In the penultimate part of this series, we examined the full wrath of John Cleese. Today, to round things up, I want to investigate his softer side. The softer side that nonetheless involves a sharp jab at his fellow professionals, because this is John Cleese: the man who deliberately broadcast David Frost’s telephone number to the nation because he thought it was funny.
And a character like Mr. Davidson – someone who is the embodiment of anti-comedy – is the perfect vehicle Cleese can use to slag off some lazy jokes.
Last time in our analysis of No Ill Feeling!, we took an in-depth look at Dr. Upton’s nemesis, Mr. Davidson. We are now heading towards our final showdown with that particular fragment of humanity.
It is utterly glorious. It is also utterly savage, in a way that you might not expect from a 1971 LWT sitcom. And it’s something which seems to have been pretty much ignored by everyone in their analysis of the episode – in as much as the episode has had any analysis, beyond “look, there’s an early version of Basil”.
In Part One of this series, we took a trip to 1971 and Doctor at Large, where newly-qualified doctor Michael Upton went to stay at the Bella Vista hotel. There, he met Mr. Clifford, our ersatz Basil Fawlty, and had a fairly baffling time with him.
That’s where most analysis of the episode No Ill Feeling! ends. But to me, it’s really just the beginning. Today, we meet the real nemesis of Michael Upton… and John Cleese.
There is a tendency, when talking about TV shows, to get caught up in the same old anecdotes and stock opinions.
Star Trek: The Next Generation only got good with Season 3. Panorama was briefly interesting in 1957 with its spaghetti harvest April Fools, and again that time when Dimbleby sat there like a twat when no films would run. Catchphrase is reduced to Mr. Chips having a wank next to a snake.
It’s the same with sitcoms. Hancock is all about armfuls of blood and reading off cue cards. Are You Being Served? is entirely centred on Mrs. Slocombe’s minge. The Office invented a whole new way of making comedy.1 So it is with Fawlty Towers, which has its own set of anecdotes and origin stories, all endlessly repeated over the years until nobody bothers to question them.
Something very odd happens in Episode 54 of Are You Being Served?, you know. Something which has never happened before.
Mind you, Series 8 of the show had already seen its fair share of upheaval. We wave goodbye to Mr. Goldberg, see in Mr. Grossman… then four episodes in, wave goodbye to Mr. Grossman and say hello to Mr. Klein, turning the Men’s department into a full-on ridiculous revolving door situation. We also say goodbye to Mr. Lucas, who admittedly had been lessening in importance for years, but was our original audience identification figure in the show’s early days. In his place comes the enormous waste of time and space which is Mr. Spooner.1 Finally, Young Mr. Grace disappears – he briefly returns for the 1981 Christmas special, but that’s it – and hands over the reins to Old Mr. Grace, who somehow manages to be even more of a creepy fucker than his predecessor.
Elsewhere, there are signs that the show itself is getting restless. While Croft displayed a taste for expanding the scope of his other sitcoms – with perhaps a few rickety film sequences too many in Dad’s Army and the like – for the first seven series, Are You Being Served? stayed resolutely within the walls of the Grace Brothers department store.2 Most of the action takes place on the shop floor of the Ladies and Gentlemen’s departments, the canteen, or an office. Occasionally they might sneak into the boardroom, and the show took the odd trip to other departments – most memorably in Series 5’s “A Change Is as Good as a Rest”, where they all go and work in the Toy Department for a week. But we never, ever go outside the building. Grace Brothers is all we ever see.
I remember the very first time I ever became aware of KYTV.
It wasn’t through actually watching it, like a normal person. That would be too easy. No, it was reading a rather snotty reference to it in What Satellite magazine, where some idiot columnist made some outraged remark about the BBC making fun of their precious satellite television while forcing everyone to pay the licence fee. It was a remark which, if Geoffrey Perkins or Angus Deayton had read it, I suspect would have filled them with glee. Irritating various people who deserve to be irritated is entirely within the remit KYTV had set itself, after all.
