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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Book review: The Frood: The Authorised and Very Official History of Douglas Adams & The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Jem Roberts

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Frood, as in “There’s a frood who really knows where his towel is” is a word created by Douglas Adams himself. He would never have referred to himself as one of course and one wonders if the term which is defined as a “really amazing together guy” by no less an authority than The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy generally applied to Adams, a man who was, after all, notorious for missing deadlines. What’s not in dispute, thirty five years after his first novel first appeared and thirteen years after his absurdly premature death is that Adams was a genius and among the top set of the best British comic writers of the twentieth century.

Adams was at his least “froody” only a short while before his greatest success. Six foot five inches tall and prone to taking day long baths while his housemate rising comedy producer legend John Lloyd went to work at the BBC, Adams despaired of ever being successful himself. This is odd as we are only talking 1976 here when Adams was still only 24. It is also a little odd as he had already achieved quite a bit such as working alongside his heroes Monty Python (by a strange coincidence appearing in one episode of Python, number 42).

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

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

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

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