Tuesday, 4 December 2018

The Smile of Reeves & Mortimer

Somebody once told me, ‘Never be a pioneer.’ That somebody went on to have exactly zero number one records, fail to write a best-selling novel and certainly never watched a single episode of Vic and Bob’s Big Night Out (BBC 4, 10pm Wednesday)

It was December 1991 when I found myself in a crowded pub in Teddington with Jonathan Ross, Paul Whitehouse, Charlie Higson and Simon Day, waiting to be shepherded into a Chanel 4 studio to watch the recording of the Christmas edition of Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out. They were totally unaware of my existence and remain so to this day but, briefly, I was in the presence of comedy royalty (except Ross, who looked as awestruck as I was).

As I and Vic Reeve’s Big Night Out (as it was then called) audience self-consciously giggled our way through the recording, successive characters, such as Les, Graham Lister, the Man with the Stick, Judge Nutmeg and several visitors to Novelty Island, including Higson and Day (above) entered and exited the stage. Vic variously gurned and slurred his way through a number of facial and vocal contortions whilst acting as ring-master to his surreal flea circus and paraded and pouted like a comedic version of Mick Jagger crossed with Reginald Bosanquet.

Two things were certain. 1) We had never seen anything like it before and, 2) it would sink without trace into the Chanel 4 archives until one of those talking head documentaries called something like ‘We Remember the 90’s’ was broadcast with Jonathan Ross going, ‘I’m the only human being alive that still remembers this programme!’

The reason it couldn’t succeed was that the format would inevitably be replicated and made more mainstream by a group of more disciplined, more easily dominated artists who would be directed to iron out the rough edges, sanitise the end-of-the-pier production values and dub some canned laughter over the bits where the audience sat in silent anticipation waiting for a punch-line to emerge from the chaos. The reason it did succeed was that that didn’t happen. Reeves & Mortimer remained nimble enough to diversify and their style and content was simply impossible to replicate. They made just two series of Big Night Out for Chanel 4 before ‘mainstreaming’ themselves onto the BBC as Reeves & Mortimer so not only had we not seen anything like it before, we would not see anything like it again.

Until now.

It’s taken Bob 30 years to get his name alongside Vic’s on the Big Night Out but now, as a cult hero in his own right, he not only deserves equal billing but an equal share of the credit. The beauty of Big Night Out 2018 is how they have managed to simply pick up right where they left off, creating the feeling that a nerve somewhere inside was being stimulated again for the first time in almost 30 years. Big Night Out remains an acquired taste so, if you want to know what Tom Cruise was doing on the show or what happens when Vic eats fruit, it’s probably best you watch the show yourself. If Vic and Bob are as appealing to you as a jellied-eels in Marmite, turn over to UK Gold and watch the Two Ronnies or something.

As Graham Lister’s performing owl urinated on command into a milk bottle on Novelty Island, I felt I was back in that Teddington pub with me old mates Wossy and Whitehouse who, I would like to bet, sat nodding in approval that the boys had recaptured some of their lost youth as well as mine.

