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 – Time Trumpet.

Time Trumpet (BBC2, 2006)

A while ago, I reviewed 2004: The Stupid Version, a look back at some of the news events of the year that happened, and some that actually didn’t. Because of the rather surreal but still somewhat satirical style, it was no surprise to learn that Armando Iannucci was behind this, who also contributed to the likes of The Day Today and The Friday Night Armistice.

After this was well received, it was decided to do a full series, and to twist the idea even further, the result was little like any other comedy show around. Time Trumpet was supposedly set in the year 2031 (25 years on from when this was actually made), and various people reminisced about famous news events that were in years that actually hadn’t happened yet.

In every edition, Armando would interview various comedians, although they preferred to be known as important cultural commentators, and they included Richard Ayoade and Adam Buxton, who definitely had a lot to say. Also featuring would be various politicians, TV hosts, and so on, but they are all now much older, and they reflected on the time when they were in the news.

Are they all now rather bitter that their moment of fame has practically become a footnote in history? Well of course. There were also various clips that had been manipulated in some way, along with a look at what happened at the Olympics, and some popular TV shows that had some rather odd ideas. But the icing on the cream really did have to be an appearance by Andy Hodgson off the award-winning Bid TV.

He played the host of a shopping channel that only sold bacon all day. That’s a bargain, just grab it. They should’ve given Andy a comedy show of his own on BBC2. There was only one series of Time Trumpet, which has been released on DVD. This didn’t seem to be as well received as 2004: The Stupid Version was by some critics, but this was still an intriguingly odd take on the world.

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 clichĂ© 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 Dave Gorman Collection.

The Dave Gorman Collection (BBC2, 2001)/Dave Gorman’s Important Astrology Experiment (BBC2, 2002)

Dave Gorman is a comedian whose style isn’t like many others. While most simply perform their stand-up routine on-stage and offer their jokes and observations on life, Gorman liked to tell stories about the bizarre ideas that he went to extreme lengths to achieve. He had already been on the comedy scene for about a decade, when found fame with his show.

One day, he discovered that there was someone else who was called Dave Gorman, who was a football assistant manager in Scotland. After going to meet him, he thought that there could be other namesakes, and as there seem to be a rather large amount of people who have the first name Dave, maybe this couldn’t be too difficult. He then decided to take the challenge to meet 54 other people called Dave Gorman, wherever they may be in the world.

He featured his story of how this all happened in the book Are You Dave Gorman?, and a successful stage show, along with the TV show The Dave Gorman Collection. There was also a time when he lived not too far away from where I do in London, but I imagine that he wasn’t there that often, and for all I know, there was probably a sign often on his front door that said “I’ve gone off to America for a day or two to meet a namesake!”.

Indeed, he does end up meeting a huge amount of people called Dave Gorman, who had various jobs, and all have a story to tell. And he has documented how he achieved all of this. He must’ve realised that this was going to dilute his feeling of individuality somewhat, but he remained committed to the task. Following this success, he decided to take on more unusual ideas.

A year on, he had a new TV series called Dave Gorman’s Important Astrology Experiment. In this, he followed his daily horoscope in the newspaper, and did what was recommended to the word, meaning once again he ended up getting into lots of bizarre situations. He then went on to do further stage shows including his Googlewhack Adventure (that I reviewed a while back), and hosted comedy panel game Genius.

And in more recent years, he has continued to perform. Rather suitably, he joined the channel Dave, and he hosted further comedy series including Modern Life Is Goodish and Terms And Conditions Apply, where in his now familiar style, he used graphs and pictures to explain his thoughts, as he tried to make some more sense of the world around him.

The Comedy Vault – Never The Twain.

Never The Twain (ITV, 1981-1991)

ITV has always found it rather difficult to produce long-running sitcoms, when compared to the BBC, who have had several. But this is one of the few ITV sitcoms that did seem to come back year after year. Never The Twain centred on the rivalry between Simon Peel and Oliver Smallbridge. They used to work together in the antiques business, but then they went on to work individually.

But the reasons that they have to stay in contact with each other are firstly because they are next door neighbours, and in the first series, Simon’s son reveals his intentions of marrying Oliver’s daughter, and you can imagine how well that goes down (they later have a child together). They continue to run an antiques shop on their own, and naturally Simon thinks he offers far superior items to anything that Oliver’s has to offer.

