Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Some underwhelming Christmas comedy... and a little gem

(written for The British Comedy Guide)

If you're anything like me, Christmas isn't just food, drink and family - it's also poring over the Radio Times double issue, geekily circling all the comedy specials and getting your hopes dangerously high. And with Victoria Wood, The Royle Family, Catherine Tate and Outnumbered all getting a festive outings this year, the red pen certainly got a good workout.

Victoria Wood's first new sketch show for nine years led the way on Christmas Eve - not the big day, allegedly much to Wood's chagrin - and, if anything, it was the programme I had been most looking forward to. I'd laughed my way through the 90 minute documentary which rightly celebrated her the week before, and the repeat of the 2000 special had reminded me just how brilliant and uniquely gifted she is. How disappointing then, to find myself struggling to raise a smile during her 'Mid-Life Christmas'...

There's no doubting that Wood can concoct the most sublimely ridiculous turn of phrase for her characters, and that was still in evidence here, but several of the sketches misfired completely. The 'have you been injured in an accident?' parody was a good few years out of date, there was too much of Bo Beaumont and I still can't quite make up my mind about the updated 'Let's Do It' - I adore the original, of course, but did its inclusion suggest a lack of new ideas...?

The Royle Family.Perhaps another wonderful female, northern comedy writer would live up to expectations. Caroline Aherne's The Royle Family got the prime Christmas Day slot, and for the first half hour that was completely warranted. Reclining contentedly in their usual positions on the sofa, Jim, Barbara et al provided us with the sort of warm, naturalistic humour that has rightly brought the programme 'classic' status. But when the action moved to a rainy caravan park in Prestatyn, these usually endearing characters began to grate, and I eventually found myself more interested in tea and Twitter than their incessant squabbling. So far, so so-so then.

Catherine Tate's Christmas Carol parody wasn't all that bad, I suppose - there were a couple of nice cameos from Ben Miller and the ubiquitous (not that I'm complaining) David Tennant - but it was essentially panto. Plus, I suspect I viewed it less harshly than Wood and Aherne's offerings because I came to it with rather less reverence for her previous comedy work...

Outnumbered. Image shows from L to R: Ben (Daniel Roche), Jake (Tyger Drew-Honey), Sue (Claire Skinner), Karen (Ramona Marquez), Pete (Hugh Dennis). Image credit: Hat Trick Productions.Thank goodness, then, for the chaotic charm of the Brockman household; thanks to some predictably brilliant performances from adults and kids alike, Outnumbered was Christmas 09's comedy highlight. You could take your pick of favourite moments: Ben's announcement that Osama Bin Laden is 'cool', perhaps, or Karen's questioning of Grandad's very Scottish friend Mac ("it's not that I want you to talk like me... just why don't you?"). It's warm, it's truthful, it's intelligent and it's unique - all of those British Comedy Awards were utterly deserved.

Luckily, away from the new programming there were a couple of other gems made for comedy anoraks just like us. The Story of Slapstick did more than it said on the tin and charted the history of physical humour as a whole, thus providing a magnificent hour's worth of people getting hit over the head with a frying pan, from Buster Keaton to Vic and Bob. And meanwhile, the raucous, satirical sketch show Not The Nine O'Clock News got the documentary treatment, reminding viewers just how outrageously brilliant Rowan Atkinson is, if nothing else.

Not a classic comedy Christmas then, but then I'm too busy checking out Chaplin and Not The Nine O'Clock News DVDs on Amazon to care...

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One comedy that I didn't mention - simply because it didn't quite 'fit' - but which provided me and all the Lowmans with rather more laughs than Ms Wood and all the Royles combined, was A Child's Christmases In Wales. Hidden away on BBC Four (until a repeat on BBC Two being aired as I speak), the hour long family comedy is based on a Dylan Thomas short story and written by none other than Mr Mark Watson. That all bode pretty well of course, but this time expectations were met - completely charming and stuffed full of great lines and performances. Snuggle up with a cuppa, and have a watch.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Doctor Who - The End Of Time Part I

Merry Christmas all you lovely people! Telly-wise it's all gone a bit sketch show (hit and miss) but I'll be good and save the round-up for a British Comedy Guide blog (I'll cross-post here, though anyone following me on Twitter will have got the general gist of my opinions on Ms Wood and the like, I think...!)

A very quick note on Doctor Who is required of course, though - the jewel in the Beeb's Christmas crown which has been complemented by appearences from DT on every show he can be shoe-horned into. Not that I'm complaining... The End Of Time Part I appeared to split Twitter down the middle - the initial reaction being of a 'well that was predictably disappointing, bah humbug' nature, while the supporters took a little more time to be brave and whisper 'yeah... but... that scene in the cafe!'

And here lies the dividing line, of course. What do you care about more; plot and sci-fi or character and performance? RTD pretends to care about the former but when it comes down to it, he couldn't give a monkeys and some viewers, understandably, have been consistently frustrated about those priorities. They don't want to see the Doctor crying about the fact that he's going to die soon and even if it was one of the most heartbreaking scenes nu-Who has produced, that doesn't mean they have to like it.

Lucky for me then, that my priorities happen to tally with RTD's. I share his love of putting emotions and relationships at the core of everything. I also share his love of the ridiculous - my knee-jerk reaction to seeing a million John Simms in dressing gowns, pencil skirts and the White House is to squeal with delight at the audacity of the whole thing, not to say 'here we go, now he's ripping off the Matrix, how LAME.' And so RTD dupes me everytime; tricks me into raving about something that is flawed because the elements that are flawed just don't matter to me as much as those which I think most people would agree RTD does very well.

