Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Funny Fortnight - All the world's a stage and all the players are Norbert Smith...

What does make something believable or more to the point, how can something be made to be believable? Since Bad News arrived on the small screen in 1983 and later Eddie Monsoon, both from The Comic Strip, the presidence of the mocumentry in the modern era was born. Either by aping or spoofing something to make it look real. Where as Bad News and Eddie Monsoon may have been more knock about with the later even mocking up clips, the first real mocumentry to go into such detail on British television was Harry Enfield's Norbert Smith - A Life. 

Part of Channel 4's Funny Fortnight, this reshowing of Enfield's first mockumentry with later on coming the sublime Smashy and Nicey - The End of an Era for the BBC and finally, the not so on form Norman Ormal - Political Turtle. In itself, this was different from everything else as the fiction could be better then reality itself. 
First of all, to make the programme real the presence of Melvin Bragg helps with the supposed reality as anyone not tuning in from the start would thing this was a repeat of The South Bank Show. The style is meant to be like that to blur the lines, used once again in The Cricklewood Greats nearly twenty five years later. 

From the opening lines, the whole programme is put at an angle with Smith proclaming that his home used to be a country house but he had it converted to a vicarage two years ago. But in which also Bragg's commentary pulls the viewer onto the joke, being able to talk about the important facts of the story with the comedy added into it but said at the same rhythm as he would a normal South Bank Show film commentary would be at. Meaning the the viewers have to listen to what he is saying and that the verbal jokes can help the flow of Norbert Smith's life along at a measured pace.

The simplicity comes when the simplest jokes are got out of the way i.e. his mother being a woman and his father being a man. Simple, maybe almost corny, but this settles a pattern for the mockumentry. Where as the interview sections are scattered with jokes about what the British film industry was like allowing people to link something said comically to an actual event, the strength of the programme comes from the recreation of the films and adverts that Smith had been in throughout his long and varied career. 

Now it's easy just to be able to do a spoof of something and say that it is an accurate portrayal what something was like. But what makes something stand out is the minute detailing of a spoof, such as the way its filmed, the clothes being worn or even the surroundings its being filmed in. Enfield's spoof of Will Hay films, allows the verbal dexterity to be shown. What maybe seen as easy takes planning to remember the right line put in at the right time. Capturing the monologues between the characters as they go, the sense that the audience are almost akin to a three-way tennis match with the characters hitting the balls to each other and replying back in kind.

But the supporting cast with the likes of Josie Lawerence and Felicity Montegau, means that Enfield can make the scenes bigger then it but without it getting too large at all. When something like a lavish dance number is needed, its done with the style demanded of Busby Berkley and when gritty northern realism is portrayed, something is played which is like those films. The supporting characters maybe be on the small screen, but they are played to look like if they could be on a bigger medium, exaggerated maybe but just big enough not to seem over the top.

As the years go on, the movies seem to turn out more terrible but the jokes also get more barbed but even more funny reaching his film 'Dogs of War' typical of those war films made in the 1960's and 1970's. With movies moving towards the more action angle, setting up to seemingly to go towards the films concentrating the Nuclear threat in the early edge such as Who Dares Wins, Defence of the Realm etc. But taking a sidetrack with the spoof of a 'Carry On..' film with Barbara Windsor, Jack Douglas and Kenneth Connor. This tops off the whole mockumentry, by almost reflecting the British film industry from its early days right up until Norbert Smith was made. Its a reflection of what happened but painted in finer detail, there maybe bigger swathes of colour during the programme but its the hidden jokes which keep you wanting to return to watch again and again. 

Enfield went on to do more of this in Smashy and Nicey - End of an Era and Norman Ormal - Political Turtle, but in the past ten years only The Cricklewood Greats has come even close to matching Harry Enfield's work. These mockumentries should be loved for the joyous way they can portray a whole period of time but still make it seem real enough, even though none of it happened. That in itself maybe the mark of a good set of comedians, writers such as Geoffrey Perkins who also wrote for Norbert Smith. Meaning something filmed twenty five years ago can seem as fresh as something just made yesterday.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Funny Fortnight - Pop along to Popadoodledandy

One thing about Funny Fortnight on Channel 4 apart from piloting new shows, is that the channel has had a delve into the deep recesses of the archives to pull out some shows not seen since broadcast. An example of this is the Clive Anderson Talks Back special featuring Peter Cook, which is always welcome in my book. But all the remember able programmes there are also some curious shows forgotten about but not by groups of fans and comedy lovers in general. 

