – it’s like moving into a new house but you’re undecided on the decor or furnishings, and there’s that back room which urgently needs a floor. As for subject matter, I could have gone with a specific theme, but I felt uncomfortable with that. I decided that, after several years away from blogging, it would be best to just see what ideas came up and run with those. So, for a while at least, these pieces may have little in common. This in itself, though, feels exciting. You have to start somewhere, after all.

But while I don’t want to start laying down rules for what will and won’t feature, I hope to keep the ‘hot takes’ pieces to a minimum. There are too many columnists already, battling to be first with their opinions on why Eric Bristol ‘had a point’, why they always knew Dennis Trump would win but never bothered saying anything, and why ‘that thing you think you like is rubbish’ (copyright, The Guardian, most days). I have stopped reading the columnists. They are all useless. Even the good ones. They are as well. Yes.

We’re in an environment where instant reaction is key, where that tweet doesn’t have to be nuanced or thoughtful, just quick. (Guilty as charged, m’lud.) Yet sometimes it’s hard to have an instant reaction to something. Sometimes you’re simultaneously too close to the event, and too far away from it, to make any coherent sense of what’s going on.

Five years ago this afternoon, I was in a crematorium, saying goodbye to my brother. He had died two and a half weeks earlier, and I was one of a handful of people whose job was to pay tribute to him and his life. I hadn’t had long to write something, but was aware this was a golden opportunity to sum up a life, one curtailed cruelly early.

I have my eulogy written down somewhere. It may even be on the same laptop I’m typing these words on. I could go and look. But I somehow can’t. Because whatever I said that day was likely to have been filling space. I was the first to speak. I think I spoke for barely two minutes, a fraction of what the other speakers said. I can remember my voice cracking when I got to the bit that emphasised that he enjoyed a full, fruitful life despite narrowly missing his fortieth birthday by a matter of days. I can remember saying what extraordinary people his family were – though I may have left myself out of the list.

I do recall two things, though. One was that I couldn’t quite believe how many people were there: perhaps four or five hundred. Some were outside in the cold as the crematorium simply didn’t have enough space for seating.

The other thing I remember, while I squinted at an ocean of faces, was a soup of an alternative speech I was writing in my head. It went something like this:

 ‘What I’m reading out now is filler. This isn’t what I want to say at all, but I am in shock. I remember the joy and laughter but I can’t express that now, not yet. I remember the complications and occasional friction from our childhoods. But I doubt you want that today, either. And then there’s the illness he had, and – well – let’s not go there. It’s not that I have nothing to say. It’s just I can’t put it into words yet.  All I can do is to cling on to the words that I am capable of reading out, right now.’

I’m not suggesting for one moment that the other speakers’ eulogies were insincere. Far from it – I recognised and believed their anecdotes, stories and feelings far more profoundly than my own contributions. But whatever I really thought about the death of my brother would just have to wait. But even though I had nearly forty years of his life to draw upon, whatever I felt and thought about it still felt like a hot take, and my truer reactions would take time to surface.

These past five years, I may not have blogged publicly, but privately I’ve crammed notebooks with feelings, reflections and observations, often about the process of bereavement but also about other issues surrounding it. Truth be told, I felt uncomfortable sharing these matters with the wider world. It’s probably just as well I held back, because one of the trickiest things when sharing grief is knowing what to leave out.

Now, I have a better idea of what to leave out. Sometimes you just have to step back and wait, to see what you really think and feel about something. And I may revisit this subject again, but – come back! – not exclusively.

 

TV FORMAT IDEA #1:

Supermarket Sweep (But Literally With Sweep Doing It)

I felt it was high time that Supermarket Sweep, the game show, was rebooted for the 21st century. Then I went and checked Wikipedia and found it already had been. In the late Noughties.

Never mind. It’s now high time that Supermarket Sweep was rebooted, again, for the late Tens. And I know exactly how to do it.

