Archive for Top Ten

Top Ten: British Comedy #2 – Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace

Posted in Advertising & Television, Top Ten with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 11, 2014 by innothingwetrust

Darkplace

Simply put, everything about Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace is brilliant. It is one of the most lamentably under-rated shows to come from our fair shores, although the existence of a paltry 6 episodes does allow it to benefit from ‘Fawlty Towers syndrome’ – a very small body of very high quality material.

Part nod to and part-dismantling of eighties horror genres – Stephen King’s ‘oeuvre’ in particular – Darkplace masquerades as a re-run (it enjoyed a brief spell in Peru) of a chilling hospital-based television drama about ‘maverick’ doctor Rick Dagless M.D, his best buddy Dr. Lucien Sanchez, their ball-busting boss Thornton Reed (who, in turn, must answer to the mythical Wonton) and the team’s newest addition, psychic medium and woman, Liz Asher. After the opening of a portal to ‘another dimension’ in the first episode, Rick Dagless and his definitively archetypical supporting cast must battle against the forces of evil, curses, creeping moss, the Scottish, an anthropomorphised eyeball, apes, broccoli and the unpredictable nature of womanhood, as well as dealing with the burden of day-to-day admin.

On its surface, Darkplace is obviously and unashamedly ridiculous – as indeed is the entire point and crux of the comedy. But peeling back the layers, it really is very cleverly put together. The most ingenious ingredient is that all the actors play two characters, not just one. Co-creator Matt Holness plays Garth Marenghi, who in turn is the creator of the titular show-within-a-show and plays – within that show – Dr. Rick Dagless M.D. This is so that another clever device can be utilised which creates a whole extra level to the characterisation, namely the interviews with the cast members. These interviews are interspersed between the clips of the program, sending up the pomposity and self-sycophancy of tribute and ‘list’ shows of recent years. In them we get to peek at the motivations and personalities of the actors themselves, as well as those of the characters they portray. Just to watch Dr. Rick Dagless et al would be funny enough, but viewing his performance through the filter of Garth Marenghi’s burgeoning arrogance, smugness and self-righteousness which we gain through his interviews makes every single thing he does even funnier.

Likewise, the other co-creator and now household name Richard Ayoade plays Dean Learner, who in turn plays Thornton Reed. Running through his interviews is a very persistant but subtle hinting at an extremely dark side to Learner which is a fantastic addition to his character. As he regales us with stories of crew members mysteriously dying with an unnerving familiarity and coldness, it is a triumph of both the writing and Ayoade’s delivery that his complicity in these events is heavily implied without ever really saying it.

There are no interviews with Madeline Wool who plays Liz Asher (both played by the real-life Alice Lowe). In part, this fuels the overt and very deliberate sexism in the show (Liz Asher is only ever spoken about in terms of stereotypical femininity and her actions judged based on her ‘irrational, female nature’ – upon being hired by Rick, “Alright. I’ll pay you though. It’ll make it bona-fide and you could probably use the extra money for clothes and make-up”), again a caricaturisation of similar traits running throughout the television and attitudes of ‘yesteryear’. However, dark undercurrents once again emerge from Dean Learner when talking about her ‘sudden disappearance’ after filming (“Missing, presumed dead. Emphasis heavily on dead”).

And of course there is Matt Berry, the man with the voice of velvet who can say almost anything and make it sound amazing. He plays actor Todd Rivers, who plays Dr. Lucien Sanchez in Darkplace.

In addition to this, the constant lampooning of naff sound effects, clunky visuals, visible ‘invisible’ wires, bad over-dubbing, blatant exposition, laughable props, cheap costumes, poor gags and dreadful extras are executed with both scathing accuracy and affectionate nostalgia.

Darkplace is also notable for its cameos including Father Ted and I.T Crowd writer Graham Linehan, co-writer of The Office and Extras (both of which appear on this run-down) Stephen Merchant and The Mighty Boosh’s Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt. Barratt has a recurring cameo as the ‘Padre’ (or ‘vicar’ to you and me) and probably has the greatest ratio of quality lines of any character in this whole list. “You’ll know what to do. You’re the most sensitive man I know. And I know God“.

In the absence of a second series, the guys really pulled out the stops for the DVD release, which itself was a long time coming. The commentary to the episodes alone – all performed in character as Garth Marenghi, Dean Learner and Todd Rivers – is like gaining another 6 episodes for the hilarious back-stories and production yarns it throws up. There is also a full length version of Todd Rivers’ hit ‘One Track Lover’, as well as an extensive collection of other ‘Additionata’. Get it.