Two examples of this have to come from Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer, the first being The Weekenders and the second, well somewhat of an odd programme really. Now Channel Four has always had a tradition of music shows from the serious to pop as well, though what was filmed in 1993 straddled both pop and entertainment as well. The Tube did endevour to do this with the alternative comedians of the day filming and taking part in sketches and skits for the programme. But it had been a good five years since The Tube had finished, plus other shows had tried to combine the two, though never to much success.

Though at that time something had happened to link comedy and pop together, not since the days of the novelity songs of the 1970's. Rather then playing it for laughs, Vic Reeves and The Wonder Stuff along with Bob Mortimer had scored a number one single with Dizzy. No parody was involved, this was a straight pure piece of pop without comedy within it. Some people may have said that comedy was the new rock and all, but this proved 100% when a comedian could get to the top of the charts with a song not played for laughs, the first one since Ken Dodd in the 1960's.

Combine all these events together and you get 1993's Vic and Bob's Popadoodledandy, filmed by Reeves and Mortimer it was to be like no pop/entertainment show seen since. A unbroadcast pilot until being shown as part of Funny Fortnight, this was fresh and never seen before, But the influences could be seen from another show of its ilk. 

Right from the title sequence where both Reeves and Mortimer's feet are tapping it looks like a conventional show, up until where Vic is tapping the blunt back of an axe on his palm. This can be taken as they want to smash up the convention of the pop show entirely or it could just be Vic tapping the blunt side of an axe onto his palm, who knows... But as soon as they start singing a song, you know that it'll be alright...

Now what does every good pop show need? A group of dancers to accompany the music or the acts, with Strawberry Tarts you get this. Playing off the idea of Legs and Co., Hot Gossip etc allows for Vic and Bob to concentrate on the jokes and their performance doing a pay off about the size of their respective horns before the CUD band come on to perform. Which sets us off on the music side of things until Vic comes in to interview the band, usually which means a dull three minutes until the host says "Well, that's great! Over to you Nicki!"

But this is Vic Reeves interviews the band about who's the best in the band all the way through to their National Insurance contributions the band pay and if they would put their hand deep into manure to retrieve a loved one's sentimental broche. The lead singer's confused bewilderment says it all, in a good way he doesn't know what's coming next and the confusion is evident is but once they cotton on to the joke. The laughter itself is natural much like the crew laughter on the Kenny Everett Thames shows, slightly wondering but eventually getting the joke meaning the singer and the lead guitarist even perform the pay off where the lead singer gets show in the foot by Keith Richards. Bizarre, yes... Surreal, definitely...

In every twist and turn, the music is the key thing of the show but Vic and Bob are they to offer either their take on the song just played or their just incept it with a quickie joke, with so much of the music video it can be difficult to actually destinguise between what is part of the video itself and what maybe joke. But by using that method, the whole thing blends together seamlessly with the comedy. 

The sketch featuring 'Rick Wakeman' and 'Brian Eno' takes the essence of the performers and puts it into a form which allows the the bubble which would surround them to be popped. Though its the essence which is taken by Reeves and Mortimer and transformed into something wonderful, pretty much like Reeves own drawings come to life. But not grotesque, but twisted at a new angle to allow to be believable that Wakeman and Eno would be great friends, reflecting on their own friendship some what. Though its the musicality which allows Vic and Bob to improvise a song for Wakeman and Eno to sing reflecting their musical characters and let them be seen in a comic light and with a twist.

As Part Two starts, the surrealism continues with the title writing in white is on a black background. Though just about its can be made out that it is superimposed over a bottom, a very Reeves and Mortimer thing to do it seems. But as the first act of the second half begins, it becomes clear this is no ordinary bottom at all... When it pans out and starts to dance, it is one of the first ever television appearence by Martine McCutcheon in her band of that time 'Milan' . Now in talking to Martine and her bandmates, the strange interviews continue with first Bob offering the band Cider and then Vic riding in on a bicycle.  Live and Kicking, this isn't...