Friday, 14 September 2018

The Silk Road Adventure

In order that nobody in Britain ever asks the question, ‘Why don’t we have more celebrity travelogues on the telly?’ ITV have made ‘Joanna Lumley’s Silk Road Adventure’ (Wednesday, 9.00pm).
Putting the celebrity’s name above the title is one way of implying that the audience would have no interest in the subject matter unless it was presented by someone they would happily watch leafing through samples of anaglypta wallpaper for an hour, and coaxing someone, surely destined to become the UK’s next ‘National Treasure’, out of Belgravia and off on an all expenses paid trip around Asia is something of a masterstroke in ratings awareness.
In episode one, Joanna whispers her way around Venice in a variety of stylish outfits, all utterly suitable for whatever activity she happens to be filming. An outfit for travelling on a Gondola, another for learning how silk is woven, another for walking past a chip shop and yet another for pointing at some stones and saying, ’gosh’.
During the ad-break, Ms. Lumley had changed outfits and had been transported some 600 miles from the start of the Roman road in Albania to Istanbul. Here she travelled by ferry down the mighty Bosphorus in a completely different outfit, one which was suitable for meeting an insanely rich woman and shown around her £100 million waterfront abode. Joanna apologised for not changing out of her ‘ferry’ outfit and proceeded to gasp at the riches contained in the house, built by the fortune accumulated from generations of private banking with a little oil, cement and textile production thrown in. She expressed amazement at the fact that house had an underground swimming pool and said ‘gosh’ again when she found out that the dinner service was made of gold. Frankly, I wouldn’t have been shocked if the woman revealed that her hobby was smashing Ming vases and had Krug champagne flushing her toilet.
It was around now that I started to wonder what I was supposed to be learning from all this exposure to unattainable riches. Apparently, being served drinks on a silver tray by an absurdly rich woman’s butler teaches one all about the benefits of trade between nations.
We were then treated to a tour around Joanna’s hotel room set in the caves of the region of Cappadocia. The stunning vistas were breathlessly described as ‘fairy-tale’ and we wondered what the rooms used to be before they were ensuite bathrooms and dressing rooms. Caves, I think, Joanna.
There was no time to visit the hotel bar as Jo had to put on her ‘visiting a monastery’ outfit and go and visit a monastery. And so, we rumbled on, breathlessly whispering along the Silk Road on Joanna Lumley’s adventure.
The thing is, she’s not really forging a solitary path through unfamiliar terrain, chancing upon diverse characters along the way and bartering for souvenirs, is she? She’s being accompanied by a huge production crew plotting her every move and a wardrobe unit requiring the support of a long line of military supply vehicles. You can almost hear the director barking instructions at the locals; ‘Can you clear this area please, Joanna needs to walk along here looking lost.’    
She’s always wanted to do this, she informed us. I’ll bet you have.

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Redcar At Night

For anyone who gets snobby about watching reality soap operas, think of ‘The Mighty Redcar’ (BBC2 Thursday, 9pm) as a study in social mobility and it works fine, apart from the slightly uncomfortable feeling that you are admiring human achievement in the face of social adversity whilst, at the same time, peeking through the curtains into your dysfunctional neighbour’s garden.
Redcar is one of those bleak northern towns, made more anonymous by not even having a professional football team permanently anchored to the bottom of the football league. Described by one of its 35,000 residents as; a typical seaside town except with a massive disused steelworks on the beach, it maybe drab, but it’s far from featureless.
The same can be said of the residents, at least those featured in the first episode. We chiefly met, Caitlin, James and Dylan, each of whom had a bucket-load of ambition and a teaspoon full of opportunity. Caitlin was determined to go to RADA at nine grand-a-year while her Mum was putting away a tenner a week working at a food bank, Dylan was trying to secure a record deal armed with a home recording studio and second-hand guitar and, James just wanted to graft 5-days-a-week rather than end up in prison like his Dad.
It was, Dylan who proved the most resilient. Adopted by his foster-mother after a harrowing childhood, Dylan was in all respects larger-than-life. Sporting an afro the size of a reasonably mature oak tree and a body that continued to ripple long after he had become motionless, he strode conspicuously around the town like the King of Tonga, serving in the local Weatherspoons by day and, at night, performing his home-grown rap music to an appreciative audience. We witnessed him visiting his autistic brother, still in care somewhere in Stoke, and assuring him that, should his music allow, he would set them both up in a flat together. Watching this enormous black teenager hugging his slightly-built, white, half-brother at the end of their afternoon together would have been enough to make you weep were it not for the sheer volume of positive energy that radiated from them.
James, on the other hand, projected a slightly less optimistic account of life in the town since the steelworks closed and deprived most young men of the chance of an apprenticeship. He seemed willing and able to hammer fence posts into the ground and was fairly proficient at shovelling stones into a wheelbarrow and moving them elsewhere but, for reasons that weren’t explained, he failed to be retained as a £20-a-day labourer for more than one week. This, after being denied an apprenticeship as one of 1300 applicants for 220 local jobs, seemed to conspire to push him toward a more familiar role as one of the local youths in whom the police were increasingly interested.
The Mighty Redcar managed to provoke a genuine interest in the town and its residents, be it Dylan’s infectious optimism or James’ inevitable decline, and you get the feeling that for every hard luck story there will be a more uplifting tale to follow.
It seemed as if the void left by the security of a career making steel had been filled with an insatiable ability to aspire to heights that their parents had never imagined. As Caitlin posed, self-consciously, in the 600 quid prom-frock bought by her Mum out of earnings from her three jobs, you couldn’t help feeling that, although mankind’s base instinct is ‘survival’, ‘aspiration’ runs it a close second.      
Now on-line at  http://tellybinge.co.uk/reviews/mighty-redcar-review/