Each episode begins with a brilliant snippet from Garth Marenghi’s extensive canon of chillers, read poetically by Garth Marenghi himself adding in all the appropriate inflections and emphasis so that you can properly understand his work. I’ll leave you, traveller, with one of his finest. And I’ll let One Track Lover speak, sing and rap for itself.

Top Ten: British Comedy #3 – Spaced

Posted in Advertising & Television, Top Ten with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 27, 2013 by innothingwetrust

Spaced

My, my this top 3 was hard to place. It illustrates how much I love each of these shows how wrong it feels that Spaced, Simon Pegg and Jessica Hynes’s sitcom about an amiable bunch of twenty-somethings struggling to come to terms with adulthood, is only 3rd. I am sorry. In fact, I might tie all of these top 3 in 1st. No, that’s just wussing out…

Tim Bisley (Simon Pegg) and Daisy Steiner (Jessica Hynes) are two strange strangers brought together by the common interest of house-hunting in London. Lying about being a couple (the ad said ‘professional couple only’ thanks to an error by cameo performer Ricky Gervais), they manage to secure a flat in Meteor Street from their nosey new land lady, Marsha (Julia Deakin). Here they meet their new neighbour Brian (Mark Heap), a (probably) insane contemporary artist, whose favourite topics are… well, you know what they are. Just not watercolours. Throw into the mix Tim’s best friend Mike (Nick Frost), a military-minded, gun-toting, rough-rambling maniac (and fan of Eddie Murphy), Twist (Katy Carmichael), Daisy’s best friend and incorrigible fashion bitch, and Colin (Aida – may she rest inn peace), Daisy’s Miniature Schnauzer and part-time Elizabethan dancer and there you have it.

Pegg and Hynes have said numerous times that the characters in Spaced were based on real people and this is why they work so well together. Spaced is essentially, for anyone who grew up a geek in the 80s or 90s, a show about yourself and the weirdos you called your friends. Having been raised in an age of television, movies and the internet, people of this generation have pop culture indelibly imprinted on their everyday psyche, and this is another thing that the show captures brilliantly. At every given opportunity a pop-culture reference is thrown in to reflect how these familiar characters view the world. Star Wars, The Matrix, Fight Club, Jurassic Park, Pulp Fiction, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Shining, Scooby Doo, The Evil Dead – each reference is a joy to behold for anyone who recognises them and is weaved into the prose effortlessly. A show so clever it’s almost as if it’s… self aware…

And then of course there is the on-going ‘will they, won’t they?’ saga of Tim and Daisy which is executed with more care and genuine affection than I’ve seen in any other production.

Simon Pegg has since moved very much onto the big screen with Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz (certainly to my mind his third best film), Star Trek, Paul et al. Jessica Hynes has stuck mainly to television, although periodical forays into cinema have seen her pop up in Son of Rambow, Bridget Jones 2 and even providing a voice for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Neither, however, have ever reached the heights of the show which kick-started their careers back in 1999. It is an absolute classic and the referencing of other films, TV shows and games which are also classics will ensure that the comedy remains timeless. In short, I absolutely love everything about this show. I love it like a best friend, someone I can always rely on to make me feel better. Putting it on is like turning on my childhood. Or at least my teens. Well, maybe my early 20s…

Top Ten: British Comedy #4 – Fawlty Towers

Posted in Advertising & Television, Top Ten with tags , , , , , , , on April 30, 2012 by innothingwetrust

Fawlty Towers, like Only Fools and Horses, is a British classic. At the heart of all the mayhem is Basil Fawlty, the psychotic hotel manager from hell whose nose is put thoroughly out of joint by all around him including his trousers-wearing, shrill-voiced wife, Sybil. But what makes Basil such a brilliant character is that, like Larry David, the sheer scope of idiocy surrounding him means that you are nearly always on his side, fighting a losing battle against the petty, the pedantic and the precious (despite the fact that he does very little to help situations).

There is something extremely funny about watching someone being constantly annoyed and Cleese’s timing and delivery are perfect. The surrounding cast are also fawltless (I had to) from maid Polly (Connie Booth – co-writer with then husband John Cleese) to Basil’s long-suffering spouse Sybil (Prunella Scales) to Manuel, the poor Spanish-speaking waiter from Barcelona who bears the brunt of most of Basil’s incredulous rage (Andrew Sachs – whatever you do, don’t mention his granddaughter!).

