Meet Jane, a young teacher living in Boyne City, Michigan at the start of the 21st century. In addition to a consistently embarrassing mother, Jane has an on‐off relationship with Duncan, an older man who not only seems surprisingly close to his ex-wife, Aggie, but who seems to know every woman in town. Then there’s Jimmy, Duncan’s nice but childlike co-worker. Spanning a period of nearly twenty years, which naturally sees many changes for both Jane and those around her, Katherine Heiny’s novel is a hugely addictive visit to a charming and enjoyable small-town world.
Book review: Early Morning Riser, by Katherine Heiny. Published by: Fourth Estate.
A former local journalist who later moved into public relations, Terry Pratchett grew from being a cult comic fantasy author in the 1980s to becoming the bestselling author in the UK of all in the 1990s. Biographer Marc Burrows does an excellent job detailing the prolific Discworld and Good Omens author’s busy life and extensive back catalogue – no mean feat as the Discworld series alone comprises 41 novels – successfully emulating Pratchett’s own literary style as he does so, with numerous witty footnotes throughout. Burrows also details the progress of the Alzheimer’s disease which sadly blighted Pratchett’s final years leading to his death in 2015, aged 66.
I spotted only one mistake: Pratchett never reported on the assassination of Egyptian President Nasser as this event never happened. Perhaps the author meant Sadat? At any rate, this should not detract from Burrows’ achievement. Apparently, Pratchett’s official biography has not been written yet. Whoever writes it will have their work cut out surpassing this.
Book review: The Magic of Terry Pratchett, by Marc Burrows. Published by Pen and Sword. White Owl (2020)
Do you know Adam Buxton? If you don’t, you should.
Long time ‘Buckles’ fans such as myself will have first encountered him on the hugely inventive late night 1990s Channel 4 programme, The Adam and Joe Show, which he hosted with his old schoolfriend, the equally hilarious Joe Cornish, now a film director. In the 2000s, the duo retained their cult status with an excellent radio show on what was then BBC 6 Music while Adam made occasional appearances in films like Stardust and Hot Fuzz. In the second of these, he plays an amateurish West Country reporter who suffers a comically horrific Omen-style death outside a cathedral. In recent years, he has become known for his celebrated podcasts which he records, often in the company of his dog, Rosie, from his home in Norfolk. He has also done many more things in the first fifty years of his life, than my brief summary here suggests. Many of these are mentioned this book.
Due to the current global state of unpleasantness, the release of the actual book has been delayed until September. This is no great tragedy for anyone with the inclination and capacity to listen to this audio version of his autobiography, however, as it’s available now. The book reads very much like an extended version of one of Buxton’s podcasts and which, like that, is nicely broken up by amusing ingenious musical jingles and occasional comments on the text from the reader (who is, of course, Buxton himself).
Fans of The Adam and Joe Show will remember the BaaadDad sequences in which Adam’s father, would make a guest appearance to provide a unique upper middle-class seventy-something’s perspective on the popular music of the day. Typically expressing presumably perfectly genuine outrage at the likes of Firestarter by The Prodigy or Born Slippy by Underworld, these reviews were one of the most popular bits of the show.
In reality, Nigel Buxton, who died in 2015, aged 91, though certainly not an out and out ‘bad dad’ himself, nevertheless seems to have often been a difficult person. His presence looms large in the book. Despite the moderate degree of celebrity he achieved through his son’s show late in life, Buxton the Elder, a onetime writer for the Telegraph seems to have regarded Adam’s obsession with popular culture and pursuit of a comedy career with a degree of disdain, often bordering on contempt. A particular peculiarity of the older Buxton’s personality was his absolute obsession with keeping Adam in private education, very nearly bankrupting himself in the process. At one point, he was reduced to asking for a substantial loan from his friend, John Le Carré to pay for it (the famous author was not forthcoming). Adam – who initially suffered terrible homesickness after being sent away from home to boarding school at the age of nine – had no idea about the financial crisis his father had needlessly created for himself, until many years later.
If Nigel Buxton’s aim was to instil in his son the same sometimes dubious values which he possessed himself, he failed. Adam Buxton is never less than respectful to the memory of his father, throughout this memoir. But his obsession with the trivia and minutiae of popular culture, liberal outlook and a sense of humour, have ensured that he is about as different a man from his father as it’s possible to be.
