Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea 38 (Blackadder, Joking Apart, Comic Strip Presents, A Bit of Fry and Laurie, Jeeves and Wooster, Heil Honey I'm Home)

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I kept meaning to do a post on various bits of British comedy over the last year. Really, I did. But, you know how it is. There was always something else to write about, and Doctor Who wasn’t really going for comedy much in the 1980s, and something else always seemed better. And so when I finally found a spot to do it, suddenly there was a lot to do. So we get something in the spirit of our hellish dogpile of late 70s/early 80s science fiction: six mini-entries on assorted British comedy of the 80s and early 90s.

BLACKADDER (1983-89)

It’s brilliant, of course. But let’s look carefully at what’s brilliant about it. On the one hand it’s taking a bit of an easy route to brilliance: it’s a massive team-up of comedic talent. The sheer volume of talent involved in making Blackadder is outright staggering. Not, of course, that everything that combines a large number of talented people works. Blackadder, however, works wonders, combining a traditional comedic structure with some particularly bitter teeth. It’s notable, then, for being at an interesting cusp between two modes of comedy - an export-friendly traditional sort and a more cynical and experimental one.

It’s the end of Blackadder Goes Forth that gets the most attention. The episode, by and large, is a straightforward comedy in which Blackadder tries to get out of a certain death charge through No Man’s Land during World War I, initially by feigning madness. He fails, of course. That much is inevitable. Blackadder, in all but the first series, is a scheming and clever character, which means in turn that he’s always going to be frustrated as events spiral out of his control. (See also Joking Apart further down)

But this is set over the backdrop of World War I. And so there’s a real and looming sense of death over it. The humor of most of the other characters is based on their complete failure to recognize that they’re in a horrible war and almost certain to die tomorrow morning, with Blackadder being the only one to realize how bad their situation is (other than Stephen Fry’s character, General Melchett, who, of course, doesn’t have to worry about the front lines).

And so the end of the episode, in which Blackadder finally fails and has to go over the top, is astonishingly bleak. One by one the characters admit to Blackadder that they’re scared. Baldrick, his long-suffering manservant from across the four series, announces that he has a clever plan - a claim that is almost certain not to be true. But before Baldrick can explain it they have to charge into battle, and we cut from slow motion of them being gunned down to a field of poppies as the credits roll. It’s brutal.

It is by far the high point of the series, which was not that savage in its preceding twenty-three episodes. But it’s at least an example of what Blackadder does that is so engaging, which is to mix a very classic comedic structure with a more aggressive flair. The bleak ending is one extreme of that, but also notable is its frequent employment of alternative comics such as Rik Mayall in a memorable turn in Blackadder II as Lord Flashheart.

Good as Mayall is, however, for most viewers the obviously notable actors are probably Rowan Atkinson, playing, at least in the latter three seasons, quite against the “complete idiot” persona he’s more famous for thanks to Mr. Bean, and both Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, about whom we should pause and talk about for a bit.

A BIT OF FRY AND LAURIE (1989-95)

Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie are an odd pair to deal with. They are, at this point, among the most recognizable Brits in the United States, with Stephen Fry being the all-purpose respectable British comedian and Laurie being mistaken as an American due to House. A result of this is that they’ve become standard bearers for a particular era of British comedy. They both had prominent roles in Blackadder, there’s Jeeves and Wooster, about which more in a section, and then there’s A Bit of Fry and Laurie, their sketch comedy show.

Here’s the thing about A Bit of Fry and Laurie, though. It’s not actually that good. I mean, it’s perfectly serviceable sketch comedy show, but it is by and large British comedy done in as straightforward a manner as is possible. The sketches are funny enough, but with nothing that cries out for status as a classic bit of comedy.

One sketch, for instance, hinges on Fry and Laurie playing a couple seated on opposite ends of a farcically long table, with Laurie (in drag) asking Fry to pass the Marmalade and Fry extensively mishearing him. There’s some good wordplay to be had, but, well, it’s hardly what you’d call promising. A sketch about an AA meeting in which Stephen Fry’s character misunderstands the nature of the support group and asks a question about starting his car is slightly more promising, having a second funny joke in which Laurie’s group leader hands Fry a bottle of liquor at the end of the sketch. But we’re still talking about a two minute sketch with only two actual points of humor, the first of which (Fry bringing something inappropriate for the setting to the group) is utterly predictable.

