Book review: Soupy Twists! by Jem Roberts

a

Soupy Twists!: The Full Official Story of the Sophisticated Silliness of Fry and Laurie, by Jem Roberts. Published by: Unbound

It has now been thirty years since the TV debut of ‘A Bit of Fry and Laurie’. This news should be ample cause for celebration in itself. Running for four series between 1987 and 1995, the show was occasionally patchy, in common with every sketch show ever made (yes, even The Grumbleweeds) and ran out of steam before the end. The “yuppie businessman” sketches, generally featuring an over-use of the word “damn” often seemed to run on forever.

d

But dammit Peter, thanks largely to the formidable combined intellect of comedy’s foremost Steve and Hugh (no offence, Punt and Dennis), A Bit of Fry and Laurie was far more often good than bad.

f

Consider: the song “Kicking ass,” a parody of US foreign policy values which concludes: “We’ll kick the ass of cancer and we’ll kick the ass of AIDS,
And as for global warming, we’ll just kick ass wearing shades. We don’t care whose ass we kick, if we’re ever all alone, We just stand in front of the mirror, and try to kick our own.”

Or Fry: “I think it was Donald Mainstock, the great amateur squash player who first pointed out how lovely I was.”

Or Laurie: “Then I was Princess Anne’s assistant for a while, but I chucked that in because it was obvious they were never going to make me Princess Anne, no matter how well I did the job.”

Or Fry’s: “I can say the following sentence and be utterly sure that nobody has ever said it before in the history of human communication: “Hold the newsreader’s nose squarely, waiter, or friendly milk will countermand my trousers.”

e

Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Jem Roberts’ excellent book reminds us just what a formidable body of work the talented duo have produced together: Jeeves and Wooster, Blackadder (including the famous scene in which Fry’s Iron Duke punches Laurie’s Prince Regent repeatedly), countless TV adverts specifically for Alliance and Leicester (“Mostin!”), their early Young Ones appearance, operating the celebrity gunge tank on Comic Relief, Peter’s Friends and much much more. Roberts also fully covers their formidable solo careers including Laurie’s spell as the highest paid TV actor in the world, in the long running House, probably the only thing many overseas readers seeing this will know him for. Fry has, meanwhile, appeared in everything from IQ (a 1995 movie comedy starring Walter Matthau as Einstein) to QI. His intense overwork was, of course, symptomatic of problems that would lead to the Cell Mates debacle in 1995.

b

Laurie and particularly Fry’s lives have, of course, been well-documented already: as a writer on the history of Blackadder and a biographer of Fry’s slightly older technology-obsessed friend, Douglas Adams, Jem Roberts has written about the boys before himself. He deserves all the more praise then for shedding new light on them – and uncovering and reproducing many new unused A Bit of Fry and Laurie scripts – in this fresh, thoroughly enjoyable and engaging biography of Britain’s brightest ever comedy partnership.

c

Book review: No Cunning Plan by Tony Robinson

Tony Robinson.jpg

Blackadder was not the sort of programme to rely on catchphrases. Most that were deployed such as “You have a woman’s hand, m’lord,” or the lecherous “woof woof! were used by one-off or very occasional visitors to the saga such as Captain Rum (Tom Baker) or Lord Flashheart (the late Rik Mayall).

A notable exception was “I have a cunning plan…” words which Blackaddder’s sidekick Baldrick (Tony Robinson) would use to signal a usually absurd scheme to get the duo out of trouble. These included a plan to rewrite Dr Johnson’s famous dictionary in one night after Baldrick had accidentally burnt it (Baldrick’s helpful definition for the letter C (sea) being “big blue wobbly thing where mermaids live”). Another ruse involved an attempt to save Charles I (Stephen Fry) from execution by disguising a pumpkin as the King’s head.

Blackadder

This is not the life of Baldrick, however, but the life of Tony Robinson. Although ultimately a tale of success (he is now a knight of the realm), it is an eventful, entertaining life although, as he freely admits, full of mistakes and less governed by any overall “cunning plan” than many.

