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 itself.
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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Why there are no conservative comedians…anywhere.

Chris Hallam's World View

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Ooh! Naughty BBC Radio 4! Apparently they’ve been producing approximately five times as many jokes about the Tories as they have about Labour! It seems the Daily Mail were right about the Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation all along! Go back to Moscow, commies! If you love China so much (or indeed anywhere that’s actually communist these days. Laos?) why don’t you go and live there? Why don’t you marry Raul Castro? Come on BBC! We know you want to.

Well, no. Actually the BBC have an excuse and to be honest it’s a pretty good one. It seems that there are not enough comedians of a conservative ilk around. Caroline Raphael, Radio 4’s comedy commissioner admits they have trouble recruiting comics from the Right. And before anyone splutters at this, think about it. It may well be true.

I’ve bored Chortle readers on the subject of the dearth of conservative comedy…

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Twenty five years of Have I Got News For You: A timeline

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A quarter of a century ago this month, Maggie still ruled Britain, the Soviet Union still existed and a new topical panel show came to BBC2. The host and team captains of Have I Got News For You were all in their earlier thirties back then and while not unknown were not exactly household names either.

Angus Deayton had been on Radio 4’s Radio Active, toured Australia with comedy band the HeeBeeGeeBees. He had worked with Alexei Sayle and Rowan Atkinson and was a familiar face from shows like BBC2’s satellite TV spoof KYTV and for a supporting role in new sitcom, One Foot In The Grave, though this had not yet taken off. Paul Merton was best known for his appearances on Channel 4 improvisation show Who’s Line Is It Anyway…? while Ian Hislop was best known as the “young fogey” editor of satirical magazine, Private Eye.

Twenty-five years and 49 series on, Angus is long gone from the show and Merton and Hislop (the latter still at Private Eye) are both now well into their fifties. But they are still there, indeed Hislop is the only person to have appeared in every one of the show’s 429 episodes to date, even discharging himself from hospital to appear once in 1994.

But what have been the high and low points of the last 25 years? Let’s take a look…

1990

The first ever series runs from September to November. Due to sheer bad luck, the show misses the one of the biggest British political stories of the century, the dramatic fall of Margaret Thatcher, by just one week. Early guests include Sandi Toksvig (who is in the first ever episode), future London Mayor Ken Livingstone (then a Labour backbencher), Tony Slattery and Clive Anderson.

1991

Appearances by Harry Enfield, Trevor McDonald and Scots comic and future US chat show star, Craig Ferguson.

1992

The first ever (and indeed only) General Election special features Rory Bremner and Alan Coren. Defeated Labour leader Neil Kinnock appears on the show later in the year, after retiring as leader following his second election defeat.

The show has two series a year from now on.

Rising Lib Dem star Charles Kennedy makes the first of a number of appearances. Author Douglas Adams appears (and flops), Frank Skinner and Stephen Fry appear for the first time.

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1993

Paul Merton’s wife comedy actress Caroline Quentin competes on Ian’s team, a running joke being that Angus is having an affair with her. Although this isn’t true, the couple do divorce in 1997.

Labour politician Roy Hattersley is famously replaced by a Tub of Lard after he cancels appearing on the show at short notice for the umpteenth time. Despite the considerable disadvantage of having an inanimate object as a team member, Paul’s team wins (as is usual).

1994

Appearances by self proclaimed Messiah David Icke, author Salman Rushdie (then still in hiding due to the Iranian fatwa) and veteran comic, Bob Monkhouse.

1995

An on-air row ensues between guest Paula Yates and Ian Hislop. Many see the episode as a class conflict with ex-public schoolboys Deayton and Hislop ganging up on Yates who is defended by the working-class Paul “I did woodwork” Merton.

Tory MP Teresa Gorman appears to be drunk on air and does a bizarre impression of her “alien” colleague, the recent Tory leadership candidate John Redwood. Her later autobiography puts a positive and inaccurate sheen on her appearance.

1996

Shock news as Paul Merton announces he is leaving the show. He appears only as a guest on Ian’s team in the first episode of Series 11 before missing the rest of it. He is replaced by Eddie Izzard, Alan Davis and other temporary guest captains for the rest of the series. Thereafter, he returns and has been in every series since.

In an early TV appearance, Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan embarrasses himself after losing his temper with fellow panellist Clive Anderson who mocks him for his success in making the paper “almost as good as The Sun”. He also crosses swords with rival Ian Hislop. He never appears again.

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1997

Disgraced Tories Neil and Christine Hamilton appear only a week after Neil is ejected from his previous ultra-safe Tory seat of Tatton in the General Election.

Ian Hislop coins the phrase “were you still up for Portillo?” with regard to election night, later used as the title of a book by Brian Cathcart.

1998

Boris Johnson guests for the first time in a series of appearances which greatly boosts his profile while re-enforcing the impression that he is a buffoon. He is yet to become an MP or the editor of the Spectator at this point, though is a columnist for the Daily Telegraph. He appears seven times in the next decade, four times as host, though not once since being elected Mayor of London in 2008.

John Sergeant, political correspondent (and onetime comedy performer) makes the first of several acclaimed appearances. He is later widely expected to replace Angus Deayton as permanent host, following Deayton’s departure in 2002. Although he guest hosts twice in 2002 and 2003, this doesn’t happen. He in fact proves less effective as a host than as a panellist. He has since been critical of the show’s decision not to have a permanent host.

1999

Charles Kennedy is elected Liberal Democrat leader and acknowledges his “chat show Charlie” beginning an early speech as leader with the words “Have I got news for you?” He continues to appear on the show during his time as leader and even after his resignation amidst revelations of alcoholism, clocking up nine appearances, once as host. The show paid tribute to him following his premature death in 2015.

