Preview: Harry Hill in Professor Branestawm Returns

December 24, 2015 by  
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After last year’s well-received one-off, Harry Hill returns this Christmas Eve for another outing as eccentric inventor Professor Branestawm. This time round, there’s a rival on the scene, in the form of Steve Pemberton’s villainous Professor Algebrain, and Branestawm must defeat him in an inventing competition to win a cash prize and settle his spiralling debts.

It is fair to say that this will be a pretty Marmite affair, dependent very much on whether you find Hill’s brand of inoffensive, zany, slapstick-silliness funny, or a total turn-off. I’ve long been a fan, and so was pleasantly surprised, watching it on iPlayer on about the sixth of January last year – more out of a sense of loyalty than anything else –to find it actually very funny.

Even if you are a Harry Hill fan, there’s still a veritable roll-call of overexposed stars of BBC light-entertainment – David Mitchell, Simon Day, Bob Mortimer, Vicki Pepperdine, Charlie Higson, to name a few, so you might be forgiven if, with Doctor Who, Strictly, Sherlock, QI, Call The Midwife et al looming on the horizon, you decide to forego yet another hour of safe BBC Christmas cosiness.

Still, it’s worth a watch, with more bonkers inventions, wacky characters and charmingly low-budget effects – a scene where the Professor’s myriad unpaid bills all come to life is wonderfully cheap and naff looking.

Madeline Holliday is back as the Prof’s gifted young sidekick, and handles her role with assurance, as she battles to try and get Branestawm to remember that she exists.

Ultimately, you know what you’re getting with this sort of thing, so tune in at your discretion. If for some reason you’re unsure, try the following joke for size:

Professor, we’ve really got to knock the judges’ socks off!’

‘Aha, then I’ve just the thing! What do you think?’

 ‘What is it?’

‘It’s a machine for knocking people’s socks off!’

Cue said machine promptly punching the Professor in the face, knocking him to the floor and causing his socks to fly off. If you find such wilfully silly humour amusing, chances are you’ll enjoy Professor Branestawm Returns. If not, well then you’re in luck. They’re showing Scrooge on Channel Five…

Harry Hill in Professor Branestawm Returns airs at 17.20 on Christmas Eve.

We’re Doomed! The Dad’s Army Story

December 22, 2015 by  
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As a big Dad’s Army fan I was looking forward to seeing the dramatisation of the making of the original series. I am certainly looking forward to it more than certain film adaptations coming up next year.

I was slightly worried however when at the start of the programme it says that some of the scenes had been imagined, although it is a fact-based drama. However, once you actually start watching it you realise that the imagined parts are affectionate, often referencing Dad’s Army or other works by the original writers Jimmy Perry and David Croft, played by Paul Ritter and Richard Dormer.

The drama begins with Perry a struggling actor and Croft not getting enough respect as a BBC director. Perry decides to write a sitcom script based on his own time in the Home Guard, originally titled The Fighting Tigers, and plans to play the part of spiv Private Walker. Croft likes the script, although decides that Perry needs a co-writer, namely Croft himself. Together they make the script as good as it can be, but their main problem is dealing with senior BBC staff, in particular head of BBC One Paul Fox (Keith Allen).

With casting seemingly the key to making the show work, the story moves to finding the right actors, although the BBC we at first hesitant in casting Arthur Lowe (John Sessions) because he was then with ITV. After the Beeb’s first choice of actors turn the role down, Lowe gets the part (despite insulting Croft) and soon the project begins to come together as the rest of the cast appear. However, there is still a lot of conflict going on, with Lowe not remembering his lines, Perry’s anger at not being the part of Walker with the role instead going to James Beck (Kevin Bishop), and a battle about whether or not the opening titles should feature actual war footage.

This show makes for very likeable viewing. Firstly there is story it tells, especially with all the conflicts between the crew and BBC management. The debate about the title sequence is one of the best moments, partly because Perry and Croft’s wish to use actual war footage rather than the animated credits we now know was one in which Perry and Croft were probably in the wrong. One scene features Perry examining the footage when John Laurie (Ralph Riach) enters the room and find the idea distasteful. Another sees Croft fly into a rage at the BBC’s insistence that the titles should be changed. A third sees the original war-footage being played to a studio audience, and makes for really uncomfortable viewing as Nazi soldiers march as the credits appear on screen.

But the best moment of all is when Perry records Bud Flanagan (Roy Hudd) singing “Who Do You Think You Are Kidding Mr. Hitler?” in which Perry cries as he watches Flanagan perform. It is the most poignant moment during the entire programme because it is at that point that you feel like Perry – it is that nostalgic memory that brings back so many great memories: for Perry the joy of hearing one of his heroes perform a song that he himself wrote; for us, it is hearing the theme tune to what is one of the greatest comedies ever made.

