The Comedy Vault – Keeping Up Appearances.

Keeping Up Appearances (BBC1, 1990-1995)

This is another sitcom that was one of the most popular with viewers in the early-90s. Keeping Up Appearances was written by Roy Clarke, who also wrote many other sitcoms including Last Of The Summer Wine and Open All Hours. I would imagine that he was written more episodes of British sitcoms than anyone else has throughout a very long career.

There was an indication of what the main character Hyacinth was going to be like just from the opening sequence. Everything has to be rather tidy and polished, and when a pile of books start to tumble, she can only roll her eyes with frustration. Another example of her snobbery was her surname was Bucket, but she insisted to everyone that it was pronounced “Bouquet”.

She always answered the phone with “the lady of the house speaking” (catchphrase time!), and hoped for a better social standing. Other characters included her husband Richard, who was rather henpecked, and usually had to go along with her ludicrous schemes. He was very dedicated, and didn’t walk out in despair like most men would. She was rather embarrassed by the rest of her family.

These included Onslow, who was rather scruffy, and did little beyond watching TV at home. There were also the next door neighbours, including Liz, who was always rather nervous in Hyacinth’s company, and this would often lead to lots of set pieces where she would usually drop her teacup and its contents everywhere. She would often have to ponder if this was an occasion worthy of using the finest cutlery.

Keeping Up Appearances did well enough with viewers for there to be some Christmas specials, including one on a cruise. This was one of the 90s sitcoms that ended up in the repeats loop, still being shown on BBC1 many years after, usually in a Sunday afternoon slot. Even though people had seen them five times, they’d still watch. Oh no, not the episode when they’re on a cruise again!

All of the 45 episodes have been released on DVD. There was then a one-off special called Young Hyacinth, looking at her earlier days. And curiously, in more recent years, there has been a further repeat run on BBC4. I thought that this was supposed to be an educational channel, and I can’t think of what context this is being shown in, maybe as a part of the classic sitcom repeat hour special season.

The Comedy Vault – Are You Being Served?

Are You Being Served? (BBC1, 1972-1985)

This is one of the longest-running sitcoms that launched in the 70s, and this is one of the few from that era that has endured with viewers and still seems to be repeated. Are You Being Served? had an unlikely start, the pilot being shown as a late-minute schedule change. But this seemed to go down well enough for there to be a full series, where there would always be camp craziness guaranteed.

This is the sitcom that was set at the Grace Brothers department store. Only this seems to be a rather threadbare store, with barely anything for sale, and barely any customers either. But this doesn’t stop the somewhat committed staff from turning up, so the likes of Mr Humphries, Mrs Slocombe (providing a rather unlikely source for quirky blue-haired women), and Miss Brahms had to fill most of the time grumpily bickering with each other.

And most of the episodes just seemed to consist of building up to a set piece where staff members would come out of the lift and walk down the stairs in a ridiculous state of dress, to much bemusement from the others (especially Captain Peacock), and much cackling from the studio audience. But this was definitely a formula that worked, so why try and do anything different.

I was really surprised when I discovered that Are You Being Served? was going as late as 1985, because always seemed to be associated with the 70s. This even became popular enough for there to be a film version (a definite sign of success) where all the staff rather oddly all go on holiday together. Maybe they wanted to do some bonding exercises to prepare themselves for the next outrageous lot of antics back at the store.

There were 69 episodes in ten series, they have all been released on DVD, they have been repeated on various channels too, and they’d all done very well. But there was still more to come. In 1992, there was the sequel sitcom Grace And Favour, where we saw what some of our staff were now up to (presumably Grace Brothers has finally closed its dusty doors for good).

Mr Humphries was still saying “I’m free!” (yes, that was his catchphrase). He was clearly in denial and still hadn’t come to terms with the fact that he didn’t work there any more. And then, in more recent years, as part of a classic comedy season, there was an episode made with a new cast playing the familiar characters. This was a rather unusual sight, but unfortunately by this point, the jokes were as threadbare as the store.

The Comedy Vault – Dad’s Army.

Dad’s Army (BBC1, 1968-1977)

This is one of the longest-running and most popular sitcoms that there has ever been in this country, so it’s hard to know what to say about this really that people wouldn’t already know. Even though this ended in 1977, this still feels so familiar. Of course I should get out of the way the cliché that when I was younger I thought that this was called He’s Dead, He’s Dead, He’s Dead…

I suppose that all there is to say is that this is the sitcom that featured a mismatched group of Local Defence Volunteers, taking a break from their usual jobs in the fictional town of Walmington-On-Sea, during the Second World War. There are a lot of memorable characters, and when you mix in some catchphrases, well that is clearly a winning formula, some find the interplay of the cast impossible to tire of.

