The Comedy Vault – Absolutely.

Absolutely (Channel 4, 1989-1993)

Absolutely was a comedy sketch show that starred a great sextet of performers (who were Pete Baikie, Morwenna Banks, Jack Docherty, Gordon Kennedy, Moray Hunter and John Sparkes). This was a show that I originally only remember seeing the fourth and final series of and I really enjoyed it. A while later, I read that critics thought that this was the worst series, so I could only imagine how good the others were. Thankfully, a while back the complete collection plus a nice bunch of extras were released on DVD so I could finally see the whole lot for myself. vlcsnap-01058

Absolutely contained a great variety of characters that were very memorable. Among these were the Nice family, the girl who tried to explain everything, the very dull Calum, the horrible old man Bert, and the residents of the small town of Stoneybridge. One of the best characters was the outrageous Frank Hovis (played by Sparkes) who often delivered his thoughts on life while on the toilet, and he had some rather bad flatulence problems. This character also appeared in BBC2’s sketch show Naked Video, a show on HTV Wales, and somewhat inexplicably, ITV’s variety game show 3-2-1vlcsnap-01059

Perhaps the oddest sketches were those featuring Don and George (played by Docherty and Hunter). After Absolutely ended they got their own spin-off sitcom in 1993 on Channel 4 called Mr Don And Mr George. I don’t remember watching it at the time but it seems to be available online so I shall have to take a look and review that one day too. vlcsnap-01064

My favourite character though has to be the man in the final series who laughed at everything, and he was especially fond of car stickers which had terrible jokes on them. I ended up nearly laughing as much as he did I thought it was so great. One interesting thing about Absolutely is that some editions were 45 minutes so there were more sketches than most shows, and also in the 90s a book and vido (yes, that is how it is spelt) were released containing some of the best sketches. vlcsnap-01061

Another good thing about Absolutely was that there were some musical sketches, and these were accompanied by some strange animated sequences that were created by the same company who made the original Have I Got News For You opening sequence. The DVD is a great package, it contains such features as the unaired pilot, interviews with all of the cast members, and also contributions from celebrity fans of the show including Paul Whitehouse who is definitely someone who knows a thing or two about how to create great comedy characters. vlcsnap-01063

Although Absolutely ended in 1993, the cast have gone on to further things including Jack Docherty’s Channel 5 chat show (which I have already discussed on here), and in more recent years some of the cast reunited for a radio version of the show, with most of the classic characters returning who all still sounded really good. I’m pleased to have now seen every edition of Absolutely and I can definitely say that it is one of the best comedy shows that has ever been on Channel 4.

The YouTube Files – The Great Bong.

The Great Bong (ITV/Channel 4, 1993-1994-ish)

Recently I bought some old editions of TV Times online, hoping to bring back some memories of various shows that I watched. One of them was from 1994 and covered the HTV region. Even though I’ve never been there myself, I still thought that it would be interesting to look at. I started by looking at Saturday’s schedule on ITV which reminded me of when I used to watch the CITV Saturday Morning show, which was followed by another favourite of mine The Chart Show.

Then following this was the 12:30pm timeslot where I remember various shows were tried out including Movies Games And Videos, rotten sitcom The Munsters Today, some game show that was hosted by Dominik Diamond, and many others. On this day I noticed that in this slot there was a show called The Great Bong. I don’t ever remember seeing this myself, I don’t think that it was ever shown on CITV or in my region LWT, and the description made me rather curious as to what the show was all about, so I asked on Twitter if anyone knew anything more about it. 

bong1

What’s going on here?

I was told that it was a children’s show which contained puppets, and after seeing a picture I thought that they looked a little like the cast of The Winjin’ Pom, a show that I really enjoyed in the early-90s and it was one of the first that I wrote about on here, but I don’t think that it’s made by the same people. I was also told that the voices were provided by Stanley Unwin (who voiced Bong), Michael Bentine (Spudley), Spike Milligan (Ogmore) and Barbara Windsor (Mabel), which is a rather impressive cast. So I began to think to myself, this sounds good, I would like to see some of this, is there any on YouTube? vlcsnap-00979

So I had a look and discovered that there was, although it comes to about two minutes worth, only the opening and closing sequences. It seems that the main character was a magician called Bong who lived in an old oak tree who was always creating crazy spells and they all have various adventures. It also seems that 26 episodes were made and they were shown on Channel 4 on early Sunday mornings, and also on HTV as well because they co-produced the show. vlcsnap-00980

The Great Bong seems to be a rather odd show, I probably would have become a fan and watched it regularly if I had ever seen it in the early-90s. However, there isn’t a huge amount about the show online and it doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry, but it is always good to track down something curious almost 25 years after it first appeared on TV because just when I think I’ve come across them all I still get surprised. vlcsnap-00987

Game Show Memories – Fifteen-To-One the revival.