A sad development since the book was completed has been the death of Adam’s mother which he has spoken movingly about on his podcast.
Perhaps we should be grateful to Adam’s father for his public school obsession. For it was at school that Adam formed his career-defining friendship with Joe Cornish (as well as Louis Theroux).
This is ultimately an often very funny and enjoyable account of Buxton’s formative years with particular focus on the 1980s: the decade which saw him move from childhood to adulthood.
Anyone who remembers the 1970s and 1980s will find much of resonance here: Adam’s discovery of Kraftwerk through surreptitious late night listening to Radio Caroline while at school, details of an explosive adolescent erotic dream about the actress June Whitfield, happy experiences seeing Ghostbusters and less happy experiences watching David Lynch’s Dune.
There are also occasional light hearted interruptions with details of a log of recent arguments Adam has had with his wife, anecdotes about socially awkward experiences Adam has experienced on trains and perhaps a little too much about his obsession with David Bowie.
As the title suggests, Buxton is inclined to ramble here, just as he does during his ‘Ramble Chats,’ when he interviews people on his podcast. But this is an enjoyable read. Adam Buxton is a thoroughly charming man and is always a delight to listen to.
Ramble Book: Musings on Childhood, Friendship, Family and 80s Pop Culture, by Adam Buxton. Audiobook available now. Hardback/Kindle version available: 3rd September 2020. Published by: Mudlark.
1. Tiger King: Netflix series. I’ve not seen this yet! But I must do soon as I hear about it everywhere I go (i,e. the kitchen, lounge and bathroom).
2. Tony the Tiger: Cartoon character used to advertise Frosties breakfast cereal (basically Corn Flakes with more sugar on). As Mark Corrigan (David Mitchell) on Peep Show says: “Frosties are just cornflakes for people who can’t face reality.”
3. Tiger Tiger: Popular nightclub. Immortalised in the William Blake poem: “Tyger tyger, burning bright. Get pissed, pull and have a fight…”
4. Tygra from Thundercats. The “boring one” of the Fab Four, a bit like George Harrison or Mike from The Young Ones.
5. Rod’s Tiger: Popular comic story about a boy and his pet tiger which ran in Buster comic between 1981 and 1983. A pun on the name of the actor, Rod Steiger. Not really! I made this one up.
6. Tigger: From Winnie the Pooh. Immortalised in the William Blake poem: “The wonderful thing about Tiggers…” (I think?)
7. Battle Cat: From He-Man. Transformed from a very anxious green tiger called Cringer into a gruffer (he could speak) more aggressive feline when his master became He-Man. Technically, as he was an alien he might not have actually been a tiger in the same way that the Ewoks from Star Wars are not really bears.
8. Tiger Woods. A golfer. Clemenceau, the French leader at the time of the Versailles Treaty in 1919 nicknamed, “The Tiger.” Neither in fact shared many attributes with tigers. Tigers cannot play golf and no tiger has ever attempted to impose reparations on 1920s Germany.
9. Tiger used to sell oil in the 1980s. “Put a tiger in your tank.” I seem to remember the adverts being much duller than this slogan would suggest with some slow music, some oil running along the ground and a real tiger appearing (the only real tiger on this list). My research suggests some of the adverts were more fun, however.
10. The Tiger Who Came To Tea. Popular children’s book by the late Judith Kerr.
11 (still ten overall as 5 was a cheat!) Tiger Tim: Very old comic character. The UK tennis player Tim Henman is sometimes nicknamed ‘Tiger Tim’ too. I remember nothing about Tiger Tim other than that he wore a blazer, as indeed does Tim Henman sometimes. Was the choice of a ‘blazer’ intended as some sort of clever pun on Blake’s ‘burning bright’ poem? Answer: probably not.
Which key events of the Roaring 20s are likely to happen again in the next decade? 1. A General Strike: possible but unlikely. 2. Stock Market Crash: very likely, but hopefully on a smaller scale. 3. Silly dancing trends, fashion and slang adopted: certain. 4. Republicans win 3 presidential elections as US retreats into isolationism: sadly seems very plausible. 5. Italy descends into fascism: I hope not! 6. Brits triumph at Olympics after running in slow motion to Vangelis music on a beach: er… 7. The Queen and Sir David Attenborough are born. Unlikely. In fact, probably quite the opposite? Happy New Decade readers!