In any case, it’s easy to accuse the columnist of over-sensitivity. “A parody of cheap satellite TV” might be part of what KYTV is doing, but it most certainly isn’t all of it. If that was true, then for a start, they wouldn’t have been able to reuse so much material from the show’s radio predecessor, Radio Active. No, the targets KYTV had in its sights were fairly scattershot. For every joke about dishy dish girls, there’s another about BBC2 theme nights. And for every joke satirising cheap and exploitative TV, there are jokes which aren’t much about TV at all. You could stick Martin Brown in any environment, and he’d be funny.1
Which brings us to Challenge Anna: the last episode of Series 1 of KYTV, the best episode of the show made up until that point, and up there with the best full stop. In the programme’s sights are Challenge Anneka – a BBC show – and Treasure Hunt – a Channel 4 show. Indeed, neither programme is the kind of thing which Sky or BSB could really afford to make in 1990. And while the feature “Spin the Wheel” could be viewed as what could happen to the formats if dirty old Sky got hold of them, jokes about companies helping out on the show in order to get their name mentioned are very much digs at the Beeb.
Sadly, KYTV has fallen down the cracks of comedy history somewhat – more, in fact, than Radio Active itself, which has had an ongoing successful stage revival, and this year is up in Edinburgh for the team’s 40th anniversary. So let’s redress the balance. With many thanks to Darrell Maclaine-Jones, I have in my possession the script for Challenge Anna. And contained within are all kinds of differences to the broadcast episode – with whole scenes included which didn’t make the final cut.
This year, I’ve been trying to do a bit more writing than usual over on Ganymede & Titan, the Red Dwarf fansite run by “over-entitled pricks who are upset that it isn’t actually 1992 anymore”. And one thing I’ve been doing this year is taking some Standard Red Dwarf Facts™, and digging a little deeper than usual with them.
Here’s three of those pieces in particular that I think turned out OK.
G&TV: Covington Cross
This is one of the most endlessly parroted facts among Dwarf fans: the outside village from Emohawk: Polymorph II was an abandoned set from US series Covington Cross. Which, indeed, is absolutely correct. But nobody has ever actually gone through both shows and pinpointed shots where exactly the same parts of the set are used. I have, and for some reason I am proud of this.
Take the Fifth
This is a bit of an odd one, in that this is a “fact” that we had pretty much convinced ourselves of over on G&T: that the penultimate episode of each series of Red Dwarf is where they usually hid the worst episode of the run. But does this end up being true? (I would do well to examine my own assumptions more often.)
You Stupid Ugly Goit
Probably the best thing I’ve written so far this year, on a very early piece of Red Dwarf lore. It’s generally known that at the start of the production of Series 1, Norman Lovett was originally out-of-vision, and the decision was made to make Holly a visual character after shooting had already started. But the details of exactly what was reshot to make this happen are very complicated. I think I drag up a few new things to consider here.
* * *
Meanwhile, back to Dirty Feed. And although I published some fun stufflast month, overall things have been a little quiet over here recently. I do have some silly ideas in the works, though, building up to the site’s 10th anniversary next year.
Stay tuned, as the kids definitely don’t say any more.
It has to be admitted that nice comments about Come Back Mrs. Noah – Lloyd and Croft’s 70s sitcom about a spacebound housewife – are rather thin on the ground. Having just watched the pilot episode on YouTube, I honestly don’t think it’s quite as bad as its reputation, although doing a racist joke about Notting Hill six minutes into the episode does push your goodwill rather. And the less said about the tea maker gag the better.
But enough about that. I want to highlight something interesting about that pilot, which is an effects technique I’ve never seen before. It takes place in Mission Control, where the ground crew are trying to sort out the fault with the spacecraft. And we get these two consecutive shots of the monitoring equipment they’re using to troubleshoot the fault:
Clearly, there was only one source available for the yellow overlay oscilloscope effect, but they wanted to show it from two separate angles. The solution? They designed things so the same overlay effect would work for each shot, despite the two shots being entirely different!
You can see it in action here:
It may look a little odd to modern eyes, but it’s a really clever, thinking-outside-the-box solution. You can’t do two different effects? Then make sure your single effect works from two angles.
