Friday, 31 May 2019

A Comedy On This Day: Sorry! - A Chief Inspector Calls (1 June 1987)

 Unfortunately this isn't one of those memorable episodes concerned with cruelly thwarting Timothy Lumsden's personal development. It’s a less interesting farce today, with an escaped prisoner hiding in the house while Timothy's parents entertain a senior policeman and his wife.

 For bang-on mid-to-late eighties period specificity, the Lumsdens have joined a Neighbourhood Watch scheme. This was a social development that comedy screenwriters quickly latched on to at the time, creating an uncontrived reason for policemen to socialise with characters in a domestic setting, and generating new opportunities for busybody characters to behave officiously and hilarious misunderstandings to occur. The episode of Ever Decreasing Circles is probably the best of these storylines, but there was even a whole series on the theme in 1988, Wyatt's Watchdogs.

 Another period-specific detail, but one that lasted throughout the seventies and eighties is a prisoner complaining that, "I thought you were Lord Longford coming to visit!"

Thursday, 30 May 2019

A Comedy On This Day: You're Only Young Twice - And Cissie Makes Three (31 May 1979)

 This is a star vehicle where the stars' performance skills and personae do rather more of the comic work than the script. For no very good reason Peggy Mount's character starts the episode in a patriotic fervour, draped in a Union Jack and hanging a huge portrait of Churchill. Naturally, a funny foreigner (that regrettable sitcom staple) then visits the retirement home and Uncle Klaus from Dusseldorf causes disruption that manages to be simultaneously wholly predictable and largely inexplicable. Despite not having any discernable personality beyond comic mispronunciation, he's apparently a very eligible man and comes between Flora and Cissie's friendship (without much in the way of a scene to show why this might be).

 Its just as well that Peggy Mount is in this, as most of the humour derives from getting her to do things that might hopefully be funny, rather than organically arising from the character or situation - Let's dress Peggy in a WWII siren suit! Let's put her up a stepladder! Let's put her in a evening dress! As it happens, these moments do raise a smile, but only because of her and what the viewer has emotionally invested in the performer.

 To a modern eye, most of these women look about ten years too young to be in a retirement home.

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

A Comedy On This Day: Doctor At Large - No Ill Feeling! (30 May 1971)

 The most historically significant episode of the Doctor series, in which Dr. Upton stays at a hotel and John Cleese's script tries out a few ideas that will get further developed in Fawlty Towers. Timothy Bateson's hotel manager shares some traits with Basil Fawlty - he's henpecked and exasperated with guests whenever they remotely put him out in any way - but he's an altogether more morose sort of character.

 He's actually second fiddle to guest star Roy Kinnear, who plays a self-styled funny man, Mr Davidson. With his jests and quips and insistence that everyone joins in, Davidson is a memorably awful personality. If this was an episode of Monty Python, he'd be played by Eric Idle in "Wink, wink, nudge, nudge" mode, and the importance that he places on being perceived as funny make him a kind of uncle to David Brent. The story shares features with a lot of Monty Python sketches, in particular the nightmare situation of being buttonholed by a monomaniac making presumptions about you ("No ill feeling! Eh, Doc?") and a collective taking up a group insanity - the episode makes very good choric use of the other guests in the dining room, all laughing uproariously when Mr Davidson makes fun of Dr. Upton and then responding in appalled silence when Upson is compelled to tell a joke.

 There's a surprising use of a handheld camera in the two filmed inserts in this episode, giving exterior scenes a strange verite-type feel. This works especially well when Dr Upton gets startled in the street by Mr Davidson calling out to him from an office window and causing Upton to walk into a lamppost. The shaky style gives the stressful scene a sense of real-life disorientation, rather than artificial comedy choreography.

Tuesday, 28 May 2019

A Comedy On This Day: Doctor In The House - If You Can Help Somebody... Don't! (29 May 1970)

 This episode must be about as downbeat as a Doctor episode could get. It has the sort of storyline about the limits of empathy more often seen in the early series of Angels. A malingering old woman in hospital doesn't want to be discharged. She persuades the naive young doctor to visit her at home. When he does visit, despite being fully fit she uses the doctor to do her housework and buy and pay for her shopping. The doctor is then surprised to discover that the old woman doesn't live on her own, but has her daughter with her, a spinster in her thirties trapped into doing her mother's bidding. Against his better judgement the doctor asks her out. When the daughter arrives at the medical student household, she's brought her cases and has left home for good...

