Thirty years of Spitting Image

Chris Hallam's World View

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John Major was entirely painted in grey. Home Secretary Kenneth Baker was a slug. Future Prime Minister Tony Blair was portrayed as a wayward child while Edwina Currie was a malevolent Cruella Deville figure. The puppet-based comedy Spitting Image fist appeared on our screens thirty years ago in 1984 and ran until 1996. There had never been anything like it before and has been nothing like it on British TV since.  It made its mark on the times in a way that no other comedian, TV show or satirical cartoon of the time could ever have managed.

Perhaps it could only have started in 1984, a time when the forces of conservatism seemed perilously close to absolute victory. Margaret Thatcher, simultaneously the most loved and loathed Prime Minister of all time, had won a second landslide election victory the year before and was now taking on the miners, a battle…

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Blackadder II: The perfect TV comedy?

This piece is reproduced from Chortle. It first appeared in January 2011. 

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p036d0c1Twenty five years ago this month, British television comedy came as close to achieving perfection as it has ever done before or since. Blackadder II (otherwise known as ‘the Elizabethan one’) first appeared on our screens.

Of course, Blackadder itself started in 1983, so we’ve already marked its quarter-century. What need is there to mark the anniversary of its second series?

In my view, Blackadder II is worth celebrating simply because it is a breed apart from either its predecessor or sequels. The first series, set during the Wars of the Roses, was, for the most part, as overblown as it was overbudget. While it undeniably had its moments, the end result, written by Richard Curtis and Rowan Atkinson, was close to being a TV flop. Blackadder II therefore came very close to not being made at all.

Ð_еÑ_нÐ_Ñ_гÐ_Ð_юкÐ_2_blackadder_ii_1600x900_hd-wallpaper-21584A large measure of the success of the second series is undeniably down to the Blackadder himself, Rowan Atkinson. Wisely leaving the writing to Curtis and new partner Ben Elton, Atkinson also abandoned the foppish, Mr Bean-like – and frankly annoying – persona he had hastily adopted for the first series. Very much at ease in a new beard and costume (producer John Lloyd has even suggested the part made Atkinson aware of his own sexuality in a way he hadn’t been before), the new Blackadder was devious and deeply sarcastic.

Whether displaying his skills as one of England’s finest liars (‘Oh my God, Percy! A giant hummingbird is about to eat your hat and cloak!’), attempting to teach Baldrick mathematics (‘For you the Renaissance was something that happened to other people wasn’t it?’) or simply saying ‘Bob’ (apparently said in a way to mask Atkinson’s own slight speech impediment), the performance is a comic masterclass.

Blackadder

Virtually everyone else in the cast is on career best form too. While Tony Robinson arguably overdoes Baldrick’s stupidity in the later series, this time he gets it exactly right. Having been an intelligent character in the first series whose ‘cunning plans’ were genuinely good, in this series, perhaps balanced by Tim McInnery’s equally gormless Lord Percy, his performance is perfect.

And then, there is Queenie. In a career otherwise undistinguished by many comedy roles, Miranda Richardson, then hot after a dramatic turn in Mike Newell’s Dance With A Stranger, gives the performance of her life as the last Tudor monarch, throwing the convention of Elizabeth as a hardened almost masculine leader on its head by portraying her as a spoilt, coquettish but potentially dangerous child.

queen_elizabeth_blackadderWith a then up-and-coming Stephen Fry as the obsequious Lord Melchett and Patsy Byrne as the barmy udder-fixated Nursie, it really is the cast from heaven. And even this ignores the contribution of guest stars Tom Baker as mad Captain Rum (‘You have a woman’s hand, m’lady!’) or Rik Mayall as the memorably lascivious Lord Flashheart, a character who despite only being in one scene, could potentially have had a series of his own.

Could something as good as Blackadder II be made today? I don’t see why not but it’s hard to imagine that lightning would strike twice. Perhaps it was just tremendous good fortune that it caught so many figures of the ‘alternative’ comedy scene at the peak of their game. Yes, Blackadder the Third and Blackadder Goes Forth are great series too. But neither are quite what Blackadder II is.

And finally, isn’t it about time the reputation of Ben Elton enjoyed something of a reassessment? Currently one of the most hated men in comedy after his overexposure in the Eighties and perceived ‘selling out’ his co-authorship of the three great Blackadder series is often overlooked. But come on! Richard Curtis didn’t write it all himself. And to misquote the series ‘life without Blackadder II would be like a broken pencil. Pointless’.

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Read more: Blackadder II: The perfect TV comedy? : Correspondents 2011 : Chortle : The UK Comedy Guide

DVD review: An Inspector Calls

Chris Hallam's World View

BBC Worldwide release date: September 21st 2015

Starring:  David Thewlis, Miranda Richardson, Ken Stott, Sophie Rundle, Kyle Soller

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It’s 1912 and all is well with the world. The Titanic is about to set sail, there most definitely isn’t about to be a global World War in two years as the well to do Berling family settle down for a dinner to celebrate the engagement of their daughter. The only trouble is someone claiming to be a police inspector (Thewlis) is at the door with news of a dearth. He is about to blow the complacent world of the Burlings and their selfish “everyone for themselves” philosophy apart forever.

Screened earlier this month, this is an excellent BBC version of JB Priestley’s classic Attlee era socialist play. All the cast, particularly David Thewlis are superb and the introduction of flashbacks invigorates the play, bringing the action vividly to life.