Fifteen-To-One (Channel 4, 2013-present)

I suppose it was something that would happen eventually, that Fifteen-To-One would one day return to the screen. About a decade after it had originally ended, Fifteen-To-One was brought back for a one-off special in prime-time. As it went down rather well, the decision was made to bring back a daytime version, however TV has changed a lot since the original run ended in 2003.

Firstly, there was the challenge of finding a new host. It was decided that Sandi Toksvig would be the new host, someone who already had about 30 years worth of experience in TV presenting when the revival launched. I don’t mind Sandi’s presenting style and having her as the host is as good as anyone else really, it was always going to be tough following the great William G Stewart whoever was chosen. vlcsnap-00894

Among the other notable things is the set design. Every contestant now stands at an individual podium with three green lights on it, and they wear name badges. It also seems that Sandi’s questions are sent to her though what I will always be inclined to describe as an “ERIC”, gimmicky in the 90s maybe, but a necessity now as I suppose this means that one of several hundred or maybe even thousand questions can be instantly accessed to be asked, and somewhat inevitably, there is also background music all the way through. Sandi will also reveal facts about the contestants, and then reveal the category by saying something like “are you any good at history?”, and then also adding an additional fact after the answer has been given. vlcsnap-00895

The most obvious change is that the show is now an hour long, which is the length of most game shows nowadays. Also, as the influence of newer shows such as The Weakest Link seemed to have an effect on the later years of the original, it does seem that some changes in the revival owe a lot to Pointless, one of the most successful game shows of the last five or six years. vlcsnap-00874

The format of the first round is the same as usual, when contestants get a question right a green light shines on them along with a “ding” noise, but if they get it wrong, one of their lights turns red. Get both wrong, and they are eliminated, with Sandi saying to them what is probably the most obvious try at a new catchphrase for this revival, “it’s lights out”. However, like on Pointless if they don’t make the final at the first attempt they can try again, and people can appear up to three times. vlcsnap-00901

In part two, after a plug for the website, the contestants can now nominate one another. There seems to be a rule that contestants can nominate the same person twice in a row, and the nominator can also choose the person the was asked the previous question. I’m fairly sure that this wasn’t in the rules in the original version. Also, something else that happens a lot is the curiously modest and somewhat British response that when Sandi asks contestants if they are enjoying being in control and nominating they almost always say “no, not really”. vlcsnap-00902

Another feature is that the nominated contestant’s podium lights up when they are in play. When there are four contestants remaining Sandi gives a quick update of the situation and often says something like “three of you will be making it to the final… one of you will not”, which is thankfully as close as she comes in her presenting style to Anne Robinson. When it’s 12 down and there are three contestants remaining, they go through to the final after the break. vlcsnap-00900

The final is again similar to the original version, and again there are exchanges at the start such as Sandi asking a contestant if they thought they’d make the final to which they always say “no, never”. In the on the buzzer stage of the game, I have noticed that logic questions seem to be asked such as “what is 75% of 48?” before when the question or nominate stage begins it reverts back to regular general knowledge questions. vlcsnap-00905

But there can only be one winner, and they receive a small trophy, again like what happens to winners on Pointless. Most finals aren’t that exciting however, lots of contestants have been knocked out with really low scores, most games end with about 20 questions still remaining, and there have been very few scores over 200, when in most series every score to make the final would have to be over 200, although this is partly because series in the revival have been much shorter, with the first being only 20 shows. vlcsnap-00907

There is a lot to play for in the series grand final though. Although there no longer seems to be a top of the leader board prize, the overall series winner receives the star prize of £40,000, one of the biggest prizes currently available on a UK game show which is definitely worth playing for. There also seems to be a rule change for the final were a question answered incorrectly on the buzzer will go on offer to the two other contestants. vlcsnap-00911

Although this version of Fifteen-To-One was arguably never going to make as big an impact as the original, Channel 4 seem to be fairly happy with it as the eighth series of the revival is about to begin, and it has also outlived Deal Or No Deal which is something of a surprise. I’m not sure how much longer it’ll run for but it’s been good to have it back on the afternoon screen.

More TV Memories – Doug.