Sir Jimmy Savile guests. Following his death and the subsequent allegations of his involvement in numerous sexual offences over a decade later, an internet rumour suggests Merton and Hislop confronted Savile about his crimes on the show at the time. In fact, this is untrue: like most people they knew nothing about them and the issue didn’t come up. Savile did make some comments on air which appear unsavoury in retrospect, however.

2000

The show moves from BBC 2 to BBC 1.

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2000-2001

Numerous guests including Peter Stringfellow, Nigella Lawson, M15 rebel David Shayler, who appears by video link in 2000 (Stephen Fry, at one point, switches him off) and Andrew Marr (later a regular target of the show).

2002

Angus Deayton quits as host mid-series following a second round of sex scandal allegations splashing across the tabloids. His last show proves extremely memorable with Paul and Ian both visibly annoyed with Angus, Paul at one point revealing that he is wearing a t-shirt with a tabloid version of the story emblazoned across it (a move which visibly rattles Angus). Deayton continues to work and has had acting roles in dark sitcom Nighty Night and drama Waterloo Road, but has never had the same profile he had as host of Have I Got News For You.

Paul hosts the next episode himself and a number of one week guest hosts take over initially Anne Robinson, John Sergeant, Boris Johnson (by now an MP), Liza Tarbuck, Charles Kennedy (by now party leader) and Jeremy Clarkson. It is assumed a new permanent host, perhaps Sergeant or Alexander Armstrong, will eventually take over permanently.

Stephen Fry criticises the decision to drop Angus and in protest never appears on the show again.

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2003

Alexander Armstrong appears as guest host for the first time (he has never been a panellist). He has since become easily the most prolific guest on the show ever, notching up 26 appearances to date. He claims he was offered a permanent guest hosting role at this time but the BBC changed their mind.

Other memorable guest hosts include Sir Bruce Forsyth and Charlotte Church (then 17) probably the youngest and oldest hosts (Forsyth was 82 by the time of his second time as host in 2010. Bill Deedes also has appeared as a panellist aged 88). Former Tory leader William Hague also hosts during this time.

2004-2006

David Mitchell, then best known for the sitcom, Peep Show, begins to appear frequently. Dara O’Briain guest hosts frequently until 2005 when he becomes host on similar-ish topical comedy news quiz Mock The Week.

2007

Ann Widdecombe refuses to host again after she is offended by guest Jimmy Carr.

Author Will Self who had appeared nine times, says he will not return soon after as he has gone off the show.

2009

In what now appears to be an unfortunate decision, Rolf Harris appears as guest host.

2011

Death of Big George, composer of the show’s memorable theme tune.

2013

Guest host Brian Blessed divides opinion with numerous jokes about Margaret Thatcher on the week of her death.

2015

Victoria Coren Mitchell hosts the show, appearing for the tenth time. Her husband David Mitchell has been on eleven times while her late father Alan appeared four times.

The show is scheduled to return for its 50th series next month.

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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

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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 went to work at the BBC, Adams despaired of ever being successful himself. This is odd as we are only talking 1976 here when Adams was still only 24. It is also a little odd as he had already achieved quite a bit such as working alongside his heroes Monty Python (by a strange coincidence appearing in one episode of Python, number 42).

But the next few years would see a period of frantic overwork for Adams: scripting for his dream show Doctor Who, writing a children’s cartoon Doctor Snuggles to make ends meet and, of course, scripting the radio series, TV shows and books of The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy. The saga would make Adams a millionaire before he was thirty and would dominate the last twenty years of his life.

The Babel Fish. The number “42”. Marvin the paranoid android (a popular character, who, of course, was not actually especially paranoid, just depressed). Towels. Slartibartfast. Vogon poetry. The saga provided the perfect vehicle for Adam’s hugely inventive brain. Five novels were produced in total (though the fourth one So Long And Thanks For All The Fish was a bit of a dud) and Adams was behind numerous adaptations notably a memorable text based computer game and various attempts to launch Hitchhiker as a film. This was, of course, only finally realised after Adams’ death. The result by Garth Jennings in 2005 was a mixed bag as Roberts notes somewhere between a success and a failure. The closest Adams came to a film was a possible collaboration with future Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman. This foundered over Adam’s script which left any director little creative leeway and the saga’s previous tendency to resist any sort of narrative structure.

Like Jem Roberts’ brilliantly exhaustive previous book The True History of the Black Adder, this is a superb well researched book, especially detailed on all the many side projects Adams embarked upon with varying degrees of success. It is truly as essential a guide for any fan of the saga as the actual Hitchhiker’s Guide was for Ford Prefect as he travelled across the universe.

It is a shock to realise Douglas Adams would be barely into his sixties if he were alive even now. This is a fitting tribute to a giant of comic literature, taken from us far too early.

DVD review: W1A Series 1 and 2

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The problem with peopling a comedy series with annoying characters is that the series as a whole can end up being annoying rather than funny. This is a bit of an issue for W1A, John Morton’s follow up to his own Twenty Twelve. That dealt with the farcical goings on at the fictional Olympic Deliverance Commission in the run-up to the 2012 London Games. This follows the onetime Head of Deliverance Ian Fletcher (Bonneville) as he grapples with the frustrations and inertia of life at the BBC where he has been appointed to the meaningless position of Head of Values.

Fletcher is not especially annoying himself and along with Head of Inclusivity Lucy Freeman (Sosanya) is probably the closest thing we have to a hero or at least a sympathetic character in the whole thing. Fletcher is joined by the most memorable character from Twenty Twelve, the vacuous Siobhan Sharpe (Hynes, in her best role since Daisy in Spaced). A strong cast of supporting cast notably Rufus Jones, as a camp dim-witted ideas man and Hugh Skinner as a hopeless intern.