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

A Hard DAY5 Night

How long it would take you to discover that the entire contact list of your phone had died in their sleep during the night? I’d probably fear the worst for one particular friend if they had not posted anything on Facebook during the last 10 minutes, but it would probably be around Christmas before I first realised that I hadn’t seen close relatives all year.
In Day 5 (Pick TV, 9pm Tuesday), it takes Jake (Jesse C. Boyd), about 24 hours for it to dawn on him that he is one of the few living humans in town and just a little longer to discover that whatever is killing the population consumes you just moments after going to sleep. Basically, if you weren’t already snoring when the ‘sleep bomb’ dropped at around 3am, you will survive until you eventually nod off through the sheer fatigue, not to mention boredom, of trying to find a chemist that hasn’t been looted of its stock of caffeine-rich drugs.
Personally, after witnessing the decaying remains of my immediate family in their beds and several rotting corpses in the deserted local park, I’d be inclined to snuggle up with a cup of Horlicks, a copy of Hello and let nature take its course. Jake, on the other hand, has a more robust survival instinct and manages to find some other survivors to join him in his task of enforced wakefulness. They achieve this, not by commandeering an empty branch of Starbucks on behalf of the Republic of Insomnia and consuming endless free Espresso, but by periodically shooting a cocktail of weapons-grade adrenalin directly into their hearts.
The plot is full of gloriously expansive holes and the genre wobbles uncomfortably between apocalyptic drama and comedy but by the end of episode one a small posse of relatively sympathetic characters has been assembled to go out in search of the origin of the epidemic. 
As somebody who gets ‘grouchy’ without a full 8 hours kip every night, I can’t imagine the consequences of working in close proximity to a half-a-dozen complete strangers who haven’t slept for three days. The mounting tension over the remaining 5 episodes should primarily be created by the ever-shortening fuses of the cast as they try not to become obsessed with each other’s irritating shortcomings. By episode 4 the entire team will be avoiding any sort of verbal communication whatsoever as the mere sound of each other’s breathing stirs up latent psychopathic tendencies. Jake’s precocious 13-year-old companion, Sam, would be high on the list for a good slap if he started effing and jeffing at me after a sleepless night.
With ‘Day 5’ running for at least another season, and given that they can’t stay awake forever, subsequent episodes will either have to extend to represent ‘real time’, or be crafted in such a way that each 45 minutes of television will represent one minute of real life until, finally, a whole episode will feature Jake taking a single blink with the cliff-hanger ending being, will he actually open his eyes next week.
I’m not sure I will.

Tuesday, 29 May 2018


I was just a boy when the Jeremy Thorpe scandal broke. Growing up as a teenager in the seventies was strangely naive experience. Because the sixties had been such a liberating period, full of birth control pills, hallucinogenic drugs, free love and The Beatles openly advocating the holding of hands, the children of the seventies were largely assumed to already know everything that their parents traditionally used to have to sit down and explain to them regarding how they emerged into the world and what the various body parts were for. Indeed, for a time, I assumed that the sex education lessons delivered by my school were, basically, providing information that I was expected to pass on to my parents when I felt that they were good and ready to receive it.