The popular TV cartoon series, He-Man and the Masters of the
Universe ran from 1983 until 1985. Essentially designed to promote the Mattel
toy range of He-Man action figures, the series was based around Adam, a prince
on the planet Eternia and his ongoing struggle for control of Castle Greyskull
with his rival, the malevolent Skeletor. By declaring “By the power of
Greyskull!” Adam could transform into the all-powerful He-Man. There were a
whole host of other characters, plus a spin-off entitled She-Ra in 1985, aimed
Despite being set on a mythical world, He-Man would often end with
a straight to the camera moral message to the audience from some of the
characters. These were sometimes edited out of the British transmissions.
Here are just some of them:
no magic drugs (He-Man)
today’s story Ilena tried taking a magic potion which she thought would help
her. Well, she found out there aren’t any magic potions. And you know what?
There aren’t any magic drugs either. Anytime you take one from anybody but your
parents or your doctor, you’re taking a very big chance. Your gambling with
your health, maybe even your life. Drugs don’t make your problems go away, they
just create more.”
Skeletor would be especially well advised to stay off cocaine as he doesn’t
have a nose.
when doing practical jokes (Man-At-Arms)
“You’ve all seen how Orko’s magical tricks don’t
always go the way he planned. Sometimes they backfire on him. The same thing is
true of practical jokes. Sometimes they don’t go the way you planned, and you
or someone else can get hurt. So be sure and think twice before playing a joke
or a trick on anybody. It might not go the way you planned and someone could
wind up losing a finger or an arm, or maybe even an eye. And no joke is worth that
is it? See you again soon.”
Bloody hell! An arm or an eye? What sort of practical jokes were they thinking of? One involving a chainsaw?
Respect Magna Carta (He-Man and Teela)
“A very long time ago a wonderful document came into being. It was called
the Magna Carta.”
“It was the first big step in recognizing that all people were created
equal. But even though more laws have been passed to guarantee that, there are
still those who try to keep others from being free.”
“Fortunately Queen Sumana realized in time that only by working together
could her city be saved. And that’s the way it should be. Together.
they had Magna Carta on Eternia too then? I didn’t know they even had it in the
ram things too much (Ram Man)
today’s story I sure was busy. Boy, did that hurt. Ramming things may look like
fun, but it really isn’t. Trying to use your head the way I do is not only
dangerous, it’s dumb. I mean you could get hurt badly. So listen to Rammy, play
safely and when you use your head, use it the way it was meant to be used, to
think. Until later, so long!”
that? If you’re ramming while reading this, please stop immediately. Ram Man
(not to be confused with ‘Rainman’) was a minor character. He’s wrong about
this though. Ramming is definitely fun. Ram Man, thank you man.
Sleep properly (Orko and Cringer)
“Hi, today we met some people who had slept for over two hundred years.
Well, we don’t need that much sleep, but it is important to get enough sleep.
So here’s some things to remember. Don’t eat a lot before going to bed, a glass
of milk or a piece of fruit makes a good bedtime snack. Try to go to bed at the
same time every night, and avoid any exercise or excitement before going to
bed. Well, goodnight. Oh, goodnight Cringer!”
eating fruit before bedtime really help you sleep? I’m not convinced.
all have a special magic (Sorceress)
“Today we saw people fighting over the Starchild, but in the end
her power brought these people together. It might surprise you to know that all
of us have a power like the Starchild’s. You can’t see it or touch it, but you
can feel it. It’s called love. When you care deeply about others and are kind
and gentle, then you’re using that power. And that’s very special magic indeed.
Until later, good-bye for now.”
was clearly to busy building a nest to read the first moral, Sorceress. Stay
off the magic drugs!
Your brain is stronger than
any muscle (Man-At-Arms)
“Being the most powerful man in the universe isn’t all that makes He-Man such a great hero. Being strong is fine, but there’s something even better. In today’s story He-Man used something even more powerful than his muscles to beat Skeletor. Do you know what it was? If you said, ‘his brain,’ you were right. And just like a muscle, your brain is something you can develop to give yourself great power.”
I’m not sure Man-At-Arms was
the best choice to put forward this argument, to be honest. He has “university
of life” written all over him.
