Cracking on with this, we’re going to go with ten entries a day from hereon in. Mainly because it’ll free up more time for us to bore everyone with hugely esoteric fare about “BrokenTV’s Top Ten Discontinued Snack Foods 2000-2009” and the like, but we suppose it’ll also make each daily visit a bit more worthwhile for you lot, our several readers. That’s also a good thing, in a way, we guess.
Pre-empting Peep Show by several years, ‘The Mitchell and Webb Situation’ went out relatively unnoticed on much-missed digital channel Play UK, before finally being sneaked out on middle-of-the-night BBC Two in 2008. Especially when compared to some of the sketch comedies that have hit the main channels since this first went to air, that’s a bit of a shame (speaking of which, don’t hold your breath for The Kevin Bishop Show, Revolver or Velvet Soup on this rundown, 'kay?). What you’ve got here is pretty much That Mitchell And Webb Look on a reduced budget, so while several of the filler sketches fall a little flat, for the main part the standard of writing wins the day. Look, here’s a clip of a running sketch from the first episode.
See also: Play UK (nee UK Play) in general. Foolishly launched as a digital-only channel in 1998, back when only a few hundred thousand TV geeks had digital TV, it pumped a load of money into all-new programming (almost entirely made by channel part-owners The BBC). Helped by the channel’s other main bad decision – being placed in the '”music” section of Sky’s EPG due to its daytime output being mostly music-based, but depriving it of a prime slot in the “entertainment” section – many of the shows on offer didn’t get the audience they deserved, what with the channel being shoved on the far end of channels like ‘The Box’. By the time Play UK made the move to the “entertainment” section in 2001, it was at the arse-end of that section – not very conductive to ‘passing trade’ (as it were), and the channel closed a year later. It was probably relaunched as UK Repeats Of Changing Rooms, we imagine.
One of the main reasons we’d fight to the death to protect the licence fee is because BBC Four are always likely to commission documentary series like this one. Well, not ‘fight to the death’ as such, but we’d probably take a minor scar on a part of our bodies that’s usually covered by clothing. Comic Britannia was a lovely Iannucci-voiced three-part series, with each episode looking at a different ‘type’ of comic book borne of Old Blimey. Episode one (“The Fun Factory”) was of the greatest interest to us, what with it centring on the likes of The Beano, Whizzer & Chips et al, but the other parts, looking at the comics aimed squarely at each gender, followed by a look at more ‘grown-up’ comics such as Watchmen were both just as entertaining. Admittedly, it’s the simple thought of giving a good few minutes airtime to people saying how ace Leo Baxendale was that helped cement this show’s place in the top hundred.
Twitter’s funniest man wasn’t always restricted to being witty in sub-140 character bursts, of course. Peter “Quick, Copy-Paste His Surname From Somewhere” Serafinowicz’s sketch show wasn’t pure gold by any means – sketches such as the lamentable “You’re A C**t” X-Factor spoof, Gay Holmes or the Clone Brother sketch (which admittedly did have the “argument-bargument” line) fell utterly flat in our living room – but overall, it’s hard to watch this and not be a little mystified why Serafinowicz hadn’t been given his own show earlier. Also, he’d help cement our theory that the entertainers who are the very best at doing impressions seldom restrict themselves to just being ‘impressionists’. See also: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Rob Newman. Yeah, flip you, Culshaw.
For fairly understandable reasons, Chris Langham won’t be picking up too many cheques for repeat fees these days. Sadly, that means this one-off BBC Two docudrama isn’t likely to get much of a re-airing any time soon, and that’s a huge shame.
Despite being one of the most lauded authors of the 20th century, and despite him actually working for the BBC at one point, there isn’t a single surviving frame of George Orwell in any film or TV archive in the world. When it came to trying to put all this into a television film, Chris Durlacher came up with the approach of ‘inventing’ a series of scenes featuring Orwell, but making sure that every word uttered by his depiction of Orwell had originally been written by the man himself. As a result, Orwell (played by Chris Langham) appears in scenes such as a never-actually-happened episode of Face To Face, or documentary films on his chosen subjects – such as serving in Burma, the Spanish Civil War, or highlighting poverty in Paris and London.
In short, it’s a remarkable piece of television, and you do kind of suspect that were it not for the identity of the lead actor being used as a stick for the Mail and Express to beat the BBC with, it would crop up more frequently in repeat form on BBC Four.
