The Comedy Vault – Hippies.

Hippies (BBC2, 1999)

Hippies was a sitcom that was co-created and written by Arthur Mathews who was one of the writers of the classic Father Ted along with Graham Linehan, so when it was revealed that he was working on a quirky sitcom that was going to parody life in the late-60s there was a big buzz around it as there was a chance that it could be another success with viewers.

Hippies was set in London in 1969. It centred around three young people who worked together on a counterculture magazine called Mouth, Ray (Simon Pegg), Alex (Julian Rhind-Tutt) and Jill (Sally Phillips of Smack The Pony fame). The basic idea of the show was that they thought they were at the cutting edge of everything trendy and they were really going to cause a revolution in society by publishing this magazine, but of course they totally failed in this area. hippies0001

Ray is the editor of Mouth which he puts together in his fancy Notting Hill flat, and he is helped by Alex and Jill, who Ray insists is his girlfriend, although she doesn’t seem to agree with this. Also occasionally appearing is Hugo who has a rather spaced out attitude to life even by a hippie’s standard. It’s probably not too much of a surprise to discover that most of the episodes ended up taking an unusual twist. vlcsnap-00299

Hippies was yet another late-90s BBC2 sitcom that I missed first time round that I got into after seeing a repeat run on UK Play. I know I am still going on about it but it was such a great digital channel, it repeated a lot of great sitcoms, and along with some of its original shows featuring comedy and music, it is still a channel I think fondly of even though it closed down 15 years ago now, and its nearest relative still on air is the channel Dave. vlcsnap-00307

There was only one series of Hippies made, as it received fairly average reviews from critics, and the planned second series was scrapped. There was an almost decade-long gap between Hippies ending on TV and being released on DVD. Although it doesn’t feature many extras, the DVD does come with a copy of Mouth, and there is also an amusing article looking at where the cast are now (well, in 2008 anyway when the DVD was released). vlcsnap-00310

About a couple of months before Hippies launched, another sitcom starring Simon Pegg began which was Channel 4’s much more successful Spaced, which unlike Hippies has remained popular and is fondly remembered. And while I would probably stop at saying that Hippies is a lost gem or in the same league as Father Ted, I didn’t think it was that bad at all really.

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The Comedy Vault – Phoenix Nights.

Phoenix Nights (Channel 4, 2001-2002)

The first time I remember watching Peter Kay on TV was in the late-90s on BBC2’s The Sunday Show when he used to do a feature about his favourite old TV shows. He then went on to get his own comedy sketch show on Channel 4 called That Peter Kay Thing where he played a variety of characters but this passed me by, although it did get good reviews and it seemed that his career was on the up, so when he launched his next comedy series which this time was a sitcom called Phoenix Nights, I thought to myself I remember that name from somewhere so I’d give it a try. vlcsnap-00285

Kay plays two characters in the show, Brian Potter, who owns the terrible Phoenix nightclub in Bolton, and Max the doorman. Also featuring is the singer Jerry St. Clair (played by Dave Spikey, and Kay and Spikey had previously collaborated on ITV’s game show Chain Letters!), and Ray the DJ. Everything they plan seems to go wrong, including poorly attended theme nights and having a nightmare with a bouncy castle. vlcsnap-00289

Another thing that I remember about the show was when at the end of most episodes, an act would audition to perform at the club, and most of them were really terrible. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the Elvis impersonator, that was an experience. Because of all these elements, the show became very popular, partly because it featured a great range of characters and catchphrases, and it went on to win some awards. And Jim Bowen appeared in an episode, marvellous! vlcsnap-00286

The DVD also features some great extras. I remember watching the outtakes and I don’t think I’ve ever laughed at anything so much. I remember that I got the DVD for Christmas one year and I watched it a few days later. I don’t know if I was hungover or if I was full of the festive spirit, but I just couldn’t stop laughing while watching them and it was all just so odd. There was also a book released which contained all the scripts from the series which was a great read, plus a few extras including some pictures of the cast. vlcsnap-00290

Phoenix Nights ran for two series, and in 2004 the Max And Paddy characters were given their own Channel 4 spin-off sitcom called Road To Nowhere but this was a little less successful. After this Peter has gone on to further success by doing a variety of things including performing sell-out tours, having a huge hit with “Is This The Way To Amarillo”, and in more recent years he has featured in the well received sitcoms Cradle To Grave and Car Share, but Phoenix Nights (sponsored by Chorley FM) will always be one of his highlights for me.

The Comedy Vault – Happiness.