In fact, the only bad thing about the series is that only a mere 12 episodes were ever made. Cleese and Booth believed it was better to stop writing when the show was at its peak so as to avoid weaker later material loweing the bar. As much as everyone would have loved to see more from the ‘English Riviera’ of Torquay, you can’t argue that the writers’ ploy has worked given the show’s now legendary cult status. It is a method copied by later writers such as Gervais and Merchant (The Office, Extras – both only 2 seasons) and Pegg and Stevenson/ Hynes (Spaced – only 2 seasons). Leave them wanting more. And we do.

Top Ten: British Comedy #5 – The Office

Posted in Advertising & Television, Top Ten with tags , , , , , on April 29, 2012 by innothingwetrust

It is easy these days – even popular – to dismiss The Office as low-brow quotable slapstick guff for the masses. This is down to a few factors. Firstly, everyone has seen it over and over and over again – particularly the ‘highlight’ reels: David Brent’s freestyle dancing or his many pseudo-philosophical pearls of nonsense business wisdom have been pinged around in emails, ‘memes’, greetings cards and bedroom wall posters ever since they were first aired. And secondly, whether or not you like The Office seems to be inextricably linked to whether or not you think Ricky Gervais is a comic genius or an arrogant, vulgar fat idiot. If you think he is the latter, and I can sympathise to an extent with those views, you will hate The Office, Extras, Life’s Too Short and anything else he has ever done. However, that would be very unfair. The argument that ‘David Brent is just Ricky Gervais’ is completely wrong if you’ve ever listened to him speak out of character, in his excellent podcasts with Stephen Merchant and Karl Pilkington, for instance.

The Office, like The League of Gentlemen, still stands as one of the most original comedies of all time. The realistic mockumentary had never really been done before in a sitcom (Spinal Tap famously having utilised the style in film), and it is a mark of the success of this formula that it has been copied many times since. What added to its popularity was the fact that so many of its viewers could relate to the characters and situations. I have only worked in an office myself for under 2 years, and even I can see elements of Wernham Hogg  in my workplace (and, for fear of sacking, I will not elaborate on that).

The standard of acting is also excellent and really brings this dull office in Slough to life. The premise for the program could have resulted in something more akin to When the Whistle Blows, the ‘wigs and catchphrases’ show-within-a-show from Extras, but the down to earth dialogue and its excellent subsequent delivery by the cast gives the characters 3 believable dimensions. Consequently, you feel such sympathy for them as they trudge through their mediocre, repetitive days with such good humour. The documentary style also allows the device of the private interview to give us both the personal and public views of each character which adds much depth to their motivations. The whole feel is much more believable as a result.

And on top of the intelligent narrative, the many threads of the story are perfect scenarios for comedy – Brent’s PC racism, his power-struggle with Neil, Gareth’s self-promotion and deluded ideas of his sex appeal, Tim and Dawn’s time-killing games to irritate Gareth, office weirdo Keith’s many items of advice – all are perfectly exploited to their comic limits. What makes these things so much funnier is that they are invariably so cringe-worthy that you can scarcely watch them for social awkwardness which means you are simultaneously laughing at the show and at yourself. And amid the hilarity are genuinely touching moments, largely involving Tim and Dawn’s love story but also with David Brent’s quest for acceptance among his friends and colleagues.

The Office is a perfect blend of excellently written comedy, an assault on your own ideas of social convention and a tug at the heartstrings. It garnered an incredible amount of critical acclaim and deservedly so. And I don’t care how many times you have seen it, the below clip is just brilliant. Even the nay-sayers couldn’t argue with that.

Top Ten: British Comedy #6 – The Day Today

Posted in Advertising & Television, Top Ten with tags , , , , , , , on April 19, 2012 by innothingwetrust

The Day Today is simply brilliant. For TV-sceptics like me it is such a joy to see all the naff techniques that program makers use to try and over-sensationalise  the mundane exposed and ridiculed to such a high and hilarious degree. The Day Today’s target is the less-than-humble News program, with this caricature led by anchor (and creator) Chris Morris and aided by his band of bumbling, exaggerated reporters.