Perhaps the most telling of the sketches in the episode I watched is the first one, in which Fry attempts to buy a greeting card from an (again in-drag) Laurie, only to find that every card is ludicrously hyper-specific. This one is interesting in that it’s a clear variation on two of the consensus-best Monty Python sketches, the Dead Parrot and Cheese Shop sketches. Except, again, the Fry and Laurie version is just… tamer. It’s comfort food comedy, as opposed to anything with actual teeth.

The cynical, but not entirely inaccurate thing to say at this point would be that Fry and Laurie were consciously playing for the role of iconic British comics instead of for the role of good ones. A Bit of Fry and Laurie does, for the most part, play like British comedy made to export to the US. I’m not entirely sure when it actually got exported to the US, but it’s playing for exactly that. It’s content to show a slightly absurd social order and call it a day having done nothing so much as light wordplay.

But equally, Fry and Laurie themselves are both very, very good at their roles here. The writing is flaccid, but Fry and Laurie are adept at slipping seamlessly into the comic roles called for by the sketches. And if their sketch comedy itself is mediocre that, at least, has little bearing on how good they might be in something else.

JEEVES AND WOOSTER (1990-93)

To wit, Jeeves and Wooster, their ITV series adapting P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories, which aired during the same time as most of A Bit of Fry and Laurie. If A Bit of Fry and Laurie felt at times like it was playing for an American audience, Jeeves and Wooster, at least, was definitely a successful export, at least, if the several VHS sets my father owned are any indication.

The thing is, while A Bit of Fry & Laurie is a bit of a frustrating experience, Jeeves and Wooster is actually quite sharp. Which is not a surprise - the biggest flaw in A Bit of Fry & Laurie was that the writing wasn’t up to snuff. When you have P.G. Wodehouse to work from then you’re starting from something of a position of strength.

Beyond that, it plays right into Fry and Laurie’s strengths. They’re both good at slipping into programmatic roles, which both Jeeves and Wooster firmly are. They’re both roles that are done best by a consistent set of gestures and mannerisms, which both Fry and Laurie are superlative at. They’re better comic actors than they are comedians as such. Put in something like this, they slip gloriously and effortlessly into the roles required of them. The result is an extremely good P.G. Wodehouse adaptation.

Is it great comedy? In the wake of more cuttingly inventive things like Blackadder and Comic Strip Presents, no, not entirely. It’s funny, but in a respectable and classic way. Which, to be fair, is appropriate for Jeeves and Wooster, which shared the sort of Agatha Christie-style nostalgia for a golden age before those pesky World Wars mucked up the aristocracy and the empire. They’re more clever than funny. This isn’t a flaw. But it does feel very much made for the export market - an intersection with that old concept of “heritage themepark” Britain whereby things are made to be like everyone remembers them to have been, or, more often, like everyone wishes they had been.

And there’s something a little bit sad about this. British television’s classics in this period are the ones that got exported abroad. Even when they’re very good - and both Blackadder and Jeeves and Wooster are, in point of fact, very good - it seems as if the only point of making a big piece of British television is to sell it abroad, as though the whole of British television was just a feeder service for PBS mixed in with some soap operas. To some extent this is by design - the period of British television we’re looking at through here included both a heavy move on the part of the BBC towards a more competition-based corporate culture and a wave of mergers of ITV franchises that would eventually mean that one company owned over two thirds of the ITV license holders. To some extent, for a Doctor Who fan at least, there’s a bitter irony to this logic taking hold in the early 90s, as it’s exactly the sort of logic that would have preserved Doctor Who on the sole grounds that it was net profitable for the BBC due to international sales. (Though equally ironically, the program’s return came in part out of a revival of thinking about the BBC as a public service.)

Though it would be a mistake to suggest that the only effect of this changing corporate structure of British television was a profusion of classics for the export market. There was also stuff like, well,

HEIL HONEY I’M HOME (1990)

This, of course, was absolutely terrible.  Not, to be fair, for most of the reasons people say. Yes, it’s a sitcom about Adolf Hitler. That this is taken as some horrific trivialization of the Holocaust is, to be honest, a bit rich. Its basic premise - that Heil Honey I’m Home is a lost sitcom of the 1950s - has nice complexity to it. And the entire joke is how wrong it is. The basic concept relies on the fact that Hitler is recast from a powerful force of pure evil into being a complete and ridiculous putz. It’s the same joke we take for granted with Downfall spoofs and shoving Hitler in the cupboard these days. Heck, nobody would have bristled at it as a Monty Python sketch.

