Friday, 24 May 2019

A Comedy on This Day: Vic Reeves Big Night Out (25 May 1990)

Its Spandau Ballet, and they're laughing at an orphan who's fallen off his bicycle
 And this is where it begins... Watching this is funnier now than it seemed at the time. The strain of having to establish a raft of characters, situations, rituals - and an unfamiliar ramshackle comic idiom - made it quite an effortful 25 minutes to view. In retrospect, now that I know how each episode was structured, I can pick up on the amusing ideas and variations without the initial "What is this and how does it work?" reaction.

 The audience reaction is fascinating, especially as we get to see them several times, including some hostile and bewildered faces amongst the crowd. Although some have come from the old New Cross Albany Empire audience and are primed to know what to expect, a lot of them don't know what they've let themselves in for. There's a quality of hesitancy and not knowing where the jokes are to their collective responses, and you can sense a greater uncertainty in Reeves' performance because of this. This went after the first few episodes, after which presumably everyone who went to the recordings had already seen them on television. I think that I actually prefer this to the response to what happens by the second series, when the audience seems full of Wonder Stuff fans, cheering every catchphrase and encouraging rather shouty and performances from the stars.

Thursday, 23 May 2019

A Comedy On This Day: The Gaffer: The Blackleg (24 May 1983)

 When Graham White puts a simile or an inverted phrase in four or five consecutive lines, watching The Gaffer is like trying to do the cryptic crossword at speed. Bill Maynard will say something like, "Concession is bad for the soul", and I find myself having to work out what that means, where it comes from/ what it should be and what it means in terms of the plot while still listening out for the next line which will require the same amount of mental effort.

 This week, the Gaffer manages to manipulate his secretary going on strike to his advantage, as it prevents him from paying bonuses to other workers. The blackleg of the title is a shrewish temporary secretary, whose character is conveyed in broad outlines by getting the actress to wear a pair of heavy-rimmed glasses and scowl. This is in contrast to Pat Ashton as Betty, who gets given an existential moment this week ("There must be more to life than this" she suggests, looking around the grim office) and a sadly unflattering new hairdo that adds some ringlets to the front. This new secretary even tidies the gaffer's desk away and cleans the floor, although the office still looks so drab and flyblown that it doesn't have much of a transformative effect.

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

A Comedy On This Day: Citizen Smith - Bigger Than Guy Fawkes (23 May 1980)

 This first episode of the fourth and final series doesn't auger very well for the rest of it. Its an ambitious rise-and-fall narrative; Wolfie is presented with the opportunity to become a star by a showbiz impresario; then learns that he's trapped in a gilded cage, miming to other people's songs and speaking scripted lines to promote a ghost-written autobiography; rebels by speaking with his own voice, exposing his idiocy to the world; gets dropped, back into the Tooting gutter.

 Unfortunately, this sort of story really needs the opened-out form of a film (or the scatter-gun off-the wall Goodies approach) to work that well. As it is, what we get are a succession of scenes of Wolfie and his acolytes discussing their situation, while the interesting stuff happens almost entirely off-screen. These sequences (in an open prison cell and a - rather tatty-looking - luxury hotel suite) have an oddly temporary feel to them, with the sitcom not having a permanent base at this point. One short scene in a little corner of TVC of Wolfie being interviewed by Valerie Singleton on a Nationwide-type programme is as much as we see of his brief stardom.

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

A Comedy On This Day: And Mother Makes Five... - To The Aid Of The Party (22 May 1974)

 This is one of those stories that initially looks like it might be more interesting than it eventually turns out to be. As often the way in Richard Waring's middle class light comedies, it touches on underexplored contemporary anxieties, when the Redway's daughter and younger son both come home with seemingly reasonable complaints about being badly treated by authoritarian teachers. Reluctantly, both conflict-averse parents agree to complain and meet the teachers at the school the next day. It’s a promising situation, of wider societal relevance with something genuinely emotionally at stake for the protagonists, as seen as the parents are about to leave the house. Wendy Craig looks in the bedroom mirror, trying on different hats and rehearsing different approaches that she might take with the teacher. An essential truth of this series - realised through Craig's performance - is that being recognised as a competent mother is largely a matter of performance, which it takes some courage to accomplish.

 Disappointingly, this situation is then immediately defused in the scenes at the school, the complaints merely having been a catalyst to set up a more conventional comedy situation that takes up the rest of the episode. Both teachers in question turn out to be attractive and charming young people (Jenny Hanley and Norman Eshley) whom the Redways invite round to dinner the next day, the complication being that Mr. Witherspoon's jealous wife - who believes that her husband is having an affair with Miss Jenkins - is also coming.

 In what is - even by sitcom standards - an exceptionally hare-brained scheme, the Redways decide that the best way to avert a scene is to get all of the guests blind drunk. Although watching Wendy Craig and Richard Coleman plying the visitors with drinks are amusing, the most fun is produced from the elaborate prop of a new barbecque, which is made to produce plumes of smoke and suddenly produce leaping two foot-high flames. When did barbecues first appear as consumer goods in Britain - the mid-sixties? It feels like a comical investigation of a comparatively new phenomenon.