I think that the first time I saw some episodes was when there was repeat run on Saturday Nights in the early-90s, and even then his had become a much-revered sitcom. And this has barely left the screen since, despite there being a DVD release, episodes still regularly turn up on BBC2 (and rate higher than most new shows), and when you add the repeats on UK Gold, the repeats probably run into the thousands.

One example of the popularity was when cast member Clive Dunn had a chart-topping single in 1971, although not as his Dad’s Army character, that would’ve been rather odd. There was also a film that did well, and a radio version that has often been repeated too. There have also been some documentaries that have tried to analyse the success, including one hosted by fan Victoria Wood.

Another indication of the enduring popularity is how many times in more recent years the cast have been reimagined. There has been a stage show, a second film, and a drama, all with different people playing these characters. And what did I think of the idea of restaging some of the episodes that had been lost in the archive? Er, would you mind if I was excused?

More TV Memories – The death of the Queen.

It is always a sombre moment for this country when we lose our monarch and head of state, but somehow, this one seemed to hurt more than most. This is a look at of some of the TV and radio coverage of the announcement of the death of Queen Elizabeth II on 8 September 2022, which will be remembered for years to come. There has always been an unusual thing that has hung over British TV. The moment when the picture would fade away for the important news report that announces the death of a monarch. Could it happen during a primetime sitcom? Could it happen during a daytime game show? Could it even happen at about 3am when barely anyone is watching?

As it turned out, this sort-of happened before the actual death. On BBC1, at about 12:40pm, Bargain Hunt faded away, and viewers joined the News channel, after Buckingham Palace had taken the unprecedented step of announcing that doctors had become concerned for Her Majesty’s wellbeing. She had most recently been seen just two days earlier, welcoming the 15th Prime Minister of her reign. It was a reminder of last year when the Palace constantly insisted that Prince Philip was “in good spirits” when he was actually on his deathbed, meaning that the announcement of his death was more of a shock than it should’ve been, and you got the feeling that the public weren’t going to be fooled again.

The coverage remained on BBC1 for the rest of the afternoon, by which point Huw Edwards had taken over as host. There was a constant eye on happenings at Balmoral, where Her Majesty was residing, and family members were spotted making their arrivals, to say their goodbyes as it turned out. And just as it looked like all of the speculation about what exactly was happening had been exhausted, and the coverage was going to end, it was noticed that the flag on the top of Buckingham Palace was being lowered to half-mast. And then, at just after 6:30pm, and many hours after shows were initially interrupted, the moment that so many had dreaded had come.

As far as the BBC was concerned, this moment was always going to be delivered by Edwards. He had been a reporter since the late-80s, and he slowly worked his way up, becoming their main host by the early-2000s, and he was often seen on The 10 O’Clock News. Unlike what happened with Diana in 1997, it was fairly obvious that this moment had long since been prepared for and much rehearsed. Edwards began his announcement, but then there was a brief pause as BBC2 viewers joined. And then, the national anthem was played, and it was at this point that TV essentially went into sombre mode for the days to come.

Alongside Edwards in the studio was royal correspondent Nicholas Witchell (my mum once had a dream that he had died…), who seems to be a much derided figure for some reason. Edwards had to achieve the difficult task of hosting whilst being poignant and respectful, but without crossing the line into being “a bower and a scraper” (an accusation that has been thrown at Witchell). It was clear that both of them had been moved by the occasion, and they both spoke well as they reflected on the end of the longest reign in British history. It was a relief to many that this was all well received by viewers, and seemed to strike the right tone.

I very much doubt that Edwards was angling for a honour by doing all this, but other hosts including Alistair Burnet and Trevor McDonald have been recognised for their news work, so it could be possible. It also reminds you of the famous time when news host Walter Cronkite had to announce the assassination of President Kennedy, and he pretty much became one of the most revered and trusted figures in American broadcasting for years. His handling of this event should only strengthen the idea that Edwards is the leading host on the BBC.

