Book review: Monty Python’s Hidden Treasures by Adrian Besley

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Published by: Carlton Books
It is a sad fact that the world today can be divided into two groups. Those who, like me, will always be amused by the likes of the Dirty Fork Sketch (punchline: “A good job I didn’t tell them about the dirty knife as well!”), the Upper Class Twit of the Year contest (“Nigel Incubator-Jones. His best friend is a tree. Works as a stockbroker in his spare time”), the quiz show Blackmail, the Ministry of Silly Walks, the Funniest Joke in the World and, of course, the Dead Parrot Sketch.

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Then there are those, perhaps a majority now sadly, for whom the humour of Monty Python’s Flying Circus will always be a mystery. Like The Goon Show which is now largely incomprehensible to anyone born after 1960, MPFC is increasingly dated.
Disparate members of the first group even those like me who were born after the series finished are thus forced to eternally roam the land muttering catchphrases (“nudge nudge, wink wink, likes photography? I bet she does! I bet she does!”) which are totally incomprehensible to the second group and trying to convince them it was funny.
In truth, although patchy as all TV sketch shows are, it really was often very funny. The cause was helped by the films too, particularly the Life of Brian, which have by and large aged better than the series.
This book attempts to bridge the gap still further with (if I may quote from the press release) “22 removable facsimiles of rare memorabilia from their official archives, including hand-scribbled scripts, cue sheets, character lists, posters, and animation artwork”. If the aim is to introduce the uninitiated to the ways of Python, I’m not sure it succeeds. Would anyone who didn’t know the series well buy it anyway? I doubt it.
But for any Python fans out there, this is a lovely book and a beautifully crafted treat for them.
And let’s not forget the Spanish Inquisition. Nobody expects…oh bugger.

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DVD review: Inside No. 9 – Series Three

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Cert: 18. BBC Worldwide

Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith, Philip Glenister, Keeley Hawes, Tamzin Outhwaite, Peter Kay

Continuing in the richly darkly comic vein of the previous two series, onetime League of Gentlemen Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith write and perform in six more one off stories, all linked by the fact that they involve the number nine.

For the 2016 Christmas special The Devil At Christmas, we join the Devonshire family (including Pemberton, plus his pregnant wife played by Jessica Raine and mother-in-law Rula Lenska) as they embark on an alpine holiday in 1970s Austria. Ingeniously, the episode is presented in the form of a 1970s film apparently being accompanied by a DVD audio commentary supplied by the production’s director (voiced by Derek Jacobi). There’s thus more than a shade of Acorn Antiques or perhaps Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace as continuity errors within the slightly shoddily made film within the film abound. But this not detract from an undeniably dark undercurrent. As local guide Klaus (Shearsmith) tells of the legend of Krampus (a sort of demonic anti-Santa), it becomes apparent something very sinister is going on both within the film but also behind the scenes. Ironically, this episode also comes with its own audio commentary on this actual DVD.

The second episode, The Bill deals with a perhaps more familiar setting as a group of businessmen including two played by Philip Glenister and Jason Watkins, meet for dinner. Matters escalate dramatically and alarmingly during negotiations over payment of the bill at the end of the night.

Series Two’s third episode The 12 Days of Christine starring Sheridan Smith was the standout episode and the same may well be true of The Riddle of the Sphinx in Series Three. Both terrifically clever and ultimately quite horrific, the story sees Pemberton playing a legendary puzzle compiler known as “the Sphinx” tutoring a wayward student (Alexandra Roach) who has broken into his quarters in the ways of the cryptic crossword. Like most such crosswords, nothing is quite what it first appears to be.

Empty Orchestra is, of course, as cryptic crossword fans will know, the literal meaning of the Japanese word karaoke. Set at a somewhat turbulent office party situated in a karaoke bar, the increasingly acrimonious mood amongst the work mates, all under threat of redundancy, is cleverly matched by the selection of songs.

To say the penultimate episode of the series Diddle Diddle Dumpling dealing with a husband (Shearsmith’s) obsession with a stray number nine shoe which he has found, is the weakest of these six episodes is no insult. The standard is very high.

Finally, Private View set in a sinister art exhibition features the distinguished likes of Morgana Robinson and Felicity Kendall, plus a bizarre cameo from Peter Kay. It combines horror and comedy just as brilliantly as Series Two’s finale Séance Time did and satisfactorily brings to an end another superb series.