The problem is that the half-hour pilot has fewer funnier moments than a five minute sketch from competent humorists would. And that nobody in their right mind would think that an aggressively high-concept premise like this could be stretched out over half an hour, little yet over an entire series. So what we have here is a good sketch concept handled by people without the skill to do it and without the sense to realize that they have a sketch, not a television show.

In some ways more interesting, then, is why this got made. Everything else we’re looking at today comes from one of the two BBCs, ITV, or Channel 4. This, on the other hand, is from Galaxy, a network you’ve probably never heard of due to its only existing for about nine months. Galaxy was one of British Satellite Broadcasting’s channels prior to its imploding in a merger with Sky to form BSkyB.

Implicit in this, however, is that the volume of television being produced was massively higher - there were, after all, several times more channels sitting about on the two satellite networks. Added to this were goings-on at the BBC, which acquired a quota of externally produced programming they had to make in a year. This was part of a larger set of reforms, including, in 1992, John Birt ’s Producer’s Choice policy, which meant that the BBC was able to use external services in making programs. This had mixed effects - money was saved, but historic and important departments such as the BBC Radiophonic Workshop were axed.

But more broadly speaking, there were suddenly a heck of a lot more people producing television. The rumors and news pages of any Doctor Who Magazine from this era will show the profusion of production companies supposedly linked with making Doctor Who. (In most cases the response to their failure ought be “thank God.”) But add to this marginal stations like Galaxy and you have a circumstance in which it is unusually easy for ill-advised disasters of programming like Heil Honey I’m Home to get made.

But not, as it happens, to stay on the air - Heil Honey I’m Home is one of the noble pantheon of series to be cancelled after a single episode.

COMIC STRIP PRESENTS (Actually a staggeringly long time running from 1982 to 2011 at present)

If Heil Honey I’m Home represents an astonishing failure of an attempt at edgy and alternative comedy then we should probably flip back in time to a more successful iteration. The Comic Strip, broadly speaking, is a group of comedians out of the 1980s including Rik Mayall (mentioned earlier), Alexei Sayle (of Revelation of the Daleks fame), Dawn French, Alexei Sayle, and a bunch of other prominent and notable people. There was a show called The Young Ones that I’m told I should have discussed a while ago with many of these folks as well. I didn’t, obviously. But I will discuss Comic Strip Presents, their occasional series for Channel 4.

What seems the consensus highlight of Comic Strip Presents is an hour-long piece called The Strike In it Alexei Sayle plays a writer who does a good little social realist screenplay about the 1984-85 miner’s strike only to have it systematically twisted by Hollywood into an over the top action film starring Al Pacino as Arthur Scargill and Meryl Streep as his wife, played by Peter Richardson and Jennifer Saunders respectively. Also, Scargill wins following a moving speech to parliament delivered in the nick of time before Robbie Coltrane and his band of hardline miners blows up a nuclear power plant.

What’s interesting about The Strike compared to, at the very least, Blackadder or A Bit of Fry & Laurie, and really to Jeeves and Wooster is that large swaths of it have no jokes in it. This, however, does not mean that it's not funny. (Jeeves and Wooster splits the difference - it's often more broadly funny as opposed to based on single and clear-cut "laugh here" points, but the nature of the humor is very different, as we'll see. Heil Honey I'm Home actually does work much like The Strike, except for the bit about working.) But it’s funny in a very different way.

The easiest way to understand the difference is to look at Monty Python. Contrary to what you'd think if you just watched Spamalot, what's funny about Monty Python isn't actually the banal repetition of catchphrases. Rather it's the way in which they tarry extensively in the realm of the completely ridiculous. The alternative comics of The Comic Strip take this as their starting point. Long stretches of The Strike are simply scenes from the fictitious film. These scenes have no concrete moments where the audience is expected to laugh. Instead the humor comes from the prolonged absurdity of what is being depicted, with the laughter being more nervous than cathartic.

And The Strike does this very well by having the bad movie frequently be just barely bad enough to stick out. There are frequent moments in the episode in which the movie momentarily looks no worse than a generic bad American movie, albeit a low budget trainwreck of a bad movie as opposed to the high-powered blockbuster the film supposedly is And then, just as the audience starts to get lulled into thinking that they’re just watching a bad movie, some reminder of the fact that this is supposedly the miners’ strike comes up and the nervous laughter kicks in.