Monday, 20 May 2019

A Comedy On This Day: Doctor In Charge - Which Doctor? (21 May 1972)

 I can remember watching a Galton and Simpson interview decades ago in which they explained why they preferred writing sitcoms for the BBC than ITV. You've got that extra five minutes on the BBC that ITV have to fill with commercials, they said - you can use that time to not go for the laughs.

 This episode - a breakneck farcical caper of borrowed cars reported stolen and assumed identities, which ends with all three Doctors in the cells claiming to be each other - is a good example of a story that could do with those extra five minutes. The viewer has to take quite a lot on trust, especially the one-off characters of the policemen and the dolly bird whom Doctor Collier is trying to impress. The Police Sergeant appears in increased states of strain and exasperation in every scene, ending up with his hair on end. Bob Todd is skilled at conveying this state, but we never really get to actually see what drives him to it. Similarly, Collier's date is only drawn in the broadest of strokes - we're shown her cleavage before her face! - and really deserves just an initial minute more of character comedy for us to get a sense of who she is, to understand what's at stake for her in the action.

 The Doctor series were famously a seedbed for writers of more celebrated comedies of their day (Monty Python and The Goodies). Today's script is co-written by Jonathan Lynn, and the initial scenes of Professor Loftus showing a distinguished consultant around and angling to receive an honour are very Yes, Minister.

 A couple of very nice visual moments along the way. To make up for her sketchy character, Linda Cunningham's character does at least get one (closer than anyone else) close-up, seductively holding a wine glass that's larger than you'd expect for this period. And the closing (filmed) shot of the first half - a receding George Layton desperately running after the 'stolen' car in the road, shot from the car - is an unexpected moment of quality.

Sunday, 19 May 2019

A Comedy On This Day: All Gas & Gaiters - The Bishop Entertains (20 May 1971)

 This week's story operates on two different levels. The first is familiar jolly comedy in a sitcom reality, much as you would expect to see. It’s the annual fete at the Bishop's Palace, and the Dean's wife is put out (as only Joan Sanderson could be put out) to discover that the Bishop has invited another woman to open the fete. The Archdeacon is going to tell fortunes in costume. The Dean and his wife - who must be partially sighted for this one week - fail to recognise the Archdeacon in drag swigging the Bishop's sherry from the decanter and assume that he is the Guest of Honour.

 This is pleasant enough, but the second level is a lot more interesting. We learn that the Bishop has invited this unseen woman to open the fete because she is an old flame/ unrequited love from his 1930s youth who has crossed his path again, and that he intends to make up for decades of lost time and propose to her today. William Mervyn is given quite a lot of time and space to reminisce to (the rather uncomprehending) Noote and Blunt about this lost love, telling a sad tale of attacks of shyness, lost opportunities, flares of jealousy at perceived rivals for her hand, and a chance reunion years later in a theatre crowd during the war when he discovered that she has married.

 The Bishop comes across as bit deluded and not especially sympathetic during this reminiscence, but the writers' pleasure in telling a convincing tale of lost opportunities - and the performer's skill in rendering it - still gives him an unexpected vulnerability. So the more familiar comic mechanisms that follow eventually become frustrating in a way that they normally wouldn't. Having shown us this vulnerability, and set up a situation of very high emotional stakes - planning to propose to the great unrequited love of his life - the ball is then dropped. As you might expect the Bishop's plans are thwarted, but the reactions granted to him are only the usual familiar blunder and bluster. Tantalisingly, a little depth is momentarily introduced, but isn't then followed through.

Saturday, 18 May 2019

A Comedy On This Day: Father, Dear Father: One Dog & His Man (19 May 1970)

 Hurray! This episode concentrates on Father, Dear Father's greatest asset - the Glovers' St Bernard dog, H. G. Wells. It doesn't matter if Patrick Cargill is trying to maintain his dignified composure, or his pretty blonde daughters are on screen, whenever he's in shot my attention will always fix on this large and (normally) docile creature.

 The dog isn't even trained to do very much exceptional in this episode, just head off in the wrong direction on occasions when the script asks him to. Most of H. G.'s funniest actions here occur off-screen in the viewer's imagination, either indicated through props (Patrick's chewed-up manuscript), or merely complained-about in dialogue (H. G. eating Patrick's sausage and bacon breakfast).

 In the face of all this disruption, Mr Glover gives the dog away, an action for which he faces much censure and soon regrets -
PATRICK: Nanny - doesn't anybody love me any more?

NANNY: Of course, Mr. Patrick. There must be lots of people who don't know what you've done.

 In the best scene, Patrick visits a pub at the time when he would normally be taking H. G. for a walk. Curiously, it seems to be a special dog-themed pub, with pictures and rosettes on the wall, and most of the clientele (lead by Ballard Berkeley) having brought their dogs with them. This sequence is really well choreographed, like an H. M. Bateman cartoon, with all the drinkers in the pub - horrified when they learn of Patrick's action - falling completely silent. Three appalled faces are shown in close-up rhythm - a drinker with a handlebar moustache, followed by two dogs. Then the three men at the bar slowly reply, "You gave? your dog? a-way?" in unison, exactly like a Greek chorus. It’s a bold, and televisually sophisticated, realisation of a simple comic moment.