As for the other channels, ITV started a news special at 5pm, meaning that viewers had to go without The Chase (and I imagine that they were NOT happy), but tough luck. Mary Nightingale was the host, although the announcement wasn’t as slick as on the BBC, mostly because Nightingale didn’t seem to know where her glasses were, but again, overall this was well handled. Channel 4 pulled the episode of Hollyoaks that had started only a minute or two earlier to go to Cathy Newman, while Channel 5 extended their news, and Dan Walker (who had recently been poached from the BBC) announced for them. There was also the unusual situation of there being no advert breaks on ITV, Channel 4, or Channel 5 for the next day or two.

And on Sky News, Dermot Murnaghan (who also announced the news about Diana when he worked for ITN) was stood outside Buckingham Palace, and he seemed to be rather dazed and lost for words about the whole experience. Various non-news channels pulled their shows and their advert breaks for a short while too. National and local radio stations also carried the announcement, and they went into sombre mode for a while. But they didn’t play any downbeat classical music, as they might’ve done not so long ago, instead they played a few pop songs, and ended up sounding like Smooth FM in a bad mood.

I think that this was all rather different to what happened with Diana 25 years ago. That news came out of nowhere, and channels had very little planned. There also seemed to be an undertone of anger from the public. While they mourned, a “this shouldn’t have happened” feeling was never far from the surface of the sadness. But that wasn’t the case this time. And as for myself, I was surprised because I was moved more than I thought I would be. And, like many other people, I took a moment to think about some of my much-missed relatives. These included a great-granddad who lived to 96 years old, the same age that Her Majesty did, although he had long since been stricken. It is remarkable to think that she reigned for so long, and was able to fulfil her duty to just about the very end.

And it was weird to think that this had finally happened, and for the first time in seven decades, there was a King on the throne. There had always been reports in Private Eye magazine that Charles was increasingly bored and frustrated with being heir, being one step away from his destiny for so long, giving the impression that he desperately craved being monarch, although I don’t think that was ever the case. There were also various documentaries and obituaries in the days leading up to the state funeral, which was an occasion where barely a foot was put wrong (and the BBC should be grateful that the biggest stir in coverage with viewers was caused on ITV by This Morning). I get the feeling that things will never be the same again…

The Comedy Vault – The Mrs Merton Show.

The Mrs Merton Show (BBC2, 1995, BBC1, 1996-1998)/Mrs Merton And Malcolm (BBC1, 1999)

Following on from The Kumars At No. 42, this is another comedy chat show. The character of Mrs Merton (no relation to Paul) was created and played by the late Caroline Aherne (who was credited as Caroline Hook during her brief marriage to musician Peter Hook), and first appeared on TV in the early-90s. And by the mid-90s, Aherne had become famous after contributing to the first series of The Fast Show.

Then her character was given a show on BBC2. Mrs Merton is a pensioner who comes across as rather reserved at first, but then comes out with some unexpectedly bizarre or rude questions. All of her guests were celebrities, some of them willingly played along (yes, Paul Daniels and all that), while rather oddly some of them didn’t seem to realise that she was a fictional character and they couldn’t believe how crude this old lady was being.

She would often be joined by a studio audience of pensioners, and they would be encouraged to have a “heated debate” about various topics, and occasionally her son Malcolm (Craig Cash) would appear too. This did well enough with viewers to be promoted to BBC1 after a couple of series (and Mrs Merton was even making the cover of Radio Times by this point).

This led to there being a few specials made in America. But by the fifth and final series, it was decided that the idea had worn a little thin, but Mrs Merton had long since by this point become one of the most popular TV comedy characters of this era, and there has been a DVD release. But she would be seen one last time (let’s not think about those British Gas adverts for now though).

This time the format was a sitcom. In 1999, Mrs Merton And Malcolm launched on BBC1, and this was where we saw their life at home in the north west of England. The only other regular cast member is neighbour Arthur (played by Brian Murphy, who recently had his 90th birthday), who often visits. This did have a rather old-fashioned and downbeat feel though, and wasn’t a big success.

However, this ended up being completely overshadowed by the first series of sitcom The Royle Family (also written by and starring Aherne and Cash), which had been shown a few months earlier, to the point that this has just about been totally forgotten by comparison. There hasn’t been a repeat run in recent years though, and the character of Mrs Merton was retired after this.

More TV Memories – Alistair McGowan’s Big Impression.

Alistair McGowan’s Big Impression (BBC1, 1999-2002)/The Big Impression (BBC1, 2002-2004)

Alistair McGowan is a comedian and impressionist who contributed to various comedy shows for many years (including the later series of Spitting Image), along with appearing in adverts, and a lot of voiceover work. By the late-90s, he was given a sketch show of his own, which had a large support cast that included fellow impressionist Ronni Ancona.