While it would certainly be overplaying my hand to suggest that this nervous laughter is the only route to socially effective humor, it’s certainly a damn good one, and it captures much of why The Comic Strip were such a breath of fresh air.

JOKING APART (1993-95)

Which leaves us with this, Steven Moffat’s first sitcom. Much like Press Gang, this isn’t something that would have been recognized as a major part of the comedy landscape of the early 1990s. I mean, it was well regarded in its time, and it’s certainly not the most ridiculous choice for inclusion in this entry, but again, let’s face it, this is here because of Moffat’s future.

Still, it’s a doozy. I admit to some personal bias here - I discovered its existence within a few weeks of the finalizing of my own divorce, and it was exactly the sort of piece of bitter hilarity I needed right then. But there are two things Joking Apart did that are of note. The first is that was one of several shows to make real progress in figuring out how competent audiences were. This is something we’ll do a more substantial post on early in 2013 (tentatively a post on The West Wing, Gilmore Girls, and Coupling), but the short form is that Joking Apart made a habit of non-linear storytelling, and other than one bit that was sandbagged by some poor filming choices (the stand-up sequences, which fail to make their nature as fantasy sequences clear) it was fine. Despite jumping around in the way that now gets accused of being “too confusing” when he does it on Doctor Who, everybody followed Joking Apart just fine. The fact that it’s so clear despite a thoroughly complex structure is important to highlight.

But in the broader sense of comedy, what we have here is a careful honing of the Blackadder approach. Like Blackadder, Joking Apart has a thoroughly conventional comedic structure. Its protagonist, Mark, is, like the Blackadder, the enormously clever person whose schemes constantly collapse around him. And Moffat is very good at writing elaborate farces that make use of this. (Though not quite as good as he seems to have thought at the time - his next sitcom, Chalk, failed largely because it was based entirely on the farce structure and not on the stuff we’re about to talk about)

But where Joking Apart really shines is in its tangible self-loathing. The fact that Mark is self-evidently an authorial persona, and that the subject matter is so desperately uncomfortable ups the stakes on everything. On top of that, the show is absolutely unrelenting towards Mark. As much anger as the show has towards Becky, the character who really comes in for a hiding is Mark, who is repeatedly shown to be a superficial ass obsessed with his own cleverness. And while he’s funny, it’s vividly clear that Becky’s reasons for leaving him are sound and that he’s not a terribly nice person.

There’s something properly beautiful about this sort of public self-flaying, especially as it’s done so well. The farce and comic structure are impeccable. The show doesn’t wallow in its own self-pity in the least. It just mercilessly flays the authorial surrogate from within the structure of a proper, traditional sitcom. And there’s a significant shift from Blackadder to this. Blackadder realizes that you can put some real barbs on the standard comedy structure. Joking Apart realizes that those barbs can be intensely personal and emotional moments, giving comedy weight usually reserved for drama.

Comments

daibhid-c 4 years, 6 months ago

I've got to admit, I've always been a fan of A Bit Of Fry And Laurie, which at its best had a sort of recursive surrealism I enjoyed. (For instance, the hospital sketch, which isn't really a hospital sketch at all; it's a sketch *about* a hospital sketch.) Although, again, I know Monty Python did much the same thing.

On another note, am I the only one who, when I first saw a poster declaring Meryl Streep was playing Margaret Thatcher, looked for a "Comic Strip Presents..." logo?

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peeeeeeet 4 years, 6 months ago

BOFL was hit and miss, sure, but so is every British sketch show, especially Python. Mitchell and Webb even did a sketch about that. It's at its best when the wordplay creates a world that is hyper-real to the point of hostility (The police station sketch, the shoe-shop brothels, the barber). Far from being an obvious sell, I think most British people were baffled at the time, let alone a US audience less familiar with that approach.

(Also, hi Daibhid! ::waves:: RADW was such a very long time ago, wasn't it?)

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J Mairs 4 years, 6 months ago

"And the entire joke is how wrong it is. The basic concept relies on the fact that Hitler is recast from a powerful force of pure evil into being a complete and ridiculous putz."

I would say it's the other way around.