Play it safe (He-Man and Battle Cat)
He-Man: “I’d like to talk to you for
just a moment about safety. When we go to the beach there are lifeguards there
to watch out for our safety. Crossing guards are in the street for the same
reason, to help protect us. Now things like that are fine, but we can’t count
on someone always being around to protect us. We should practice thinking of
safety all the time. So don’t take a chance. And that’s true whether you’re
crossing a street, or driving a car. Think safety.” Battle Cat: (Roaring)
The beach? ‘Crossing
guards’? Has He-Man been to Earth at some point? And what does “practice
thinking of safety” mean? Nice of Battle Cat to contribute here too. Much
Learn from experience (He-Man and
He-Man: “As we’ve just seen Skeletor went
back into the past to make evil things happen. In reality no one can go back
into the past, that’s only make-believe. But we can try to learn from the past,
from things that have happened to us, and try to apply them toward being better
people today. Remember, it’s today that counts. So make it the best day
possible. Until next time this is He-Man wishing you good health and good
Battle Cat: (Roaring)
Learn from he mistakes of
history. But also live for today: that’s all that matters. Make your mind up,
No job is unimportant (He-Man)
“Have you ever had a
job to do you thought was boring and unimportant. We all have. Opi did. But no
job is unimportant. Opi learned that if he’d done the little jobs his father
gave him, things would not have gone wrong. So remember, any job worth doing is
worth doing well. No matter how dull it may seem at the time. Bye for
Sadly, this one isn’t true.
Some jobs are both boring and unimportant. Writing the moral messages at the
end of children’s TV cartoons, for example.
Fighting is bad (Teela)
“Some people think the
only way to solve a difference is to fight. Skeletor for example, his answer to
every problem is fight. He doesn’t care who’s right or wrong. He thinks that
might makes right. Well, it doesn’t. He-Man knows that, even with all his
power, he always tries to avoid fighting. Fighting doesn’t solve problems.
Fighting only makes more problems. See you soon.”
Bloody hell! This is a bit
rich. He-Man spends half of every episode fighting.
Read a book (He-Man)
“I hope you enjoyed
today’s adventure. You know television is not the only way to be entertained by
an exciting story. There is another way; it’s called reading. And one of the wonderful
things about books is that they allow you to choose whatever kind of adventure
you like; a trip with an astronaut, an adventure with the great detective
Sherlock Holmes, a comedy, anything. You can find it in a book at your school
or neighbourhood library. Why I’ll bet there are even some good books right in
your own home just waiting to be read.”
In other words, in the immortal words of the 1980s UK kids’ show, ‘Why Don’t You?’ “switch off your TV set and go out and do something less boring instead.” Especially now this episode of He-Man has finished.
c) I anticipated your question and have already answered it in question 1.
Imagine the following scenario. You are completing an online survey when
the following question arises. Is this…?:
Which of these fictional characters best characterises your leadership style?
Animal from The Muppet Show.
Flipper the dolphin.
Skeletor from He-Man.
Have you ever suffered from déjà vu?
For God’s sake…
You have survived a plane crash in the mountains. Everyone else on board has
been killed. In addition to the human cargo, the plane had been transporting a
large consignment of hazelnuts. Unfortunately, you are allergic to hazelnuts.
You are starting to starve. What do you?
Take a chance and eat the nuts. You have an epipen anyway.
Start eating one of your dead colleagues. Hopefully, they won’t have been
eating any nuts recently. If they have, it doesn’t really matter.
Reject the whole question as being in rather poor taste. Although if I found
out the person framing the question had a nut allergy himself, that would make
it okay. Even if he hasn’t been in a plane crash.
Have you ever suffered from déjà vu?
For God’s sake…
8. You think
you’re pretty clever don’t you? With your degree and everything. Well, I don’t
think you are. In fact, I reckon I could have you. Do you want to have a fight?
a) Don’t be
absurd man. We can resolve this like adults.
alright. Do you want some? Come on then? Outside now.
9. Why do birds
suddenly appear, every time that you’re near?
a) To be
honest, I do always keep lots of bird seed in my pockets. That might be it.
b) I am Tippi
a) Why not?
b) Why what?
because because because because because of the wonderful things he does.