Numerous problems confront the hapless Fletcher in these seven half-hour (plus one-hour special) episodes. A Spotlight South West presenter complains about a perceived anti-Cornish bias at the Corporation towards her, though she does not actually come from the county herself. A row emerges when details of Fletcher’s salary are leaked and chaos ensues after it is revealed Newsnight presenter Evan Davies is to appear on Strictly Come Dancing. The show wears its celebrity cameos lightly and does not rely on them too heavily for humour.

John Morton was behind the earlier “mockumentary” People Like Us (which starred the now disgraced Chris Langham) and as on that there are moments of genius in the show’s deliberately inane voiceover, here delivered by David Tennant as in Twenty Twelve (“Sting has called up Alan Yentob personally and called him an actual prick”). There is much to commend here. Another brilliant touch is that the show’s offices have all been named after comedy giants of the past. Hence “inside Frankie Howerd,” there is a huge, rather alarming backdrop featuring the face of the Up Pompeii! star.

It is admirable that the BBC has produced something that is so critical of itself. However, in general, too many of the characters either speak in catchphrases (“I’m not being funny but…”) or obstructive cliches (responding to a question with an unhelpful “brilliant” rather than answering it) that it is sometimes as frustrating as the media world it depicts.

Otherwise, and I’m not being funny or anything but it’s all good.

Release date: May 18th 2015

Certificate: 15

Cast: Hugh Bonneville, Jessica Hynes, Rufus Jones, Sarah Parish, Nina Sosanya, Jason Watkins, Hugh Skinner, Ophelia Lovibond

BBC Worldwide

Programme Name: W1A 2 - TX: n/a - Episode: Generic (No. n/a) - Picture Shows:  Jack Patterson (JONATHAN BAILEY), Will Humphries (HUGH SKINNER), Izzy Gould (OPHELIA LOVIBOND), Lucy Freeman (NINA SOSANYA), Ian Fletcher (HUGH BONNEVILLE), Siobhan Sharpe (JESSICA HYNES), Neil Reid (DAVID WESTHEAD), David Wilkes (RUFUS JONES), Anna Rampton (SARAH PARISH), Simon Harwood (JASON WATKINS), Tracey Pritchard (MONICA DOLAN) - (C) BBC - Photographer: Jack Barnes

Book review: Dad’s Army The Story of a Classic Television Show by Graham McCann

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Few sitcoms have aged as well as Dad’s Army.

Whereas many of the comedy series of the seventies, now seem either inexcusably racist (Love Thy Neighbour) or just plain awful in their own right (On The Buses), forty years after its heyday, Dad’s Army looks better than ever. This is partly down to its period setting but not entirely. Laudatory though this 2002 history of the series is, author Graham McCann is absolutely right to praise the pitch perfect writing and casting of the series. And amazingly, despite running for nine years (1968-1977, much longer than the Second World War itself), Dad’s Army did not even run out of steam. Only Fawlty Towers and The Good Life have endured even half as well. And neither lasted as long as Dad’s Army.

It could have been so different. The series was originally to be called Fighting Tigers and co-creator Jimmy Perry originally conceived the series as a vehicle to get back into acting: he wrote the Private Walker spiv part eventually played by James Beck, specifically with himself in mind. He was hugely disappointed when the powers that be decided against casting him in the role. What’s more, future Doctor Who and Worzel Gummidge actor Jon Pertwee was seriously considered for the part of Captain Mainwaring while a young David Jason (already a dab hand at playing geriatrics) was offered Clive Dunn’s role of butcher cum Lance Corporal Jack Jones.

But the show was quick to enjoy success. Some actors were disarmingly similar to the characters they played, John Le Mesurier  consciously played the laidback Sgt Wilson essentially as himself while many thought, Arthur Lowe was too quick to deny any similarity between himself and the pompous bank manager George Mainwaring. The masterstroke here, of course, was to switch the two actors between the two more obvious ranks. The middle class Mainwaring is frequently fuming with class resentment towards his public school educated sergeant. Wilson, himself, meanwhile is totally at ease talking to serving maids as anyone else and seems largely untroubled by the potential whiff of scandal hanging over his relationship with Mrs. Pike.

Others bore less resemblance to their roles. Arnold Ridley, who played the genteel Godfrey wrote the successful play Ghost Train and had been wounded in both World Wars while John Laurie (Frazer) bore many similarities to his character, but had not lived in Scotland for fifty years. Clive Dunn and Ian Lavender had little in common with Jones or Pike, though Dunn, like most of the main cast had war experience.

Although strong to the end, the show lost something with the sudden premature death of actor James Beck in 1973 and wound its way to a natural conclusion a few years after that.

Graham McCann’s excellent book reproduces the famously eccentric radio interview Ian Lavender (who played mummy’s boy Private Pike) from 1987. Having established, not very tactfully, that nearly all of the principal cast had died in the ensuing decade, the interviewer then asks bizarrely: “will you be making any more?”

And here is the final irony. In the thirteen years since this book came out, inevitably still more of the remaining cast and crew have died, notably Clive Dunn, writer David Croft, Bill “Warden Hodges” Pertwee, Pamela “Mrs Fox” Cundell. Virtually only Ian Lavender and Frank Williams, who played the vicar are left. And yet a new version of the story is planned, in the form of a film version scheduled for release next year.

Extreme foolishness or a good idea? Only time will tell if magic can strike twice.