The entire premise is an attack on 50s sitcom culture, and the type of shows that think "A Black Guy Moves In Next Door: Hilarity Ensures" is a plot. Hitler isn't being recast as Alf Garnet. Alf Garnet is being recast as Hitler.

The satire behind the show is an attack on a society that goes off and tells itself that it's fighting a Good War which eradicate Evil - but then comes home to watch "The Black and White Ministral Show" and "Till Death Do Us Part" and doesn't get the joke.

I'd say that the entire premise is an attack on the idea of Hitler as "a powerful force of pure evil": He was a putz - albeit one in a position of power able to push "Jesus was English" & racist rhetoric onto an entire nation, and then lead

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David 4 years, 6 months ago

A Bit of Fry and Laurie is not really quite as safe as you make out - most sketches have lost their teeth since, but that's the same as most comedies (or indeed programmes). They do have numerous angry rants at Thatcher or the government or BBC guidelines and things, added to which Fry was almost dangerously depressed during series 4 and spends much of it looking like he's about to kill everyone. (The title sequence, a mock perfume ad called "Pretension" with the sound of people sobbing and Fry saying "I hate you I hate you and yet... I hate you," gives us a fairly bleak set-up.)

I would agree that it's not consistently very funny, with a lot of sketches going on too long or being based around Stephen Fry saying a lot whilst Hugh Laurie looks bemused. But the idea that their show notably lacks teeth compared to many other comedy shows around it is, I think, not very well substantiated.

(Compare to Blackadder in which many critics found the last episode rather jarring, seeing as it was 25 minutes of witless catchphrase comedy followed by a sudden attempt to be serious. I think it just about works, but I've never been a big fan of that final series just because the writing is often very lazy.)

Never could get a handle on Jeeves and Wooster series, though. I've tried to watch it several times and it just bores the tits off me.

- As a side note, I've acted in amateur dramatics plays with Hugh Laurie's son - who looks astonishingly like him - and have acted with and directed Laurie's nephew, a very witty chap with a bright future ahead of him, I reckon. Comedic talents and stage charisma seems to run in the family.

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daibhid-c 4 years, 6 months ago

I still pop into RADWM occasionally, but I'm starting to conclude that if a Doctor Who forum has *almost no reaction* to Asylum Of The Daleks, it's time to admit it's dead...

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John Toon 4 years, 6 months ago

Re Heil Honey, I'm pretty sure you mean "Downfall spoofs". Although I'm equally sure there's room in this world for Downtime spoofs.

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peeeeeeet 4 years, 6 months ago

I'm willing to bet without looking that Yads posted a series of arbitrary statements and questions about the episode and called it a review...

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David Anderson 4 years, 6 months ago

In some ways, Blackadder IV was the safest of the three (later) series. Disapproving of the First World War is quite close to disapproving of burning witches in terms of safe criticism of our culture's past. I did Wilfrid Owen at school at the stage at which my sister did the Crucible.
The second and third series are much more savage in their attacks on the Heritage Park version of UK history.

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William Whyte 4 years, 6 months ago

Youtube wars!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F2gviQB4A3c -- spoon bending
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AH9_KhvtFYM -- tobacconist
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RompcYI_fMk -- madness

None of these are exactly groundbreaking, though the tobacconist sketch is both energetically angry and pleasantly meta at the end. But they're all extremely good.

I agree with those who say that the writing in Blackadder got lazy towards the end -- it relied too much on extended and somewhat laboured humorous metaphors, and catchphrases. But that last episode is still powerful, perhaps the most powerful moment in British TV comedy until "Don't make me redundant."

Divorce is a bitch. Sorry to hear about it.

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William Whyte 4 years, 6 months ago

BTW, the first series of ABOFL was much better than subsequent ones (unlike many other shows where the performers took some time to find their feet) so if you watched an episode from the later series that explains why you weren't so impressed. The first series was must-watch.

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John Callaghan 4 years, 6 months ago

The Comic Strip were on to a winner when they got both Alexei Sayle *and* Alexei Sayle. Their on-screen chemistry was electric. ;)

Sorry, couldn't resist!

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Steve Hogan 4 years, 6 months ago

This comment has been removed by the author.

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Steve Hogan 4 years, 6 months ago

Glad to see this section of the culture getting addressed, although I'm mystified as to why you think "The Young Ones" is obscure. Stateside it used to run on MTV all the time and it's probably almost as well known among Generation X-ers as Blackadder. It also helps mark a generational shift from the Baby Boomer sensibility of Monty Python in favor of a more pronounced punk/new wave aesthetic.