11. You have
arranged your perfect dream dinner party featuring a range of guests both
living and dead, real and fictional. However, Trotsky has totally let you down
by forgetting to bring the salad he promised to make for starters. Churchill
seems to have been drinking before he even arrived and is in heated discussion
with Napoleon, even though neither understand can each other as they both speak
different languages. Alexander the Great is chatting to Stephen Fry but looks
bored. Brian Cox the actor is proving much better company than the TV
astronomer who you meant to invite would have been but Penelope Cruz and Uncle
Bulgaria have already left together. Do you like Pepsi more than coke?
b) Only if I am
c) Aren’t they
both coke anyway?
12. When will I
I can’t answer. I can’t answer that.
How old do you think I am? First, Tippi Hedren and now this. What’s the next
question going to be about? Juliet sodding Bravo?
c) I was actually still thinking about Uncle Bulgaria and Penelope Cruz from the last question.
13. You walk down a narrow corridor and come to a cavernous poorly lit room. As you advance forward you see hear a loud snoring sound. As your eyes adjust the sleeping body of a huge malevolent green OGRE homes into view. As you attempt to run away, the ogre’s eyes flick open. It is clearly angry and wants to fight. Do you…?
a) Roll a dice.
Get a 6 and you successfully kill it and thrust a sword into its evil still
beating heart. You get to carry on with the survey.
Get anything less and the ogre bites your head off and you die. Redo the survey endlessly
from question 1 until you can advance beyond this question. Good luck!
b) Pretend to
roll a dice and get a 6. Way hey. You win. That’s what everyone else does. I
bet you don’t know where your dice is anyway. Or die. Whatever.
14. Look at these words. Do they look better…like this? Or like…this?
a) The first
b) The second
c) They are
both about the same.
sure…could you do it again please?
15. Have you ever attempted to conduct a citizen’s arrest on a serving police officer?
16. Which is scarier?
a) The Laughing
b) The Jolly
c) Being sued for copyright infringement
17. You accidentally phone your old telephone number by mistake and inadvertently get through to a ten-year-old version of yourself from the past. What advice do you give to your young self?
a) Don’t bother watching Lost.
b) Buy some shares in mobile phone technology.
c) Don’t believe what people tell you. Father Christmas is real. Your parents are the ones who don’t really exist.
Book review: Richard Herring’s Emergency Questions: 1,001 Conversation Savers For Every Occasion. Published by Sphere.
Comedian Richard Herring can be a very silly man.
In 2012, he started interviewing a range of fellow actors, writers and comedians for his weekly Leicester Square Theatre Podcast. An amiable, amusing but always somewhat amateurish interviewer, Herring frequently found himself running out of questions and so in his spare moments took to writing down ’emergency questions’ which can theoretically be asked to anyone (although frequently only adults: and as Herring is quick to warn often not parents or elderly relatives) in the event of conversation ever drying up. This book is the result.
Some of the 1,001 questions are genuine conversation starters:
665. Were you ever in a fan club?
Me: Yes! The Dennis the Menace Fan Club. The Lego Club. And…er…the Weetabix Club? You got a magazine and posters based around the animated characters then used to advertise the popular breakfast cereal. It made sense at the time. Even more geekily, I was a member of the Young Ornithologists’ Club. I got a nice bookmark and went to see a film about kingfishers at Peterborough Regional College. There was no internet then.
74. Did any siblings of celebrities teach at your school?
Me: Yes – my Classical Studies teacher was the brother of Inspector Morse creator, Colin Dexter. Yes, my school was quite posh.
9. Who is your favourite historical character?
(Richard claims his is pretender to the throne, Perkin Warbeck).
Some are just basically impossible to answer:
2. If you had to have sex with an animal – if you had to – which animal would you choose and why? (Richard himself chooses an okapi).
644. Would you rather swing on a star or carry moonbeams home in a jar?
A good number are just insane:
346. Would you prefer to have teeth made out of beef or knees made out of cheese?
If you could resurrect a woolly mammoth, what would you knit with its wool?
In short, this is hilarious and an absolutely essential purchase this Christmas for highly addictive yuletide family fun. Although do check each question first before reading them out over the Christmas dinner table.
Richard Herring is currently one of Britain’s most likeable stand-ups although certainly not in the top tier of comedians success-wise. His star certainly deserves to rise after this.