As Rory Bremner was concentrating almost solely on satirical impressions of politicians on his comedy shows by this point, there was a big opportunity for someone to step into the position of doing a mainstream show that featured impressions of celebrities like TV hosts, actors, sportsmen, and so on, and Alistair was the one was chosen to do it, in Alistair McGowan’s Big Impression.

He was a rather tall man with large eyes, which meant that sometimes he didn’t look exactly like who he was supposed to be impersonating, but there was little doubt that he sounded like them. For example, his take on Richard Madeley and his mannerisms was uncanny to the point where it was difficult to believe that it actually wasn’t the man himself.

One flaw with all of this though was that because this was designed to be family entertainment, a lot of the sketches deliberately lacked an edge. This meant that a lot of the jokes were either rather corny, or you could see them coming from a long way off. The sketch that concluded with “my spouse? Oh, I thought you said my sprouts!” was a good example of this.

But as Alistair’s stature increased, along with the regular series, he was given some specials. In 2001, he showed off his range of EastEnders characters. And in 2002 there was a World Cup special, where various sports hosts and England players were featured. He also earned a coveted place on the primetime Christmas Day schedule on a couple of occasions, and won a Bafta too.

Ronni’s stature also increased to the point that by the fourth and final series, this show had been renamed The Big Impression, after she was given equal top billing alongside Alistair. After this ended, in 2005 Ronni was given an comedy series of her own called Ronni Ancona And Co., but this wasn’t as well received. Alistair has continued to be a familiar face (and voice) on TV too.

More TV Memories – The Kumars At No. 42.

The Kumars At No. 42 (BBC2, 2001-2004, BBC1, 2005-2006)/The Kumars (Sky One, 2014)

This is a comedy show with a difference, that features many of the people who contributed to sketch show Goodness Gracious Me. The Kumars At No. 42 was a comedy chat show, in a style similar to The Mrs Merton Show. The idea is that they are a family who live in London, and we see them at their home, which is rather unusual, because this contains a TV studio, and there’s plenty of room to fit in an audience too.

I can only imagine what their neighbours thought of all of this. Sanjeev invites various celebrities into his home, where they meet the rest of his family. He then goes on to conduct an interview, and asks various questions. But the fun comes in from his parents and gran who are watching on, and they like to interrupt and ask the guests much more outrageous questions.

And of course, this causes lots of amusing moments. Hopefully the celebrities have realised what they are letting themselves in for. But the decent line-ups that they managed to attract to take part (and get the joke) definitely enhanced this show. The Kumars At No. 42 ended up doing rather well for BBC2, appearing in a Monday evening slot for several series, winning awards, and then being promoted to BBC1 for the later series.

They ended up becoming popular enough to be chosen in 2003 to perform the single released in aid of that year’s Comic Relief. Their version of “Spirit In The Sky” went on to be a chart-topper (the third time that song has been Number One in this country), and they were even brave enough to collaborate with Gareth Gates on this. Well it might be no “The Stonk”, but it was still rather good fun.

There were some repeat runs on BBC Choice, but I don’t recall seeing this much in recent years though. But then, curiously, about a decade after the original version ended, Sky One briefly revived the idea, with the title being shortened to The Kumars, and the family picking up where they left off. Yet more celebrity guests took part, but this had run out of steam by this point and wasn’t as successful.

The YouTube Files – The Rudy Coby Show.

The Rudy Coby Show (BBC1, 1994)

A while ago, I reviewed The Magic Comedy Strip, an ITV show from the early-90s which was part of the last-gasp of old-school variety. Among the regulars was Joe Pasquale, this is where I remember seeing him on TV for the first time, and he went on to further success with his mix of magic and comedy. There were also some American magicians who often took part.

One of them was Rudy Coby, who had a rather unusual act. He would perform various tricks, and he would usually wear a big white coat, along with having spiky hair. I have wondered if he went on to make any more TV appearances beyond The Magic Comedy Strip, and it seems that he was on BBC1’s The Paul Daniels Show a few times in the late-80s/early-90s.

But I was rather surprised to discover that he did once have a TV show of his own, which I recently spotted on YouTube. However, this was only a one-off that was shown on BBC1 on a Bank Holiday Monday in August, which is a rather quiet time of the year, but it was still more than I expected. The description for this show was rather interesting too.