 

Book review: Viz Annual 2017 The Bookie’s Pencil

Viz has been available nationwide for well over thirty years now, but let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that you’ve never heard of it, as surprisingly, many people haven’t. The first thing to emphasise is that this is anthology based on an adult comic and so not suitable for children. Or, for that matter, prudish or sensitive adults.

Once upon a time, Viz annuals were called things like “The Big Pink Stiff One”. This one is called “The Bookie’s Pencil,” a euphemism which I’ve never heard anyone use. Can we conclude from this that Viz has grown more subtle over the years?

No, it hasn’t.

The formula has remained largely unchanged. Comic regulars include:

Roger Mellie: The Man on the Telly:  A TV presenter who is notoriously foul mouthed when off air (and sometimes when on).

Spawny Get: A character whose luck varies dramatically from frame to frame, usually ending with him implausibly having sex with a large number of attractive women.

The Fat Slags: Two promiscuous overweight Geordie girls.

Spoilt Bastard: Almost self explanatory. A git who bullies his pathetic elderly mother into getting whatever he wants. This is generally one of the cleaner stories as is Mrs Brady, Old Lady, a geriatric who complains that no one will give up their seat for her on the bus and thus stands throughout even though the bus is virtually empty.

Often it is the newspaper, Top Tips and Letterbocks pages which provide the highlights.

In short, enter if you dare. A lack of squeamishness and an understanding of the traditions  of British comics and north-eastern regional dialects will all prove an advantage.

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Book Review: Gilliamesque by Terry Gilliam

For more on Terry Gilliam, see my feature The Imaginarium of Terry Gilliam in issue 14 of Geeky Monkey magazine.

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Gilliamesque: A Pre-Posthumous Memoir by Terry Gilliam, published by Canongate, 2016

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Terry Gilliam has always stood out from the crowd.

Even when in Monty Python, he stood out somewhat as the one American. Slightly odd looking, he mostly remained off screen at first, producing instead the celebrated animated sequences (for example, during the series’ opening titles sequences) for which he became famous. Nearly fifty years on, this book, his memoir is illustrated throughout in a similarly unique style.

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Like many people called Terry (Terry Pratchett, Terry Brooks, fellow Python Terry Jones, er, Terry Scott?). Gilliam found himself drawn to the fantasy genre. His directing career began awkwardly with co-directing Python ventures with Jones. Although mostly good films in the end, they were tough shoots with Jones and Gilliam gently wrestling for overall control and the likes of Cleese and Palin losing patience with the American who they felt treated them like they were bits of animated card.

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Gilliam really came into his own in the first half of the Eighties with brilliantly imaginative fantasies like Time Bandits and Brazil. He’s had many fine moments since – notably The Fisher King and Twelve Monkeys  and has undeniably developed a unique visual style. Despite this, he has never developed a reputation for being a safe pair of hands, largely due to high profile flops like The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) and The Adventures of Don Quixote which never even completed filming.

Though he sometimes adopts an overly defensive tone when discussing his own films, Gilliam makes for an engaging likeable narrator on his own life. The world of cinema would certainly have been poorer without him.

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British Public Take BFJ To Their Hearts

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People all over the land have been thrilling to the antics of the huge lumbering giant BFJ otherwise known as Boris Fucking Johnson.

“I love how he uses funny long words which nobody really understands, like rambunctious and flibbertigibbet,” says Colin, 66, from Kent. “I also like how he travels to lots of different countries all around the world really fast.”

Miranda, 44, from Chelsea, also enjoys Boris Fucking Johnson’s adventures. “He’s always saying the wrong thing!” she laughs. “He blows dreams into people’s ears. Mainly dreams about the UK benefiting economically from the European Union.”

Boris Fucking Johnson has definitely not been seen enticing young women out of their windows as some had claimed.

Less popular recent characters from the same stable include George Osborne’s Marvellous Economic Medicine and The Fantastic Dr. Liam Fox.

News: Tom Daley to go weekly

Tom Daley to go weekly

After over twenty years, it has been announced that the Olympic bronze-winning diver Tom Daley is to go weekly. “Tom is very popular and has been a big success,” a spokesman said, “but some segments have been increasingly skimpy of late, particularly around the trunks section. Fans should still enjoy a less frequent and more substantial Tom in the years to come.” The announcement follows similar recent format changes for the actresses Honeysuckle Months, Keira Fort-Knightley and the gradual transformation of Gary Numan into Gary Oldman.

