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.

The Comedy Vault – The Mighty Boosh.

The Mighty Boosh (BBC3, 2003-2007)

I’m fairly sure that this is my 500th blog post, so I’m very pleased to have got this far, and I’m grateful for your interest and your support, there’s now a part of my life online from post one to 500, I have clearly watched far too much TV over the years haven’t I. To celebrate this occasion, I have decided to look back at what is one of my favourite sitcoms of the 2000s decade, The Mighty Boosh, starring the double-act Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt. Here’s how I got into the show.

First of all, I don’t remember seeing the pilot episode in 2003, I remember seeing the first series being promoted and I thought I would give it a try because I always like to discover new sitcoms, yes, even the ones on BBC3. I also didn’t realise at the time that there had been a radio version in 2001 (called The Boosh) which was on BBC London and BBC Radio 4, but I eventually heard it in a repeat run on BBC7/Radio 4 Extra. vlcsnap-01135

I also didn’t realise at the time that Fielding and Barratt had worked together since the late-90s and toured with various comedy shows. Seeing the first TV series was the first time that I had come across their work and I became a fan just because I liked the look of it, I certainly wasn’t influenced by critics from The Guardian or some such newspaper gushing over the show because The Mighty Boosh was suddenly in the latest in-thing that all the trendy people liked, I can assure you that I am just about the least trendiest person that you’ll ever meet, I just enjoy surreal comedy, and I was ready to go on a journey through time and space… vlcsnap-01149

It’s difficult to pick out some highlights from the 21 episodes, but I’ll have a go. In the first series in 2004, Vince and Howard (played by Fielding and Barratt) are working at a place called Zooniverse, a zoo which doesn’t seem to have any animals, which is run by the odd Bob Fossil. Also featuring are Naboo (played by Noel’s brother Michael), a gorilla called Bollo and Dixon Bainbridge, plus Mr Susan, Tommy Nooka, and The HitcherI still remember watching the first series, quickly going from “what on earth is this”, to becoming a big fan. My favourite moments include the episodes where some mutant animals were found at the zoo, when Vince and Howard meet a mysterious hitchhiker, and when Vince joined a terrible electro band. I’d never really seen anything like it. vlcsnap-01139

Eager for more, I was delighted when there was a second series in 2005, featuring another wave of odd characters such as Old Gregg, Tony Harrison, The Betamax Bandit, Chris de Burgh and Milky Joe. Highlights included Vince and Howard being stranded on a desert island which leads to something odd happening with coconuts, and also encountering some problems with an old lady. The moon would also often add his own comments on what was happening. vlcsnap-01142

The third and final series in 2007 was now set in a shop in London called the Nabootique. We met even more crazy characters including The Crack Fox and highlights included something strange about eels, Vince and Howard taking part in a singing competition, and a party that gets rather out of hand. And Vince says “Bethnal Green” in one episode which is always going to be a winner with me. vlcsnap-01150

Another thing about The Mighty Boosh was that several other comic actors turned up who have gone on to bigger things including Rich Fulcher, Matt Berry and Richard Ayoade. While the show was running on BBC3, they went on tour again to big acclaim and a couple of stage shows have been released on DVD. The show was also briefly on BBC2, but it didn’t catch on there, partly because it was shown in various timeslots, the success of the show is mostly down to BBC3, and it suits the word “cult” more than most sitcoms. I also remember being really pleased when the DVD was released, I really looked forward to watching the show again, and there are some great DVD extras too. vlcsnap-01148

Fielding and Barratt also did well enough with younger viewers to appear on the cover of NME several times, and there was also a book released featuring some of the best bits of the TV show. I suppose that the response by viewers to The Mighty Boosh can be best described by that old phrase “a show people either love or hate”, but I know which side I’m on. I can’t believe that it’s now almost been a decade since The Mighty Boosh left the screen, there have been rumours of a film version coming but it never happened. Although they haven’t worked together for a while now, Fielding went off and made a similarly odd sketch show on his own for E4, and Barratt has appeared in a few comedies and films. Almost 15 years on I still think the show has a unique place in British comedy.