The Real Hustle pretty much created itself a new genre when it hit the digital spectrum in 2006: “factual TV you should be terrified of not watching”. After all, if you didn’t watch each episode, would you have known about the popular scams therein? Each episode ended up revealing at the very least one moment of “Buh! Of course! I’d better bloody look out for that in future”, often more. Admittedly, some of the scams pulled weren’t much of a threat – the one about people wandering into PC World and downloading the software from demo PCs to USB drives was a bit daft – but the vast majority of them were frighteningly plausible. After all, we’re probably not the only ones to be visiting elderly relatives when they’ve received a cold call from from someone claiming to be be The Red Cross, and can they have your debit card details….? Hey, hang on….*
As time went on, the central scamsmiths fell pray to their own popularity, meaning their undercover identities could be too easily rumbled (in much the same way Donal MacIntyre’s had in 1999’s MacIntyre Undercover). This meant the programme relocated overseas for the most recent series, to Las Vegas and beyond, but sadly (at least for us) this has meant the original appeal has become slightly diluted.
Personally, we’d only tuned into it because we’d thought it’d be an animated spin-off from ‘Hustle’, in the same way ‘Ghostbusters’ led to ‘The Real Ghostbusters’. (nb. Not really. We couldn’t stand ‘Hustle’.)
(*And yes, admittedly, said cold callers could well be The actual Red Cross, but… really: flip right off! If you’re an actual charity phoning people (who, in the case of The Actual Elderly Relatives We’re Talking About, already voluntarily give to The Red Cross), don’t. Give people the free will to contribute if they wish to, don’t badger them into it. If you do, you’re a bunch of shitbags. Yes, you are. Yes, even if you are a charity. This is the thing we think, if you do the thing we’ve just said.. You heard.)
In the pre-show publicity (at least the parts of it where Lee hadn’t penned articles under a false name saying how his show was going to be rubbish and people should just watch Michael McIntyre instead), Stewart Lee expressed his hope that his Comedy Vehicle would be a return to the days of Dave Allen on a stool being brilliant. As it turned out, he wasn’t quite right (if nothing else, Lee’s show didn’t include jokes with rape as a punchline, unlike Dave Allen*), but Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle was a very good show nonetheless.
We might be pissing in the face of received comedy wisdom here, but when he’s doing a live gig, Stewart Lee does have an unhappy habit of making forty minutes material last for two hours, doesn’t he? In his 41st Best Stand-Up Ever set, his Tom O’Connor ‘Sardine’ bit seemed to take up about 40% of the show. It was probably a lot less - we didn’t time it or compile a graph or anything - but it seemed to be about that much. But when given a number (that number being ‘six’. Not sure why we’ve said ‘a number’. Maybe we’re merely trying to increase the word count) of half-hour slots to fill, he was able to be a little tighter. Okay, maybe the stand-up on our screen was a little bit too tight, what with the programme including cutaway scenes merely reaffirming the point he’d just made without even bothering to include an extra gag, but the fact each episode seemed to whizz by so quickly was testament to the quality of Lee’s stand-up.
(*This is true, sadly. As the BBC Two repeat run of Dave Allen At Large in 2005 showed, there was once an Allen sketch where a young woman is drowning in a swimming pool, repeatedly shouting “help!” to notify people of her plight. The lifeguard (played by Allen) duly dives in to save her, and pulls her to the side of the pool. The lifeguard then carries her to a changing room (off camera) and begins molesting her, causing her to shout “help! help!” all over again. And that was the punchline. Really. Frigging hell. All credit to BBC Two for showing the episode uncut meaning we’re able to make up our own minds on the matter, of course, but bloody hell. Still, at least he didn’t say something rude about the Queen, eh?)
See also: The lovely Red Button extras for the programme, where Lee would improvise banter with Armando Iannucci about the subject of each night’s episode, intercut with out-takes from the studio recording. For the last two episodes, Lee also quite generously broadcast highlights of the warm-up acts used for some of the shows. That’s certainly the first time we’ve seen that done (mainly because no-one had bothered switching on the cameras for the warm-up acts before now, we presume), but something we wish more comedy shows would do. Oh? What’s that? We’re stuck with forced joyless discussions between a Phill Jupitus and Noel Fielding who’d rather be in the pub on our Red Button channel? Ah.
Don’t also see: Time Trumpet. Despite the involvement of Armando Iannucci, Stewart Lee and Adam Buxton, and despite it following on from the brilliant (but somehow not on this list) ‘2004: The Stupid Version’, it was a bit crap.
More BBC Four fantasticness. If you were going to put together an hour-long documentary on a videogame for BBC Four, what would you choose? Half-Life? Ico? The Grand Theft Auto series could probably stretch to a whole hour? Mario? No, try that one where the shapes drop onto each other.