Doug (Nickelodeon, 1991-1994, Disney, 1996-1999)

Another 90s cartoon that I remember, Doug was all about the adventures of an 11½-year-old schoolboy. At the beginning of the show, Doug Funnie, along with his parents and sister, move to the fictional town of Bluffington after his dad gets a job promotion, and Doug who has something of a dreamy outlook documents his life. Also joining him is his pet dog Porkchop who he is very fond of and follows him everywhere. vlcsnap-00869

There were many other characters in the show including Skeeter who becomes Doug’s best friend, and we also meet various pupils and teachers that Doug encounters at his new school including Roger the bully and Patti who he has a crush on. One thing that I remember being distinctive about the animation of Doug was that beyond the main character all the people’s skin colour were ones that you wouldn’t get in real life, and his interaction with orange people, green people and purple people and so on definitely made the show stand out. vlcsnap-00864

One thing about Doug that I didn’t realise at the time was that in the early series he was voiced by Billy West, a voice actor who has contributed to many other cartoons over the years including The Ren And Stimpy Show, where his rather crazed performance voicing both those characters was something of a contrast to his portrayal of Doug, and he later went on to voice Fry in Futurama. When Doug was revived though, West had moved on to other projects so he was replaced by Tom McHugh. vlcsnap-00862

As far as I’m aware, Doug was never shown on CBBC or CITV, I remember it being shown on the final year or so of TV-am, and it was also shown on weekend mornings on Channel 4, and I remember recording a few episodes to watch which I enjoyed in the mid-90s. Beyond this, Doug has also been shown regularly on Nickelodeon and The Disney Channel. vlcsnap-00868

It seems that there were two eras of Doug, in the early-90s episodes were made for the children’s channel Nickelodeon, and after a short break the show moved to The Disney Channel. I must admit I’ve never liked Disney cartoons that much, preferring the ones made by Warner Brothers, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and the like, but I did like this one, and the show was popular enough for there to be a film version made in 1999 called Doug’s 1st Movie, although despite that rather optimistic title, I’m fairly sure that no more films were made. vlcsnap-00870

Over 100 episodes of Doug were made throughout the 90s, and having a look back at some episodes recently, the show reminded me a little of another cartoon I liked which was Hey Arnold! which features a boy going through school and trying to help people out. I don’t think that Doug has been released on DVD in this country, but I hope that there are still plenty of fans out there.

Game Show Memories – Countdown Grand Final.

Time for a look at another variation on the Countdown format, and this time it’s the grand final, the showpiece event that concludes every series where the overall winner would be found. The final had a slightly different format to a regular edition throughout the 80s and 90s. Firstly, it was the only edition of the series that was 45 minutes long before every edition was extended to this length in September 2001, and also it featured 14 rounds instead of nine.

Here’s how the knockout stages worked. Contestants could play up to eight games before they have to retire undefeated. The eight best performing contestants would then return at the end of the series to play in the quarter-finals. They would also be seeded on how well they performed, with the winners going into the semi-final, and then those winners going into the grand final. vlcsnap-00833

This was always a big occasion, and another change for the grand final format would be that there would always be two celebrities taking part in dictionary corner alongside the lexicographer, but from about 1997 it was just the regular one. The 14 rounds would consist of eight letters games, four numbers games, and two conundrums, as the 7th and final rounds. Usually, the conundrum was only the final round, and in many grand finals whoever got these right would turn out to be crucial, especially when it was a close-scoring game. vlcsnap-00837

There have been a few other special Countdown tournaments over the years which featured a knockout format that concluded with an extended grand final. These included the Champion Of Champions series, where about every four series the finalists from previous series come back to play one another again to determine who has been the best player over the past year or two. There have also been special tournaments that were held to celebrate the 15th and 30th anniversaries of Countdown, when players from all eras of the show returned to compete against one another, and the standard in these games was very high. vlcsnap-00842

Another thing that should be noted were the prizes that were on offer. It’s well known that the overall series winner receives the complete leather-bound Oxford English Dictionary, but various other prizes are also on offer, such as cash prizes, computers, and also a special trophy. Everyone who makes the quarter-final stage also receives a small trophy, and in the Champion of Champions series prizes such as bowls have been on offer. Countdown has now been running for 75 series and anybody who becomes the overall champion in any variation of the show has definitely achieved something great and it should be considered an honour. vlcsnap-00846

The Comedy Vault – Vic Reeves Big Night Out.