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DVD review: Mapp & Lucia

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It’s 1930 and the peace of the village of Tilling is about to be 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 unusual 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. Queen 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 have been filmed in genteel village surroundings and screened in three parts over the Christmas period, but this is not gentle stuff. A clue should be evident in the fact that it was written by the League of Gentlemen’s Steve Pemberton adapting it from E.F Benson’s classic series of inter-war novels. He and fellow Royston Vasey resident Mark Gatiss (he plays the Major), also make up a stellar cast. There is undeniably a dark underbelly to this village too.

Although Blackadder II fans will already know she can play a tyrant called Elizabeth (she played Queen Elizabeth I as a dangerously volatile spoilt brat in the 1985 classic TV comedy), here Miranda Richardson (plus added teeth) excels as the megalomaniac Elizabeth Mapp. Thirty years after the well-received Channel  4 version of the stories (featuring Geraldine McEwan, Prunella Scales and Nigel Hawthorne), this new version is a triumph too.

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Programme Name: Mapp And Lucia – TX: n/a – Episode: Mapp And Lucia (No. 2) – Picture Shows: **STRICTLY NOT FOR PUBLICATION UNTIL 00;01HRS, SATURDAY 6TH DECEMBER, 2014** Irene Coles (GEMMA WHELAN), Major Benjy (MARK GATISS) – (C) BBC – Photographer: Nick Briggs

DVD review: The Honourable Woman

DVD review: The Honourable Woman. BBC Worldwide.
When not laying into any of our other more successful institutions such as the National Health Service or our history of successful gun control, the dimmer elements of the British right-wing often like to attack the BBC. Why can’t be as impartial and balanced as something like The Sun or The Daily Mail they ask? Sometimes they attack it for declining standards.

And guess what? Just as they are generally wrong about everything from the brilliance of Michael Gove to their dislike of the working classes, they are wrong about this too. Just when you think they might be right (perhaps during the preamble to an episode of Strictly Come Dancing), something like The Honourable Woman comes along and reminds everyone how great TV can be on the BBC.


Make no mistake: The Honourable Woman is serious high quality stuff. A gripping eight part drama which aired in July and August on BBC Two, some of Hugo Blick’s edgy subject might in fact have made it unsuitable for normal scheduled viewing had it been aired a month later. For this is a story of the Middle East, albeit one set mostly in the UK. US actress Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Nessa Stein, a Briton and a leading figure in the pro-Israel lobby awarded a peerage for her tireless work in the Middle East. But the Steins are a family with a dark past and plenty of secrets. As children, Nessa and her brother Ephra (Andrew Buchan) witnessed the brutal murder of their father by an assassin involved in the Palestinian cause.


But this is clearly only the beginning of the family’s problems. What exactly is the nature of the relationship between Nessa and Atika, the nanny of Ephra’s children? Indeed, what exactly us Atika’s relationship with Ephra himself? What happened to Atika and Nessa on a visit to the Middle East eight years ago? Why are the secret services (notably Sir Hugh Haden-Hoyle played by the ever-brilliant Stephen Rea) so interested? What has the death of a Palestinian man got to do with anything? Is Nessa’s sister-in-law Rachel (Katherine Parkinson) right to feel the family are in danger?

This is exemplary stuff, expertly written, frequently harrowing and well-served by a superb cast which includes The It Crowd’s Parkinson in a major straight dramatic role and sees Hollywood actress Gyllenhaal (Secretary, Donnie Darko, The Dark Knight) delivering a flawless British accent and performance. Along with Line of Duty this is one of the best British TV dramas of 2014 so far.

How NOT to win a TV quiz show

One of the fun things about TV quiz shows (particularly those which offer a multiple choice of possible answers and which encourage the contestant to explain their reasoning at tortuous length) is seeing the same question answering technique return again and again.

Here is a typical question and answer, plus a selection of different (and mostly stupid) ways people tend to respond

Q: Which English monarch was responsible for the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century?

Is it:

a)      King John.

b)      King Richard III.

c)       King Henry VIII.

The correct answer is: c) King Henry VIII.

Method 1: Ruling out the correct answer for an irrelevant reason.

e.g. Hmmm. Well, Richard III was at the Battle of Bosworth. I know Henry VIII had six wives. So I’ll go for John!

Henry VIII did, indeed, have six wives. But he also dissolved the monasteries. He did both! However, this answer is still better than inexplicably ruling out the correct answer straight away for no reason at all which is also popular.

Method 2: Getting it right but for a stupid reason.

e.g. Well, King John was a fictional character in Robin Hood. And there has never been a King Richard of anything in England. So it must be Henry VIII!

This is equally irritating.

Method 3: The inexplicable loss of nerve.

e.g.  Well, I know the monasteries were a big issue under Henry VIII and he did act against them… But my instinct is telling me to go for b) King Richard III.

Method 4: Total guesswork.

e.g. I’ll go straight down the middle. B!

In fairness, this is understandable if the contestant really has no idea. And it sometimes works. But not this time…

And bear in mind, if it’s a History round, the question may well be based on subject matter which predates your own lifespan.

Saying “it’s before my time” is not an excuse!

House of Cards Vs. House of Cards

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The new Netflix US version of 1990 BBC drama House of Cards has met with widespread and deserved critical acclaim. But how does it compare to the original series by Andrew Davies, itself adapted from a novel by Michael (now Baron) Dobbs? (Expect spoilers).

The essence of the story is the same. In the UK version, Tory Chief Whip Francis Urquhart (the late Ian Richardson) is denied a cabinet position after a broken promise by incoming Prime Minister Henry Collingridge. Using young journalist Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker) as a conduit, Urquhart plots revenge and begins a steady rise to power. In the US version, House Majority Whip Frank (or Francis) Underwood is angered after the new President Walker retreats from a pre-election promise to back him as his nominee for Secretary of State. Journalist Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) plays a similar role to Mattie in the original.

