Wednesday, 4 June 2014

BBC2’s(50th Anniversary) Big Bumper Comedy Weekend

This weekend celebrated 50 years of comedy on BBC2. Its starting programme, a documentary narrated by Joanna Lumley, meant I stayed up far too late on a Friday night for fear of missing some forgotten gem. But really, all I ended up staying up for was to see Ricky Gervais sniggering over the word "rape" (the least said about which the better) and Basil Fawlty hitting his car with that tree AGAIN. Why is this the only clip they ever show of Fawlty Towers? It’s probably my least favourite scene. It doesn’t even age well, since cars don’t regularly break down any more, and we just call the RAC out if they do. Or maybe I don't like it because it strikes a chord too close to the bone. At times of extreme exhaustion or grief I've felt that angry myself, and would gladly have decked a machine demonstrating similar technical imcompetence, like a Boots self-service till insisting there is an unauthorised item in its bagging area, had an appropriate pile of twigs been to hand.

Fawlty Towers is without doubt one of the funniest television programmes ever, but it has far better moments than a madman thrashing the bonnet of an Austin 1300. Such as Basil throwing the typewriter at the fire alarm button. Such as Basil picking up a piece of fluff from the floor and asking a particularly difficult guest if it’s a piece of her brain. Such as Manuel setting the kitchen on fire. Such as the rat in the biscuit tin. Such as Basil miming the name “Dragonfly” to Polly behind Sybil’s back. Such as Geoffrey Palmer wanting his sausages. Such as Basil trying to locate a duck a l’orange in a trifle. Such as Basil threatening to send Manuel to a vivisectionist. Such as Basil simultaneously dealing with a shifty Irish builder on the phone and a peer of the realm in reception. Such as the pointless three stairs up and three steps down on the landing. Such as Sybil on the phone to Audrey ( “Ooh, I know...”) Such as Basil answering the phone with “Fawlty Titties” when looking at one of Polly’s drawings. I could, obviously, go on and on.

I wrote a Fawlty Towers play while at school. By “wrote” I mean copied several chunks out of my brother’s script book and cobbled them together to make a new episode about a load of 11 year old girls from my school going on an architectural field trip to Torquay. Trust me, this was quite a good in-joke on which to base my storyline. Basil had bought a load of dodgy eggs from a back-of-a-lorry supplier so omelette, and only omelette, was on the lunch menu. Only then Basil found out that the eggs were potentially riddled with salmonella. This was, you see, the era of Edwina Currie. Which if Major Gowen had ever had his newspaper delivered, Basil may have been aware of. There were also a couple of travelling salesmen staying in the hotel - I forget why or what they were selling, only that it was some dire food product that the guests all had to eat instead of their omelettes at the end. I played Manuel, and foolishly wrote myself in a guitar solo at the end. In Spanish. Though as Manuel is from Barcelona, it should technically have been Catalan. Either way, I spoke neither language at the time. And I couldn't play the guitar. But with my friend Vicky’s brilliant Sybil impression and my friends Phil and Jane playing the opening theme on the school piano, we just about pulled the whole thing off. Watery Fowls.
Me (aged 16) as Manuel
This same weekend also brought the return of The Fast Show to our screens, albeit in the form of repeating some episodes previously shown online. Very different from Fawlty Towers of course, but equally, if not more, quotable, since it is a show based solely on catchphrases. But these new sketches struck me as anything but “fast”. They were rather lengthy. This was partially due to Mark Williams having refused to take part. It was his characters that contributed the “fast”er sketches: notably Jesse’s tips (“I ‘ave been mostly...”), “You ain’t seen me, right?” and “I’ll get me coat”. Mark Williams was also responsible for two of my favourites, Patrick Nice (“Which was nice” is one Fast Show catchphrase I regularly use), and the family forever frantically on the move with a jumble of luggage. So I was always going to feel his absence. Mark Williams lives in Brighton and was frequently spotted waiting for trains at Clapham Junction by my southwest London colleagues. Though Williams himself once recounted a train crawling past him on the platform, with the driver leaning out of his cab saying, “You ain’t seen me, right?”. Which was nice.
Clapham Junction
Nonetheless, it was great to see some of the other famous characters re-appearing, such as Rowley Birkin QC (“I was very, very drunk”), “Does my bum look big in this?” and Ted and Ralph. And cheesy peas! I had totally forgotten about cheesy peas. But Jazz Club just didn’t work with a nicotine patch replacing “Shmokin’...”- Mark Thompson appeared to have lost his previously immaculate comic timing. And Swiss Toni had just become crude.

I was always surprised to discover, when I got back from a term at university, that my parents had been watching The Fast Show. Our daughter is too young by at least a decade (if not two) to share our love of the programme, but she is obsessed with the colour black. She may not be as dark or over-reactive as Johnny Nice Painter, but it definitely makes us chuckle when she paints a lovely (in a somewhat loose sense of the word) picture, and then spots the final colour in the palette. She will then pick up her brush and shout “Black! Black!”, covering her work with smears of...Noir. Jet. Ebony. Raven. Onyx. Obsidian. Whatever.
Black! Black! Black!
Paul Whitehouse was also on our screens the following evening, this time with Harry Enfield, one of the University of York’s more famous graduates. Harry And Paul's Story Of The Twos did what it said on the tin and gave us their own potted history of BBC2, with Enfield's Simon Schama introducing us to various programmes as well as (largely fictional) bigwigs in the channel’s history, all of whom had a surname connected with Oxford, Cambridge or both.  The show had some very funny moments, but the only one that appears to have stuck in my mind is Enfield’s superb impression of Ian Hislop on Have I Got News For You. There was also a good spoof of the Monty Python Dead Parrot sketch, except that we had learned by staying up late on Friday night, that Monty Python's Flying Circus was actually broadcast on BBC1, not 2.

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