Bonus…

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DVD review: Mapp & Lucia

Chris Hallam's World View

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It’s 1930 and the peace of the village of Tilling is unsettled by the arrival of two outsiders. The duo: Mrs. Emmeline Lucas (Anna Chancellor) and her male companion Georgie Pillson (Steve Pemberton) are an odd pair but, it soon becomes clear, nowhere near as odd as the people of Tilling itself. For this is truly a world of eccentrics, peopled by drunken majors, vicars with fake accents, intriguing lifestyle choices and of posh women who though ostensibly polite rarely say what they actually mean. Chief of them all is Miss Elizabeth Mapp (a toothsome Miranda Richardson), a social tyrant in the guise of a benign village spinster. It is only a matter of time before she and her new tenant Lucas (known as Lucia) become locked in a battle of wills.

Do not be fooled. This may be filmed in genteel village surroundings and was screened in three parts over the Christmas…

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Book review: Five Year Mission: The Labour Party under Ed Miliband by Tim Bale

Chris Hallam's World View

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Five Year Mission: The Labour Party under Ed Miliband by Tim Bale

The Miliband years are never likely to be viewed with much nostalgia by Labour supporters.
The rot began early with the reaction of David Miliband’s supporters to their candidate’s surprise defeat by his younger brother Ed in September 2010:
“Rather than pulling themselves together or else walking away and sulking in silence, they would begin badmouthing ‘the wrong brother’, telling anyone who would listen, that his victory was illegitimate, that it had been won only by cosying up to the unions and telling the party what it wanted to hear, and that Labour had made a terrible mistake…”
Thus the legend of the “wrong Miliband”” was born with David’s reputation grossly overinflated most commonly by the Tory newspapers who would undoubtedly have savaged him every day had he become leader.
As Tim Bale notes in this excellent account…

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Book review: Us by David Nicholls

Chris Hallam's World View

Us book cover

Us
By David Nicholls
Hodder & Stoughton
£20

Us is the story of Douglas and Connie, a couple who are drifting towards old age who react to the imminent departure of their son Albie for university in a rather more dramatic way than usual: they decide to split up.
Or rather Connie does. Douglas, the narrator, a scientist persists in living in a state of denial over the matter. At any rate, he has the trio’s ongoing Grand Tour, a 21st century version of the big trips Georgian young men took in the 18th century, to win her back. Douglas soon finds himself in danger of losing his son too and across France, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands finds himself engaged in a struggle to win his family back.
All this may sound very different to David Nicholls’ previous book, One Day, which followed the two main characters on the…

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Book review: The Frood: The Authorised and Very Official History of Douglas Adams & The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Jem Roberts

Chris Hallam's World View

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Frood, as in “There’s a frood who really knows where his towel is” is a word created by Douglas Adams himself. He would never have referred to himself as one of course and one wonders if the term which is defined as a “really amazing together guy” by no less an authority than The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy generally applied to Adams, a man who was, after all, notorious for missing deadlines. What’s not in dispute, thirty five years after his first novel first appeared and thirteen years after his absurdly premature death is that Adams was a genius and among the top set of the best British comic writers of the twentieth century.

Adams was at his least “froody” only a short while before his greatest success. Six foot five inches tall and prone to taking day long baths while his housemate rising comedy producer legend John Lloyd…

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DVD review: Inside No 9 Series 2

Chris Hallam's World View

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The premise behind Inside No. 9 is so thin that it barely amounts to a premise at all. Every story occurs inside a different “No.9” usually a house number although sometimes something else, for example, as in the first of this series, a railway carriage. That’s it. But from this, writers and performers Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith have found the perfect vehicle for their brilliantly judged macabre humour.

Anyone who has ever fancied travelling on a sleeper carriage may well be put off the idea forever by “La Couchette”. This first episode sees Shearsmith’s doctor increasingly disturbed by first, a flatulent drunk (Pemberton), then a noisy middle aged couple before finally a pair of randy young backpackers (Jack Whitehall and Jessica Gunning) discover something which changes the nature of the journey for everyone.

The 12 Days of Christine starring Sheridan Smith is a more sober but hugely effective piece…

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A century of George Brown

Chris Hallam's World View

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September 2014 marks the centenary of the birth of one of the most eccentric Labour politicians in British political history. George Brown was a leading figure in Harold Wilson’s government and deserves to be remembered as more than just a drunk. He was, however, an erratic sometimes aggressive figure who will always be associated with Private Eye’s famous euphemism ” tired and emotional”.
Like the “unwell” in “Jeffrey Bernard is unwell”, tired and emotional was usually taken to mean “pissed again”.
Although he rose to be Foreign Secretary and almost became party leader, Brown’s career was blighted by his tendency to get drunk on very small amounts of alcohol. Ironically, Harold Wilson, Brown’s chief rival who ultimately bested him by becoming party leader and then PM is now known to have been effectively an alcoholic while in office. But he concealed it much better than Brown did.
Here are some…

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DVD review: Bad Education Series 3

Chris Hallam's World View

Bad Education S3 DVD

BBC Worldwide

Release date: 31st August 2015

Starring: Jack Whitehall, Matthew Horne, Sarah Solemani, Harry Enfield, James Fleet, Harry Peacock

Bad Education is currently following the likes of Alan Partridge, The Inbetweeners and (ahem) On The Buses in moving from the small to the big screen. What better time then, than to revisit the final series of Jack Whitehall’s school-based sitcom first broadcast on the now doomed BBC Three in 2014?

Little has changed at Abbey Grove as the incompetent History teacher Alfie Wickers (Whitehall) embarks on a new term. Eccentric head teacher and self proclaimed “succeed-o-phile” Fraser (Horne) is now sporting a Peter Andre style haircut, there’s a new sassy kid in class (Cleo played by Weruche Opia) but Alfie is still pining for Miss Gulliver (Solemani) as before. However, his embarrassingly sex-obsessed father (Enfield) ha s now been rather improbably appointed deputy headmaster, much to Alfie’s horror…

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