With a slight not quite knowing what is going on look, the band are trying to interact with Vic and Bob, surprisingly its not Martine who is the one who sort of understands what is going on but her bandmates instead. Though when you are used to the types of questions usually asked on other shows, Vic Reeves asking you to feel his muscles or punch him in the stomach must be a relief or when Martine does punch him in the stomach, she does punch him in the stomach! Proving that when even playing it for laughs, comedy can be dangerous especially when the punishment is dealt out by future Eastenders actresses...

Meanwhile, we learn about how Erasure got to together thanks to Vic's wonderful drawings and also strange but funny story of how Vince and Andy got together with pay off that the beast under the hospital developed into Clive James and how Hazel O'Connor got rid of a mattress out of her front garden as well in the subsiquent pop news as well. 

Overall, this is a rare slice of Vic and Bob and it can be seen what they were trying to do with the programme, maybe with people being so used to seeing them performing sketches meant they over looked the potential for the pilot to go to series. By no means their best work, but just seeing it leaves the taste of wanting more. Considering what other music shows which were around in 1993, this could have easily fitted late night on Channel Four or even overnight on ITV. Both places where big audiences would not be, but to have a loyal audience which would have grown over time to become like a secret club with the people in it knew they were getting something special from it weekly. 

For those who knew Vic and Bob from Big Night Out and latterly The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer the humour comes as no surprise, though it is surprising that the acts on the show didn't at least to try and check what they were about before appearing. Much like the world of pop music, there's some who bget it and others don't quite know, wheither it was down the bookers wanting to promote the music in Milan's case, but its is a tasty slice of something different and refreshing as such.

Where as Kenny Everett's Thames shows took the same line, a clean, crisp and uncluttered approach can help itself by allowing flow to happen. But actually I could have seen if it did do to a series that the producers would have at least tried to persuade Everett to come on as a guest, by having the man who orginated that style of music/entertainment show would have focused people on what this show was about in style and content.

Sadly, we will never know the the answer to both those thoughts. But as a one-off, in the high paced world of music channels and videos, it serves as a feast for the eyes and surely you wouldn't let it lie in the archives for more then seventeen years next time Channel Four?

Funny Fortnight - 1997 and all that..

Last time I look at the what Channel 4 was doing for their Funny Fortnight, by repeating shows from their archives. As I said I was too young for some of these programmes such as Chelmsford 123 and Vic Reeves' Big Night Out.

Now my comedy had come from the BBC2 anti-news slot having seen things like Naked Video, KYTV, the repeats of The Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy and also The Smell of Reeves and Mortimore. This is where I got my Vic and Bob training and by 1997, now 18, I was looking to expand my comedy horizons and go for a journey of discovery by myself. Armed with a car boot VHS, I was able to record comedy for the first time and analysis it. Yes, I was enjoying the sillyness of Shooting Stars on BBC2, but I was looking towards Channel 4 for something different and that came in the shape of Father Ted.

This was religion being pricked of its pomposity, but developing a silly sense of humour. The storylines in themselves seem almost ludicrous such as Father Dougal Maguire becoming a milkman. The lines which were delivered were honed to get the best out of them and to ramp them to a level of surrealness which added to the manic mixtures of this family which weren't actually family. By using that concete, it allowed the characters to form in their own ways. They mayhave had their individual characteristics but when they came together like any sitcom group, it allowed for them to bounce off each other. 

Maybe, I was silly to think that Father Jack saying 'Feck, Arse, Drink and Girls' was the be all and end all. The show grew on me, as the situations got sillier and the humour getting more and more like The Simpsons each week. But it put into my mind the seeds of sillyness and thinking that it need not be just like 'Whoops vicar, there goes my trousers!' But it was something new in my life, but then came some which rocked my world forever.

At that time daytime television was staid and boring, there wasn't anything different to shake it up at that point, then came along two ladies who were like the fun to the plainess of Pebble Mill. Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins were like a shot in the arm to me at this time. 