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Olympic results “unfair” claim protesters

Large numbers of protesters have gathered to complain about Britain’s medal tally at the Rio Olympics, with some arguing that the event should be completely re-staged. “It’s an outrage,” said one. “Many of the judges looked like they didn’t know what they were doing. I bet some of them were too working class or old to make informed decisions on such complex issues. I don’t think some of them had even been to London, let alone lived there.” “Perhaps the Olympics could be re-staged in another city in about four years time?” suggested another. “They could do that every four years, in fact, until we get the result we want.”

Tom Daley “wins entire Rio Olympics” single handed

Reports have been coming in that British diver Tom Daley has won every event at the Rio 2016 Olympics on his own. Some commentators have disputed this, one claiming, “Tom’s a damn good fellow but I’m sure in the synchronised diving event at least one other person was involved.” “There actually may have been someone else diving too,” admits one correspondent. “But our deadlines are very tight and I didn’t get the fellow’s name if there was anyone else there. It was also very hard to see: whoever it was was very awkwardly placed. Tom was right in front of them during the entire dive.”

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Film review: Dad’s Army (2016)

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Who did they think they were kidding?

A new film version of the classic BBC TV comedy series about the Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard was never likely to win over fans of the much loved sitcom.

But in fairness, while certainly not great, this isn’t all bad. The casting is mostly successful, Toby Jones actually achieving the near impossible mission of filling Arthur Lowe’s shoes as Captain Mainwaring. Line of Duty star Daniel Mays is also excellent as the spiv Private Walker and Michael Gambon (despite a needlessly crude scene in which he pisses on another character) does an admirable job of evoking the spirit of the placid Private Godfrey (originally played by Arnold Ridley). There is an admirable attempt to expand the female cast (perhaps a slight failing of the original show) including Alan Partridge’s Felicity Montagu as the formidable and previously unseen Elizabeth Mainwaring.

There is quite a lot that is bad though. Although mostly competent, most of the cast such as Tom Courtenay as Jones (a genuinely old actor playing the character Clive Dunn played in middle age) and Bill Nighy’s Wilson generally remind you of the old cast just enough to annoy you rather than truly replacing them.Blake Harrison of the Inbetweeners completely misjudges Pike playing him more as a debonair lech than as the juvenile “stupid boy” Ian Lavender perfected despite both actors playing the role at a similar age.

Like the 1971 film, the movie errs in making the platoon face a very specific foe in this case in the form of spy Catherine Zeta Jones. In the TV series, the real but unseen threat posed by the Nazis overseas was usually deemed sufficient although in fairness this is perhaps an inevitable consequence of expanding Dad’s Army into a full length film.

Unanswered questions abound though. Why does the film start in 1944 when in reality that was the year the Home Guard ceased activity anyway? Why is one group of characters shown in fox hunting regalia, when hunting never occurred during the war? Why does the plot hinge on a civilian telephone call to occupied Paris, an impossibility at the time? Why does Jones suddenly start making a fairly deep philosophical point on one occasion? Why is Wilson suddenly revealed as an ex-university don?

This isn’t a disaster and is certainly respectful to the memory of the series. But forty years on from the end of the series, one wonders if even despite its surprisingly strong box office (mostly, like the Brexit result, due to older audiences) if this will be our final visit to Walmington-on-Sea.

Director: Oliver Parker. Cast: Toby Jones, Catherine Zeta Jones, Bill Nighy, Bill Paterson, Michael Gambon, Daniel Mays, Felicity Montagu, Alison Steadman, Sarah Lancashire

 

 

 

 

DVD review: Upstart Crow

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You could feel the shockwaves reverberating around the British comedy world for days afterwards: Ben Elton had written a good sitcom.

It should not have been a shock, of course. Elton co-wrote two of the best British sitcoms of all time, The Young Ones and Blackadder, indeed, the three best series of Blackadder. The ghost of Blackadder II hangs over Upstart Crow which also has an Elizabethan setting. It is not as good as Blackadder II (few things are) but it’s a noble attempt.