There are other enjoyable moments too, namely those ones where you can clearly tell that the writer Stephen Russell has developed his own imagined scenes referencing the show. For example through the programme Lowe talks about his beloved wife Joan – but like with Captain Mainwaring’s wife Elizabeth, you never actually see her. Then there is the moment when Perry and Croft mention that they both worked at Butlin’s, leading to a quick reference to Hi-de-Hi!, another of their sitcoms.

On top of this are the more sensitive moments, the best of which seems to be when Perry is talking to Arnold Ridley (Michael Cochrane), both when we learn about the terrible bayonet injury he got during World War I, and when Ridley warns Perry to never sell the rights like Ridley did to his plays.

The acting is great, especially from John Sessions as a very believable Arthur Lowe. Aside from the main Dad’s Army cast members already mentioned, credit should also be made to Julian Sands as John Le Mesurier, Mark Heap as Clive Dunn, Kieran Hodgson as Ian Lavender and Shane Richie as Bill Pertwee.

The only down points of We’re Doomed! are the short length of the episode (it might have been better if it were 90 minutes like many other BBC comic biopics) and at times it is slightly hard to fathom where reality and fiction mix. Other than that though, it is delightful.

We’re Doomed! The Dad’s Army Story is available on the BBC iPlayer.

QI: Series M, Episode 8 – Merriment

December 20, 2015 by  
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It is panto season on QI this week as it is their Christmas special (recorded in June). For some reason this week the XL version was put out before the regular one, but personally I don’t see the point in the regular one anyway as the XL version is what people really want. We want to see the whole thing, not edited highlights.

This time joining Stephen Fry and Alan Davies where Bill Bailey (with keyboard), Jenny Eclair (with rage) and Johnny Vegas (with a growing sense of worry over his fragile mental state), as they talked about the big problem with Victorian theatres, the most annoying thing you can do during silent movies, listen to some music made for cats, and try to make their own songs for the genuine industrial musical The Bathrooms Are Coming.

In this episode the most interesting things seems to be about the show itself and the two regulars. We come across a Christmas card depicting a 1916 pantomime which features an actor who looks exactly like Alan; there was technical problems when a light bulb exploded during the recording; we learn that every single episode of QI has a hidden message in it (which without giving too much away they may have to change next year); and Stephen performs a magic trick, which in turns result in Stephen himself getting something very magical indeed.

All the guests panellists played their part, but Johnny Vegas especially was on top, if disturbing form, worrying about if cats only meow to people, and getting into an argument with Jenny over ice cream. Bill was also good performing some musical turns and writing a new QI jingle.

One of the best episodes of QI I can remember for a while.

The standard version of this episode goes out on Christmas Day at 21.50 on BBC Two. The next episode goes out on 29th December at 22.00.

Toast of London: Series 3, Episode 5 – Man of Sex

December 17, 2015 by  
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This week featured a character with pervasive Spanish guitar theme music, a Doctor of Drums, and a cyclical alcoholic.

The drum doctor was particularly enjoyable. It’s so arbitrary it could have been something someone accidentally said at a pub one time and now it’s a character in a TV show: ‘Can you actually be a Doctor of Drums?’

Ray Purchase has his role ‘expanded’ to a degree, providing excellent ‘Newman!’ moments with Toast.

In a similar vein to the episode about beauty pageants, this episode of TOL could be making a statement about the deceptive and destructive nature of alcoholism but it could also just be funny.

The song interlude this time wasn’t too intrusive, which was nice, but didn’t seem to add anything helpful to the plot either.

This episode is firing on all cylinders, some rectangular prisms, and a rhombus; reaching ‘house falling down around them’ heights of hilarity.

I’m giving it 4 toad-shoes, an egg painting, and 3 diamond ears.

The finale of Toast of London is on 23rd December on Channel 4 at the earlier time of 22.00.

Josh: Episode 6 – Suited & Booted

December 16, 2015 by  
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It has to be said that personally the final episode of Josh Widdicombe’s sitcom was not the greatest of the bunch, not so much for a lack of comedic material, but more for what is worn on screen.

In the finale Josh is preparing for his birthday which he plans to so by celebrating it himself, ideally in a way which neither of his flatmates Owen and Kate (Elis James and Beattie Edmondson) can interfere with. His plans however are influenced by his encounter with another resident of the flat, charitable Lucy (Claudia Jessie), who Josh is keen to try and pull, but Kate sees as a “goody too shoes”.