Also worth checking out is "Filthy Rich & Catflap" which features most of the same cast but is more anarchic and political. It is more obscure, but you can find all the episodes on Youtube. There's at least Six Degree of Doctor Who Separation in the fact that it depicts a Rupert Murdoch parody with Blake's 7 stormtroopers as his goon squad.

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 6 months ago

I don't think it's obscure - I just think I'd failed to have heard about it.

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jane 4 years, 6 months ago

No Back and Forth? Romans!

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Iain Coleman 4 years, 6 months ago

An astute bet:

"Who could have thought is bur Moffat!

Parliment ofthe Daleks!! Humans disguise.

Most of all Human convereted!!


No wonder the Daleks wanted the Doctor's help, destroy him
and the Asylum.

A ship crashs and survivors are minimal.

So what if insane Daleks gets out. Destory the Doctor
and his compantions.

Insane Daleks are mostly unarmed.

Ad ofr Coleman, if only she could stay intact. Well
I look forward to Christmads.

By the Way Daleks destroying the Doctor? I doubt it

and saving the Marriage rocks!!!"

I wonder if Phil will do an entry about radw in the course of his New Adventures journey. Not only was it a major focus of Who fandom at that time, it was also the place from whence several of the NA authors sprang.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 6 months ago

I think you're underselling a bit the obvious problem with Heil Honey I'm Home, namely that there's a difference between making fun of Hitler and making fun of the Holocaust, and the show does not realize that. (Of course, you are also on point with your other criticisms.)

And man - I've heard of a lot of these shows without seeing them, and it's good to get a description of them that doesn't assume you automatically realize why they'd be funny.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 6 months ago

Wow yeah. When I saw the trailer of her as a Heroic Leader Figure Who Triumphed In Spite Of All Those People Who Said She Could Not... yeah.

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Tommy 4 years, 6 months ago

I'm a bit surprised you didn't highlight how the Blackadder Christmas Special has something of a Doctor Who feel, or how the audio story Jubilee feels almost like a Doctor Who story getting the Comic Strip Presents....Strike! or GLC treatment.

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BerserkRL 4 years, 6 months ago

Adventures in psychoörthography!

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BerserkRL 4 years, 6 months ago

The spoon bender seems to be channeling Anne Elk.

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BerserkRL 4 years, 6 months ago

The tobacconist was my favourite.

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David Anderson 4 years, 6 months ago

An obvious omission is Hale and Pace. On the other hand, apart from the Doctor Who meets comedy sketch angle we're not missing much by omitting them. I remember them being ubiquitous at the time and they'll be worth a mention again when Neverwhere comes up; still, much of what Phil says about A Bit of Fry and Laurie applies.

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Josh Marsfelder 4 years, 6 months ago

A bit surprised there's no mention of either Whose Line is it Anyway?, which featured an all-star cast of established and up-and-coming British comics (including Stephen Fry and Eddie Izzard) and helped catapult TV improv to the mainstream or Keeping Up Appearances, which skewers the very Heritage Park History and British Imperial nostalgia you've been so apt at critiquing here so far. Both shows became big breakouts in the US too, with Keeping Up Appearances becoming a PBS staple and Whose Line...? of course getting a blockbuster ABC remake.

Keeping Up Appearances even had a huge amount of cast bleed-over with Doctor Who, especially in the 1980s, with Clive Swift showing up in both "Revelation of the Daleks" and "Voyage of the Damned", Judy Cornwell getting an amusing turn in "Paradise Towers", Geoffrey Hughes appearing as an alias of the Valeyard in the last part of "Trial of a Time Lord" and Patricia Routledge even being tapped to play Helen A in "The Happiness Patrol".

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Bob Dillon 4 years, 6 months ago

I love to see a Diaeresis used!

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Jack Graham 4 years, 6 months ago

I think you've somehow overlooked a lot of really quite acerbic stuff in A Bit of Fry & Laurie. Interestingly, you raise the issue of what you call "Heritage Themepark" Britain... and there's a really quite acidic monologue from Fry at the end of Series 1 in which he foretells, in pseudo-patriotic reverence, the Thatcherite future of "family heritage fun parks" packed full of the nightmares of plastic, disposable, consumerist, neoliberal Britain. Then there's the 'privatised police' sketch, the mock telethon appeal on behalf of BT majority shareholders who need the money to support their Bentleys and cocaine habits, the sale of Britain to Honda, etc, etc.

