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.
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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”.
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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.
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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.
So let’s question one of them, shall we?
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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.
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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.
Let’s take a look, shall we?
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It’s 1999, or thereabouts. I’m sitting in a friend’s living room. We’re watching a recording of something from BBC Two. Probably TMWRNJ1 or the like. We’re both huge comedy fans.
Unfortunately, I make an error. Being a comedy fan is fine. But foolishly, I try to have a conversation about the nice BBC Two ident in front of the programme. I like that kind of thing, you see. I mean, at that point, I didn’t even know the phrase “TV presentation”, let alone “TV presentation fan”. This was long before I knew there were other people like me. I just knew it was something I was interested in.
I shortly wished this was not the case.
I can’t even remember the word used towards me. Sad? Boring? Whatever it was, it was negative, and I was an idiot. I mean, I was used to hearing this stuff right through school, but I thought I might escape from it when I went to college. Seemingly not. A swift stab in the heart, job done.
I feebly protest, but can’t get the words out. We get on with watching telly. I brood.
* * *
It’s 2015, or thereabouts. I’m sitting in a certain TV channel’s control room – now on the other side of the television. I’m busy tweaking that evening’s schedule, for imminent transmission over the next few hours. And that involves actually watching a condensed version of that evening’s material.
A ‘2’ in the guise of a toy car glides across the screen. Ah, I know what to do. To make this look good, the 2 figure needs to exit cleanly off the side of the screen before going into the programme. That happens at precisely 15 seconds in. But I’m doing a 10 frame visual mix into the programme, so that means this ident needs to run for 14″15f in order to look good. Hang on…
* * *
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE®! Choose from 2 possible endings:
1) Don’t let anybody ever tell you the silly shit you’re interested in doesn’t matter. You might find it immensely useful years down the line. People might even end up paying you money to be good at it.
2) Needless to say, I had the last laugh.
Right. I’ve had enough of writing worthy stuff that nobody is interested in. As 2018 comes to a close, I think it’s about time I did something which is just all-out populist. I am more than happy to throw my dignity under a bus for the sake of shareable content.
Here’s when all your favourite TV shows really jumped the shark.
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When Season 1 of Serial started near the end of 20141, it inspired many serious pieces of analysis. Whether it was taking on the subject matter itself and probing further, or discussions about whether the podcast was even a moral thing to produce in the first place, the world was not exactly short of Serial thinkpieces.
I’m not here to talk about any of that. What I want to talk to is altogether sillier, so by all means click away if you’re expecting anything about the main topic of the podcast itself, about which I can offer no insight. We’re nowhere near any of that territory.
What I want to talk about is: Mail…kimp?
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For as long as I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with TV pilots.
TV pilots of all kinds. Shows which eventually made it to the screen virtually untouched as part of a series, like The Young Ones episode Demolition. Shows which made it to screen, but which were substantially or entirely reshot for the series proper, such as Citizen Smith. One-offs which aired, but never became a series – remember Mirrorball? And then there’s my favourite: pilots which were never broadcast, either because they were never intended to be in the first place, or because substantial changes happened between the pilot and the series… or because they were a complete fucking disaster in every single respect.
There are so many of these unbroadcast pilots I’d love to see. There’s the 1986 pilot Dungeon Doom… followed by a second, also unbroadcast pilot under the more familiar name Knightmare in 1987. Similarly, 1983 saw an unnamed pre-pilot, followed by a full pilot called UNTV… with a series appearing the year after, a certain Spitting Image. Then there’s Paul O’Grady’s version of The Generation Game, which by rights should have been the BBC’s big entertainment hit of 2003… and wouldn’t you just love to watch the two pilots they made to see exactly why that didn’t happen?
Occasionally, such pilots get to see the light of day on DVD, if they ended up as successful shows. Sherlock saw its unbroadcast 60 minute version of A Study in Pink released. The Day Today is one of the most obvious comedy examples, with the bare bones of the show there… but the visual panache of the series very much not. And then there’s Doctor Who, where the DVD set The Beginning contains the complete unedited pilot recording, and a brand new edit combining the best of all the raw session’s takes. Because, y’know, Doctor Who.
With comedy, it’s easy to wish so much more was released.1 Blackadder is the most obvious example here, with a pilot which had never been officially put out on DVD, presumably due to somebody not wishing it to be out there.2 Slightly further afield, I would do anything3 to see A Big Bunch of Hippies, the pilot for the underrated sitcom Hippies – and even if you didn’t like the show, its unbroadcast pilot was the last TV show scripted jointly by Arthur Mathews and Graham Linehan, which is surely of interest to the discerning comedy fan.4
But occasionally, we get lucky. Hello Drop the Dead Donkey, Channel 4’s truly excellent 90s newsroom sitcom… which actually released its unbroadcast pilot on DVD in 2005. And watching it in the context of that first series from 1990 is rather instructive.
Let’s instruct ourselves, shall we?
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