This insisted that Rudy was something of “a human cartoon”, and deep in his secret laboratory, he goes on a magical journey through a cartoon world. We were also informed that he was a science-fiction hero, and with his range of tricks and optical illusions, we wouldn’t believe our eyes. He even had his own studio band (well, there was some guy at the back with a keyboard).

And barely two minutes in, he was doing his most famous trick with his arm (well it does make sense if you see it). He also pulled a few people out of the excitable audience to take part in some of the spectacular stunts. Curiously, The Rudy Coby Show was repeated on BBC1 a year later in 1995, this time in a Saturday Night slot (although again this was in August), as this was the BBC’s entry for that year’s Montreux Festival.

This is where TV channels from across Europe and beyond submit one of their entertainment shows in the hope that they could win the coveted “Rose D’Or” at the annual festival. This wasn’t a success though, the main winner that year was Channel 4’s game show Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush. But it was good to know that he had one more moment of fame.

The Comedy Vault – The One Ronnie.

The One Ronnie (BBC1, 2010)

When Ronnie Barker retired from showbusiness in the late-80s, this brought The Two Ronnies to an end after 16 years, which by this point had become one of the most successful comedy shows of its era. But Ronnie Corbett decided to continue by himself, and he would remain a rather regular presence on stage and screen for many more years to come.

This included being the host of game show Small Talk, and reviving his “in the chair” routine for a series of The Ben Elton Show, who might’ve come across as an unlikely admirer of his work, but he definitely was. He also took on various acting roles, appeared in adverts, and even starred in his own An Audience With… But he did go on to reunite with Barker on a few occasions.

These included when they decided to look back at some of their greatest moments together one final time in The Two Ronnies Sketchbook. And then, in the month of his 80th birthday, Corbett returned to star in another comedy show, featuring plenty of sketches and characters. Some people thought that the title The One Ronnie was a little sombre, but it was still better than The No Ronnies!

There was a huge amount of comedy talent who were happy to help out in the sketches, including Rob Brydon, Harry Enfield, Matt Lucas, David Walliams, and many more. This show essentially stuck to the formula of what made The Two Ronnies work so well. The wordplay, the characters, the songs, and there was even time for yet another “in the chair” routine, his producer must’ve been very pleased.

Some felt that this somewhat lacked the sparkle that Barker always brought, but this was definitely a high-profile celebration of someone who had worked in comedy for six decades by this point. I’m sure they’ll never be forgotten. The One Ronnie is included as an extra in The Two Ronnies boxset. After this, a few more comedy veterans were given their own show in a similar style, who were Jasper Carrott, Lenny Henry, and Griff Rhys Jones.

Game Show Memories – Bridge Of Lies.

Bridge Of Lies (BBC1, 2022-present)

Along with The 1% Club, this one is my game show highlight of the year so far. There have been a lot of ideas tried out in the BBC1 daytime slot recently, which is commendable, but this one stood out to me much more than the others. The idea of Bridge Of Lies is very similar to a game on CBBC’s Raven, and this also reminds me of a game on The Crystal Maze.

The host of this is Ross Kemp, who is better known as an actor, and this is his first attempt at hosting a show like this. Four contestants take part, usually relatives or work colleagues. There is a screen on the floor, which is where the game will be played. First, the category is revealed. Then the actual question is, and one is chosen to play. There are five minutes on the clock.

They step on a circle if they think that the answer inside it is correct. If it is, they win £100, and some circles around them open to reveal their answers. They have to create a path of correct answers that leads all the way to the finish. However, they must look out for the wrong answers. Step on one, and you lose some money (the twist in this show is referring to the wrong answers as “lies”).

They also have two opportunities to stop the clock, and reveal one wrong answer each time. If three lies are revealed, their round ends, and they are eliminated from taking part in the final. However, if a teammate watching on in the waiting room presses a button, that stops the round, and they can save any money that had been won at that point. This round is then done another three times.

Before the final, eliminated contestants have the chance to be bought back, but it will cost them some of their money (a little like the dilemma that can happen on Tenable). In the final, depending on where they are up to, there are two, three, or four statements, and they have to step on the one that is correct in time (they can confer, if there is anyone to confer with). If they are wrong, they are eliminated.

If they run out of contestants before reaching the end, the game is over. But if they do get to the end, they win the money. One disappointment was that sometimes there was only a three-figure sum being played for, and I thought that we were long past that era. I’m not sure if Bridge Of Lies is planned to return for a second series yet, but I very much hope that it does, because overall it was enjoyable.