Although be warned: he doesn’t want your own suggested emergency questions. As he warns in the introduction to this book: “All your ones are rubbish…don’t be so arrogant as to think you can compete with a professional like me.”
Viz Presents: Roger’s Profanisaurus: War and Piss. Published by Dennis.
Roger Mellie, the Man on the Telly is to adult comic Viz what Dennis the Menace is to The Beano, what Judge Dredd is to 2000AD or what Dan Dare was to The Eagle. He has been in every issue of Viz since Chris Donald first started selling copies of his home-produced comic nearly forty years ago.
The premise is simple: Roger is a TV presenter wholly unsuited to TV, largely because he has a tendency to swear virtually every other sentence. Typical episodes see him being barred from hosting Blue Peter after drawing attention to the size of a puppy’s penis and attempts to pitch TV shows entitled, The Bollock Naked Chef, Celebrity Bumhole and Call My Muff.
Roger’s Profanisaurus is an ever-expanding dictionary of swearwords. This latest edition contains 20,000 rude words, phrases and explanations. It is now longer than all three books in the Lord of the Rings trilogy combined. Really.
Typically politically incorrect examples include:
golden deceiver n. A blonde piece who looks gorgeous from behind, but is actually a right dog from the front. A backstabber, a back beauty.
bloatee n. The type of carefully toped beard favoured by the chubbier male, in the vain hope that it will demarcate his chin from his neck and thus indicate where his face stops. As sported by hopelessly optimistic pie shifters such as Chris Moyles, Johnny Vegas, Ric Waller, Lisa Riley etc.
You’ll feel dirty after reading it.
Viz: The Pieman’s Wig 2019. Published by Dennis.
Roger, of course, features alongside the other regular favourites in this year’s Viz annual.
Other highlights include: Tiny Cox: The Pocket Particle Physicist: a one-off in which the celebrated TV scientist is shrunk to miniature proportions and fun with the usual favourites, Mrs Brady: Old Lady, Major Misunderstanding, Biffa Bacon, Sid the Sexist, Farmer Palmer and Buster Gonad and his Unfeasibly Large Testicles.
The Snooty Bookshop by Tom Guald. Published by Canongate.
Some things are almost impossible to review. The good news is that this selection of fifty literary-themed cartoons (presented here in the form of postcards) is definitely very good: original, funny and clever. Go and buy it.
The bad news? Well, as the cartoons are rather unique in flavour, it’s rather hard to convey what they are like if you haven’t already seen them in The Guardian Weekend magazine or elsewhere (admittedly, more of a problem for me than you). So perhaps just enjoy this selection of typically surreal lines from the book:
‘Tips For Getting Your Novel Published During A Skeleton Apocalypse’.
‘Cookbooks By Dog-Owning Atheists’.
‘”Deeds not words.” said Mrs Tittlemouse and went off to town to smash windows with her toffee hammer.’
A very clever little book which you’ll find yourself returning to again and again.
Joy and Alan’s marriage is in trouble. Joy (Toni Collette) is a relationships counsellor but has recently (ahem) enjoyed a mutual masturbation session with a man she met during swimming class. “You’re terrible Muriel,” indeed!
Alan (Stephen Mackintosh), meanwhile, is a schoolteacher who has boffed a younger attractive colleague (Fresh Meat star, Zawe Ashton).
Both tell their other half straight away. But can their marriage be saved? Joy thinks so. She has a radical solution: why don’t they continue their external relationships and just be completely open with their partner about what’s going on?
Will this ever work? How will it affect their three teenage children? And what exactly did happen on the day of Joy’s biking accident?
Wanderlust suffered a little from over-hype about its sex scenes on TV. It’s not that rude in truth and much of the cast particularly Collete (convincingly English-sounding, despite her antipodean background), Ashton and the talented Andy Nyman, in a small part, are great. Ultimately, however, the pace does rather slacken and like Joy and Alan’s sex lives at the start, it does rather run out of steam.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
Familiarity, 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.
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.
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.
Book review: Movie Geek: The Den of Geek Guide to the Movieverse by Simon Brew, Ryan Lambie and Louise Mellor. Published by Cassell, a division of Octopus Publishing.
This may come as something of a shock to my most regular readers but there are other websites out there. You don’t have to read this one. There’s apparently one called Amazon which is pretty popular and another called YouTube. There’s also one called Den of Geek.