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Spacewarp 4 years, 6 months ago

@Phil
I'm guessing this means you haven't seen The Young Ones? If so, that does surprise me, and for your own education you really ought to (hint: it's on USENET).

It certainly isn't the greatest TV you'll ever see, or the funniest, but as a document of the exact moment when comedy on British Television totally changed, it's priceless.

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elvwood 4 years, 6 months ago

If you do decide to try just one episode my recommendation would be Flood, the last episode of the first series.

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daibhid-c 4 years, 6 months ago

Another good angry sketch: when an MP supposedly responsible for broadcasting deregulation (which led, of course, to Heil Honey I'm Home) goes to a restaurant...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6T2zUEiVQU4

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Steve Hogan 4 years, 6 months ago

Sorry Phil, I more meant that it's weird that it's escaped your radar. You have a pretty impressive knowledge of British TV that most American video Anglophiles (Including me) have never heard of. "The Young Ones" was actually big enough here that it eventually got a DVD release stateside. In the day it was popular enough that MTV also used to broadcast "The Comic Strip Presents" as a tie in. (Not to oversell "The Young Ones" though. As Spacewarp mentioned, it's not all that sophisticated. It's fun but mostly responsible for upping the grossout factor in British comedy.)

It may be a generational thing as I alluded to. Like how I somewhat disagreed with the thrust of your Star Wars post. As a ten year old kid I can attest that the main appeal was nothing to do with John Campbell and everything to do with the generous visual and auditory spectacle of tons of robots, aliens and spaceships at a time when your were lucky to even get one of each in movies of the day. This would be less obvious to someone who had grown up in the wake of countless knockoffs and a Hollywood that has embraced said same.

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BerserkRL 4 years, 6 months ago

I love it when software lets me use one.

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 6 months ago

No, I have seen it now - I looked at an episode after it was mentioned as something I should cover. But yes, it's just a little before my time in terms of US airing, and so missed me. I'm as bemused as anyone about it.

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 6 months ago

Perhaps I simply picked a crappy episode.

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William Whyte 4 years, 6 months ago

Seems like it was a later series one. Pick one of the first series ones to get a better sense of the impression they made.

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 6 months ago

It was series 3, episode 4, yes.

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SpaceSquid 4 years, 6 months ago

"Chalk, failed largely because it was based entirely on the farce structure and not on the stuff we’re about to talk about"

The degree to which it recycled Fawlty Towers didn't really help much, either. I dimly remember one plot lifted pretty much verbatim, but very little of Chalk has stayed in my head (other than Nicola Walker, of course).

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Matthew Blanchette 4 years, 6 months ago

Yes, I was going to mention that... :-D

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Matthew Blanchette 4 years, 6 months ago

Ooh, invasion of the hot Italians... ;-)

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Herm Holland 4 years, 6 months ago

I have to admit now, that reading this post I only got as far as reading the parts about Blackadder, A Bit of Fry and Laurie, and Jeeves & Wooster. The rest of the shows you talked about I'm not that familiar with (if at all). On top of that I've got a fair bit of interest in these 3 shows anyway.

And there's a major part of your point that I disagree with about all of these, in a fairly big way, but it all relies on perspective.

This is being written from an American's perspective thus, somewhat stereotypically, it is assumed that the design for these shows hinges on its integration potential in America. The idea that a major factor in the development of any of these shows was how easy Americans could consume them is quite ludicrous, especially given the time they were created.
You give the impression that these shows, and their impact on British culture, is definable only by its relevance to America, and that is categorically not the case.

Blackadder, a show formed out of a group of people going "hey, let's try and do a comedy show like this", and then almost being cancelled (forcing the changes that made the show as successful as it became) is a direct reflection of the cynicism, sarcasm, and self-deprecating nature of british culture that hit right on the nose the feeling of being the only normal person surrounded by idiots (especially those who seem to be inexplicably running the country despite their complete inability to do so).
The only real reference to American culture (other than direct, scripted references to Americans) was Flashheart who, frankly, was a not-so-subtle spoof of the the ridiculously ostentatious attitude of most American shows/films at the time (ie: there has to be explosions, a dramatic entrance, some womanizing, and a pointless amount of shouting). If anything, Blackadder was making fun of American TV, not trying to be integrated into it.