Today, I want to talk about It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. Not the sad death of Windsor Davies, or whether the programme is racist1. This is Dirty Feed, and I have higher things in mind.
The show premiered in January 1974 on BBC1 with a first series of eight episodes.2 The first episode, however, was a true pilot, recorded a full year before air, and separately from the other seven episodes. David Croft’s autobiography, You Have Been Watching…, p. 196:
“The first pilot programme in January 1973 went very well with the studio audience and featured probably the smallest riot ever experienced by the British in India. There was no room in the studio for a proper full-scale riot mob, and we couldn’t afford one anyway. I made do with about ten shadowy figures in the foreground, but the result didn’t bear examination.3 I was present at the odd riot in India and they are extremely frightening affairs. Police and troops are usually heavily outnumbered and very scared, so ghastly mistakes can easily happen. The remainder of the show was a good pilot and served to introduce the characters and the general thrust of the plots, as any pilot should.”
Despite being shot at a different time to the rest of the series, there really are very few differences between that pilot episode Meet the Gang, and the rest of Series 1. But there is one major change: the closing titles. In the pilot, the gang song is all shot on VT in the studio. For the rest of Series 1, it was completely remounted on film.
“At an event co-hosted by BBC Director-General Tony Hall and Shane Allen, Controller of Comedy Commissioning, it was announced that BBC One will host the annual Ronnie Barker Comedy Lecture, to be given by a key comedy figure to share his or her experiences and to help inspire others, as well as addressing the present-day challenges and opportunities facing the industry.
Akin to the Reith and Dimbleby lectures, the Ronnie Barker Comedy Lecture’s aim is to articulate why comedy matters so much, both on a personal level and how it helps to reflect and define our national character. An inaugural speaker announcement will be made shortly.”
“The inaugural Ronnie Barker Comedy Lecture speaker is multi-award-winning comedian, novelist, playwright, film maker and creator of classic sitcoms The Young Ones, Blackadder, The Thin Blue Line and Upstart Crow, Ben Elton. He is introduced by Sir David Jason.
Recorded at the BBC’s Radio Theatre in front of an invited audience from the world of comedy, the lecture is named after the much-loved comedy writer and performer Ronnie Barker, star of The Two Ronnies, Porridge and Open All Hours.”
And what did David Jason say in his introduction in the programme itself?
DAVID JASON: I’m so pleased that the BBC have decided to institute an annual lecture on the art of comedy.
The point: the programme was conceived as an annual lecture, and was described as an annual lecture in the programme itself. With 2018 drawing to an end, then, it seems an appropriate time to ask: where the bloody hell has it gone?
It’s annoying. And it’s annoying because the idea of the lecture was such a fantastic one. I can think of few things better than a funny person talking about comedy for 45 minutes, and then broadcasting it to the nation. “Educational but entertaining… perfect BBC output”, you might say. With the best will in the world, how difficult is it to get someone funny to stand in the Radio Theatre for a while and bang on about comedy?
Indeed, I would argue that naming the lecture after Ronnie Barker and then giving up after a year is a tad disrespectful. If they really weren’t sure they could make it an annual event, it was unwise to sell it as one. They could have just named last year’s The Ben Elton Comedy Lecture, do it potentially as a one-off, and give themselves some leeway.
Still, surely there isn’t a struggle for things to talk about. Last year, Ben Elton made the case for studio sitcom – a topic extremely relevant to Ronnie Barker’s work. I would argue another topic equally as relevant to Barker is the current dearth of sketch comedy on television. The odd show like Tracey Breaks the News aside, there’s virtually nothing – and the lack of sketch shows on TV is incredibly damaging to the health of comedy in 2018. True, if the BBC broadcast that lecture, plenty of people would just yell “commission some, then”. But the BBC has a long and proud history of self-flagellation, and I don’t see why this should be any different.
Although at this point, I’d probably settle for somebody standing on stage and telling us YouTube is the future of comedy. Anything, in fact, than a great idea being thrown away so quickly. I mean, I thought there was a possibility it might peter out after three years or so.