Consequently, the revelations surrounding one of our senior politicians were laughed off as the fantasy of an unhinged sexual deviant making spurious allegations about a twice-married member of parliament and father of one. Norman Scott was everything that a 15 year old boy was desperate not to be. A promiscuous, bi-sexual, weakling who would sell his dignity for money and notoriety. I didn't know it at the time but I was being conditioned to accept that blabber-mouthed poofs like Scott would be the downfall of this country if we didn't have dignified public servants like Jeremy Thorpe to protect us by maintaining a dignified silence on the matter.

Years later, it seems unbelievable that Scott was forced to 'confess' his sin of homosexuality in order to allege attempted murder. Episode 3 of A Very English Scandal (BBC1 Sunday 9pm) will, no doubt, show how the subsequent trial of Mr Thorpe on charges of conspiracy to murder was, in fact, simply turned into a hatchet job on Norman Scott by an establishments Judge who was unwilling to even consider that a member of the Privy Council could be capable of involvement in such a sordid set of circumstances. Peter Cooke's notorious take on the Judge's summing up at the charity comedy review, 'The Secret Policeman's Ball' in 1979, was made all the more satirical by how much of the skit was simply lifted from the actual words used by Sir Joseph Cantley at the time of the trial.

Although this weeks episode descended into a kind of farce, with Blake Harrison from 'The Inbetweeners', cast as bumbling comedy hit-man Andrew Newton, generally the standard of performance has been high. Hugh Grant is immaculate as Thorpe and Ben Wishaw totally believable as the beleaguered Scott. In fact, I suspect that the scenes of Newton using the wrong alias, shooting Scott's dog in anger and generally tripping over his own cock at every opportunity was intentionally clumsy in order to weaken the prosecution testimony when Scott is put in the witness box next week. I recall at the time the 'raised-eyebrow' newspaper reporting which accompanied photographs of Mr Scott during his time as a 'Male Model', a term which, though accurate in both respects, was used euphemistically to indicate a taste for make up and sexual promiscuity.

Ultimately, of course, Thorpe could not withstand the weight of public speculation surrounding his sexuality and, though this was very nearly the 1980's, he was forced into the political wilderness. It seems strange that post-Sex Pistols, post-Emmanuel, post-Watergate, the sexual preferences of an establishment figure like the Leader of the Liberal party was, potentially, serious enough to bring the British political system to its collective knees although, the very title of the drama does perhaps give an indication of why. The word 'English' in A Very English Scandal should be accented heavily. For it was perhaps 'Englishness' that suffered a fatal blow during this period. Englishness stood, drowning vertically, as the great ship of British dignity disappeared below the surface.

Though, perhaps, we all grew up a little and learned to realise that the truth, delivered with an authoritative Oxbridge accent from within Saville Row tailoring, may not be as unquestionably accurate as we once imagined.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Elizabeth Arrghh!