As for this final DT story, you do have to wonder how all the guest stars are going to be crammed into the second part. And isn't there the whole first proper meeting between this Doctor and River Song to come? And the return of the Time Lords, DoctorDonna, and y'know, a regeneration? There's a lot to get through... and I can't wait.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Comedy and Karaoke

Another super-quick comedy catch up so that I can remember what I’ve been up to and remind myself how bloody lucky I am – these gigs are not only top class, but at most around a third of the price of what you’d pay for bands or musicians of a similar calibre. Comedy really is the value-for-money night out.

On my birthday (the 17th, when I also splashed out on those Hamlet tickets) I went to the Falling Down With Laughter night which is very well established but which I’ve never ventured to before – and it ended up being one of the best mixed bills I’ve ever been to. Headlined by Mr Key, the night is MC’d by Alexis Dubus’ French character Marcel Lucont – and it really shouldn’t work. Comperes are normally big and over the top to get the audience going, but Marcel is typically Gallic; laid-back, softly spoken and forever with a glass of red in his hand. And yet, he’s somehow perfect, and he introduced a pretty stellar evening which included several sketch groups, the character comedian Pippa Evans, ivory-tinkler extraordinaire James Sherwood as well as Tim. Nice going.

Since then I’ve seen Mark Watson continue to hone his great new material for a mammoth tour next autumn, Ben Miller and Alexander Armstrong try out sketches for their third series (going to be a good’un), Key launch his book, and David O’Doherty. Twice... oh but he’s just so damn good. He does a song about the fact that ‘everything’s not shit’. It’s beautiful.

And then there was Christmas Karaoke Circus on Thursday; just as wonderful and life-affirming as ever, but with added festival magic in the rather brilliant Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club. Moving back to a larger venue meant that the brave performers were once again backed by the Mystery Fax Machine Orchestra as in the 100 Club, allowing for full-on renditions of Mr Blue Sky (heaven!), Blur’s The Universal and Bohemian Rhapsody, as well as plenty of Christmas classics, of course. All the regulars were there: Pappy’s (they’ve dropped the Fun Club) did Slade; the Penny Dreadfuls channelled the Boss, and dream team Chris Addison and Jess Hynes became Shane and Kirsty for Fairytale of New York. The highlight though, came from Ben Miller and Tony Gardner (he of Lead Balloon and My Parents Are Aliens, AKA one of the best kids’ shows ever). Ben stayed with Bowie, while Tony joined him on stage - avec pipe - to perform Little Drummer Boy. Hilariously, they did the whole spoken bit at the beginning of the video, and points must be given to Tony for not corpsing, which is more than can be said for Ben... all in all, a pretty excellent way to kickstart the countdown to Christmas.

Stephen and the Sexy Partridge, Trafalgar Studios

When you’ve got a surreal, knockabout live comedy show to direct, Cal McCrystal is certainly your man. Paul King may have received plaudits for his direction of the Mighty Boosh television series, but it was McCrystal who first got those unique comic minds Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt together on stage, so who better to bring a human-sized partridge superhero from outer-space to the West End?

This is the ‘Sexy Partridge’ of the title, who is commissioned by the intergalactic and much revered great Pear to fly around the universe saving poor souls who are in need of some festive help. That’s where the ‘Stephen’ of the title comes in; when we meet Stephen at the start of the show, his girlfriend Chanel is on the verge of splitting up with him because he is stupid, narrow-minded, sex-pesty, hates dancing - and precisely seven other problems.

And so, on Christmas Eve, just as Stephen is feeling particularly un-Christmassy in the Westfield shopping centre while looking for a present that will rescue his relationship, the Partridge appears before him, in the hope of helping him solve these eleven problems (plus one Partridge makes twelve days of Christmas of course). On his increasingly odd journey to self-discovery, Stephen meets four calling birds with whom he manages not to be sex-pesty, six geeks a-playing a version of The Weakest Link in which he proves himself to be not so stupid after-all, and seven male swans a-swimming (Partridge takes him to see the Matthew Bourne Swan Lake) who teach him that dancing can be cool.

Stephen’s various trials and minor triumphs are punctuated by songs, usually loosely based on a pop track; everything from the Beatles (“I am the Partridge, coo-coo-cachoo”) to a brilliantly wittys version of Beyonce’s Single Ladies, via a Somerset rendition of Kelis’s Milkshake – sung by Daisy the cow for eight maids a-milking, of course. The songs are certainly highlights, and are really enhanced by some funny choreography, but the show could probably do with a few more to further break up the often breakneck speed at which Stephen and the Partridge race through the various verses.

The deliberately dodgy sets, props and costumes mean that there’s a nice handmade feeling to this production, with which fans of the Mighty Boosh will be very familiar, but that controlled shambolicness did jar somewhat with the rather conventional Trafalgar Studios venue.

Stephen and the Sexy Partridge started life in the tiny Old Red Lion theatre, and while it sounds like an insult to say that it might have been better if it had stayed there, one does get the feeling that it might have been more fun. The show lends itself to – and I think would benefit from – more interaction with the audience, and more improvisation from what is clearly a naturally funny cast, but that sort of informality and intimacy is difficult to reproduce in a theatre. This may be a rather slight production, but it is nevertheless warm and genuinely unusual, and a nice alternative to the more traditional ‘oh yes it is’ festive offerings.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

A bit more exciting news...

...my column on The British Comedy Guide has just launched! Bit odd seeing my face up there, but very lovely to have a place to put all my comedy musings - big thanks to Mark for asking me to write for the site. So far there's an introduction to me and my comic preferences, and a review of Tim Key's new book, and its brilliantly odd launch...