Happiness (BBC2, 2001-2003)

Happiness is a sitcom with some comedy-drama elements that starred the great comedy talent of Paul Whitehouse, who also co-wrote and co-produced the show, and he was supported by a great cast. Danny Spencer (played by Whitehouse) is the voice of the popular children’s TV character Dexter The Bear. It has made him a minor celebrity and is steady work, but he is approaching the age when all the things that he feared would happen to him when he turned 40 are beginning, including losing his hair and needing glasses. And then as his wife dies suddenly, he begins to wonder what direction his life is going in. Can he find some happiness? vlcsnap-00277

We also meet some of Danny’s friends who try to help him out during his confused time, including the couple Terry (played by Mark Heap who it’s always great to see, you can’t go wrong if you’ve got him taking part on your show) and Rachel who is Danny’s ex-girlfriend (played by Fiona Allen of Smack The Pony fame) who are having some marital trouble, and his work colleagues including the two young sound engineers who are both called Toby who Danny has trouble getting on with whilst working on his show. vlcsnap-00279

Danny also often spends time with the down-and-out pair Sid and Charlie (played by Johnny Vegas). This is one of the first comedy shows that I remember seeing Vegas in, and I was rather amused by his acting which mostly seemed to consist of him being drunk and falling over as he suffered various mishaps (a style that has served him well throughout his career it seems), and such was his impact on the show he won a British Comedy Award for his work. vlcsnap-00280

One of the interesting things about Happiness was that because of his voice-over work Danny sometimes bumps into celebrities, usually because they were providing a guest voice on his show, and they sent themselves up in the show by playing variations of themselves. These included Kathy Burke, Angus Deayton, Cat Deeley, Ricky Gervais, and Steve Wright. Also making some brief appearances as various characters in the show were some of Whitehouse’s mates from The Fast Show including Simon Day, Charlie Higson and Mark Williams. vlcsnap-00281

Happiness ran for two series and like most other BBC2 sitcoms from around this time the first time I remember watching the show was when there was a repeat run of the first series late at night on the great digital channel Play UK, and that’s when I became a fan. Both series have been released on DVD, although there aren’t many extras and the first series is classified 18 surprisingly. Although this is one of Whitehouse’s less-remembered comedy shows, it was definitely a worthwhile project and it’s still a great piece of work.

The Comedy Vault – Dr Terrible’s House Of Horrible.

Dr Terrible’s House Of Horrible (BBC2, 2001)

I know that Halloween has recently been and gone but here’s a look back at a particularly spooky comedy show that I remember. In 2001 Steve Coogan decided to try something a little different. This was Dr Terrible’s House Of Horrible, a six-part series which featured horror stories set in various times that were introduced by the mysterious and rather creepy Dr Terrible who invited you to fill your mouth with fear. vlcsnap-00123

Each week a different story would be told, and Coogan played the main character in all of them, so along with Dr Terrible he played seven characters in the series. Coogan also co-wrote the series, and he was joined by various actors throughout the episodes including Ronni Ancona, Alexander Armstrong, Sally Bretton, Warwick Davis, Ben Miller, and Simon Pegg, along with a few veteran actors who appeared in the original films being parodied for a little touch of authenticity. vlcsnap-00214

There really were some moments that were rather gruesome, including the story where an award-winning ballroom dancer from the 1930s loses his feet in a freak accident, and he then has a foot transplant, but his new pair seem to be cursed, the 1880s doctor from Edinburgh who is having a lot of trouble trying to find a cure for various diseases, and the story set in the 17th century which featured rather a lot of witchesvlcsnap-00215

One of my favourite stories was the one set in London in 1970s where three rather different people are trapped in a lift and their dreams become nightmares, and there was another memorable one set in the 19th century where a newlywed couple encounter some curiously lusty vampires on their honeymoon, and at the end of every story, Dr Terrible would simply conclude “that was truly diabolical”. vlcsnap-00213

The show also featured various characters who were named after production companies that made horror films, and most of the stories were parodies of real films in the horror genre, mostly from the 60s and 70s, and it was clear that the writers were fans of these films and enjoyed the chance to parody them. The show has been released on DVD and features some extras including a look behind the scenes, and some interviews with the cast. vlcsnap-00219

Although Dr Terrible’s House Of Horrible was a creative show that did have some scary and funny moments, it received a rather modest response from critics and viewers, meaning that after only one series, Dr Terrible was never seen again and he is forgotten now, but a year later, Coogan returned to BBC2 for another series of his sitcom I’m Alan Partridge, one of his comedy characters that has definitely endured with viewers.

The YouTube Files – The Preventers.

The Preventers (ITV, 1996)
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Here’s a look at another strange and little-remembered comedy show. In March 1996 a comedy series on BBC Radio 4 launched called Fab TV which featured spoofs of various shows, one was called The Preventers which was a spoof of the various cult action and espionage drama series of the late-60s/early-70s such as The Persuaders and The Avengers. In December 1996 The Preventers came to TV when a one-off episode was shown late-night on ITV. 

