Book review: Soupy Twists! by Jem Roberts

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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DVD review: Upstart Crow Series 3

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Upstart Crow, that is, the further adventures of Will Shakespeare, returns for a third series. As before, Shakespeare (David Mitchell) is depicted as a normal if somewhat conceited man, simultaneously brilliant while full of human flaws. He alternates between his humble Stratford domestic existence with wife, Anne (Liza Tarbuck), somewhat embarrassing parents (Harry Enfield and Paula Wilcox) and children (notably Helen Monks) and his busier London life dominated by his flamboyant contemporary, Kit Marlow (Tim Downie) and assistant Kate (Gemma Whelan).

Ben Elton’s sitcom has always had something of the air of a Blackadder II tribute act about it (not forgetting, of course, that Elton co-wrote that superb mid-eighties series). Will is essentially a less sinister Edmund, Marlow is Flashman, Greene (Mark Heap) is Lord Melchett, while Kate is a female…er…”Kate” (short for “Bob”) while Baldrick was basically a much dirtier Bottom (Rob Rouse). Ahem…

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There is also a definite sense of fatigue creeping in. The issue of Marlow’s impending murder is dealt with rather unsatisfactorily and there is also an over-reliance on extending words (for example, “strap on a pair of boobingtons”) for comic effect. It’s lazy and not even very Shakespearian. There are cameos by ex-Young Ones Nigel Planer and Ade Edmondson and, separately, by Edmondson’s daughter, rising star Beattie Edmondson.

And yet, for all that, there are frequent flashes of brilliance here. The use of language is often superb as with Mitchell’s hilarious sex monologue in the first episode. Ben Miller brilliantly sends up actor Mark Rylance as the Tudor actor, Wolf Hall and Spencer Jones continues his excellent piss-take of Ricky Gervais. The cast, particularly Whelan and Downie are also consistently great.

And, as in real life, all does not always necessarily end well. The final episode is surprisingly, beautifully and wonderfully poignant.

Release date: October 8th 2018

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DVD review: Inside No.9 – Series Four

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Cert: 15. BBC Worldwide

Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith, Rory Kinnear, Monica Dolan, Kevin Eldon, Emilia Fox, Bill Paterson, Sian Gibson, Noel Clarke, Nicola Walker, Nigel Planer, Helen Monks

Four years after the series launched with the hilarious but increasingly sinister wardrobe-based adventure, Sardines, former League of Gentlemen Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith continue to astound with six more often funny, frequently sinister half hour comedy dramas. As before, all are linked by the fact they involve the number 9 in some way.

Despite the fact its story-line incorporates murder, adultery and suicide, the first episode Zanzibar is positively cheery by Inside No. 9 standards, a breathtaking, star-studded hotel-based farce with strong Shakespearean overtones. The whole thing is written entirely in iambic pentameter and is quite, quite brilliant.

Even so, the series highlight might actually be the second episode, Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room. Detailing a heartbreaking and seemingly ill-advised reunion between two Eighties comedians, it manages to be both funny and desperately moving.

Like the early Christopher Nolan film Memento, the third episode, Once Removed gradually unravels its clever homicidal story-line by showing its scenes in reverse order. To Have And To Hold, meanwhile (an episode which, it must be said, rarely even tries to be funny) presents an uncomfortable portrait of an unhappy marriage. As usual, there is more going on than meets the eye.

Finally, And The Winner Is… takes a look behind the scenes at the judging process of a major TV award while Tempting Fate focuses on a clear-out following the death of a local hoarder.

These last two episodes are probably the weakest. But this is not a major criticism. Inside No.9 remains head and shoulders above virtually everything else on TV.

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DVD review: Upstart Crow Series 2

Upstart Crow s2Familiarity, as someone once said, can breed contempt.

Happily, this is certainly isn’t the case with the second outing for Ben Elton’s Tudor sitcom, which aims to tell the story behind the creation of Shakespeare’s plays.

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It’s not a dramatically original idea (the films Shakespeare In Love and Bill have all had a pop at it) but aided by a strong cast, this generally works well. As the Bard himself, David Mitchell does an excellent job of humanising a figure who can sometimes seem like some sort of 16th century superhero. Mitchell essentially portrays him as a likeable clever dick torn between the demands of his work, the acting ambitions of his friend Kate (Gemma Whelan), the roguish charms of contemporary Kit Marlow (Tim Downie), the rivalry of his nemesis Robert Greene who coined the term “upstart crow” to describe Shakespeare in the first place (Mark Heap) and the attentions of his more common but loving Stratford family (Liza Tarbuck, Helen Monks, Harry Enfield, Paula Wilcox). Noel Fielding also crops up in one episode of this series as another real life figure, composer Thomas Morley.