Den of Geek have been a valuable dispensary of geek info for well over a decade now, long predating the likes of the excellent Nerd Like You site or my former employers, the sadly now defunct Geeky Monkey magazine. If you want spoilers about the next series of The Walking Dead or a review of the latest Game of Thrones episode, the website is the place for you.
This movie-themed volume is the site’s first soiree into the world of books (note: books are big papery versions of websites: ask your mum) but I doubt it will be its last. Film-related articles featured include How The 1990s Changed Blockbuster Cinema, The Movie Sequels You Might Not Know Existed, Films You Might Not Know Were Based On A Comic Book and A Few Remarkable Things About Some Remarkably Bad Movies.
Do these topics float your boat? I’ll confess they do mine. But then, I am a geek. What do you expect?
But I would recommend this, genuinely. It’s a great coffee table read. Buy it. And perhaps Den of Geek, will one day be as popular as the website you’re reading now.
Book review: Little Me. My Life From A-Z. By Matt Lucas. Published by Canongate.
“He’s a baby! He’s a baby!” These words were sung by Shooting Stars co-host Bob Mortimer just as an unusual looking man dressed in a full-sized pink romper suit homed into view.
This is probably how most of us got our first glimpse of Matt Lucas, then known as “George Dawes” (as in “What are the scores, George Dawes?”) in the anarchic Nineties quiz show, Shooting Stars. He was not, of course, a baby, but it is surprising to reflect, just how young he was. Having started performing stand-up in his teens, Lucas was already a semi-experienced performer when he first appeared on the show in 1995. He was barely twenty-one. True stardom was to come with Little Britain alongside his comedy partner, David Walliams, some years’ later.
As Lucas admits, he does tend to polarise opinion somewhat. If the sight of his grinning bald face on the front cover already repels you, this book is unlikely to change your mind.
But Lucas certainly has a story to tell: even before his entry into the comedy world, he had to cope with sudden childhood baldness, parental divorce and family scandal, fluctuating weight and the growing realisation that he was gay. Then, there was the decade-long climb to fame, initially playing the fictional aristocrat Sir Bernard Chumley, his first teenage meeting with Walliams (they bonded by comparing their stock of celebrity impressions), George Dawes, Rock Profiles, Little Britain, Come Fly With Me and ultimately Hollywood.
Fittingly for someone who was recently jumping around in time on Doctor Who, however, Lucas avoids a chronological approach. Each chapter is in alphabetical order by subject, a technique which works very well. The second chapter B, for example, is entitled Baldy! and discusses Lucas’s hair loss while the tenth J, Jewish, discusses his racial and religious heritage. It’s not always as obvious as that however and you’ll have to find our for yourself what the chapters ‘Frankie and Jimmy’ and ‘Accrington Stanley’ are about.
There is also, the tragic end to his relationship with Kevin McGee, his civil partner who committed suicide in 2009, some time after the failure of his relationship with Lucas. Lucas makes no apology for skirting around what clearly remains a very painful subject for him and nor should he have to. When he does occasionally refer to McGee, however, it is always with sensitivity and affection.
Like anyone, Lucas has a love/hate relationship with his own fame. He is perhaps more comfortable in the US where he is better known for his brief appearance in the huge comedy movie hit Bridesmaids opposite Rebel Wilson than for anything else. Indeed, as he himself admits, with the UK version of Little Britain a decade in the past now and the failure of his recent series Pompidou, he is less familiar to younger viewers now than he once was. Indeed, of the two Little Britain stars David Walliams is by far the better known member of the duo now.
Despite this, it is hard to imagine the man who created The Only Gay In The Village or George and Marjorie Dawes, ever disappearing quietly from our screens anytime soon.
Book review: How To Be Champion by Sarah Millican: My Autobiography. Published by: Trapeze.
There is undoubtedly something very likeable about Sarah Millican. As with Jimmy Carr, she is blessed with an uncanny ability to switch from being sweet one moment to filthy the next. This tendency is certainly deployed to good effect in this autobiography.
On the other hand, despite being probably the most successful female stand-up in the UK, she retains a down to earth ordinary quality which Carr and most other comedians lack. Millican would doubtless be embarrassed by the comparison, but it is something she has in common with the late Victoria Wood.