The original series was set in what was then the near future. Collingridge succeeds in a leadership contest following the fall of the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (in fact, Thatcher fell while the series was being broadcast, a fortunate stroke of timing as it made the series hugely topical). The US version is simply set in an alternative 2013 in which Walker is president instead of Obama.

The US version is about three times as long as the UK one and includes a number of new storylines. Blogging, instant messaging and other 21st century innovations also play their part.

Underwood is a southerner, perhaps making him feel like an outsider. The north/south divide has no real equivalent in UK politics at least not in the same way, largely due to the American Civil War.

Urquhart is from an extremely privileged background which in 1990 was reasonably unfashionable for a prospective Tory leader (Heath, Thatcher and Major all came from quite humble backgrounds while Douglas Hurd was harmed by a perception that he was “posh”). Class plays less of a role in US politics and Underwood is, in stark contrast, from a very poor background.

Underwood is a Democrat, not a Republican as one might expect (the US Republican Party is closer to Urquhart’s Tory Party than the Democrats are). Perhaps this is simply to give the show extra contemporary resonance as the US currently has a Democrat president.

Although Urquhart’s wife plays an important supportive role in the British series (and even more so in the follow ups To Play The King and The Final Cut), Frank’s wife Claire (Robin Wright) plays a far greater role in the Netflix series. There is a strong Shakespearian vein running through both versions. Both Ian Richardson and Kevin Spacey had backgrounds in Shakespearian theatre.

Frank Underwood is actually a very different character to Urquhart and much more obviously ruthless from the outset. Urquhart conceals his true aims behind a veil of false modesty. Underwood speaks more crudely than Urquhart too but with a sort of eloquence reminiscent of Lyndon Johnson.

The wry asides to the audience remain, however. Underwood even waves to the audience during President Walker’s inauguration ceremony.

The relationship between Underwood and Barnes has a more overt sexual undercurrent from the outset. This could be because of their use of instant messaging or simply because Barnes is a more flirtatious character than Mattie Storin was. It could also be because Underwood appears much younger than Urquhart did, making a relationship seem more credible from the start. In fact, in the actor Kevin Spacey was only three years younger than Ian Richardson was when he performed the role (Richardson was 56 in 1990, Spacey was 53 in 2013).

The president barely appears in early episodes of the US series. Underwood complains he is not present at the meeting in which he is denied promotion. In the British version, Urquhart meets Collingridge frequently.

The affair between Congressman Russo and his staffer no longer has an interracial dimension as that of his equivalent Roger O’Neill did in the UK series.

“You may very well think that. I couldn’t possibly comment.” This catchphrase remains. Essentially, as an answer to a direct question, it is a euphemism for “yes, you are right”.

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Is there Life After Who?

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At thirty, Matt Smith is the youngest ex-Doctor ever. He was generally well liked as the Doctor, acted in political drama Party Animals beforehand and played gay writer Christopher Isherwood in one off drama Christopher and his Kind in 2011 and 1948 Olympic Games drama Bert and Dickie last year.

But what about all the previous Doctors?

How did they find life after leaving the Tardis?

Is there life after Who?

William Hartnell

Life: 1908-1975. 1st Doctor: 1963-1966

Before: Hartnell appears in the title role in the  first Carry On film, Carry On Sergeant, crops up in Peter Sellers’ The Mouse That Roared and comes to a nasty end courtesy of Richard Attenborough in Brighton Rock.

During: Hartnell was the first to establish the role but was forced to retire on health grounds. He died in 1975.

During and after: Despite a career stretching back to the 1920s, Hartnell will always be primarily remembered as the First Doctor.

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Patrick Troughton

Life: 1920-1987. 2nd Doctor: 1966-1969.

Before: A Second World War veteran and an experienced character actor appearing in everything from Z-Cars to Jason of the Argonauts.

During: Troughton’s stint is fondly remembered as the man who saved the series once Hartnell retired but he quit after being overworked by a punishing schedule.

After: Troughton was far more than just the Second Doctor. His most famous non-Who role was as the unfortunate priest in horror classic The Omen. He was a regular on TV (A Family at War, the Box of Delights) before his death in 1987. His sons David and Michael are distinguished actors today.

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Jon Pertwee

Life: 1919-1996. 3rd Doctor: 1969-1974.

Before: A veteran of comedies such as The Navy Lark and small roles in Sixties Carry on films, Pertwee was seriously considered for the role of Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army before Arthur Lowe got it. By coincidence, Jon’s cousin Bill Pertwee was cast as Warden Hodges in the same show,

During: The first Doctor Who to appear in colour. Boosted the series after it was once again left at low ebb by Patrick Troughton’s departure. He is still a favourite amongst older Who fans.

After: Pertwee is as famous for his role in the sinister children’s series Worzel Gummidge and for voicing Spotty on the cartoon Superted.  He died in 1996. His son Sean Pertwee is known for roles in the films Dog Soldiers, Event Horizon and slightly more macho roles than his father.

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Tom Baker

Born: 1934, age 79. Fourth Doctor: 1974-1981.

Before: Like Troughton, Baker crops up in a Sinbad film.
During: The famously eccentric Baker played the Doctor for longer than anyone else. He is usually ranked alongside David Tennant as the most popular of the Time Lords.

After: He has one of the most recognisable voices in the UK and his narration on comedy series Little Britain was crucial to its success. Despite numerous roles (Blackadder II, The Life and Loves of A She Devil) it may be that Baker’s eccentricity have denied him true stardom. He remains much better known for the Doctor than anything else.

