INLIBTD's Ten Greatest TV Shows
It occurred to me in a moment of vanity laced with egomaniacal self delusion that I should count down my all ten all time favourite television programmes for you – the Reading Several. Fevered speculation might ensue as a show you expected to be in the top five has peaked at number seven. Large sums of money could cross the globe as people as far away as New Mills and Alderley Edge speculate as to which female action comedy drama will come highest in the hit parade. Indeed, some might see this list as a quasi-religious event and decide to base the rest of their viewing life on the list that currently trembles in my rock steady fingers. And so, with the inevitability of something that is going to happen anyway, we begin the list with…
“A Bit of Fry and Laurie”.
Here’s the thing – I wrote about Fry and Laurie some months ago and rather than waste my, your and possibly Sir Bob Geldof’s time writing something new and inferior I present my original article with such improvements, amendments and legally imposed alterations as can reasonably be expected of someone of my height, weight and mental problems.
“Call yourself a school?”
An extract from the very first sketch from the very first episode of (fingers) A Bit of Fry and Laurie. The best sketch show ever made (in this writer’s opinion). I spent yesterday watching much of that first series. A lot of the material is very familiar from the compilation issued by the BBC around ten years ago but – like Monty Python – you think you know the lot but you actually know very little. Picking 45 minutes of material from the three hours on offer must’ve been an agonising job. There are no duff sketches. Just page after page of verbal wonders.
"I can't stop - my wife is being towed away..."
The sketches don’t seek to be topical. The show was made by two fairly unfashionable people and it all combines to make the series timeless. Not cursed with flared trousers and endless Thatcher jokes, the series hasn’t really dated. Hugh hasn’t aged at all while Stephen has put on a little weight and a pair of glasses but I dare say he could still shake a mean cocktail. Their humour largely derives from stupid, rude or ignorant people and that ensures it will strike a chord today, tomorrow and one hundred and six years from now. Stupid people are the Earth’s only truly endless resource. If only they were flammable…
“I killed her because she said she was going to marry Noel Edmonds…”
The comedy is rather intellectual and some people find that off putting. To deviate for a moment (indulge me, indulge me) the first Carry On to flop at the box office was Carry On at your Convenience and the reason for this failure? It spoofed the trades’ union movement and the very working class people who made up the bulk of the audience. Maybe I’m being a terrible snob but I think that there are sections of the audience (demographics they would be called these days) who see A Bit of Fry and Laurie and recognise themselves in the characters being mocked. They resent F&L’s university cleverness. I know that if I'd ever sported a nasty perm and gone into a book shop asking to speak to the writer of a classic novel because I think it's "balls" I'd be a bit cheesed off.
“Fax machines? Bollocks more like…”
They also had the marvellous idea of putting vox pops between the sketches. Filmed on the streets in various states of costume, Stephen and Hugh would say bizarre things and thus bridge the gap between epics. I have, being a bit of a wag, chosen to split this essay with vox pops (some of which are genuine voxxers and others are lines from sketches). But there is something lost in not hearing the lines delivered by Stephen or not seeing Hugh in drag. Sometimes playing on a phrase, sometimes just being outrageous for outrage’s sake, the vox pops were an integral part of (fingers) A Bit of Fry and Laurie (/fingers). The script books contain several pops that were never broadcast and of these the most memorable one was “My favourite celebrity encounter was the time Julia Roberts came round to my house and mistook my face for a chair. Or was that a dream?”
“Oh Christ I’ve left the iron on…”
They did the Python thing quite a bit. Lacking a punch line, they would segue into the next sketch by breaking out of the sketch world and moving into a kind of reality. Such examples of breaches of kayfabe include the police station sketch where Hugh tells Stephen he’s hit him too hard with an obviously rubber cricket bat, the SAS sketch where Stephen suggests Hugh goes through “that door” and the opening to season four where Stephen simply turns round, walks of set towards the audience and welcomes them to the show. Used sparingly this approach is innovative and works very well. Ever the professionals, they don’t over use the gag.
"One day they’ll ask whatever happened to the good old English McDonalds? Aye? Aye? Aye?”
Script books were released for all four series of (fingers) A Bit of Fry and Laurie (/fingers) and these are gems when compared to the usual cash in tomes. Rather than repeating the scripts verbatim and adding pretty pictures, these four books are a mixture of televised sketches and swathes of unbroadcast material. The fourth season book especially must be 70% unseen stuff. They show that six episodes (seven in series four) just weren’t enough. So many comedians get by recycling the same tired material for years at a time and Steve’n’Hughie are throwing away hours of classic stuff. We should join hands and pray for a fraction of their unused talent. There are even unfilmed Mr Dalliard sketches. That is a crime against... well me frankly. I am the victim here and I demand justice. I sentence them to perform the sketches for my amusement or may the full weight of the law come down on them like a tonne of bricks.
“I need an idiot to hit on the head with a spoon…”
I’ve talked about the vox pops but they were the only formatting crutch that they retained through all four series. Series one was solid sketches. Series two featured Stephen and Hugh linking the sketches from a sofa. This was the origin of (fingers) A Bit of Fry and Laurie (/fingers). It worked. So obviously they dropped it for the third series. Only to bring it back (complete with celebrity guests – i.e. chums of theirs from Cambridge) for the final series. Once again we have an example of them producing a winning formula only to let it go to waste. It has been said of Peter Cook that he used up his talent while he was young and had to live the rest of his life on the fumes that were left. I hope Ste’n’Hughbert don’t go the same way. I will forever think of Imelda Staunton as "Snutty" and Kevin "Hugo" MacNally as a fashionable Nazi.
“Roy Hattersley wants me to pass him the marmalade?”
Four series – twenty-nine episodes – and only one piffling edited VHS compilation. They deserve better. I would pay good money and still agree to give a small IOU to the shopkeeper in exchange for DVDs of the show. With commentaries and as much deleted footage as they can shake a cocktail at. The BBC have embraced DVD as a mother would embrace a child that has casually mentioned that he’s just won a thousand pounds of Harvey Nicks vouchers and has no need of them. But the months and years have gone by and no sign of (fingers) A Bit of Fry and Laurie (/fingers) on DVD. Thank goodness for the Paramount Comedy Channel which showed them a couple of twelvemonths ago and meant I now have a set.
They ended the show with a classy cocktail and some wonderful lounge music. I have personally built every single one of the drinks demonstrated on the programme and it has been of nothing but benefit to what is left of my health. You’ll have to supply the booze and muzak before you can join me in a toast.
8th March 2004