Starting out as a child actor, appearing as one of Fagin’s gang in the original stage version of Oliver! Robinson was initially just keen to have fun and get out of school. After a long career including run ins with John Wayne and Liza Minnelli along the way, landing the role of Baldrick in 1983 didn’t seem like any sort of big deal. Indeed, as the first series was neither very  good or successful, initially it wasn’t.

But soon it had made his name and he was appearing in other Eighties comedy like Who Dares Wins and The Young Ones before writing his own Blackadder-influenced kids’ show Maid Marian and Her Merry Men. The long years hosting Time Team were still to come. And, yes, hosting The Worst Jobs In History really was his own worst ever job.

It’s not all laughs: he writes movingly about his parents’ descent into Alzheimer’s (one after the other). But this is a hugely entertaining and unpretentious read. Here’s to you, Mr Robinson…

p01l9g8g

DVD review: Upstart Crow

upstart-crow-xlarge_trans++pVlberWd9EgFPZtcLiMQf98oAmGZYX8Vqbq2hlobTFc

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 two 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.”

Upstart Crow - Generics

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 as 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’.

Is_Ben_Elton_s_new_Shakespeare_comedy_Upstart_Crow_as_good_as_Blackadder_

‘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 in his portrayal of 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 comedy supremo Gervais would have been unthinkable but the co-creator of ‘The Office’ has seen his stock fall while Ben 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.

p03vbsb4

In defence of Blackadder

Image

The year 2014, as every schoolboy knows, marks an important anniversary. It is twenty five years since the final series of perhaps the best British sitcom of all time, Blackadder: Blackadder Goes Forth.

It is a shame then, that some have used another anniversary (the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War) to attack the much loved series.

Unpopular Education Secretary Michael Gove is only the latest to do so, launching a broadside at the sitcom during a wider attack on “left-wing versions of the past designed to belittle Britain and its leaders” in The Daily Mail.

“The conflict has, for many, been seen through the fictional prism of dramas such as Oh! What a Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder, as a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite,” Mr. Gove has written.

Gove seems to have thrown Blackadder into the attack almost as an afterthought. Blackadder is not , after all, a “drama”. Watching the series again, it is difficult to understand what he is on about.  It is hard to see where, for example, he feels Blackadder “excuses Germany of blame” for the war.

Image

Presumably, he is unhappy with the portrayal of the real life Field Marshall Haig by Geoffrey Palmer in the last episode. At one point, Haig is shown callously brushing “fallen” toy soldiers off a replica battlefield with a dustpan and brush. The Education Secretary also doubtless dislikes Stephen Fry’s portrayal of the buffoonish General Melchett.

“We’re right behind you!” Melchett reassures Baldrick (Tony Robinson) as he sets off for the Front.

“About thirty five miles behind you,” Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson) responds dryly.

Gove points to new revisionist histories which he says paint both the role of Haig and the merciless slaughter of the Battle of the Somme in a new light. But it is unfair to attack Blackadder for this. Not only were these new interpretations not around in 1989 when the series was made but they are highly questionable anyway. Gove argues that the Somme which occurred in 1916, more than two years before the end of the war in November 1918 can now be viewed as a “precursor to victory”.

It is worth remembering that on the first day alone of the Battle of the Somme, British fatalities alone were close to twenty thousand, seven times the entire number of deaths from the World Trade Center attacks in 2001. And not a single British General died on the Somme.

Although the Daily Mail has captioned pictures surrounding Gove’s words with phrases like “Captain Coward” for Blackadder himself, this is unlikely to be a view shared by many who viewed the programme. The series, of course, ends with all the main characters charging wilfully towards death on No Man’s Land. They know they are probably going to die, but proceed anyway. What on Earth is cowardly about that? Gove argues that: ”For all our mistakes as a nation, Britain’s role in the world has also been marked by nobility and courage.” Nobility and courage? Don’t the deaths of Captain Blackadder, Lieutenant George, Captain Darling and Private Baldrick perfectly exemplify these qualities?

Attacking popular culture rarely works out well for politicians. Michael Gove’s botched attack on Blackadder is no exception.

Image

Is there Life After Who?

1000mattsmith2

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.

Image 

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.

Image

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.

Image

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.

Image

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.

Image

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!

 Image

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.

 Image

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.

 Image

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.

 Image

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.

Image