The 2017 Christmas special is not included here although if you’ve seen it, you will probably agree this is no bad thing.

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A modern comedy classic then? Perhaps not quite, at least, not yet. But this is certainly enjoyable, clever fun with a top notch cast and a welcome return to form for the generally unfairly reviled talent that is Ben Elton.

And, no. The “familiarity breeds contempt” quote is not by Shakespeare. Although on this evidence, the man himself might have claimed it was.

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Book review: Only Fools and Stories by David Jason

Only Fools and Stories: From Del Boy to Granville, Pop Larkin to Frost by David Jason (Published by Century)

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In 1980, as he approached his fortieth birthday, David Jason could look back on an enjoyable comedy and acting career. But he had never hit the big time. And there had been plenty of missed opportunities.

For a few joyful hours in the late Sixties, for example, Jason had been briefly cast as Lance Corporal Jones in a new BBC sitcom about the wartime Home Guard called Dad’s Army. Jason, was only in his twenties then, but already had a good reputation for playing old men. Jason’s euphoria at getting the role was short-lived, however. The casting director’s first choice, middle-aged Clive Dunn got back in touch and indicated that, on second thoughts, he wanted the part which would make him a star, after all. Jason was out.

He could also have very easily been a Python, having co-starred with Michael Palin, Eric Idle and Terry Jones in the 1967-1969 comedy sketch Do Not Adjust Your Set. But for whatever reason, Jason didn’t follow these three into the hugely successful Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

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He was, at least, by the end of the Seventies, an experienced and highly recognisable comedy face. He had played the geriatric convict Blanco in the hugely successful prison-based sitcom,  Porridge. Appearing with Ronnie Barker again, Jason had excelled as Granville, the put upon Yorkshire errand boy in Open All Hours. But though now regarded as a classic sitcom (indeed, Jason appears today in its follow-up Still Open All Hours to this day), the Roy Clarke series was very slow to attract a large audience.

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It took Only Fools and Horses to make Jason a star. John Sullivan’s sitcom began in 1981 and like Open All Hours was to be a slow burner, getting what, by 1980s standards were considered low ratings. But the role of wheeler dealing market trader Derek “Del Boy” Trotter (a performance Jason based on a stylishly dressed cockney building contractor he had encountered in the Sixties) was clearly the role he had been born to play. By the end of the decade, the series was one of the most popular in the land.

Although less of a full blown biography than 2013’s book, My Life, this should be enjoyed by all Jason fans featuring countless anecdotes about Jason’s experiences on the show (notably a series of practical jokes carried out with his onscreen brother Nicholas Lyndhurst) as a well as stories about his other later works including A Touch of Frost, The Darling Buds of May and Porterhouse Blue.

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Book review: How Not To Be A Boy by Robert Webb

How Not To Be A Boy by Robert Webb (Published by: Canongate)

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It’s probably more than a decade now since most of us became familiar with the comedy actor Robert Webb.

As Jez, the more laid-back but less responsible half of the flat-share arrangement in Channel 4’s longest running sitcom Peep Show between 2003 until 2015, he was the perfect foil to David Mitchell’s more intelligent but thoroughly anal Mark Corrigan. Although brilliant, Peep Show was never a ratings success. It did, however, lead directly to the sketch show The Mitchell and Webb Look which, though patchy as many such shows are, pushed the duo into the mainstream.

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Webb’s career is obviously linked to Mitchell’s: the two met at Cambridge in the Nineties and are currently appearing together again in Simon Blackwell’s aptly named comedy, Back. A straight comparison of the two men’s careers has led many to assume Webb is the lesser talent of the two. Mitchell has been a prolific columnist and clearly has a massive aptitude for comedy panel shows. Aside from his spectacular victory in the 2009 Let’s Dance for Comic Relief and his early performance in the TV series The Smoking Room, most of Webb’s biggest successes have been with Mitchell.

But any lingering doubts anyone might have about Webb’s talent should be vanquished by a reading of this genuinely funny and touching memoir. The title might seem to count against it: the “how to” prefix has been overused in comedy books in recent years (How Not To Grow Up by Richard Herring, How To Build A Girl by Caitlin Moran, How To Be A Grown-Up by Daisy Buchanan, How To Be A Bawse by Lily Singh and the forthcoming How To Be Champion by Sarah Milican) but in fairness to Webb, the title is pretty essential to the book’s structure. The seemingly well-worn “having an imaginary conversation with one’s younger self” device, previously deployed by Miranda Hart, amongst others, is also used well here.