 This episode doesn't quite have the courage of its convictions. It sets up a dramatic situation that shows the potential for a greater range of stories and approaches within this series, but is too rushed and cheerful to really explore the situation. Garden & Oddie are writers of great comic ability, but one thing that they really weren't was Galton & Simpson. Pathos wasn't ever their hallmark, so that when the episode ends with a Steptoe-type situation of the daughter returning back home it doesn't leave much emotional impression - which it really ought to do to fully work as a story - and certainly no more than the final shot of the young doctors larking about as per usual. The best comic moments are found in the set-up, showing the ruses that the old lady uses to get others to do her bidding, and reversing conventional expectations of powerlessness.

Monday, 27 May 2019

A Comedy On This Day: Rob Brydon's Annually Retentive - 1989 (28 May 2007)

 I would think that this show-within-a-show is the least popular or well-regarded series that Rob Brydon has made. The cynical tone and media setting isn't the sort of thing to attract a broad audience, while comedy fans and TV critics were bound to compare it unfavourably with The Larry Sanders Show.

 I liked it a lot myself - enough to have bought a DVD of the second series anyway! Its partly because its target - a lazily-conceived panel show - is precisely the sort of programme that I generally dislike but still find myself watching. The behind the scenes preparations very effectively skewer the moments in these sorts of shows that make me exclaim, "How on earth did that get in?" while my eyes roll - the particularly contrived questions and forced repartee.

 Casting is very strong in this series. Much of the comedy of the parts of Brydon's manager and producer comes from little nuances of their responses to the conceited star and wouldn't work nearly so well without Sharon Horgan or Russell Tovey to realise them. In particular, Tovey's reactions in a cringe scene (where a fascinated and disapproving Brydon continually presses him to explain various homosexual practices) manage to convey a whole spectrum of reactions; incredulity, discomfort, politely-disguised affront, teasing and at the emotional heart of the scene really quite liking the Brydon character even though he's an idiot.

Sunday, 26 May 2019

A Comedy On This Day: People Like Us - The Mother (27 May 2001)

 The way this mockumentary programme is structured means that three types of comedy are always simultaneously in operation; the lives that the documentary is recording, the relationship between (unseen) presenter/ journalist Roy Mallard and his subjects at the time of recording, and Mallard's retrospective voiceover. The three forms, overlaid over each other like a palimpsest, provoke different types of response from the viewer.
 Personally, I find the voiceover less interesting and funny than the rest of it, because it's usually repetitive variants of the same lexical joke where a pontifical sentence will fall in on itself and become banal. It’s perhaps a holdover from the programme's radio origins, when this verbal humour didn't have to compete for the listener's attention with interesting visual stuff going on at the same time.

 The other two elements are great, though. The subjective style means that Roy Mallard's interaction with his subjects (in this episode, Tamsin Greig as a fatigued mother) creates a rare complicity between the character and the viewer, which can be quite muted and subtle. Most of the problematic actions in this story stem from Mallard noticing (at the same time as the viewer) a mistake that Jenny is making and momentarily hesitating out of tact, or what he says being slightly misunderstood and not getting an opportunity to correct himself. It feels lifelike to me, but in a way more often encountered in literature than comedy or drama.

 Maybe the cleverest moment is when Jenny is pushing her son's pram past a lake in which ducks are swimming. "Quack quack! Quack quack!" the mother says aloud, in a way that you only get given the leeway to do when a small child accompanies you. A dog, walked by a woman, passes by. "Woof woof" says Roy Mallard, less enthusiastically. "Fuck off!" snaps the woman. It took me a couple of seconds to register what the misunderstanding actually was...

 Something that's always under-represented on screen, even in domestic dramas and comedies, is the actual business of housework - its repetitive and relentless nature, and intermittent difficulty. So a cardinal virtue of this episode lies in one of its main plots. The mother overloads the washing machine, which then breaks down. Because the machine is under guarantee she arranges for someone to come and fix it in a few days. Her mother arrives in the afternoon to look after the baby, and is told by Jenny as she leaves the house in a hurry not to do anything about it because someone is already coming in a few days. When Jenny returns home she is infuriated to discover that her mother has got an unhelpful handyman to visit, who hasn't fixed the machine but has managed to flood the kitchen. A particular reason why Jenny is upset about this turn of events is because she didn't want her husband to know that she overloaded the machine in the first place. There's a causality to this storyline that rings particularly true to me, and which I don't think could have been achieved through a conventional sitcom form.