Yes, Tetris. One of the lynchpins of the channel’s Hard Drive Heaven series (despite – GEEK HAT ON! – no version of Tetris we know needing to be installed to a hard drive to run), Tetris: From Russia With Love looked at the slightly surprising history behind the puzzle game. If nothing else, the fact the programme highlighted a huge legal tussle between Robert Maxwell and Nintendo makes it worth watching. Oh, and it’s also worth us mentioning that Tetris topped the list of (long-forgotten videogaming website) Xbollox’s Top 100 Videogames Of All-Time. That might just seem like we’re trying to force everyone to read something we wrote back when we were any good, but we’d like to state that Stu Campbell once called that article “the best list of Top 100 Games not done by me” (on the old Edge forum, we think, though we can’t be clear on the actual syntax he’d used at the time. What’s that? No-one cares? Oh).
Representing precisely the kind of 9pm-10pm Saturday night documentary-on-a-slightly-lightweight-topic pioneered by ‘I Love 19[decade][year]’ at the turn of the century, The Smash Hits Story looked at arguably the most brilliantly 1980s publication there ever was (yes, it ran from 1978 to 2006, we know). Inspiring everything from lame copyists ‘No1’ and ‘Fast Forward’ to the mighty Your Sinclair, The Smash Hits Story looked at the peak years of this publishing phenomenon, and commendably treated the last ten years or so of it’s publication with commendable short shrift. Just as when we’re allowed to to do a documentary on the NME, we’ll only bother covering up to 1998. It’ll happen, just you wait.
Special ironic post-script: the plug was pulled on Smash Hits just in time to miss the reigns of La Roux, Ladyhawke, Annie, Lady GaGa, Florence, Saturdays and Hot Chip. But there was a mini-comeback for Michael Jackson once he was dead, so well done there.
Possibly the bravest scheduling of the decade. Come December 2001, merely a few months after 9/11, the whole topic of “New York” was still very much off-limits for TV comedy. Remember how brave it’d seemed when Frank Skinner had shown his brilliant “You’ve Bin Laden” video out-take sketch only a few weeks earlier? Well, with hindsight, Skinner’s sketch was at about the same level as The Dandy publishing “Addie and Hermy” strips circa 1940, while – if you were an idiot, admittedly – this show could be seen as making gags about the holocaust in 1939.
In actual fact, this show had been recorded well before the events of September 11th 2001 – a fact the Channel Five continuity announcer went to great pains to point out before each episode – but even this hadn’t been the case, Sadowitz (who, to their eternal credit, the nascent C5 seemed to have chosen as their flagship comic, what with The Jerry Atrick Show, The People Versus and all that) surely wouldn’t have shirked from telling it like it was. The first episode ended with Sadowitz berating man-mountain WWF manager Johnny Valiant over the fakery of wresting, with furious condequences, and the remainder of the series pretty much went on from there.
In a decade where more people than ever have access to the non-traditional channels, the amount of interesting repeats seems to be lower than ever before. While UK Gold launched on the back of The Innes Book Of Records, Morning Sarge and KYTV, where are we now? Only Fools And Horses, Porridge and The Vicar Of Dibley on a constant loop. For shame.
Luckily, ITV4 felt fit to buck this trend – even if it were only on the daytime and early evening schedules, with verbatim repeats of not just The Big Match, but also occasional offerings from the other 1970s ITV regions, mainly Granada’s Barry Davies/Elton Welsby-helmed “The Kick-Off Match” (Wrexham vs Sunderland? Yay! We suspect Wrexham’s Racecourse Ground was the only one still readily identifiable from these repeat broadcasts). All this was brilliant to see, not least for the most minor of factors, like the way Big Match host Brian Moore always kept a big beige telephone on his desk, in case the gallery needed to contact him, or the way Moore would always read out the full names and addresses of competition winners: “Congratulations to Mrs Edna Smith of 27 St George Road, Leicester! You’re the winner of two tickets to the European Cup Final in Munich next May.” Quite how Mrs Edna Smith reacted on getting home from Munich two days after the European Cup Final only to find she’d been burgled, TV history hasn’t deemed fit to record.
Pertinent postscript: Kudos to Twitter’s @Custard_Socks for noticing this - repeats of The Big Match Revisited are currently running on Men And Motors on Wednesday nights. Y’know, at the exact same time either Champions League highlights are being shown on ITV1, or League Cup highlights are being shown on BBC One. Remind us, why did we forget that Men And Motors still exists again?
Tomorrow (or: “later today”, given how late it is), 80-71.