Josh therefore plans to hold a party so Lucy can come over, however his party plans are ruined by Kate and Owen trying to make the party something they would want to go do as opposed to something Josh would like: thus the party ends up being fancy-dress, which Josh hates, Kate issues strict rules banning sexy costumes, and landlord Geoff (Jack Dee) ends up coming to party too – losing his apple costume in the process.

While there are good moments from both the main cast and the guest performers, for example Edmondson as Kate dressing up as a pint of Guinness in an attempt to proof to an ex-boyfriend that she is not bitter, there is one big sticking point, which is Josh’s outfit. For the party Josh goes dressed as a Native American, complete with headdress. This does give raise to one recurring gag, as Owen is dressed as an American cop and thus Josh is worried that people will mistakenly think they have both come dressed as the Village People.

However, there is a problem with this outfit that we in Britain are not really aware of, but speaking as someone who is in a long-distance relationship with someone in USA, I happen to know that Native American fancy dress outfits, especially ones with the headdress, are increasingly considered offence and to some even racist. This is because the headdress is considered a great symbol, given to members of the tribe who have earned the greatest respect, whether it be political or military. As a result, for a white person to go around to a fancy dress party dress like a Native American, complete with headdress, is seen by an increasing number of people as being really offensive because it makes light of the brave acts committed by Native Americans. It’s a bit like taking the piss out of the Victoria Cross.

Now I should point out that I believe that Widdicombe has done this without knowing any of the implications, because as I said this is something that most people in Britain are not really aware off. What I am saying is that if Josh were to ever make it stateside this episode is going to have to undergo a major re-write. I do not want to make this a big thing, but it is something that made me feel uncomfortable when watching it.

As for the sitcom as a whole, it has done alright. The series has tended to get better as it went along, with the exception of this finale. I suspect that it probably won’t be given a second series due to the poor start possibly putting people off, but it were to come back it will be worth seeing just to see Jack Dee’s great performance as Geoff.

EDIT: Shortly after this article was posted it was confirmed that Josh actually had been given a second series, which will debut on the BBC iPlayer following the news that BBC Three will become digital only. As a result, we will get to see more after all.

Josh can be purchased as a digital download from the BBC Store and the Amazon Video.

Peep Show: Series 9, Episode 6 – Are We Going To Be Alright?

December 16, 2015 by  
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And so, the finest British comedy of recent times reaches its grand finale.

It’s Jeremy’s 40th birthday, and he is concerned that he can no longer keep up with Joe – the drink, drugs and long nights are taking their toll on him. He’s resorting to ever more extreme measures to stay fit and youthful – sprout sandwiches and drinking from ‘the golden fountain’. Mark’s disgust at Jeremy keeping said drink in a glass in the fridge, and casually sipping it along with his meal is hilarious, and classically Corrigan.

Mark decides to make one last desperate play for April, who has been ignoring his calls. He tracks her down to the travel agency, where she and Angus are booking tickets for a three-month cruise. Can he win her over before she sets off into the sunset? Well, initially it seems he can, after Angus sends some bizarre text messages – but not all is as it seems….

In truth, it’s not a classic episode – there weren’t any truly stand-out lines or scenes, but it’s a good solid 25 minutes, and the story arcs of the season are closed out nicely.

There’s even a brief cameo for Neil Fitzmaurice’s Jeff, a truly brilliant character and performance – his role was pared down after JLB Credit closed down in series six, but in the early series he was pivotal in all of Mark’s lowest moments – so it’s nice to see him given a fitting send-off, as he takes Mark’s job at the bank.

Without wishing to give anything away, the end of the episode is very predictably Peep Show, with both characters in more or less the same situation they were 12 years ago in the first ever episode. Wishful thinking maybe, but there’s nothing that would prevent them coming back for a few episodes more – writers Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong have suggested that perhaps they’d like to revisit the pair in another 10 years, so let’s hope that this won’t be the absolute last we’ll ever see of the pair.

But for now, just enjoy our final outing in the company of two of the finest characters in British comedy history, Mark Corrigan and Jeremy Usbourne.

There have been laughs, there have been tears, there have been snakes, men with ven, three weddings, two funerals, a baby, and, of course, a dead dog in a bin.

The world of British comedy will be that much the poorer without them.

Peep Show series nine, as well as the complete Series 1-9 box set, will be released on DVD on Boxing Day.

Jekyll & Hyde: Episode 7 – The Reaper

December 14, 2015 by  
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Another week, another episode floundering for purchase on the escarpment of compelling television.

This episode is tolerable in that it’s much like the previous one. But it feels lazy stretching the same plot over two episodes and only bothering to conclude it on the second occasion.