Vic Reeves Big Night Out (Channel 4, 1990-1991)

When Vic Reeves Big Night Out launched in 1990, the cover of NME said “you don’t know this yet but Vic Reeves is Britain’s funniest man”, and although it might have been something of a risk to put him on the cover, Reeves went from a virtual unknown to a big comedy star by the end of the show’s run as the self-styled “Britain’s top light entertainer and singer” brought his terrifically daft stage show to TV. vlcsnap-00606

Although he didn’t get equal billing at the time, Bob Mortimer did appear in the show regularly alongside Reeves, and he would often fall. Also taking part was Vic’s assistant Les. He was someone who didn’t have much to say for himself and he had an unusual fear of chives, but he was much fonder of spirit levels. Beyond this there were a big range of memorable characters who appeared in the show, and also several daft catchphrases which endured. One of my favourites has to be “ooh, would you look at the size of that sausage!”. I suppose you had to be there. vlcsnap-00614

Other features included Novelty Island where not very talented acts would do their turn including the very irritating Graham who Vic didn’t like and Mr Wobbly Hand (another future comedy star Paul Whitehouse sometimes appeared in this segment). There were also the Stott brothers, Judge Nutmeg, the living carpets and the man with the stick who would all become big viewer favourites. Vic would also finish every edition however chaotic things became with the song “Mr Songwriter”. vlcsnap-00613

Some people consider the DVD release of Big Night Out to be a little disappointing, the 1990 New Year’s Eve special isn’t included, and the sketches going in and out of where the advert break would have been are edited out, although there is a new interview with Vic and Bob, and overall a lot of people still think that this show was one of the best comedies of its era. Big Night Out was a great success, it a ran for two series and was still being repeated on Channel 4 in the late-90s, and there was also a spin-off book released called Vic Reeves Big Night In and a very successful stage tour. vlcsnap-00615

Vic and Bob’s fame escalated very quickly and they were soon appearing on TV frequently, including adverts for Cadbury’s Boost where were we informed “it’s slightly rippled with a flat underside”, and they were poached by BBC2 to appear in more crazy comedy shows including Shooting Stars. Vic also went on to have some hit singles which led to some lovely Top Of The Pops performances, including in 1991 a chart-topping cover of “Dizzy” alongside The Wonder Stuff. Now how many other comedians can say that they have achieved that.

The Comedy Vault – Barking.

Barking (Channel 4, 1998)

25 actors… 135 sketches… 58 locations. These were the statistics for Barking, a late-night Channel 4 comedy sketch show. I don’t remember this show from first time round, but there were a few reasons why I was interested in seeing it. Firstly, Barking was written by and starred a lot of up-and-coming comedy talent who have since gone on to much bigger things. vlcsnap-00574

The cast included such now famous names as Mackenzie Crook, David Walliams, Catherine Tate, Dave “Come Dine With Me” Lamb, world-champion Queen fan Rhys Thomas, Marcus Brigstocke and Peter Kay. It could be argued that because of some of the cast’s further success Barking only ended up being released on DVD as a cash-in (a cash-in DVD featuring Peter Kay? surely not) although it could be argued that it’s extra cheeky as Kay actually only appears in one of the six editions. vlcsnap-00567

There were some regular characters that appeared in Barking. These included Crook as a rude school teacher, Walliams playing a royal family fan (and the acting style that he would go on to use in Little Britain already seems to be well developed here), Brigstocke as a crazed airline pilot, and a couple who seemed to be somewhat obsessed with their model town what they have made. vlcsnap-00573

Like with most sketch shows the content of Barking is rather wide-ranging, with some ideas working better than others, and it could be argued that the cast is a little too large for it to all fit together rather neatly, but getting new talent on TV is something that should be encouraged and it’s a shame that Channel 4 don’t seem interested in developing sketch shows any more, but although they probably have long since forgotten it a lot of comic talent got to where they are today partly because of Barkingvlcsnap-00580

But the main reason that I really wanted to see Barking for myself is because one of the sketches was sampled on a song that I really like. “I Don’t Smoke” by DJ Dee Kline was a dance song which peaked at Number 11 on the UK Singles Chart in May 2000. It samples the dialogue of a sketch with Marcus Brigstocke playing the airline pilot which goes “Do you smoke, Paul?” “No I don’t.” “Me neither. I don’t smoke cigarettes, I don’t smoke cigars, I don’t smoke a pipe… I don’t smoke the reefer!“. vlcsnap-00586

In more recent years Brigstocke spoke in an interview about the sample and said that he was “delighted and mortified at the same time”. (Also interestingly, “I Don’t Smoke” was performed on Top Of The Pops, but it was only shown on the late-night repeat because of the lyrical content.) To finally see this sketch in its original context was terrific and the song is arguably the biggest legacy for Barking as Brigstocke unexpectedly became a pop star and part of the pioneering UK Garage scene that was huge at the time. Now how many other comedy shows can boast such an influence.