From start to finish, the show pokes brilliantly observed fun at the methods used by News programs. The title music is stupendously dramatic and accompanied by cheap CGI images of world news matters before Morris delivers the headlines at the top of the show in an unnecessarily aggressive manner. Reporters appear on-the-spot at the scenes of news stories, whether it is helpful or relevant to the report or not. The latest technology is utilised wherever possible, including even missile nose-mounted cameras. Stories are often interrupted in order to announce something more important or up-to-the-minute. Throughout the program, segues pop up to reinforce the importance of News and The Day Today’s role in bringing it to the public. The seriousness of some of the correspondents gives off a sense that they in fact have no life outside of the news and the studio, alluded to at times such as Collaterlie Sisters ‘powering down’ after one finance report and Morris spread-eagling on the studio floor in some sort of inverted crucifixion hibernating position as the credits roll at the end of one episode. To combat this, handovers between Morris and other reporters are often overly informal, chatty and even flirtatious, usually resulting in an awkward silence or inappropriate comment. And at the end of the program, tomorrow’s newspaper headlines are brushed over with total abandon just to fill the remaining seconds. It is hilarious and so true when you have seen all of these things for real. I challenge you to watch this and then watch a general election night broadcast on the BBC without thinking of The Day Today.

Various reporters, all played brilliantly by Chris Morris, Steve Coogan, Doon Mackichan, Rebecca Front, David Schneider and Patrick Marber (whose only subsequent TV appearance of note, sadly, is Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge), deliver their specialist news category with a different exaggerated spin:

Collaterlie Sisters (Doon Mackichan) presents the International Money Markets updates utilising only incomprehensible financial jargon, a nonsensical ticker tape display scrolling across the bottom of the screen and meaningless graphics such as the Currency Cat, the Currency Kidney and the International Finance Arse. It is a brilliant depiction of what real global finance reports look like to someone who doesn’t know anything about finance.

Alan Partridge (Steve Coogan) also makes his first TV appearance as The Day Today’s Sports reader. His segments are treated with belittling disdain by Morris who frequently makes Alan look foolish or uncomfortable. Partridge himself clearly knows next to nothing about sport and subsequently his commentary and interviews are comic gold. Of particular note is his countdown to the 1994 Football World Cup which is so good I have linked it below. If only all sports commentary was like this.

Barbara Wintergreen (Rebecca Front), works for The Day Today’s sister program in the US, CBN News. The style of her reports makes fun of stereotypically ‘tacky’ American newscasts with over saturated camerawork, whimsical and inappropriate jokes and puns and usually center around a state execution. CBN’s overly light-hearted delivery of such dramatic subjects is a nice contrast to the overly stern treatment of everyday matters by The Day Today team.

But my favourite reporter is Patrick Marber’s Peter O’Hanraha-Hanrahan, the Economics correspondent whose fallacious facts and figures are about as transparent as his attempts to hide them. Unfortunately for him, he is always interviewed by Chris Morris who is ruthless in pointing out live on air that his reports are incredibly inaccurate, forcing him to humiliatingly admit to his errors. Chris’s constant probing turns on its head the blind trust of reporters which people seem to take as read – just because they are holding a sheet of paper, doesn’t mean there aren’t just doodles of cobwebs on them. In a one-off audio DVD easter egg, Peter O’Hanraha-Hanrahan manages to report that the international finance conference he was covering was all going to plan, despite the fact that it was due to be held at the World Trade Center in New York on September 11th 2001. Morris exposes his colleague who, it transpires, overslept in his hotel room and tried to lie. A brilliant character, a brilliant show.

And all of this is not mentioning the ludicrous mini-soap ‘The Bureau’, clips of which are inserted into the program sporadically. Not riffing on the News this time, The Bureau instead lambasts the melodrama of British soap operas. Set in a London Bureau de Change (with a theme tune remarkably similar to that of EastEnders), it follows the lives and loves of the shop’s employees who are overseen by a self-important slave driver of a boss, Mr. Hennerty (Coogan, who is absolutely brilliant). This show-within-a-show should have had its own full series.

An honourable mention must also go to Chris Morris’s subsequent program, Brasseye. Where The Day Today lampoons the News, Brasseye sends up more in-depth investigative programs such as Panorama, Horizon and Crimewatch. It is more of the same in a slightly different style with the notable addition of genuine celebrity endorsements of fictitious campaigns and slogans such as Phil Collins telling kids to use ‘Nonce-Sense’ and Richard Blackwood warning that internet paedophiles can send gases through your child’s keyboard to make them more ‘suggestible’ (a side-effect of which was that the child would ‘smell like hammers’).

I have no higher praise (except that which I reserve for the 5 shows higher than this in my list). There are too many great clips to choose just one from, so I have included 3 below. Such a good show. Enjoy:

Top Ten: British Comedy #7 – Extras

Posted in Advertising & Television, Top Ten with tags , , , , , , , on April 1, 2012 by innothingwetrust

It’s a real shame that Extras has to be so far down the list, but that says more about the quality of the shows above it than anything lacking from Merchant and Gervais’s follow-up to the ground-breaking series The Office. I have convinced myself on numerous occasions that Extras is in fact better than its predecessor, and in some ways it is, but I think that view is more down to the fact that The Office has since suffered from over-exposure whereas Extras still feels much fresher.