But Oliver isn’t helped by the rather useless shop assistant Ringo, who partly seemed to be there so that customers could do a “you look different from when you were in The Beatles” joke in every other episode. This means that Simon and Oliver end up wanting to compete against each other in everything that they do, way beyond the world of antiques, and there were a huge amount of putdowns along the way.

But what really lifted Never The Twain into being a durable and watchable sitcom was that the lead roles were played by Donald Sinden and Windsor Davies, two celebrated actors who made performing in a comedy show look easy and fun (and it helped that they both had lovely voices too), and they were trusted enough to keep the idea going long into the “blimey, is that still going?” point with viewers.

There were 67 episodes of Never The Twain in 11 series, and so many variations on the rivalry were explored, that by the final series Simon and Oliver were competing with each other to get satellite TV first. All of the episodes have been released on DVD, and there have also been repeat runs on various channels including UK Gold and ITV3, which definitely brought back some memories.

The Comedy Vault – Marion And Geoff.

Marion And Geoff (BBC2, 2000-2003)

This is a sitcom that starred Rob Brydon, and this was the one that really helped to make his name as a comic actor, long before Gavin And Stacey (although he had already been on TV for about a decade even at this point as a host on some little-seen satellite channels late at night). One notable thing about Marion And Geoff is that these people actually don’t feature.

The only regular cast member was Keith. He is a taxi driver who is going through a divorce, after Marion left him for her work colleague Geoff. In the first series, every episode was only ten minutes long, and consisted of Keith in his car reflecting on life. Far from being downbeat about the whole situation, he always tries to be optimistic, feeling that somehow it could be worse.

He is constantly talking about his now estranged wife and his two sons, even though they have no more interest in seeing him. Looking on the bright side of life is definitely a help to him, as he slowly realises that his marriage and career are falling apart. This soon did well enough with viewers for there to be a DVD release and win some awards, and further shows expanded on the idea.

After the first series, there was the one-off A Small Summer Party, where for the first time we see Marion and Geoff, and this is the point where the marriage reaches the end. And then there was a second series, this time the episodes were half-an-hour long. Keith has now moved on in his life somewhat, but he still misses his wife and the two children, without ever really realising that the feeling isn’t mutual.

After this, Brydon went on tour to perform on stage as Keith. And finally, there was The Keith Barrat Show, which was a comedy chat show. Brydon in character would interview real-life celebrity couples, hoping to discover their secrets of a long and happy marriage, whilst offering plenty of advice of his own. He does believe that life can’t be anything but “nice”, however you feel.

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 – The 11 O’Clock Show.

The 11 O’Clock Show (Channel 4, 1998-2000)

Over the years, there have been several attempts at creating late-night topical comedy shows that are also durable in this country. Several of them haven’t really succeeded, mostly because of the demands of having to produce so much quality material, and so little time to do it in, but this show was a better attempt than others, and is also notable for boosting the careers of a lot of comic talent.

The 11 O’Clock Show was usually shown three times a week, and the original hosting line-up included Iain Lee and Daisy Donovan. Lee liked to do voxpop interviews with the public, usually asking them bizarre questions. Donovan often liked to do this too, but with politicians, and several ended up baffled. They would also reflect in the studio on what was happening in the day’s news, usually in a rather brash style.

Also occasionally featuring in some series were contributions from Mackenzie Crook and Ricky Gervais (taking some time off from shouting at people and laughing too much on his XFM radio show), offering their skewed views on the world, and they would work together later on The Office, the rather successful sitcom. But even they didn’t attract the biggest attention from viewers.

This came from Sasha Baron Cohen and his character Ali G, who was supposedly representing the youth of Britain, and once again, he asked the questions to prominent figures that others wouldn’t dream of. This became popular enough for there to be the spin-off comedy series Da Ali G Show, and there was a film too. It was great, innit. This character was left behind after this though.

By the fifth and final series though (which was always shown much later than 11 o’clock by this point), Lee and Donovan both departed, and a new hosting duo was quickly put together, consisting of Jon Holmes (who later became known for perfecting being sacked from various radio stations for his antics), and Sarah Alexander (best-known at the time for Coupling and Smack The Pony).

However, they ended up struggling somewhat as the idea had run out of steam by this point, with over 100 editions in just two years. After this, Lee has contributed to various TV shows, radio stations, and magazines, while Donovan made more shows for Channel 4 including the documentary series Daisy Daisy, and she also hosted the short-lived comedy panel game Does Doug Know?

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.