The Comedy Vault – 2DTV.

2DTV (ITV1, 2001-2004)

The satirical comedy show Spitting Image was a huge success on ITV for about a decade. After that show ended in 1996, there was often speculation that it would return, or at the very least a similar show would be launched. In 2001, a new satirical show did finally appear, which featured the same production team as the final series of Spitting Image, and it was called 2DTVvlcsnap-01085

The difference between Spitting Image and 2DTV was that it didn’t feature puppetry, instead it was an animated show. Just about everyone who was in the public eye at the beginning of the 2000s decade was featured in the show, whether they be leading politicians, irritating TV presenters, dozy footballers, flashy pop stars, the Royals, or cast members of EastEndersvlcsnap-01088

A small group of comic actors provided the voices, most of which seemed to be performed by Jon Culshaw. He also contributed to the later editions of Spitting Image, and somewhat oddly, around the same time as 2DTV he was also a member of the BBC TV and radio comedy show Dead Ringers, so you could see and hear him doing impressions of the same people in two unrelated shows. Also among the voices was Dave Lamb. vlcsnap-01084

2DTV got off to a fairly quiet start, with the earliest editions only being ten minutes long. However, the show did get some good reviews, so later editions were extended to 25 minutes. Although it was good to have some late-night comedy with an edge on the TV, by the end ITV1 scheduled the show in an increasingly late slot, and the show began to run out of energy a little, so after about three years 2DTV came to an end. vlcsnap-01086

Some of the best sketches featured on 2DTV were released on DVD. I bought this, firstly because there was a free gift of a calendar, but also because there were some good sketches that I wanted to watch again, and the DVD also had some interesting bonus features including some extra sketches that hadn’t been shown on TV, plus a look behind the scenes including interviews with the impressionists and the frantic rush to put the show together as close to transmission as possible to keep the material topical. vlcsnap-01083

After 2DTV ended, the cycle went back round to the start, with viewers again saying that there’s a space for a topical comedy show on TV. There have been two more attempts by ITV in recent years to give the great and the good a ribbing, firstly with Head Cases (which featured computer-generated characters), and then with Newzoids (featuring a combination of puppetry and computer graphics). While these have done fairly well with viewers (and again feature some of the 2DTV team), I must admit that 2DTV is my favourite of the three and the only one that I think can compare with the impact that Spitting Image made.

The Comedy Vault – Men Behaving Badly.

Men Behaving Badly (ITV, 1992, BBC1, 1994-1999)

Men Behaving Badly was a sitcom that was written by Simon Nye. The show originally starred Martin Clunes (as Gary) and Harry Enfield (as Dermot) as two young flatmates who tried to get through life. Enfield had been a great success in sketch shows but looked a little more uncomfortable in a sitcom so he decided to leave after the first series, and he was replaced by Neil Morrissey (Tony) who along with Gary became the show’s best-known double act. Also appearing were Dorothy and Deborah who lived nearby. vlcsnap-01078

Gary works in an office alongside two very dull middle-aged colleagues which bores him greatly, so he often likes to spend his spare time partying with Tony, and they both have a rather laddish outlook on life. They could often be found in the local pub, and when they were at home, there was always a can of lager nearby. They also liked to flirt with the two ladies and just about any other woman they met but they often embarrassed themselves. Most episodes ended with Gary and Tony sat on their sofa in front of the TV thinking about what they had learned from what had happened to them in the episode (which wasn’t much). vlcsnap-01072

Men Behaving Badly got off to a fairly quiet start and its success almost didn’t happen. The first two series were shown on ITV in 1992 in a pre-9pm slot and they didn’t get a big response from viewers, so the show ended. A couple of years later, the production company thinking the characters still had potential decided to take the show to BBC1, where it returned for a third series in a post-9pm slot allowing for more bad behaviour from the men and it really began to make a big impact, and eventually it became one of the most successful British sitcoms of the 90s. vlcsnap-01074