Saturday, 25 May 2019

A Comedy On This Day: The Smell Of Reeves & Mortimer - Hang-Dry Clothes (26 May 1995)

 For me, The Smell is probably the peak of Reeves & Mortimer's comedy. The humour of Shooting Stars was much easier for a wider audience to assimilate, but its thrown-together charms have often worn thin as they've milked it over the years.

 It’s probably their most crafted series, and it certainly had more resources put into it than Big Night Out ever did (filmed inserts! great big sets!). You can see the value of this investment in this episode's opening musical number, a medley of 'Never Let Her Slip Away', 'Without You' and 'I've Got A Lovely Bunch Of Coconuts' (the song selection funny in itself), a sequence of clever visual perspectival jokes given the same care and craft as a big 'shiny floor' Light Entertainment spectacular musical routine.

 There's an acute choice of supporting guest artistes, always adding something distinctive without taking anything away from the leads. As well as Paul Whitehouse and Mark Williams in Slade in Residence, this week's grotesque parody (Masterchef with Reeves as Lloyd Grossman with huge bulbous head levitating around the studio) is elevated by a very early appearance of Matt Lucas (as toff cannibal chef Quentin Mint) and - especially - a terrifying Morwenna Banks as Christian martyr Joan Baptiste serving her own severed ears to complete a portrait of Christ in food.

 Peculiar Wikipedia fact: "As a result of his appearances, Paul McCartney became a fan and invited Charlie Chuck to perform at one of his birthday parties". I saw his act at the time and it was quite intimidating ("Charlie, Charlie, Chuck, Chuck, Chuck went to bed with five young ducks. One DIED! Charlie CRIED!", attacks drum kit and repeat with four ducks, etc). I'd have played safe with a conjurer, I think...

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 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.

Friday, 17 May 2019

A Comedy On This Day: For The Love Of Ada - Ada Tries To Make Walter Jealous (18 May 1970)

 Although Irene Handl's smiles when she says them are endearing, Ada's malapropisms never seem to be very funny in themselves. Far more comically resonant are the occasional, now long-redundant, expressions that someone born in about 1905 must have still used. For example, once a rival for Walter's affections has left the room, Ada exclaims, "Silly bitch! Well, she is... Dressed up like a hambone and grinning like a horse collar."

 More work for John Scott Martin this episode, starting a pub scene in the second half, walking across the bar carrying a pint in each hand and inadvertently looking into the camera.

Thursday, 16 May 2019

A Comedy On This Day: Comedy Playhouse - The Bishop Rides Again (17 May 1976)

 The chemistry between the leads and general air of jollity makes this a one-off that glows with obvious potential for a future series [All Gas & Gaiters]. This initial playlet is rather stronger on silly situations than ecclesiastical politics, with much fun found out of a stipulation in a legacy that requires the Bishop to re-enact a medieval church ritual (handing out forty pairs of stockings to maidens of the parish on May Day) without deviating from Middle Ages custom, costume or transport. This doesn't score highly for plausibility, but it inspires some arresting comic images, especially in the filmed inserts - Derek Nimmo looking shifty outside a ladies' hosiers! William Mervyn, in a monk's habit, sat on a white horse!

 When dressed as monks and knocking on doors, the Bishop and the Chaplin get mistaken for reps from 'Monks Butter', with housewives presenting them with packaging and repeating a memorised slogan. This is something that comes into a number of sixties things, and which I have a dim remembered sense was still going on when I was an infant in the seventies. Its another one of those precise period details, like Green Shield Stamps or Hire Purchase being a new thing, which you start to pick up an out-of-time understanding of when you watch a lot of old British television.

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

A Comedy On This Day: Peep Show - Jeremy Broke (16 May 2008)

(Dobbie walks away)

MARK (internal thought): Did the right thing there, pretty sure. DON'T listen to you heart. That's what no one tells you, but that's probably the real grown-up truth.