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An article on Fab TV in Radio Times in March 1996

I didn’t see the show myself at the time, although I have seen a trailer, and I wondered if it was on YouTube in full because it seemed like a show that I might enjoy. Indeed it was, so credit goes to the Curious British Telly website which uploaded the episode. Of the little that has been written about The Preventers online (there isn’t even a Wikipedia entry), it is fair to say that the reviews from critics and viewers is “mixed”, but I wanted to judge for myself. vlcsnap-00185

The main characters were the elegant Penelope Gold (played by Morwenna Banks, who also starred in the great sketch show Absolutely, and indeed this show was an Absolutely Production for Carlton for ITV), the sophisticated Craig Sturdy (Robert Harley), and… the other one, Mike Stallion (Chris England, these three were also the writers of the show). The trio were put together to create an elite team of international troubleshooters who work for a mysterious top-secret organisation called The Movement. vlcsnap-00187

At the start they are given their mission by The Controller (played by William Gaunt who starred in The Champions, one of the old series that this show was spoofing) where they had to thwart a plan from the Australian Roger Mordick who was the head of The Consortium and wanted to take over the world, and they had to work together because of course they’re the only ones who can save the day for all of usvlcsnap-00186

The episode takes a very odd turn, mocking a lot of the cliches in these type of series such as exploding cars, rather dodgy blue-screen effects and weird gadgets, and there is a lot of amusing dialogue which isn’t too far away from the Police Squad!-style which I enjoyed. The episode ended with a “To be continued…” caption, but again, this could have been a joke in itself as our terrific trio never returned to the screen. vlcsnap-00189

I’m not sure if The Preventers was an intentional one-off or if there were plans for a series, but it wasn’t seen on TV again after this episode. Maybe this was an idea that could have worked better on either BBC2 or Channel 4. I definitely feel that it had the potential for a full series, but we’ll now never know what would have happened next and whether the show would have been a success.

The Comedy Vault – Count Arthur Strong.

Count Arthur Strong (BBC2, 2013, BBC1, 2015-2017)

A variety entertainer from the old school who talks nonsense and thinks that he is still a showbiz star even though he is clearly past his best? No, it’s not Peter Simon… it’s Count Arthur Strong! Arthur is a character who was created by Steve Delaney who is someone who bumbles through life and doesn’t realise that chaos that he is causing for everyone else around him.

Count Arthur Strong launched on BBC Radio 4 in 2005, and although I didn’t hear the earliest editions, I heard some repeats on Radio 4 Extra and found them rather enjoyable as Arthur manages to irritate everyone he meets with his odd outlook on life and bizarre turns of phrase, and in 2013 the show transferred to TV on BBC2, although there were a few differences to the format. vlcsnap-00013

The TV version was co-written and directed by Graham Linehan, who has worked on some very impressive comedy shows over the years including The Day Today, Father Ted, Big Train, and The IT Crowd. The TV version begins when Michael, the son of Arthur’s old comedy double-act partner, tracks him down to interview him for a biography that he is writing about his dad, and he soon realises that he is unable to get any meaningful anecdotes out of him. vlcsnap-00016

Michael meets Arthur in the cafe, which is run by the rather short-tempered Bulent and his sister Sinem. The only other regular customers seem to be Arthur’s old mates, and although there were some interesting characters some people felt that maybe having one eccentric in the show was enough. However, Michael soon befriends Arthur and meets him regularly, although he doesn’t seem to realise what he is letting himself in for, and often gets caught up in his plans. Also after a while Michael started to date Sinem. vlcsnap-00020

The second and third series were moved to BBC1. Just to pick a couple of examples of my favourite moments in the show. I liked the one where Arthur auditioned to appear in a TV advert for toffees and was completely useless and kept falling off his chair. I just enjoy the idea that Arthur still thinks that he is a useful talent but this is the only work that he can get. There was also another good one where Arthur’s old mate John Shuttleworth turned up. Arthur has also been performed in a stage show and recently he published his memoir Through It All I’ve Always Laughed which is lovely. vlcsnap-00012

Count Arthur Strong wasn’t a huge success on the TV, and you either find the character very enjoyable or immensely irritating. but there were some really good moments, however it was recently announced that there isn’t going to be a fourth series. This is rather a shame, but all three series have been released on DVD, and hopefully Arthur won’t leave us altogether and he will soon be back on the radio. To hear him again really will be mucus to my ears.

The Comedy Vault – special bonus edition!

