Saturday, 23 March 2019

A Comedy On This Day: Brush Strokes - Breakdown Of Society (24 March 1991)

 The pre-penultimate episode and you can tell that things are winding down. There's a rather glum mood as this week's story is about having to move out of home, the decorating business being sold and having to find new work after redundancy. It’s all well done but - especially as this episode is all studio - it doesn't play to the core Brush Strokes virtues, i.e. watching Jacko try his luck with assorted women in various interesting suburban locations.

 Mind you, Karl Howman is starting to look noticeably older by 1991 and like he really ought to be settling down by now, giving his misfortunes this episode an air of muted tragedy. When Eric and Jacko's sister tell him that they're moving to Reigate and that he can't come with them, the studio audience audibly go "Ahhh!" in sympathy.

Friday, 22 March 2019

A Comedy On This Day: A Bit Of Fry & Laurie (23 March 1990)

  In an introductory discussion about Trevor Griffiths' Comedians during a 1990 A-Level English lesson, I can remember the class being asked who our favourite comedians were. My best friend and my self’s choice of Fry & Laurie was not widely shared (Trevor & Simon were most highly approved of, although the teacher didn't know who they were).

 In part, my peers' dismissal was because they primarily associated Fry & Laurie with Alliance & Leicester commercials and Jeeves & Wooster, which is fair enough. But with hindsight it’s easier to see why people wouldn't have responded positively to their comedy and found it rather detached.

 The pair's refusal to do parodies was an admirable stance, but it also denied them a level of instant ("they're doing that") recognition. You can hear the studio audience always responding positively when they get closest to it, in the "Dammit!" Peter and John sketches, performed in the recognisable idiom of Howard's Way if not a specific imitation. (It's fun to finally see the famous Marjorie finally appear this week, played by Maria Aitken as a smouldering Kate O'Mara-type figure)

The consistent level of elaborate wordplay is dazzling at times. There's one sketch in particular here, with Fry as an eccentric and maddeningly circumlocutory jeweller: "Would you like an Opal Fruit? A nice strawberry Opal Fruit or, indeed, any flavour? I won't be long. Where am I going? There is a sweetshop not two miles away from here, and I happen to know that they sell Opal Fruits". Even though I haven't seen this for over ten years, I seem to have remembered almost every line of it... Odd original coinages and bits of phrasing occasionally find their way into my own conversation, even now (from this sketch, I've always found "I am chastened and bowed" a useful formulation to convey playful humility). But if you don't have an ear for the wordplay, then there isn't a lot else going on in the sketch - certainly not anything emotional to latch on to - and at almost five minutes long it does test even the patience of even the most appreciative viewer.

 These flaws are rather more apparent in the second series (which they only had a year to come up with) than in the initial one (their first series to themselves after almost a decade of working together), with high quality line-by-line dialogue papering over otherwise drifting sketches. The bit which now strikes me as most interesting in this episode is rather atypical, a filmed monologue from Laurie in a car as a man reminiscing about all of his old girlfriends. The imagined lovers are all absurdly implausible women, but the performance and the emotion behind it have a reflective melancholy that's very appealing, and not like much else in the programme.

Thursday, 21 March 2019

A Comedy On This Day: French & Saunders (22 March 1990)

 I think that the duo may have been at their peak with this third series. By this point they had a sure sense of what distinctively they could achieve with a sketch show, with less of the aimless drifting that mars the early episodes while not yet falling into the overindulged celebrity trap that increasingly irritated me later on. I was in the first year of sixth form when this went out, and I can't remember any other show being so universally popular, with both fellow pupils and teachers.

 I think that the part that resonated most with my peers was the Star Test Bros interview, probably because of the worthy target (the hapless briefly-popular Goss brothers being both teen-orientated culture and something that we would have all felt was beneath us). Watching it now, I'm mainly interested in the very tight-looking facial prosthetics that the performers have been squashed into. With much of this episode's comedy, I find the details much funnier than the ostensibly amusing scenarios - Saunders' Luke Goss dropping her drumsticks, or the (slightly disturbing) visual effect in Kirsty MacColl and Simon Brint's duet of 'Something Stupid' of both singers’ reflections being superimposed over each other's eyes.

 The extended Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? parody is one of the best they did, partly because of the pleasure of recognising their takes of Davis and Crawford, but mostly because the original piece had such a distinctly camp Grand Guignol style that it didn't need to be extended very much to become overly comic. The audience laughter over this filmed piece is a bit of a shame, as overt laughter at certain jokes detracts from the greater subtlety of the whole conception.