Yes, to the 18 yr old me Mel and Sue were something from another planet, with their own language and way of performing and presenting took me aback. This was must see viewing, it was almost comedy/light entertainment/cooking had been involved in a love triangle and this was the result of it.  The food and cooking was a part of it, but it was the daily interviews with the guests, though more the comedy which made the programme. Having been part of the Footlights, Giedroyc and Perkins had treaded a well worn path by those before them and since by going to the Edinburgh Fringe to perform and also apart from that they had written for French and Saunders as well.

It was another step on the road to surrealism, but it seemed that Mel and Sue could not make the break though that French and Saunders had previously done. Wheither thst was down French and Saunders strong position as the leading female even double act of that time. Even after doing a quizshow for ITV in 1999, they seemed to merge into the background of comedy. Though seperatly they did seem to find their own niches with Perkins branching out on her own both presenting and performing and with Giedroyc becoming an author reflecting her experiences of her own pregnancy and giving birth, still acting and laterly becoming a presenter for radio.

It is surprising to think that the incoming Chief Executive of Channel 4 at that time was current outgoing BBC Director General Mark Thompson. He had taken on the role vacated by Michael Jackson who had moved to America to head up the USA Network. Though Thompson had be important in knowing that comedy was a key part of a channel when being controller at BBC2. Though it was Thompson later noted for the broadcast of Jerry Springer - The Opera, he allowed Chris Morris to make a Brass Eye special reflecting the knee jerk reaction by the media of the subject of paedophiles, it is important to remember this was the time of the now defunct News of the World's Name and Shame campaign to find paedophiles which lead to attacks on innocent people and the cause of riots. But by this one programme allowed Channel 4 to show that they still could be ground breaking still nearly twenty years after its launch, the furore may have been seen as big around that time. It was needed to reflect the furore that the press had caused itself, with this doing the job, it could be said that the reaction was justified to reveal the truth about the events many years later through the Leveson inquiry.

For all the surreal and strange comedy that Channel 4 has done, it has allowed Mark Thomas to bring his brand of humour to the screens but with it bring serious points for people to reflect on. His comedy was there to make people think about what was going on the world around them, though this allowed an off-shoot of this by him looking at a the places that the public weren't meant to know about such as places of significance to do with the Cold War and also places which were still on meant to be seen. 

This type of thinking marked Channel 4 out as wanting to try something new, but by the 21st century something new was coming, wheither for the good or the bad but it would change the humour of this country. As along came The 11 O'Clock Show launching both Iain Lee and Daisy Donovan on the nation's screen but also from this came Ricky Gervais and Sasha Baron Cohen as well, it took the idea of look at the day's news and showing it in a comical angle.

As such as Gervais and Baron Cohen much like Channel 4's comedy output comedy from 2000 onwards, it can be very much like Marmite. To be honest I have dipped in and out of it, but maybe with a new comes new shows and new comedians. Eventually shows like Peep Show will finish and be replaced, but with the Robert Popper written Friday Night Dinners for example it has got a ready made replacement. But in which way it goes, who knows...

Monday, 20 August 2012

Funny Fortnight - As easy as Chelmsford 123...

At this time Channel 4, has seen fit to look back over its comedy output of the last thirty years. Which maybe right in that they will by the end of it, but some of it will be only a paper cut compared to a disection of all the rest. 

Since Thursday, the channel has been looking into its archive to find shows to be put out late at night, almost filling an awkward spot for itself regularly. We've seen the wonder of Peter  Cook at his best improvising different character in the surrounding of Clive Anderson Talks Back, also Chris Morris in the first ever edition of Brass Eye from 1997, of which originally half the material was filmed for a BBC pilot in the same year. 

This in itself has been, the channel touching first with genius or maybe get the best stuff out of the way first. Now for me, some of these shows are new to me. In having to to admit, really the first time I would have seen them would have been during Channel 4's 15th birthday celebrations in 1997, as for instance with Chelmsford 123, I would have only been 11 at that time and I would have been watching whatever BBC2 would have on at 9pm then Channel 4 would have say at 10.30pm. 