When I was watching the sitcom The Mighty Boosh again recently, I remembered that there was a reference to Bethnal Green in an episode. Now this is the part of London that I live in, and I always find it surprising to hear a reference on the TV. I started to think about how many other comedy shows feature a reference. I don’t know why it seems to turn up so frequently, clearly it must be a big cultural reference point. I thought of six comedy shows that reference Bethnal Green, so here they are, although if anyone out there does know of any others, you are welcome to tell me.

Big Train. This was the odd BBC2 sketch show from the makers of Father Ted. There is a sketch in the second series that is a parody of detective drama shows, where Mark Heap’s character says “Bethnal Green”. Well to hear one of my favourite comic actors say that right in front of everyone, I was very pleased. Fame at last! vlcsnap-01181

The Mighty Boosh. There is a reference to Bethnal Green in this sitcom when Vince (played by Noel Fielding) is trying to track down where someone is by using his Celeb Radar. Also around this time, when the show was popular on TV, there were suddenly a lot of people walking around here who seemingly wanted to be Noel, how great. vlcsnap-01150

Goodnight Sweetheart. I’m fairly sure that there is at least one reference to Bethnal Green in this sitcom, and that’s because the area where Gary Sparrow time travels to is supposed to be around here, you even see him walk past a branded bin in the first episode. One person pointed out recently that Gary was supposed to live in Cricklewood, and the only reason he ever came here was when he was a TV repair man trying to find an address. So to continue his double life he would have to travel from Cricklewood to here every time to access the portal, which is rather a journey in itself, but you’re not supposed to notice that… vlcsnap-01183

Saturday Live. This pioneering 80s comedy show featured some of the earliest TV appearances by Harry Enfield, and his kebab shop owner character Stavros, who would become very popular with viewers, was always talking about “the Bethnal Green Road”, which is good innit. vlcsnap-01185

Only Fools And Horses. This sitcom needs no introduction, and in the 1989 episode “Chain Gang” none other than Del Boy says “Bethnal Green” near the end of the episode. Isn’t that lovely jubbly. And that isn’t the only sitcom created by John Sullivan to feature a reference… vlcsnap-01186

Sitting Pretty. This was a sitcom that launched on BBC1 in 1992 which was written by John Sullivan. Because his other sitcoms had been so popular with viewers, this show was simply sold as “this can’t fail!”. The main character in the show was Annie, a woman who had been successful in the 60s who had now fallen on hard times, and her character was described by Radio Times as “the Jackie Onassis of Bethnal Green”. Within the first few minutes of the first episode, Annie does say “Bethnal Green”, and also her catchphrase “phenomenal”, which they really thought would catch on, but didn’t. Although Sitting Pretty ran for two series, it wasn’t a big hit with viewers, there has been no DVD release, and it is now considered the low point of Sullivan’s career. Also, because of the Bethnal Green connections, I remember seeing Diane Bull (who played Annie) once when she was chosen to turn on the Christmas lights here one year (I don’t remember what year, either 1992 or 1993 as they were the only years that the show was on BBC1), now that really was phenomenal. vlcsnap-01180

BONUS! Now to go on to pop music. I am aware of at least two pop stars who were born in Bethnal Green who have had UK Number One hit singles, who are Helen Shapiro and Cheryl Baker of Bucks Fizz fame. Also, I’m not aware of any UK hit singles featuring Bethnal Green in the lyrics, but again if you know better, you can let me know. And I know I keep going on about this, but I just want to emphasise this again because I still find it unbelievable.

Now imagine that there is a famous pop group who’ve had a Number One single, say for example, Bananarama, and say that they all visited Bethnal Green one day, and the reason that they would do that was because one member of the group had a house here, say Siobhan, who was also in the awesome Shakespear’s Sister, and here was where they became friends again and decided to reform, that would be a great story, but that’s never going to happen is it… oh wait… b10

Now the fact that Sara from Bananarama said “Bethnal Green” in an interview will probably mean nothing to about 99.8% of the readership of Classic Pop magazine where this article appeared, but when I read this I was practically on the floor. But the fact that she said that her and Keren were here because they were round “Siobhan’s house in Bethnal Green“, you remember Siobhan, the woman whose Shakespear’s Sister song “Stay” was at Number One in the UK for almost two months in 1992, the crazy goth woman who appears in the incredible video that I’m sure any early-90s pop music fan has never forgotten even 25 years on, you know, that woman… b9

…well, I was now in a right old state. Discovering that in more recent years she had probably been walking round here (although presumably not dressed like that), and she had a party in her kitchen with her old pop star friends practically around the corner from me simply blew my mind (there’s even a picture of them all together on Twitter and everything), I just can’t believe it really happened. I told you all the cool people live round here didn’t I, aren’t I lucky.