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Peter Davison.

Born: 1951, age 62. Fifth Doctor: 1981-1984.

Before: Best known as vet Tristan Farnham in James Herriot TV drama All Creatures Great and Small. He was also the “dish of the day” who briefly appears in TV’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and was married to Sandra Dickinson who played Trillian in that series.  The couple wrote and performed the songs on children’s show Button Moon.

During: Davison had a tough act to follow in Tom Baker, particularly as Davison was the youngest ever Doctor (by some way) at the time. But he was a popular Doctor in the end.

After: Had a healthy career in the Eighties on All Creatures Great and Small, A Very Peculiar Practice (alongside David Troughton) and remains a likeable presence on TV today. Davison Is also the father in law of David Tennant strengthening his ties to the Who empire still further.

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Colin Baker

Born: 1943, age 70. Sixth Doctor: 1984-1986.

Before: Baker is the only previous actor (before Peter Capaldi) to have appeared in a previous episode of the series as another character. He played Colonel Maxil in the 1983 Peter Davison story Arc of Infinity.

During: An unhappy spell as the Doctor. Baker was so annoyed after being sacked that he refused to participate in the traditional regeneration sequence forcing Sylvester McCoy to use a curly wig and hide under special effects. Some have suggested a link between Baker’s firing and his first wife Liza Goddard’s relationship with BBC 1 controller Michael Grade.

After: Baker was recently on I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here!

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Sylvester McCoy

Born: 1943, age 69. Seventh Doctor:

Before: A regular presence on children’s TV in the Eighties appearing in Eureka (a sort of Horrible Histories about the origins of inventions), Jigsaw and Tiswas.

During: Initially criticised for being too comedic, McCoy was Doctor when the show was cancelled in 1989. Few blame this solely on him, however. The show was in decline throughout the Eighties.

After: Enjoyed perhaps his biggest role ever this year as the eccentric Radagast in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films.

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Paul McGann

Born: 1959, age 53.

Eighth Doctor: 1996.

The most famous of the McGann brothers, he was the unnamed “I” in Withnail and I (1986), World War I deserter Percy Toplis in The Monocled Mutineer.

The 1996 TV movie was a disastrous flop. Few blame McGann for this although his career probably hasn’t benefited from talking the role. He remains a busy actor though.

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Christopher Eccleston

Born: 1964. age 49.

Ninth Doctor: 2005

Before: A well known name from roles in Cracker  and Our Friends In The North on UK TV in the Nineties and film parts in Danny Boyle’s debut Shallow Grave,  as the rebellious Earl of Essex in Elizabeth and the villain in Gone In Sixty Seconds (alongside Nicholas Cage and Angelina Jolie).

During: Eccleston’s Doctor was popular and successfully revived the series in 2005. But Eccleston seems never to have intended to be a long running Doctor and announced he would step down after one series following the screening of his well received first episode.

After: Has played John Lennon  in Lennon Naked on TV and remains buy in film and TV but it’s hard to tell if he benefitted from playing the Doctor or not.

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David Tennant

Born: 1971, age 42.

Tenth Doctor: 2005-2010.

Before: Best known for his roles in TV’s Blackpool and Casanova before being cast as the Doctor at about the same time as being cast as Barty Crouch in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

After: One of the most popular Doctors, Tennant has benefitted from the role more than any other actor. He is now a hugely acclaimed star of stage (particularly Shakespearian roles) and screen (Broadchurch, The Politician’s Husband, Munich air disaster drama United! and many more).  Yet to achieve film star status, he is nevertheless hugely successful and has escaped typecasting.

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Book Review: Margaret Thatcher The Authorized Biography. Volume One: Not For Turning. By Charles Moore

In the days immediately following Lady Thatcher’s death in April, some observers might have been forgiven for thinking that they had good cause to doubt the choice of official biographer handpicked by the former Prime Minister to chronicle her life and career. Appearing on BBC’s Question Time and elsewhere, former Daily Telegraph editor Charles Moore made a number of bizarre pronouncements. Lady Thatcher’s economic policies were a direct result of her gender apparently. The Lady played a major role in freeing Nelson Mandela too, we learned. She was not as apathetic about Apartheid as was previously thought. And, most eccentric of all, apparently Lady Thatcher wasn’t a divisive figure. This is just a myth propagated by the “left wing” BBC! Strange indeed. As anyone who watched it will know, the BBC’s coverage of the days following Lady Thatcher’s death was reverential in the extreme. Surely the fact that the first woman Prime Minister was divisive is the one thing everyone can agree on?

This did not bode well for the first volume of Moore’s biography which takes us from Lady Thatcher’s humble birth in 1925 to her “finest hour”: victory in the 1982 Falklands conflict. In fact, although inevitably sympathetic to his subject (it would be surprising were he not), this is actually a triumph.

Perhaps no Prime Minister has had a stronger mythology structured around her life than Margaret Thatcher. Somehow the stories of Tony Blair being in a rock band at Oxford or Ted Heath’s days in the Second World War have never caught the public’s imagination in the same way that Margaret Roberts’ rise from Grantham grocer’s daughter to Downing Street has.

Moore succeeds in making this well-worn subject, covered expertly in the past by the late Hugo Young, John Campbell and by the Lady herself, remarkably fresh and readable. He even uncovers new information. He exposes the lie that Denis was her first boyfriend. There were several others before him.