Essentially looking at Chelmsford 123 with both Jimmy Mulville and Rory McGrath aided by Howard Lee-Lewis, Phillip Pope and Neil Pearson, it does seem that Mulville's character Aulus Paulinus could have been played by Angus Deayton. Mulville does take Deayton's mannerisms and uses them into the character. But by this reflection where as the same that Mulville may have got there first with that style of delivery. Its could be said that Mulville and Deayton could have been interchangable in the TVS sitcom That's Love, but Mulville adds to the show with McGrath. Having written the series themselves, its little surprise that they would want to play the main parts themselves. Seeing things, like Horrible Histories which you could argue is for a more toned down audience, an influence is there though by using history and trying to keep as close to what it would have been but also altered for comic effect. The release on DVD of both series last year, gave the chance for the series to seen by a newer generation of fans.

The glue which holds together this huge group of performers at that time who were just getting their television breaks is Phillip Pope, both seen in Chelmsford 123 and also with Deayton, Perkins, Atkinson-Wood and Michael Fenton Stevens as well. But with also his composing of music for most comedy shows such as Spitting Image, his input into the comedy of that age is a vital one. Pope's own resume has seen him take alternative comedy, light entertainment and also most memorably in Only Fools and Horses as well. 

Looking at the upcoming schedule for the Funny Fortnight, something strikes me as odd. For all the thirty years that Channel 4 has been broadcasting for, that there is no comedy it seems before 1990 at all. Now the channel didn't suddenly start to broadcast comedy from 1990 onwards and I can see which shows around that time have been picked to reshown because of the influence of the performers. But Who Dares Wins was influencial, Friday/Saturday Live was influencial. Maybe in Friday/Saturday Live, the ground has been covered before or maybe with more to come for shows like Desmond's during the time actually around the birthay celebrations in late October/early November.  

But coming up later in the Fortnight from the Comic Strip is the excellent Bad News Tour from 1983, it was the Comic Strip which actually put into a sense of drama into comedy. They were more comedy plays then shows, which could bared out by the later film style of Comic Strips such as The Yob, A Fistful of Pesestas, Mr Jolly Lives Next Door and even Dirty Movie. There was a sense, also that in the case of Eddie Monsoon, it used television to be able to play about with. Genres could moulded as far as they could be as good as the reak documentaries which were on, it was always the twist that they could pull in people such as Tony Bastable who were well known, putting them in the middle of the show and bringing some believability to the programme even though it was comedy based.

Could it be that Channel 4 has found its funny bone again? Perhaps the people who lead the departments now, were the viewers of twenty/twenty-five years ago, the teenagers of that age. I can say that my joining with Channel 4's comedy and output will recalled in my next blogpost, of how I came to it in the mid-90's and why 1997 was a year that was important to my development of my love of comedy.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Boggenstrovia at the Olympics - Part Two...

After the Mexico Olympics of 1968 showed the public the wonders of colour television and a mass sporting occasion, meant the take up for colour television sets was steady as by the time the 1972 Munich Olympics came around. Broadcasting using the PAL system both used in the UK and also in host country Germany, unlike Mexico when the pictures needed converting to both 405 lines and also 625 lines as well. It allowed pictures just to stream back to the BBC in London bringing more extensive coverage then ever before and more live events as well.

Historical feats of endevour such as Mark Spitz's seven gold medals, Mary Peters winning the hepthalon could be seen live and brought into people's homes but to all this there was one event which overshadow these Olympics and them from a great sporting event to looking at dramatic and tragic unfolding before the viewing public.

On September 5th, what was seen as the friendly games was to be shaken to its core when the Palestinian terrorist group Black September got into the Athletes Village and held hostage five Israeli athletes and six of the Israeli coaching staff. When this happened, it was clear that the world's eyes would focused on their television sets watching an apartment block in the Athlete's Village. With this developing situation, what had been the world's top sports broadcasters covering the Olympic event meant they had turned into news anchors informing the public what was happening.

For David Coleman, that day was to be a rest day for him having commentated on the Athletics and also having anchored coverage as well the previous day. But this was all to change when his fellow athletics commentator Ron Pickering came to his room banging on his door. After being awoke by the rapid pounding of the room he was staying in, Pickering relayed the news that no-one wanted to hear.