It is undoubtedly a result of her background. In her early forties now, South Shields born Millican lived a relatively normal university-free existence for years, only turning to stand-up comedy as a means of coping with the collapse of her first marriage in her late twenties. Success came fairly quickly and she won the Edinburgh Best Newcomer award in 2008 beating off competition from the likes of Jon Richardson, Micky Flanagan and Zoe Lyons. Since her the success of her 2012 BBC TV series, The Sarah Millican Television Programme she has been unstoppable. She is now married to comic Gary Delaney (a regular on Mock The Week).
This is a funny, occasionally moving book perhaps slightly let down by its adoption of the overused self-help book format, a technique currently deployed seemingly by every comedy autobiography under the sun. Millican is very open about her difficulties with the harsher side of fame, refreshingly honest about her total lack of desire to ever have children and is clearly achingly vulnerable to the slings and arrows of often misogynistic abuse frequently directed at her by critics on Twitter and elsewhere. She quotes a breathtakingly rude Telegraph review of her 2013 Who Do You Think You Are? appearance by Christopher Howse (who she doesn’t name although I am happy to) in full. Referring to her “piping Geordie voice and dumpy frame,” it is less a piece of journalism, than a sustained and wholly unwarranted personal attack. Howse should be utterly ashamed of himself.
However, this is generally a light, enjoyable read from one of Britain’s comedy national treasures.
Things Can Only Get Worse? Twenty Confusing Years In The Life Of A Labour Supporter by John O’Farrell, Published by: Doubleday
In 1998, John O’Farrell published, Things Can Only Get Better: Eighteen Miserable Years in the Life of a Labour Supporter, 1979-1997. It was an enjoyable and genuinely funny political memoir of O’Farrell’s life from his teenage defeat as Labour candidate in his school’s 1979 mock election to the happy ending of the New Labour landslide in 1997. Eighteen years is a long time: by 1997, O’Farrell was well into his thirties, balding, married with children and thanks to his work on the likes of Spitting Image and Radio 4’s Weekending, an established comedy writer.
The book was a big hit. But now twenty years have passed again since Blair’s first big win. The story of the two decades since as covered in this sequel is rather more complex.
On the one hand, New Labour won yet another landslide in 2001 and a third big win in 2005. The Tories have never really recovered from their 1997 trouncing, winning a majority in only one of the last six General Elections and even then a very small one (in 2015). And as O’Farrell says, things undeniably got better under Labour, with the government “writing off the debt of the world’s poorest countries…transforming the NHS by trebling health spending and massively reducing waiting lists…the minimum wage, and pensioners getting free TV licences and the winter fuel allowance…peace in Northern Ireland… equality for the gay community…all the new schools…free entry to museums and galleries…” The list goes on (and on).
On the other hand, as O’Farrell admits, there are certainly grounds for pessimism too. O’Farrell often felt conflicted defending the Blair Government as a Guardian columnist in the early 2000s particularly after the build-up to the Iraq War. He had a bit of a laugh campaigning as the Labour candidate for the hopelessly Tory seat of Maidenhead in the 2001 second Labour landslide election running against a notably unimpressive Opposition frontbencher called Theresa May. But the disintegration of Labour under first Gordon Brown and then Ed Miliband was hardly a joy to behold, either for him or anyone else who backed Labour. O’Farrell’s candidature in the 2013 Eastleigh by-election in which he came fourth, was less fun too with the Tory tabloids attacking him by using out of context quotes from his first book. By 2016, with O’Farrell despairing after a year of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, the Brexit result and the election of Donald Trump, the celebrations of victory night in May 1997 start to seem like a very long time ago indeed.
Thankfully, O’Farrell is always a funny writer, remaining upbeat even when for others, things would only get bitter.
After all, even at their worst, Labour have never been as bad as the Tories. Yes, the Tories: a party who supported the Iraq War far more enthusiastically than Labour did (and indeed, whose support ensured it happened), a party who fiercely upheld Labour’s spending plans in the early 2000s at the time (rightly) only to attack them endlessly (and wrongly) later, a party whose membership enthusiastically chose Jeffery Archer as its choice for London mayor in 2000 and Iain Duncan Smith as their party leader in 2001. The Conservatives were, are and will always be “the Silly Party.”
This is an excellent book. And thanks to Theresa May’s calamitous General Election miscalculation, it even has a happy ending.