 The sketch that I (and my parents, who I watched this with in 1990) most enjoyed at the time still strikes me as being the best bit now. Its a scene of an editorial conference between the two refined ladies in charge of a popular mid-market women's magazine, and - Hurray! - for once French and Saunders aren't parodying something else or impersonating other celebrities or doing recurring characters. The skit both celebrates and skewers the vacuity of the magazine ("Sue Lawley on flans? "Too spiky"), bombarding the viewer with closely-observed fine detail of the all-too-convincing magazine, discussed by two well-drawn characters. 

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

A Comedy On This Day: Only Fools & Horses - Sleeping Dogs Lie (21 March 1985)

 These mid-eighties OFAH episodes seem to have left much less of a lasting impression upon me than what came before and after. I think this one is about as weak as the original series got, pivoting around a reversal of expectations which is a bit too similar other episodes that had more diverting situations and stronger supporting characters. My chief problem with it is that the initial appearance of Marlene's enormous Great Dane dog (whom the brothers have agreed to mind) set up a pleasurable anticipation of enjoyable canine larks which was then disappointed, but perhaps that's just me!

 It's a bit of a letdown after Strained Relations. Where that episode had the exciting sense of having to be written and produced from scratch almost overnight, here Uncle Albert is very clearly just Grandad's understudy, and it makes me feels a bit sad when I start to imagine how Lennard Pearce might have performed it. Its not really helped by the occasional additional line reminding us that the Uncle is an old sailor, as these never seem to arise naturally in the dialogue.

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

A Comedy On This Day: The Two Ronnies (20 March 1985)

 This week, Ronnie Barker is wearing a contemporary-looking blazer in wide stripes of several pastel colours that puts me in mind of Neapolitan ice cream. Even more bang-on mid-eighties is Elaine Paige's performance of 'Smoke Gets In Your Eyes'. The old standard has been arranged as a modern-sounding power ballad with emotive guitar lines and moody 'Careless Whisper'-style saxophone solos. The singer is dressed in a baggy blue satin jacket with black satin skirt, has a voluminous Princess Diana hairstyle and pendulous earrings and - for no good reason - sits down on a step to sing to us against a backdrop befogged with dry ice. The performance is topped and tailed by close-ups of the saxophone and the hands playing it in the foreground with Paige sat in the middle distance.

 There's a parody of the Private Lives balcony scene, played between two burglars rather than Elyot and Amanda, making Barker's usual puns much more interesting than usual by hearing how they fit into a Coward idiom. Also a funny scene with Barker as an impatient waiter silently clearing away Corbett's courses before he's eaten them, that I'm guessing is by David Renwick (it has the feel of One Foot In The Grave). The positive effect of these imaginative sketches is then rather offset by one unfortunate blackface gag when a passing Rasta hails Corbett, covered in soot after putting his head and hands in a fireplace. "Heey maaan!" the dreadlocked passer-by hails Corbett, slapping his outstretched hands. You feel embarrassed for the black actor.

Monday, 18 March 2019

A Comedy On This Day: Duty Free - Forty Love (19 March 1984)

 Duty Free is an odder series tonally than you might remember it being. There's an attempt to bring emotional depth to the farcical shenanigans in this episode, with David's redundancy being exposed and Keith Barron being given a dignified speech that plays to his strengths as an actor (before a fish falls out of his trousers) and a surprisingly large amount of 12 Certificate swearing in the arguments between husbands and wives... But it really could do with another draft to make it better structured, especially the convenient presence of a large trolley of cream cakes in the hotel bedroom for the wives to through at each other and their husbands in the rather arbitrary and desperate climax.

 It also has the weirdest bit of non-speaking extra choreography in a scene where impoverished David is trying to smuggle food out of the hotel dining room. A row of silent figures stand at the breakfast bar, each one implausibly rooted to a single bowl or dish, unable to communicate with anybody else or move on or away from their own little spot. They look more like a Greek chorus than anyone that I've ever seen at any buffet.

Sunday, 17 March 2019

A Comedy On This Day: Spitting Image (18 March 1984)

 Only the third episode... Has any other programme of the significance and stature of Spitting Image ever had quite so poor a first series? In the 1980s, one used to often hear public figures and commentators diplomatically opine that they thought that the puppets were much better than the material. If they'd only seen the early ones, that was a understandable verdict.

 Something that's odd is how little of it is really topical. The only jokes that come out of that week's news are brief skits about Arthur Scargill (threatening response to pit closures announcement) and Mark Thatcher (dubious Oman deal). To my mind, these to-the-point one-liners and mini-sketches have dated rather better than long convoluted routines about Reagan being senile or Thatcher being authoritarian.