 Some of its viewers seemed to respond primarily to the more grotesque incidents (in this episode Jez in a sperm bank, trying to stimulate his masturbatory impulses with the unpromising visual material of the Queen's head on a £20 note), but Peep Show was always so much more than that. Its one of the most subtly and elaborately structured comedy programmes, and one that I can return to again and again. The viewer's access to Mark and Jez's thought processes means that we gain an insight into why these characters will always by the authors of their own misfortunes, as well as the mechanics of how they contrive to get into appalling messes.

 Both men's difficulties this week stem initially from momentary lapses of judgement - Jez enrages Mark by stealing a sausage off his plate, Mark approaches a woman in a bar whom he already knows isn't interested in him - with each station of their subsequent escalating misfortunes referring back to their previous thoughts and mistakes, and forming a thesis (about Jeremy's impulsiveness and Mark's yearning to prove himself by claiming to have a girlfriend).

 On top of this, there's the novel-like cumulative narrative interest in the development of on-going storylines (the terrible workplace of JLB Credit, Mark's divorce), helped by some acutely good long-term casting. Olivia Coleman might be a very familiar face now, but her ability to convey Sophie's rage and exhaustion in her one scene in this episode has a real conviction to it, and shows sides to her character that weren't apparent in the early series.

 Peep Show's Croydon/anywhere setting and style also provide an interesting historical document of the textures and patterns of everyday life, changing over a decade. For example, Mark attends a speed dating session in this episode, as such a person might do (albeit without pleasure), for only a few years in the noughties. Are they much of a thing anymore? I would have thought that dating apps would have killed off most of them by now.

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

A Comedy On This Day: Next Of Kin - Accidental Death (15 May 1995)

 Ah, so this is how it began... I didn't catch this first episode at the time, but went on to watch the rest of the series.

 Jesus God, this is a grim half-hour. Grandparents suddenly, unwillingly, having to look after children again is a fine premise for a sitcom, but the initially set-up (their son and daughter-in-law have been killed in a car crash) is always going to be problematic for an ostensibly funny programme. The easiest option would be grandparents who loved their children sometimes finding common ground with the difficult grandchildren through shared grief, though that could be ickily sentimental. A neutral way of doing it would be to have had the parents living in Australia or somewhere, which (with a few deft lines) would explain why the grandchildren are strangers to the grandparents.

 This episode certainly doesn't go in for making the grandparents sympathetic figures. The more that we learn about the dead son and daughter-in-law, the less space we are given to empathise with the family's estrangement. One of the first things that we learn is the details of the day of the final breach, at Christmas five years ago when they were served a vegetarian meal and the daughter-in law asked them to smoke in the garden. And you think, well, at most that only sounds a bit irritating... The William Gaunt character even says at one point, "I didn't raise my son to become a vegetarian piano teacher", which doesn't sound like too much of a terrible disappointment. And certainly not worth cutting yourself off from your grandchildren for.

 You can sense the audience wondering how to respond to this. They're very keen to laugh at anything that's obviously a joke, which reminds them that they're still watching a comedy. To their credit, Penelope Keith and William Gaunt don't play against the script and mine the story for palliative moments of charm, either. In a way, the presence of an audience holds this particular episode back a bit, because the idea of parents who don't mourn their children's shocking deaths lends itself more obviously to dramatic investigation rather than inspiring laughter. As it is, there are certain significant scenes, like the policeman giving the news, that get moved away from rather too quickly because of their lack of comic potential.

 The episode's continual refusal to take any edge off a story of unsympathetic people in a horrendous situation is admirable, but also forbidding and uninviting.

Monday, 13 May 2019

A Comedy On This Day: Brass - Bradley Holds His Own (14 May 1990)

 From the final series of the 'trouble at mill' soap opera parody. Made six years after the original run, for Channel Four rather than ITV, and (from memory) not quite so good as it had been.

 This kind of rather cerebral comedy is the sort of thing that wins more awards than it does hearts. It make comedy out of elaborate plotting, experimentation with wordplay and register, and ornate visual gags in which one detail in the mise en scene eventually takes over the whole frame (such as a smoking fire that turns the screen grey, or a love scene between a craftsman painting a bomb and his girlfriend which ends with both covered in paint). Without anything much for me to latch on to emotionally, I find it easier to admire than to enjoy.