It’s also worrying when one of the minor secondary plots is the most compelling aspect of a show, rather than the overarching narrative structure of the series.

It’s nice to see Richard E Grant’s character come into his own as a somewhat witty civil servant who likes to throw his weight around.

If the series can learn from the last two episodes (assuming it’s renewed for a second series) then there might be hope for it but even then it would only be mildly distracting; it doesn’t even seem like they were aiming for greatness with this show. But rather just something strange to fill out the schedule.

The next episode of Jekyll & Hyde is broadcast at 18.30 on Sunday on ITV.

QI: Series M, Episode 7 – Middle Muddle

December 13, 2015 by  
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This week’s QI was one of the “general episodes” with no central theme, the closest being to the fact that this was the middle show of the middle series, given that QI is ordered alphabetically

This week’s guests were Jimmy Carr, Aisling Bea and Danny Bhoy, who along with Alan Davies answered Stephen Fry’s questions on the mid-life crisis, medical matters, medieval history, Midsummer and mobile phones. This was more of an interesting episode than a funny one, and there several topics that were mention that I personally had always been curious about, such as what colour mirrors actually are. There were also other nice bits such as The New York Times’s obsession with predicting that monocles are coming back into fashion and what non-English speaking people say when they have their photographs taken.

There were still some very amusing bits too, quite a lot of it coming from the buzzers, which in this episode featured a child singing nursery rhymes in a way that Carr thought sounded like something of a horror film. Carr was on good form, especially when given his own monocle to wear which result in him being compared to looking like a ventriloquist’s doll, in particularly Lord Charles.

Bhoy was also good, making his debut appearance. The Scotsman had some digs at the English football team and their easy group draws, while also making some rather disturbing remarks regarding short-sighted singers John Lennon and Buddy Holly. Very funny, but at the same time ever so slightly wrong.

A good episode, mixing some good comedy with great info.

The next QI is an XL debut of the Christmas special, on at 22.20 on BBC Two on 19th December.

Toast of London: Series 3, Episode 4 – Bob a Job

December 10, 2015 by  
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An impressive episode of TOL. Very ‘stream on consciousness’ writing, classic loosely connected plot, and featuring a live performance of the usual musical interlude. Episode 4 also adds a little more clarity to the Ray Purchase and Stephen Toast feud.

It’s great to see the character of Ed (Toast’s house-mate) getting some more development and screen-time; he’s almost as uniquely strange as Toast himself. Whole scenes are often devoted to fleshing out a single minor detail of Ed’s sordid interest portfolio.

Although I didn’t feel the same glow of genius wash over me during this episode as I did when Toast’s apartment was caving-in on him in a prior instalment, it’s still an excellent evolution of this absurd comedy experiment that’s somehow still going.

I’m giving this episode 3 band-aids, a rain coat, and 2 Bill Murrays.

Josh: Episode 5 – Homme & Away

December 9, 2015 by  
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This episode of Josh Widdicombe’s sitcom certain had the best opening scene of them all so far, with Jack Dee as Josh’s landlord Geoff criticising Josh’s stand-up because: “There’s nothing funny about a grumpy man.”

The main plot sees Geoff rent out Josh’s flat to two models during London Fashion Week. To compensate, Geoff offers Josh and his flat mates Owen and Kate (Elis James and Beattie Edmondson) his holiday home in Clacton. Owen and Kate agree to it, and Josh only reluctantly comes along after discovering the models in question are male.

Inevitably things go from bad to worse in Clacton: not only is there the tedium of having to play Monopoly, but Geoff decides to stay over too, sleeping in a tent outside, keeping Josh awake at night by playing Genesis on an acoustic guitar, trying to arrange a date between Kate and his nephew, and worst of all, trying to advance Josh’s stand-up career by getting him a gig with the Chuckle Brothers. Eventually Josh, Owen and Kate decide to spend the holiday trying to hide from Geoff for as long as possible.

As has been the case throughout this series, Jack Dee’s performance as Geoff has been the best thing in it. His role as the landlord unaware of how annoying he is has been brilliant, the one thing that has constantly been then good throughout the show. The visual humour has also been key, whether it is Josh preparing to impress his model guest by getting an awful haircut, or Geoff’s nephew (Tommy French) getting a nosebleed because he gets aroused by Kate.

The guest performances have been great too. The fore-mentioned Chuckle Brothers make their appearance alongside Josh, but the best guest star was Romesh Ranganathan as a theme park attendant who gets into a battle over fish and chips with Josh.

Again, this series has been getting better as it goes along.

Josh is on BBC Three on Wednesday nights at 22.30.

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