The Comedy Vault – Saturday Live/Friday Night Live.

Saturday Live (Channel 4, 1985-1987)/Friday Night Live (Channel 4, 1988)

This is a show that is regarded to be one of the most important of its era, as it helped to establish the “alternative comedy” scene, and was proof that they were here to stay on TV. Saturday Live (later Friday Night Live) featured lots of comedians from this country and abroad performing sketches and stand-up, including some regulars, as well as performances by music groups, all shown live in a primetime slot, and attracting a young audience.

A while ago, Network released some compilations of the comedy highlights (unfortunately an episode-by-episode boxset probably isn’t possible because of the amount of musical content). They also released a compilation of sketches and stand-up from some of the most popular regulars, and as this is the DVD that I have in my collection, I’ll concentrate on them.

First of all, there were Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. This was about four or five years on from Alfresco, which gave them some of their earliest TV exposure. And once again, just like with that show, this was like discovering yet another bonus series of A Bit Of Fry And Laurie (they really did put the work in during this time, also appearing in lots of adverts together). Their sketch style was now established, and watching them do their thing was very enjoyable. Some special guests occasionally joined them too.

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There was also Harry Enfield, who started out as a little-known comedian, but by the end of the series, he had become rather popular. He became known for his sketches as two characters. First was Stavros, a friendly Greek kebab shop owner who had a dubious grip on the English language. He was based on a kebab shop owner who Enfield and Paul Whitehouse knew when they lived in Hackney (he would sometimes reference “the Bethnal Green Road” which was nice!).

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And there was Loadsamoney, a plasterer who was always boasting about how much he earned in his job, definitely thinking that greed was good. He became popular enough for there to be a comedy single released that made the Top Ten in 1988. The remarkable thing about this is that Enfield stopped playing these characters at the peak of their popularity, deciding that they had run their course, and they didn’t even feature in his sketch show that launched on BBC2 in 1990.

And there was Ben Elton. Better known at the time as a writer, he performed stand-up in a quick-talking style and became the main host of the show. He liked to rant against the politicians of the time, or just about anybody else in the news. He did take part in a sketch or two with Fry and Laurie though (including recycling one from Alfresco). He also went on to his own comedy series in 1990. After this, he went on to write novels, musicals, and more acclaimed sitcoms (and The Wright Way).

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About a decade later, ITV decided to revive Saturday Live (and there was another revival about a decade after this one). There were some highlights, including having Harry Hill as a regular guest doing his rather strange comedy thing, but this didn’t make as much of an impact with viewers, mostly because unlike at the time of the original version, this style of comedy was now regularly on TV.

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.