Then, when it comes to 'A Bit of Fry and Laurie', it is clear that the point in it was more to just be making a sketch show, with Fry & Laurie rejoining forces (being Cambridge Footlights veterans together) and it seems more tailored to fit in to the in-between, afternoon/evening slots of broadcasting which the serials/soaps have left empty. It's not so much designed for the export factor, but designed to be easily palatable for the sort of audience who would have been watching at the aforementioned times.

And Jeeves & Wooster, I genuinely feel like the mark has been well and truly missed by a long shot here.
You said it yourself,it was an ITV series. What do we get on ITV? Midsomer Murders, Agatha Christie adaptations, A Touch of Frost, Downton Abbey.
In a large way, there are two schools of programming on ITV (of which there are many crossovers); murder mysteries, or period serials.
Jeeves & Wooster is a demonstration of the familiar comedy stylings of two very recognizable faces of British Comedy, in a setting suited to the sort of programming that ITV is used to; it is a comedy take on the period serial.
This show is far more a tribute to Wodehouse, which lends itself to typical ITV programming, as opposed to its export-value to America.

~

It's probably hard to see now, what with Hugh Laurie losing his Brit-ness in House, and Stephen Fry being a world-renowned English person, but back when these shows were created their range of foresight was far, far smaller than you might believe. The idea that they were more interested in just getting coverage at all, without the hope that they might make it across the water, is illuminated particularly well in Stephen Fry's second autobiography; The Fry Chronicles (in which he talks about his time in University, the formative years of his career, and the development of these shows).

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Herm Holland 4 years, 6 months ago

I'm sorry, this came out a hell of a lot more bitterly, and aggressively, than I intended. But I defend my points.

It is infuriating, in every respect, that when an American talks about British culture he seems to think that it's all about pandering to America... as if America is the fashionable crowd at high school, and Britain can only gauge its 'coolness' on how well it is accepted by America, and how well it adheres to its standards.

You only need to look at the disdain directed towards American adaptations of British comedy shows (like The Office, Coupling, Spaced, and so on) to see how much it is the other way around. We do comedy better, America tries to copy it and make it their own, and fails.

Britain doesn't work to make exportable comedy; America works to claim Britain's comedy for its own.

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 6 months ago

I take your point, at least in the general case, but I think in the specific case you're missing the trees for the forest, so to speak. Yes, I absolutely agree that it's a massive fallacy to treat British television as if it's justified by the export market. In fact, my resistance to that line of thought is why I differ from a lot of people on Doctor Who in the 1980s - I reject the idea that its profitability based on overseas marketing was a reason to keep it in production given the purpose of the BBC.

But I think your decision to only read the three shows you were familiar with led you astray. The section on Heil Honey I'm Home is instructive regarding the context of the time. All of British television became more overtly commercial in the early 90s. And when you take a turn towards the overtly commercial it's difficult not to notice that there's a very large market in the United States that likes certain kinds of British television. This is a huge change in British television. A decade earlier the idea that Doctor Who should be made because people not in the UK liked it was explicitly rejected as a reason to keep it around. Come the 90s and the opposite logic would have held sway - Doctor Who was a profit center, so it should be exploited as much as possible. But by that time it was off the air and instead we got a decade long wrong turn of trying to flog Doctor Who out to various producers like it was just another sci-fi franchise in need of a reboot.

I think the revealing fact is your observation that ITV mostly makes murder mysteries and period serials. Why wouldn't they when the two banners under which British material was routinely shown in the US were Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery!? Those are the two most export-friendly focuses imaginable.

Now from an aesthetic standpoint I'll agree with you readily - very little good comes out of Americanizing British comedy. I'd even say that making British comedy for the export market is a poor idea. Occasionally you get lucky, as with Jeeves and Wooster, but that's because Wodehouse is hard to screw up by doing a faithful adaptation. But that doesn't mean that it wasn't what was being done at the time. British television in the 90s was more export focused. "We can sell it in America" was a reason to make something, where it hadn't been before. There's some great stuff in 90s British television, but there's an absolute explosion of quality once the BBC gets its overtly commercial jollies out and starts acting like a public service again in the late 90s/early 00s.

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Katherine Sas 2 years, 9 months ago

Re: A sitcom starring Hitler, once again Monty Python are way ahead of the pack: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OKgHUrKZiXA

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