The book is boosted by Webb’s vivid recollections of his painful teenage years, doubtless helped by his enjoyably pretentious diaries (“Is there any romance greater than the one a teenage boy has with his own loneliness?”) which he bravely reproduces fragments from here. He is also refreshingly open about his drinking problems and his early experiments with homosexuality.

But as with Hugh Laurie who, likewise, has always been in danger of being overshadowed by his brilliant co-star, this book serves as a valuable reminder that Robert Webb is a major talent in his own right.

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Book review: No Cunning Plan by Tony Robinson

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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.

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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…

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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 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.”

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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’.

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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 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.

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In praise of Blackadder the Third

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This article (written by me) has been reproduced with the kind permission of Chortle. It first appeared in 2012.

‘I want to be remembered when I’m dead. I want books written about me. I want songs sung about me. And then, hundreds of years from now, I want episodes of my life to be played out weekly at half past nine by some heroic actor of the age.’ (Edmund Blackadder, Dual and Duality).

It has now been a full quarter-century since the first screening of Blackadder The Third. Under normal circumstances, the anniversary of the third series of anything would not be a cause for comment. Yet Blackadder is not a normal programme and the third series alone must rank as one of the best sitcoms of the Eighties in its own right.

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Continuing the slow social decline of the Blackadder family (from 15th Century royalty in the first series to a 20th Century Army officer by the fourth), Blackadder the Third, sees Edmund (Rowan Atkinson again) reduced to the role of butler to the idiotic foppish Prince Regent played by the then still-up-and-coming twenty-something Hugh Laurie. Despite having played two different roles in Blackadder II, as the drunken innuendo-obsessed Simon ‘Farters’ Partridge (‘Sounds a bit rude doesn’t it?’) in the acclaimed series 2 episode, ‘Beer’ and the cast’s Teutonic nemesis Mad Prince Ludwig in the final episode ‘Chains’ (‘Yes! I was one of the sheep!’), Laurie was reportedly tremendously nervous about taking on the part.

It’s easy to see why. The standard set by the second series had been incredibly high and with the regular cast slimmed down (Miranda ‘Queenie’ Richardson and Tim ‘Lord Percy’ McInnerny appear in only one episode each in new roles), a lot of weight was on Laurie and Atkinson’s shoulders, even with the excellent Tony Robinson returning as Baldrick (or rather ‘Mr S. Baldrick’). The introduction of a new character, pie-shop proprietor Mrs. Miggins (Helen Atkinson-Wood), a character referred to in Blackadder II but never seen, frankly doesn’t help the series much.

Thankfully, virtually everything else does. Hugh Laurie is perfect as Prince George, a good-natured, if lazy and spoilt clot who seems incapable of recognising his butler’s insults even when he says them directly to his face. The part would in fact be the perfect preparation for perhaps Laurie’s most successful Nineties role as Bertie Wooster, opposite a less hostile servant.

This is still not the best series of Blackadder, a position which still belongs to Blackadder II. Historically, it’s a bit confused – George is repeatedly referred to as the Prince Regent, a position he didn’t hold until 1811, by which time he was corpulent and in his fifties. Yet virtually everything else in terms of costumes and references suggests this is set in the 1780s or 1790s, while Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, the subject of one episode, was published before the Prince was actually born.

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Despite a few good lines and an excellent cameo by the late political reporter Vincent Hanna, the opening election-themed opening episode is perhaps also bit iffy by Blackadder standards. A few episodes also rely a bit too heavily on fictional versions of real characters such as Dr. Johnson (Robbie Coltrane) and the Duke of Wellington (Stephen Fry) being homicidal maniacs. They were not.

Happily, though, most of the series is sublime, reaching a peak with the brilliant closing episodes ‘Amy and Amiability’ and ‘Dual and Duality’. Blackadder’s run-in with a squirrel-hating highway woman and a memorable scene in which Hugh Laurie’s Prince is repeatedly punched make up two of the best Blackadder episodes ever produced.

And (is a spoiler alert necessary 25 years on?) the series uniquely sees a happy ending for Blackadder himself, with the butler rather confusingly replacing George as heir to the throne. Are we to assume all subsequent royals are in fact descended from him?

It hardly matters. What’s undeniable is that this remains one of the finest British sitcoms ever produced.

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Read more: Third time’s a charm… : Correspondents 2012 : Chortle : The UK Comedy Guide

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…