Perhaps the most extraordinary fact is that the young Margaret as revealed through frequent teenage letters to her sister Muriel was remarkably ordinary. She is far more interested in fashion, films and making ends meet than in the underlying progress of the Second World War (rarely mentioned in her letters). She is a perfectly normal girl – a little bossy perhaps, but hardworking. She is not unlike the parody of Margaret Hilda Roberts written by Adrian Mole author Sue Townsend twenty years ago. She was sneered at for taking elocution lessons by her lower class contemporaries. Like Richard Nixon, she developed a slight resentment of the privileged leftists who often sneered at her too, in her case at Oxford.

Denis remained bedrock of support throughout her life after their marriage in 1950 and is entertaining in the book. “Oh God. They look like rabbits. Put them back!” was his reported response on first seeing his twin children, Carol and Mark.

Inevitably, as her ambition grew, Margaret grew distant from her sister, father and old friends. Although she held her father up as her political inspiration on entering Downing Street in 1979 stating that she “owed everything” to him, in reality, she had seen little of him in the years after she became an MP in 1959 and his death in 1970. This is understandable. She was a mother of two, a rising politician and a young woman in a hurry.

It is hard now to appreciate just how unlikely it seemed that Thatcher would ever be PM in the years before it happened. She herself had set herself the ambition of being the first woman Chancellor of the Exchequer as the summit of her ambition (interestingly, this remains the only one of the great offices of state which no woman has held even now). She only stood in 1975 when it became clear that now largely forgotten figures like Edward du Cann and Keith Joseph were not up to the challenge of displacing Edward Heath. “Heath will murder you,” predicted Denis. He was wrong.

Even as Opposition Leader, her prospects of power looked remote. Heath, still in his early sixties and more popular than Thatcher always seemed poised to make a comeback. Prime Minister Jim Callaghan remained more popular than her too right up until the 1979 election. Only the mistiming of the election that never was by Sunny Jim (a mistake Gordon Brown repeated twenty-nine years later) and the ensuing “Winter of Discontent” ensured her General Election victory in May 1979 just as the Falklands conflict ensured her resurrection in office three years later.

This is a long book- over 700 pages long – taking us from 1925 until 1982. Moore overstates Thatcher’s role in ending the Cold War (it is very hard to see how even without Thatcher it wouldn’t have ended as it did anyway) but happily, despite his pro-Tory leanings keeps it entertaining throughout. Unlike the Lady herself, it never really feels like it’s going on and on and on. Volume II is keenly awaited.Image

Why there are no conservative comedians…anywhere.

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Ooh! Naughty BBC Radio 4! Apparently they’ve been producing approximately five times as many jokes about the Tories as they have about Labour! It seems the Daily Mail were right about the Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation all along! Go back to Moscow, commies! If you love China so much (or indeed anywhere that’s actually communist these days. Laos?) why don’t you go and live there? Why don’t you marry Raul Castro? Come on BBC! We know you want to.

Well, no. Actually the BBC have an excuse and to be honest it’s a pretty good one. It seems that there are not enough comedians of a conservative ilk around. Caroline Raphael, Radio 4’s comedy commissioner admits they have trouble recruiting comics from the Right. And before anyone splutters at this, think about it. It may well be true.

I’ve bored Chortle readers on the subject of the dearth of conservative comedy talent before (http://www.chortle.co.uk/correspondents/2011/12/02/14451/clarkson_has_taught_us_one_thing%3A_right-wingers_arent_funny) and do not intend to repeat myself. But last time I did not really seriously consider why there are so few famous funny Tories about.

The obvious explanation is that the Tories are the leading party in government. Were Labour in power there would clearly be more jokes about them as indeed I am sure there were, were a similar study to be have been commissioned before 2010. This also explains why the Sunday Telegraph (who conducted this recent count) also found a larger than expected number of jokes about the Lib Dems.

This doesn’t fully explain why there are five times as many jokes about the Tories than Labour though. That is a wide margin, after all.

Could it be that Labour are less inspiring comedy targets than the Tories are? This too seems plausible. But it also seems odd. If the Opposition is struggling, they would surely provide ripe targets for satirical bullseyes. Spitting image, after all, didn’t let Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party off the hook in the Eighties. Is the public really so enamoured with Ed Miliband as in the days of early Blair or Obama, no satirical barbs can touch him? I very much doubt it.

Is the Beeb itself the problem? It would actually seem not. The issue extends way beyond the BBC. As I’ve discussed before, the entire comedy circuit inclines to the Left, not just the studios of Radio 4.

The Telegraph suggests that the left wing environment of many comedy clubs might be preventing right wing comedy talent getting through. But why should the comedy world be any more left wing than anywhere else?

Telegraph writer Dominic Cavendish suggests this might be because the circuit tends to favour younger comics. But even assuming older people are more likely to be conservative (something I don’t necessarily accept anyway), this doesn’t explain why older comics tend to be more left leaning assuming that they have any viewpoint at all.

It’s not hard to imagine a conservative comedian. The tabloid-sequel views of Jeremy Clarkson would fit the bill even though he’s not technically a comedian. Are we ever likely to see a popular comic who defends the bankers and the Tories and who rails against the unemployed, benefit “scroungers”, the EU and asylum seekers? I don’t know. I’m also disinclined to think many comedians deliberately stifle their conservative views for public consumption. I don’t think they ever had those views in the first place.

Perhaps it’s simply the case that the bohemian creative world of the arts will always spawn more socialist firebrands than conservative cheerleaders.

Or to risk an old joke myself, if you really want to see a bunch of conservative comedians, take a look at the government.

 

 

House of Cards Revisited

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“Nothing lasts forever,” muses Francis Urquhart as he looks at a picture of Margaret Thatcher. ”Even the longest, the most glittering reign must come to an end someday”. 

So begins House of Cards, one of the finest political dramas in British TV history. It has recently been remade for the US by Netflix.