Coleman went straight to the studio to anchor what was effectively rolling news coverage of the events unfolding, unbelievable to think now with twenty-four hour news available. Such was the BBC's higher management judgement, they trusted Coleman with holding the coverage together whilst reporting any news as to what was going on. As hour after hour passed with a single locked-off camera looking at the apartment block's balcony with the terrorists on it, the events came to their gory conclusion with the terrorists trying to escape with the hostages by helicopter but with them, German police and Secret Service officers being involved in a firefight. The story which had unraveled was one of tragedy and such as a mark of respect, the games were postponed for a few days for those who had died.

When coverage started again with a memorial service for those who had died, Coleman was once again called upon to be the BBC's commentator for the service relaying the feelings of all athletes, officials and the public to the viewer at home. It was during these games that Coleman's reputation was cemented as one of the broadcasting giants.

For all the BBC's coverage of the 1972 Olympic Games, ITV had made different plans themselves. They had announced they were going to show the day's best action in a two hour block of programming per day, as the TV Times had said about their plans "You can catch all of the day's best Olympic action, but also still watch Max Bygraves as well..."

This in itself seemed antiquated, but compared to the overshadowing events seem irrelivant. But ITV's relationship with the Olympics has been patchy at times though. Through the European Broadcasting Union's purchasing wholesale of the coverage of the Olympic Games, like the World Cup, allowed ITV to cover them as well as the BBC.

The first time that ITV covered the Olympics with full gusto was in 1968 when LWT had been put in charge of editing ITV's coverage of the games. Though one man made his debut on commentary duties for ITV in 1968 who would commentate on every Olympics right upto the 2012 addition of the games, but more later on him...

With similar coverage in 1976 for the Montreal games, ITV's coverage seemed almost non-exsistant in the public's eye. But for the BBC, who broadcast more live hours of sport then ever before, these games were memorable for the public being able to vote on which theme tune the BBC would use for their coverage via Nationwide and a postal vote. Unique by the way the theme was chosen, apart from very few other programmes this was one of the first examples of interactivity. By 1980 though both the broadcasting and the political landscape surrounding the Moscow Olympics was very different.

With the Soviets invasion of Afganistan in 1979, lead to questions being asked about the games and participation of nations by both the sporting organisations themseves and politicans as well.

With several countries withdrawing from the games including the United States, which meant NBC which had big plans for covering the games had to withdraw their live coverage apart from highlights on the nightly news. But for British broadcasters it was catch-22, some sports had gone to Moscow such as the Athletics team and the swimmng teams, other completely withdrew. Where as it was British athletes competing, they had go under the Olympic flag as independent athletes after the government gave the choice to the individual athletes if they wanted to go to Moscow or not.

But this lead to both BBC and ITV scaling down coverage for these games, though the events which counted the most were covered live by both. It was costly for NBC in the end, but for memorable moments for British competitors great for ITV and more so BBC. Though as it came around to 1984, the BBC were able to offer through the night coverage of the LA Olympics even changing the BBC1 globe of the time to the Olympic rings with the globe contained within them.

These games were truely Hollywood with sun beating down and also the Americans as host broadcaster, it gave a new perspective to the coverage with the BBC wanting to showcase what was going on but really from this point the coverage changed more to live events and with the BBC gaining full live rights in 1992, it may gained huge audiences upto and including the London games. But it somehow lost a little bit with one network showing coverage and that alone.

Coleman, Pickering and the other great commentators may have been there, but as we have seen new commentators have taken their place, some good, some bad... But the experience of Olympic Grandstand, it was a part of coverage but that will never be forgotten for what it did for sports broadcasting...

Thought what about that man who's commentated on every Olympics since 1968? Barry Davies, the man behind the mic... His commentary has brought moments of importance to the screen such as the 1988 men's hockey gold medal, his line "Where were the Germans? Frankly who cares..." It struck a cord with the viewers. Yes maybe jingoistic in some ways, but it captured the moment so well and his dulcet tones are still commentating on the hockey at the latest games nearly 44 years later...