Well, she survived another week and, as predicted, Elizabeth gets closer and closer to the ‘final 5’ who endure the interview from hell in the penultimate episode. She will, of course, breeze through this in the same manner that she has passed every other task, getting it mostly wrong when the camera is pointing at her, but executing Nobel prize-winning business skills at all other times. This we know because how else would she have ever passed the audition, let alone survived until week eight.
Ever since week two, when she was charged with the task of measuring the wall of a hotel room and confidently declared it to be 3 centimetres high, she has blundered her way through each task in the manner of Tommy Cooper sawing a woman in half, somehow getting to the end of the performance with hardly a drop of blood spilt and reputation and integrity just about intact.
In Wednesday’s episode, Elizabeth hi-jacked the task completely, casting herself in the role of comic-lead in a motor car advert completely dreamed up by herself. It’s hard to tell if her colleagues are now completely spellbound by her or if they are simply standing back in the sure and certain hope that she will self-destruct before them. I’m sure that, if she does, it will be on Claude Littner’s watch and will culminate in a hostage situation with Elizabeth holed-up in the board room, gun at Claude’s temple and demanding a helicopter.
Either way, James, this week’s losing project manager, stood blinking up at her and nodding in agreement as she outlined her plot for the ad.
“I’m a stressed-out mother trying to get my kids to school, I leave my handbag on top of the car and when I drive off it falls into the road.”
“It’s funny’” she added, reassuringly.
 James tried to speak, but no words came out.
Needless to say, the rest of the programme simply followed the team’s implosion. Their opposition may as well have just produced a campaign that involved them standing around pointing at their allocated vehicle and shouting ‘Car, Car, Car, Car’ for two minutes, they’d have still won. They tried their best to even it up by responding in the affirmative to criticism levelled at them by the industry experts to whom they were pitching.
“You’re right,,” said Creative Director, Anisa, “some of the feedback said they thought we were selling a bicycle.”
This is a mixed message of some extreme magnitude when you are trying to convey the benefits of a new car. Charles would never have stood for it, “We intentionally portrayed the car as a bike in order to give the customer and enhanced experience when they took it for a test drive.’ He would have said.
It didn’t matter, they may as well have advertised blancmange, the judges would have still preferred their output over Elizabeth’s clowning effort. Which, actually, may have worked had the car been named a ‘Pillock’ and backed by a digital campaign that offered something like, “The car for the big lumbering sod in your life.” But no, they billed it as the ideal ‘family car’ and called it an Xpando, with the accent on the ‘X’.    
Back in the boardroom, Lord Sugar started to make up his own rules. James, still confused twixt arse and elbow, decided that Sarjan and Joanna were the two candidates who deserved a further grilling by His Lordship.
“What about her?” said the Lord, pointing furiously at Elizabeth who was putting her hat and coat on and trying to exit the boardroom via the broom cupboard. With an air of ‘it’s my ball and we’ll put the goal posts wherever I say’, Elizabeth was told to wait outside with the others while Sugar was hosed down with cold water and had his dials re-set from ‘apoplectic’ to ‘mildly irritated’.
Having taken it upon himself to drag Elizabeth back in, he then proceeded to sack the only member of the team who’d simply stuck to his task and tried to apply a reasonable amount of polish to the Elizabeth-sized turd that had been presented to him. Sarjan left amid some confusion and one could only assume that, if he was gone, all four were going to be boarding a taxi for home. But dear Lizzie had weaved her magic spell again and Lord Sug relented. He must have looked at her baleful expression and realised that even he couldn’t bring himself to get rid of her. She’s priceless, and unless she kills herself clattering down the stairs one morning to answer the phone, he’s going to have to work with her. If she doesn’t win this series, she’ll probably just keep turning up uninvited next year until he gives her 250 grand.
Back at the house, as the ground beneath them started to shake, carefree expressions turned to grim resignation as the remaining candidates realised, long before she appeared at the door, that Elizabeth had been reprieved.


Why is Lord Sugar so bitter?