Based on a book by Tory insider Michael Dobbs and brought to the screen by the more left wing British dramatist Andrew Davies in 1990, House of Cards centres on Francis Urquhart, the Tory Party Chef Whip superbly played by the late Ian Richardson. Taking the audience into his full confidence – Urquhart has a disarming and involving tendency to talk directly to the audience, often offering nothing more than a wry smile or a raised eyebrow in response to events – we become fully involved and even complicit in Urquhart’s activities as he skilfully manoeuvres his way to the top of the Tory tree an into Downing Street.

The action opens in the aftermath of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s apparent retirement (at that point, an event still in the future). Indeed, Thatcher is the only real life figure (other than the Queen) referred to at any point. Urquhart assesses the likely candidates for the succession:

“Plenty of contenders. Old warriors, young pretenders. Lord Bilsborough, say — party chairman, too old and too familiar, tainted by a thousand shabby deals. Michael Samuels — too young and too clever. Patrick Woolton — bit of a lout, bit of a bully-boy. Yes, it could well be Woolton. Henry Collingridge — the people’s favourite, a well-meaning fool, no background and no bottom.”

Urquhart with splendid false modesty rules himself out:

“What, me? Oh, no no no. I’m the Chief Whip, merely a functionary. I keep the troops in line. I put a bit of stick around. I make them jump. And I shall, of course, give my absolute loyalty to whoever emerges as my leader.”

In fact, when the new leader Henry “Hal” Collingridge reneges on a promise to appoint Urquhart to the Cabinet, Francis turns against him, constructing a bogus scandal involving the Prime Minister’s wayward brother and demolishing all other rivals to not only bring down Collingridge but to ensure that he, Francis Urquhart, shall succeed him.

In this the role of young journalist Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker) proves crucial. It is to her that he leaks information answering her questions not n the affirmative but couched in the coded evasive standard political answer: “You might very well think that. I couldn’t possibly comment.”

 

Timing

The series was blessed by remarkable good timing. In real life, Michael Heseltine announced his intention to stand against Margaret Thatcher, just five days before the first episode went on on November 18th 1990. By the time of the fourth and final episode, Thatcher had been toppled and John Major had beaten both Heseltine and Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd to become Prime Minister. House of Cards thus became very topical indeed. The series had the good fortune to go out during the first change of Tory leadership in fifteen years and one of the most dramatic ends to a Prime Ministerial reign ever.

 

Real life parallels?

House of Cards is obviously fiction but some have suggested similarities to real life figures. Make of them what you will. I couldn’t possibly comment.

Francis Urquhart: Urquhart does not obviously resemble any one real life person strongly. He is nothing like Edward Heath, another Chief Whip who went onto Downing Street. Urquhart’s upper class background was also distinctly unfashionable by 1990. Douglas Hurd, would in fact be embarrassed by his posh background in the leadership contest that took place while House of Cards went out and no Tory leaders emerged from upper class background between 1965 and 2005 (between Alec Douglas Home and David Cameron). Urquhart’s ideological position seems to be closest to Thatcher. Yet unlike any of these figures, he is a murderer and probably closer to Shakespeare’s Richard III than anyone in real life.

Henry Collingridge: Both Dobbs and Davies were right to predict domineering figure like Thatcher would be succeeded by a moderate more conciliatory figure. A harsh critic might say Urquhart’s summary of Collingridge: “a well-meaning fool, no background and no bottom,” applied equally well to Thatcher’s actual successor John Major (or indeed, David Cameron). Major also won the 1992 election with a majority of 21 (Collingridge manages about 30). Unlike in the series, there are few immediate problems resulting from the Tory majority dropping so dramatically. John Major’s Tories had anticipated defeat in 1992 and were happy just to win at all. Major’s premiership would prove similarly troubled although more enduring than Collingridge’s. If anyone fatally undermined Major’s leadership, other than Major himself, it was his predecessor Lady Thatcher.

Bob Landless: A crude American media magnate. Clearly a composite of and Robert Maxwell, then still alive (although unlike Landless, a Labour supporter) and Rupert Murdoch.

Lord Bilsborough: Seems similar to William Whitelaw, who ran against Thatcher in 1975 but ultimately became her most loyal servant. But Whitelaw was much nicer than Bilsborough and much less tainted by “shabby deals”.

Michael Samuels: In some ways similar to Michael Portillo, then a dashing rising star in the party and with a history of left wing support and some homosexuality (then not known about) in his past. Portillo, although half-Spanish, isn’t Jewish as Samuels is though. In this respect, Samuels is more like another rising Tory Michael of the time and future leader, Michael Howard.

Peter Mackenzie: Health Minister. Physically very like John Major (he is played by Christopher Owen) although unlike Major seems to be racist and accidentally runs over a disabled protester.

Afterwards

(SPOILER ALERT) Two TV sequels To Play The King and The Final Cut are worth seeing although neither quite scaled the heights of the original. Dobbs wrote two books which followed the first series. The first book ends differently with Urquhart, consumed by shame choosing to hurl himself to death rather than Mattie.

Michael Dobbs served as Deputy Tory Chairman under John Major and is now Baron Dobbs in the House of Lords. He has written many novels.

Already a prolific author Andrew Davies (A Very Peculiar Practice), Davies has become something of an adaptation-writing machine since the huge success of 1995’s Pride and Prejudice (which featured Mattie Storin from House of Cards as Jane). Incredibly, Davies has written over twenty series since including Mr Selfridge, Bleak House and Middlemarch.

Ian Richardson died in 2007.

A new US series of House of Cards (much altered) starring Kevin Spacey as House Majority Whip Frank Underwood is is available on Netflix.