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 – Goodnight Sweetheart.

Goodnight Sweetheart (BBC1, 1993-1999)

Goodnight Sweetheart was a long-running and popular sitcom created by Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, who were also behind such memorable shows as The New Statesman and Birds Of A Feather. They also wrote the earliest episodes before other writers took over, and every episode was named after a popular wartime song. Although it was a mainstream show it did have a streak of weirdness to it.

Gary Sparrow (played by Nicholas Lyndhurst) is an ordinary TV repair man who has become bored with his job and his marriage to Yvonne. They live in Cricklewood (along with Spatz and Mike & Angelo, this is the third sitcom that I have written about that is set in Cricklewood!) and In the first episode he gets lost while trying to find an address. vlcsnap-00393

Gary walks down a place called Ducketts Passage in Whitechapel and suddenly all is not what it seems. He enters a pub called The Royal Oak and realises that something rather strange has happened. It appears that he can travel through time has ended up in the year 1940 in the Blitz. Gary doesn’t realise this at first of course and I’ve always liked the look on his face when the penny drops and he realises the situation. vlcsnap-00395

Gary meets a young barmaid called Phoebe and instantly falls in love with her. Phoebe was at first played by Dervla Kirwan who is actually Irish but her cockney accent was very impressive (and I feel qualified to know how well people can do cockney accents considering I am one myself). Gary also meets her father Eric and the rather dozy local policeman Reg. vlcsnap-00396

Once Gary realises he can travel back and forth through time his life becomes much livelier but also rather more complicated. Yvonne is increasingly unconvinced by Gary’s explanations for his absences and realises he is up to something. He feels that he can only tell the truth to his friend Ron who runs his own printing business. Gary asks Ron to print documents for him so he can walk around wartime London without suspicion. vlcsnap-00392

Gary also buys some old clothes so he can fit in more with the time but the Royal Oak regulars still think that there is something a little out-of-place about him. Of course he already knows what will happen in the war and he has to be wary not to bring things like mobile phones with him which are clearly decades ahead of their time. He also likes to entertain them with songs from the future which he claims he wrote himself. vlcsnap-00399

As the series and the war progresses there are several plots including Gary wondering if Phoebe is still alive in the present day, opening his own memorabilia shop with all the wartime items he has collected and Yvonne going on to be a successful businesswoman. Eventually Gary married Phoebe meaning he is in the rather awkward situation of being a time-travelling bigamist. Well we’ve all been there haven’t we.vlcsnap-00398

The time travel idea was also played around with in later episodes with odd things happening such as Phoebe visiting Gary in the present and meeting Yvonne, Ron being able to go back in time with Gary, a time traveller from the future turning up, and Gary and Phoebe befriending Noel Coward. vlcsnap-00400

The two main actresses in the show also changed at the start of series 4 but it didn’t hurt the ratings which remained very good throughout the run. The show ended on a sad note when World War 2 finished in 1945 and the situation was resolved with the time portal suddenly closing and Gary being stranded. vlcsnap-00397

After not thinking about the show for a while I watched a repeat run on ITV3 a few years back and because I enjoyed seeing it again I bought the DVD boxset. The reasons I like the show include the odd idea of time travel that was interestingly played around with, some funny moments and good performances from the cast including of course the dependable Nicholas Lyndhurst, and the idea that the wartime scenes were being played out very close to where I was born and live made it all the more involving. I have actually walked down the same street that Gary does when he enters the past.