 The WWII plot concerns the secret construction of a submarine, planned to sink a fishing boat in the Irish Sea in order to drag Eire into the war. Its the properties especially made for this storyline that made me smile when I was watching this; a fake German lifebelt to be left at the scene of the crime bearing two big swastikas and the letters "Das Boot" in gothic script; the submarine itself, an impractically boxy-looking Meccano thing, very briefly shown in a clever cutaway that makes it look quite convincing; the vital component that the villain has removed from the submarine - an enormous brass plug with a red switch.

Sunday, 12 May 2019

A Comedy On This Day: Spitting Image (13 May 1984)

 This first series is still taking an age to find its feet. The only moment to really capture my imagination is a choreographed sequence in a diner during the 'Do Doo Ron Ron' Reagan musical number. For some reason they've decided to include full size figures of Ayatollah Khomeini and an Iranian woman among the revellers, meaning that - in a tiny space of a few feet - a dancer in heavy robes and a rubber mask has been expected to jump into the arms of (and be caught by) a similarly incommoded figure. It brings it home to you just how on the hoof production of this programme was.

 One thing that will invariably - if only momentarily - perk up my interest watching these old episodes is that two or three "I don't remember them having a puppet" faces will always turn up every edition. Alongside of Gary Hart, this week also features Saatchi & Saatchi and Len Murray. Len Murray! I doubt that they were still using models of trade union leaders by the mid-nineties (John Monks? Bill Morris?)

Saturday, 11 May 2019

A Comedy On This Day: Alfresco (12 May 1984)

 I find the 'pretend pub' linking sections in this second series - in which all six of the troupe play exaggerated versions of their personas in a deliberately imaginary setting - trying in the extreme. It feels thrown together, and takes away a lot of screen time that would have been much better spent on proper, crafted, sketches.

 When you eventually get to those, they're always more comically interesting than ever actively funny to my find. Ben Elton had a rather theoretical sense of what makes a sketch - set up a premise which you then undermine through reversing, characters will then lose composure and behave eccentrically, etc. - but Robbie Coltrane, Hugh Laurie, Siobhan Redmond and Emma Thompson were all such good comic actors that there are often little flashes of surprising characterisation which outshine the material that they're working with.

 One case in point is a skit with Coltrane and Redmond as parents who visit an Educational Officer (Laurie) in the naive expectation that they can send their son to Eton. The point of the sketch is quickly apparent, and it doesn't escalate in any very interesting way, but Hugh Laurie manages to find a different response to convey awkwardness, condescension and having to convey disappointment for each successive exchange that gives the routine a depth and conviction. It’s taped in a real office (one of a large number of sketches recorded on OB), which gives the proceedings a muted, real life mood.

 There's also a sketch about an exclusive restaurant not accepting a diner without a tie, a familiar scenario. When did people finally stop doing versions of this old comedy standby?

Friday, 10 May 2019

A Comedy On This Day: Get Some In! (11 May 1978)

 Although this late episode is only mildly funny, it’s still worth watching as a good example of Esmonde & Larbey's storytelling skills.

 Corporal Marsh is still enjoying his status as a modest military hero, believed to have carried his dying colleague through snowy wastes for two days. The episode starts with his telling the tale once again, this time to an adoring audience in a Church Hall. This heroic tale is undercut by flashbacks of his cowardice in action - with the snowy wilderness rather hopefully realised through a lot of polystyrene snow being thrown at Tony Selby in a little corner of the Teddington studio.

 The four young airmen are in the audience for this event, which is hosted by Lilley's Vicar father. Despairing at watching Marsh take everyone in, the milksop character of Lilly reasons that if you can't beat them join them, vowing to now follow Marsh's example. Sitcom audiences always appreciate an 'out of character' story, and derive some pleasure through watching this wet character indulge himself with drinking, leering and attempting some PG certificate swearing.

 The end of the episode is particularly interesting. Lilley's colleagues get fed up with Lilley as a bully and braggart, and send for his vicar father to come over and see him right again. Lilley comes into possession of an incriminating diary from the dead man in the snow, offering ample evidence of Marsh's lies and cowardice. The episode ends with Marsh pleading Lilley for a copy of the diary, and the Reverend Lilley handing it back to Marsh. The priest's reasoning is that, instead of shopping him, the best course of action is to leave the matter to Marsh's guilty conscience. Its a curiously unprescriptive and ambiguous ending which makes the viewer consider the morality of actions, and a moment that lends the preceding merriment considerable depth and thoughtfulness.