David Mitchell plays William Shakespeare, a man torn between the demands of his rather lowbrow Stratford household and that of London and his pursuit of a career as a playwright and a poet. At home, he has a loving wife Anne (Liza Tarbuck), a permanently grumpy teenage daughter (the excellent Helen Monks of Raised By Wolves in an underwritten part) and his elderly parents (Harry Enfield and Paula Wilcox). Much to his frustration, all of Shakespeare’s family react to his work rather as many modern schoolchildren would. His father openly admits to finding his son’s plays dull while the others tire of his fondness for clever wordplay.

“It’s what I do!” Mitchell’s Bard defends himself, in what almost becomes a catchphrase. “If you do your research, my stuff is actually really funny.”

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Programme Name: Upstart Crow – TX: n/a – Episode: Upstart Crow – Generics (No. n/a) – Picture Shows: Greene (MARK HEAP) – (C) BBC – Photographer: Colin Hutton

His London life, meanwhile, involves Kate (Gemma Whelan) who longs to act  (a profession not then open to women), his manservant Bottom (Rob Rouse, a cleverer, cleaner version of Baldrick) and Marlowe (Tim Downie, excellent), Shakespeare’s doomed contemporary, here played an arrogant but charming womaniser (“a clever girl is an ugly girl, ” is his advice to Kate). There are elements of Blackadder in all of this: Kate has similarities to “Bob,” a reference later made explicit. Marlowe is also reminiscent of the late Rik Mayall’s Lord Flashman and some of the scenarios and jokes involving potatoes and dungeons are reminiscent of the earlier series deliberately or not. Future sitcom scholars may also wish to compare the openings to episode 2 of this to the start of Blackadder II’s final episode Chains.

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Upstart Crow goes wrong when it goes down the predictable route of showing how Shakespeare  finds inspiration for his plays in real life. This isn’t a bad idea in itself but it rarely works here. Other quibbles? The always brilliant Mark Heap (Spaced, Friday Night Dinner) although impressive is never given much chance to be funny as Shakespeare’s rival Greene and the scenes involving the rehearsal of the actual plays are less good, the exception being Spencer Jones’ spot on piss take of Ricky Gervais.

Twelve years ago, the idea of Ben Elton taking the piss out of then post-Office comedy supremo Gervais would have been unthinkable but his stock has fallen and Elton’s has risen since then. Upstart Crow is far from flawless but it provides David Mitchell with his best sitcom role since Peep Show, contains some laugh out loud funny one liners and marks a definite return to form for Ben Elton, one of Britain’s most unfairly maligned comedic talents.

p03vbsb4Released: BBC Worldwide. Out: now. Starring: David Mitchell, Liza Tarbuck, Gemma Whelan, Rob Rouse, Harry Enfield, Paula Wilcox, Tim Downie, Helen Monks, Mark Heap

DVD review: Alan Partridge Mid Morning Matters Series 2

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Bonus features: Outtakes

155 minutes

Starring: Steve Coogan, Tim Key, Reece Shearsmith, Julian Barratt,  Rosie Cavaliero, Phil Cornwell, Monica Dolan, Katherine Jakeways

Hurrah for Alan Partridge!

A full quarter century after his first appearance as a nasal East Anglian sports commentator on Radio 4’s On The Hour, the socially maladroit, Daily Mail reading North Norfolk disc jockey returns in his second series of Mid Morning Matters. Although it has been five years since Alan last appeared in this format – his book, I, Partridge and generally successful big screen outing Alpha Papa coming in between – little has changed for Alan in the ensuing period, despite occasional visits from his girlfriend Angela (Monica Dolan, introduced in the film).

Otherwise, Alan is his usual barely tolerable self regardless of whether he is getting drunk and tucking into a “beef sponge” during an on air book group feature, subjecting his captive audience to his own dramatised version of the lives of William and Kate, revealing his darkest fantasies about TV presenter Julia Bradbury or simply tormenting the hapless “Sidekick Simon” (Tim Key), this is often awkward but always enjoyable.

Alan remains a great comedy creation, often sympathetic (unexpectedly bringing out the softer side of a loathsome opinion former played by Reece Shearsmith) but just as often sickeningly egotistical, politically incorrect and tyrannical, this format (which never sees Alan leaving the radio studio) works well.

Lovely stuff. Roll on Series 3…

 

 

 

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.

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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