Men Behaving Badly eventually ran for six series. It won many awards and also had a few Radio Times covers. Because of the popularity of the show, in 1998 they decided to bring it to an end by doing the same with what they did with Only Fools And Horses. When that show ended (for five years at least), there were three extra-length episodes shown in quick succession over Christmas which were a huge success. In the final trilogy of this show Deborah gave birth in the very last episode. vlcsnap-01071

Men Behaving Badly was released in the fairly early days of DVD, so unfortunately there aren’t that many extras included beyond a few funny out-takes that you have to press a few buttons to find. Another thing that I remember about Men Behaving Badly was that because it always did well in the ratings, some episodes (from around the series four or five point) seemed to be repeated frequently on BBC1 in the late-90s, but I always enjoyed watching them as they were among my favourite episodes and they are still really enjoyable now.

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 Comedy Vault – The Day Today.

The Day Today (BBC2, 1994)

This is a 90s comedy show that needs no introduction really. When I started my blog I planned to write about this show, but I left it because I felt that there really wasn’t anything more that I could add, so many people think that The Day Today is a classic and are familiar with the highlights, with every element of TV from travel reporters to music channel presenters expertly parodied, so I decided instead that rather than focusing on the six main editions, I’ll look at what the DVD extras contain and explain a little about what the show means to me.

The Day Today launched on the radio in 1991 as On The Hour, I didn’t hear it first time round, but I have enjoyed the repeat runs in more recent years on BBC7/BBC Radio 4 Extra. I’m not sure when I first saw The Day Today, probably in the mid-90s, but I remember seeing a trail when the show launched in 1994 which featured the opening sequence with the spinning worlds graphics which change again and again and the pompous music that goes on too long which I did find rather odd and definitely caught my attention. I also think that the show was repeated a few times on BBC2, and it also turned up on the great digital channel UK Play. vlcsnap-01032

So when a two-disc DVD set was released for the 10th anniversary of The Day Today I had no hesitation in buying it. As well as containing all six editions, the second disc featured lots of extras, including about 40 minutes worth of an unaired TV pilot from 1993. I really looked forward to this, just when I thought that I had seen everything, it was great to discover something new. One of my favourite moments has to be “Debate 2000”, where five people are in a room discussing every cultural event of the past millennium and its significance. vlcsnap-01035

I also enjoyed the Mini News, six segments about three minutes long that were shown as extended trails on BBC2 and are definitely up to standard. There are also extended versions of the documentaries The Pool and The Office. What’s good about these is that they sent up “docusoaps” where a camera was simply pointed at a group of people and they would all go on to be big stars and achieve huge ratings, about three years before the genre actually existed and dominated TV schedules. vlcsnap-01033

Although it is described on the menu as “Po-Faced Analysis”, one of the most interesting features is an Open University documentary from 1995 about “the language of news”, contained on the disc because it includes a behind the scenes look at The Day Today, including an interview with cast member Rebecca Front talking about how various accents and looks were chosen for the characters, such as her American reporter Barbara Wintergreen, and look at how some of the graphics were made for the show. What’s also interesting is a look at BBC News, this is good partly because at one point you can see Going For Gold on the TV behind them, and also because it gives an explanation of how words are used in news to communicate information with people (which The Day Today took to the extreme), and how the initial newsgathering process works. vlcsnap-01046

There are also some bonus features on the DVD, such as a newly-recorded interview with Chris Morris and Alan Partridge, which you have to press lots of various buttons to be able to access, and I also noticed on one edition that if you press a button there is some in-vision audio description which is provided by Andy Hodgson. Now he was a presenter on Bid-Up, a channel which I watched very regularly at the time as I thought he was a great presenter, and seeing him suddenly appear on the disc unexpectedly made me think that he was vaguely beginning to haunt me and gave me a huge fright (in a good way). And don’t forget the most important thing that we all learned from watching The Day Today: “Buttress is a significant word”. vlcsnap-01045