Lord’s, it turns out, are not the eccentric, aloof and aristocratic breed that they used to be. Privileged, maybe. Wealthy, yes. But disconnected from reality? No. Certainly not the one’s featured last week on Meet the Lords, BBC 7pm. It turns out that around a third of the Lords are, in fact, Ladies and that, far from being born into the role because one of their ancestors stormed some castle in Northumberland, most of them have reached the position through some level of merit. Indeed, the 92 hereditary peers in the ‘Unelected Second House’ must actually now be elected and can only put themselves forward when one of their predecessors dies (which is rare) or retires, which is even rarer.
The House of Lords, however, is starting to burst at the seams as those who have attained a life peerage ‘on merit’, which can mean many things, from performing important work on behalf of the community, to donating a vast sum of money to a Prime Ministerial cause at just the right moment, grow ever in number. Fortunately, one of the few times when nearly all the ermine-clad luminaries show up on the same day is when her Maj. The Q comes down for the day and delivers a speech about austerity whilst wearing a hat made of priceless jewels. Among the audience on this day was, of course, TV’s favourite Lords, Alan, The Lord of Sugar and Karen, Baroness Brady of Edmonton. You can only surmise that the reason Claude Littner has not yet been granted a peerage is because Lord Claude of The Apprentice Board would just be too obvious.
It would have been nice to see Prince Philip point at them and ask them what the bleedin’ ‘ell they had contributed to the smooth running of the country over the last 12 months, but he just sat there wondering who had won the 2.30 at Sandown and said very little.
After the ceremony, Lord S and Baroness B quickly threw off their robes and hurtled across London to the Apprentice board room where a dozen young business people sat waiting to be grilled on their part in the latest fiasco that passes as a basis for a job interview. This week’s task was all about picking the pockets of unsuspecting tourists while several of your accomplices distracted them. This was no easy task, given that there was a camera crew following their every move and part of the game was that their victims could ask for their money back afterwards. However, the teams set about their mission with all the enthusiasm of a Dalmatian chasing a stick.
You can generally tell who’s going to be kicked out at the end of the show by the way the edit focuses on one or two central characters early in the show. This week, Sarah Jayne stepped forward to take on the Project Manager’s role declaring that she “needed to prove herself”. Several colleagues stepped gratefully aside and began construct a makeshift gallows. Charles was assigned the job of preparing her for execution and dutifully obliged. Charged with escorting a party of tourists around the sights of Bruges, the team proceeded to march them in a vast circle around the canal looking for a 12th century hospital that may or may not have existed. When they returned to the very spot at which they had commenced, Charles announced that this was exactly what he had intended to do. Charles is a management consultant and so this course of action made perfect sense to him. Take the client on a journey that leads nowhere and then assure them that they had been in the right place all the time. That’ll be 300 quid and hour, thanks. Sarah Jayne gingerly felt her neck, from which she knew she would soon be suspended.
The other group were making great strides. By which I mean that Elizabeth was marching them apace toward a chocolate shop. Her frustration was that the tour could not proceed more quickly and, in the absence of a Saturn 5 rocket or the large hadron collider to propel them around the city, she put them all on Segway’s and urged them forward.
Elizabeth will win this. She may have all the sexual allure of Olive from On the Buses but she gets things done and getting things done is exactly what Lord Sugar needs. Anybody working for a partnership of Lord S and Elizabeth will be left in no doubt as to their role in the business and that role will be to listen, absorb and act upon the information they are given. She has been portrayed as the fool from episode one, as the Bessie Bunter in a Barbie-doll parade, but she will make it to the finish line and stand there going ‘Gosh! How wonderfully unexpected’ and win our hearts.
It was left to Lord Sugar to carry out the final coup de grace. Emerging into the board room from behind that opaque door, looking for all the world like he’s just endured a particularly difficult bowel evacuation, he listens wearily to the unfolding tales of woe from the previous couple of days. Karen and Claude sit either side of him and recount the misery of having to shadow these bozo’s over the last 48 hours and the trio allow themselves only a brief smile when his Lordship utters his obligatory put-down at the expense of one of the candidates along the lines of ‘Belgium? More like bell end if you ask me.’ Remarkably, Charles survives the board room, he sits looking like the first attempt at Thomas The Tank Engine’s CGI and promises to do better next time. Sarah Jayne leaves and we hear a single pistol shot.

The moral of the story is that Lords are superior people who hardly ever make mistakes and all you can do is sit there and await their verdict upon you. Next week is all about ‘negotiation’ and the apprentices try to negotiate a revolving door.