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TV Format Idea 1: Supermarket Sweep

THEN WELCOME

There are two reasons why I constantly miss Chris Morris being a regular radio presence. One, inevitably, is for his comedy. During the 1990s, his output for the BBC on Greater London Radio, and then Radios 4, 3 and 1, marked him out as one of the medium’s true originators. Though justly acclaimed for his television work (The Day Today, Brass Eye) and latterly his feature film (Four Lions), I believe his comedy bones hail from radioland. And his radio shows – most famously On the Hour, co-created with Armando Iannucci – have been packed with heavily stylised packages of reportage (‘There’s been a large disaster at Bigg Street Station’) and fractured versions of tabloid headlines:

‘Dismantled Pope Found Sliding Along Road’

‘Left Wing Footballer Shoots Cat’

‘Brilliant Professor Unplugged By Careless Cleaner’

But there’s another reason I miss him. Chris Morris was, both as a technician and as a music lover, one of the finest radio DJs this country has ever produced. He had an extraordinary ability to mix the familiar with the unsung, every week offsetting his comedy content with an eclectic pile of records. His show was not in the vein of John Peel: the point wasn’t necessarily to unearth new bands; instead, he cherry-picked from the playlist, tossed in some neglected oldies and very occasionally unleashed the compellingly rank: Derek Jameson; Guy Mitchell’s comeback record ‘Have A Nice Day’, or Jimmy Tarbuck’s reading of ‘I Should Be So Lucky’. Beck, Gil Scott-Heron, R.E.M., Stereolab and Sly Stone – among countless, countless others – were all heard regularly.

His Radio 1 show ended on Boxing Day afternoon 1994 with a selection of highlights from his seven months on the station. Stunts created and performed with sidekick Peter Baynham included claiming to find the corpse of fellow DJ Johnnie Walker in an adjacent studio, and supposedly removing a shell from a tortoise. Another correspondent, roving reporter Paul Garner, was heard to bother a taxi driver in Cambridge almost towards dangerous breaking point. Macabre and hilarious, it forced the listener to wonder if their ears were deceiving them. ‘Did I really just hear that?’

It took nearly three years for Morris to return to Radio 1. Blue Jam, which began in November 1997, was hailed as a wild departure from his previous work – markedly slower in tone, nocturnal, desolate – but it retained several familiar hallmarks. Firstly, the sketch material (though now performed by actors like Kevin Eldon, Amelia Bullmore and Julia Davis) was still about escalating crises, but because of its post-midnight slot and context, these items felt more unsettling: almost contemporary ghost stories, anxiety dreams about parenthood, mortality, sex, identity, health and workplace competition. I’ve always reasoned that Blue Jam’s content – regarded as some of the most extreme to ever make it to British mainstream radio – is justified on the grounds that the dreams and nightmares we have in our lives are entirely unfiltered by censorship.

I used to have a ritual with my Blue Jam listening in the late 90s. I would turn off the light, get into bed, set a tape running and then listen in darkness, still giggling at the comedy. Some of it was alarming. Some of it, it must be said, was also spectacularly bloody stupid.  But what I also enjoyed about it was the music. Every week, it was like receiving a new compilation tape, where new dance tunes shared space with French or Japanese pop, or oldies like “I’m in Love with a German Filmstar” – a song you hear all the time now on 80s flashback shows or 6Music, but rarely in 1999. The comedy was ice-cold but intimate; in contrast, the music was often warm, full of reassuring colour and zest. Indeed, that’s why I was less fond of Blue Jam’s television incarnation. Jam, broadcast on Channel 4 in 2000, reused many of its ancestor’s items, but inevitably could not house full tracks of music, and the pace was affected accordingly.

As I’m writing this, Radio 4Extra is broadcasting the third and final run of Blue Jam (first broadcast early in 1999). Its sound collage of samples, sketches (with recurring loops as counterpoint) and full tracks, remains fresh, original, and quite unlike anything else. And it’s often funny. But while I miss Morris’s comedy on the air, I also miss his choice of music. I feel sure that 6Music must, by now, have tried to entice him back to radio – so far, without success. But it would be a shame if he never treated us to his playlists again. He wouldn’t even have to talk.

PLUG: There’s a book called No Known Cure: The Comedy of Chris Morris. Published by Palgrave Macmillan and the BFI in 2013, it’s a collection of original essays on Morris’s career to date from a variety of writers. My contribution to that book, an essay entitled ‘Rockarama Newsbanana’, is concerned with the way that Morris used music, as a DJ, composer and musician, to enhance his comedy.

You can buy the book here. And no, not all these blog posts will be trying to sell you stuff.

Blue Jam, Fridays, 11pm, BBC Radio 4Extra, until 2 December. Also available on BBC iPlayer for 30 days after each broadcast.