Extras centres around Andy Millman (Ricky Gervais), an actor struggling to find any work more fulfilling than walking through the background of a scene. This struggle is almost entirely down to his brilliantly incompetent agent, Darren (Stephen Merchant), who wastes most of his time in the office in lewd, adolescent pursuits such as spelling ‘BOOBS’ on a calculator (58008 upside-down in case you’re wondering) and even masturbating over a semi-pornographic ballpoint pen. The one thing he doesn’t do is find Andy any meaningful work, and the pathetic jobs does manage to secure for his client have universally hilarious consequences. Andy muddles through these situations with his best friend, the sweet and cheerful Maggie (Ashley Jensen).

Before even mentioning the plethora of world-famous guests they have managed to get on the show, one of the real stars of the series is Barry from EastEnders (Shaun Williamson) playing himself as Darren’s part-time client, part-time office help, part-time dry-cleaner and perennial tag-along. His inclusion is an absolute stroke of genius and his depressed-yet-hopeful, almost canine demeanour make him the butt of numerous very funny jokes. He pokes fun at himself at every opportunity and at how ridiculous but indelible a character Barry was (compounded by the fact that Darren only ever refers to him as ‘Barry’). He is painted as someone who has gone slightly off the rails since being written out of EastEnders, but the irony is that I don’t think anyone leaving the show has gone on to do anything approaching the quality of Extras.

And then there is the aforementioned plethora of world-famous guests playing morphed, reversed or caricatured versions of their public images. Everyone is brilliant: the bragging Ben Stiller, Ross Kemp and Vinnie Jones’s ‘hard man’ feud (in which we find out what SAS really stands for), the dirty-minded Kate Winslet’s desperate attempt to win an Oscar, Les Dennis’s mid-life crisis, Patrick Stewart’s adolescent film idea (in which he plays a James Bond character who can make women’s clothes fall off instantly), Orlando Bloom – who is not jealous of the attention Jonny Depp receives, David Bowie’s improvisation, Daniel Radcliffe’s teenage sexual advances, Chris Martin’s insincere charity appearances, Sir Ian McKellen revealing the key to good acting. Every episode is full of refreshingly non-egotistical parodies (although it must be said that showing publicly that you can poke fun at yourself is also kind of egotistical).

Moreover, whereas this could have just been an empty shell of a program to house A-list cameos to boost ratings (something alluded to in Chris Martin’s episode where he appears for no reason on Millman’s sitcom ‘When the Whistle Blows’), there is also a lot of substance in the storyline. Many of Merchant and (particularly) Gervais’s experiences with writing and acting are put into the script, and Millman’s attempts to write an original comedy which will stand the test of time without people meddling with the dynamics and direction reflect issues that the pair had when trying to bring The Office to the public.

Thankfully, when Extras was made, their previous body of work was of such a standard that they had no such problems and as a result the show is a triumph and a joy to watch.

Top Ten: British Comedy #9 – Only Fools and Horses

Posted in Advertising & Television, Top Ten with tags , , , , on March 19, 2012 by innothingwetrust

WHAT??? Only Fools and Horses NINTH??? The veritable British Institution of Del Boy and Rodney deemed only marginally better than The League of Gentlemen??? There are EIGHT shows rated higher???

Well, in a word, yes.

Only Fools and Horses was voted first in the national poll of British sitcoms that the BBC carried out a few years back and I agree with its more die-hard supporters that it is a fantastic show which has stood – and will continue to stand – the test of time. The reason for this is that it has a collection of brilliant and original core characters and a wealth of varied and hilarious storylines. The writing is excellent and David Jason has created one of the classic sitcom characters in Del Boy. It is also one of the most consistent comedies ever made with the ratio of good to poor episodes better than most of its contemporaries, which is a massive achievement given how many episodes were made.

The reason this doesn’t feature higher for me is that it is only funny. That might sound stupid, but the entries which I have placed higher all have something else as well, and I like my comedy to be dry, satirical, cynical and at heart perhaps even angry. I think the best comedy is in fact a reaction to something dissatisfying. That way the comedy is not simply for the sake of laughs, but is trying to make a point and expose something the writer feels passionate about. This element raises its host above mere social observation to something just a bit more special. Only Fools and Horses is a great show, but I see it as a member of an old guard paving the way for youngsters to build upon their foundations. For that, Del Boy, I salute you.

As I said, showing my tender years…

%d bloggers like this: