TODAY: “It makes me maaaad with power!”
LEE & HERRING’S FIST OF FUN: COMPLETE SERIES ONE
It’s remit-tweaking time here at BrokenTV towers, as our list of stand-up DVDs from 2011 makes room for a sketch comedy from the mid-1990s. Ah, d’you remember the mid-90s, viewers? Trance Europe Express compilations in Our Price, Roy Evans’ swashbuckling Liverpool side never quite winning anything apart from the League Cup, the 3DO being resolutely ignored on the shop shelves of electronic goods retailers, and BBC Two playing host to all manner of excitingly offkilter comedy. Shows like the The Glam Metal Detectives, Is It Bill Bailey?, The Ghostbusters of East Finchley, The High Life, Pulp Video, Fantasy Football League, The All-New Alexei Sayle Show, The Fast Show, In The Red, Does China Exist?, The Saturday/Friday Night Armistice, London Shouting… some good, some bad, some even strangled at the pilot stage, but you have to feel that they’re all precisely the kinds of comedy that wouldn’t be allowed to happen on the BBC in 2011.
Arguably the most popular of all cultish mid-1990s comedy shows – at least if you polled a certain type of comedy fan who has spent way too much time on the internet since about 1997 – featured a tall-but-not-that-tall man called Stewart and a shorter-and-fatter-but-not-really-that-much-shorter-or-fatter man called Richard.
And it’s now out on DVD.
And it is good.
It’s the kind of show that had lived on in the memories of comedy geeks ever since it was first broadcast, mainly because that was the only place it had to go. It was never repeated, and never released on any physical format. It never even made it to the likes of UK Gold or Paramount. And yet, at least for us, it was pretty hard to wander into any internet forum from that point on without at least a few of the participants making oblique references to weak lemon drink, moons on sticks or typing “aaaah” after they’d made a point they were particularly pleased with.
With the notable exceptions of Fantasy Football League and The Fast Show, that didn’t really seem to happen with other BBC Two comedies of that era. If you’d said “Och pish, it’s just a wee voddy” more than three weeks after the final episode of The High Life aired, people would have stared at you in bafflement. And if you’d made any references to The Glam Metal Detectives at any time at all, even when it was actually being shown on a television in the room you were in, people would have probably walked away after a short awkward silence. The Betty’s Mad Dash bits were quite good though, eh? Yet, with Lee & Herring, they seemed to stick in the collective consciousness of many who found themselves between the ages of 15 and 21 when the series went out.
While it might be simple to dismiss the show as catchphrase comedy (that’s you that is. Oh, wait), it hailing from the age of British Comedies Being Given Decent Budgets meant that very few of the ideas actually recycled themselves. Perhaps with good reason – on the commentary track Rich and Stew lament the fact that the recording schedule (shows two and three were recorded before show one had aired) meant that the few running characters they did have in the show hadn’t been seen by the studio audience before*, meaning they generally met a muted reception. Oh, and because much of the audience had actually turned up hoping to see Big Break instead. Oh, BBC ticketing policies of the mid 1990s.
(*Apart from the members of the studio audience familiar with their 1FM series, obviously. Aah.)
And what an inventive show it was, too. We absolutely adore comedy shows where every last effort has been made to cram in as much material as possible, like imperial phase Simpsons where the titles were reduced to just Marge driving into the garage and the couch gag so they could fit a bit more tomfoolery into the episode proper, or full-pomp Seinfeld not even having a title sequence or full closing theme, just non-stop excellence. Lee & Herring continued in this tradition by throwing in lots and lots of freeze-frame humour that you could only get to enjoy if you’d taped the show beforehand (or were incredibly quick at reading). Some of the jokes would be self-referential, such as highlighting where cuts from different recording sessions were used in the same sketch. Some were calls to arms, such as the suggestion to complain about or commend a scathing review of the show in a Somerset local newspaper, so that the responsible TV reviewer was either sacked or promoted. Some, well, they were often just material from the radio series, but thrown at the screen over the end credits in one final burst of pause-button delight.
(QUICK QUIZ – What was the first British TV show to use extra freeze-frame material over the end credits? Answer at the bottom of this update.)
The strange thing is about these freeze-frame gags – no-one else has really ever done them since, even in the age of the PVR. The first series of The Adam & Joe Show did also use the idea in and out of ad breaks, but it was ditched by the time series two came around. Since then, we don’t think anyone has used it, until Comedy Central UK used similar pages of text to bookend their ad breaks (slightly foolishly, because you’d be reading the text on live pause instead of watching the ads which, y’know, do pay for the channel. It’s like you’re stealing television!). Even more strange – despite Fist of Fun being the kind of show you had to record onto VHS to get the most out of, it seems very few people actually kept the tapes. Certainly, while hundreds of obscure TV gems resurfaced in crystal-clear quality around the advent of BitTorrent – including lesser-spotted programmes like End Of Part One or Rutland Weekend Television – it seemed that the only copies of FoF lurking around the internet were sloppily encoded Windows Media files.
Happily, they’re all on DVD now, so you can re-watch everything in digital spankovision, and read all the freeze-frame gags with clarity instead of fuzzy VHS wobbleview. And that’s not the only benefit of getting this disc. The FoF set plays host to what must certainly be the best set of extras ever seen for a British comedy DVD release. Here’s a quick run-through:
* Each episode in full.
* BUT! If you press ‘left’ on your remote with an episode selected on the main screen, each episode is preceded by the original VT clock. NERDGASM AHOY.
* Commentaries on each episode by Stewart Lee and Richard Herring.
* The entire Lee and Herring Live at the Cochrane live show from 1995 (the VHS release that sometimes cropped up on Paramount, the only L&H to ever get repeated on the channel we think, unless you’re counting Festival of Fun, and we don’t).
* Lee and Herring’s 90s Nostalgia (filmed in Rich’s garden).
* The original non-broadcast pilot
* DVD-ROM content – scripts, press releases, fan club letters, a live audio bootleg and various scribbles made by Rich at the time of recording.
and, best of all
* All surviving studio rushes from four of the episodes. Retakes, warm-ups (from K Eldon), arsing about, entire deleted sketches, slightly hissy reactions to having to do another retake, awkward silences and all.
That last part is what makes this really worth the £25. As far as we’re aware, the only other DVD set to include studio rushes is the box set of the Complete Larry Sanders Show – and that’s the greatest DVD set ever produced. And that only covered selected scenes, with (as far as we recall) only one long, 20-minute cut of the show-within-the-show actually on there. This contains as much material as could be uncovered, with rushes lasting between 30 minutes and a whopping 86 minutes. While it’s not all non-stop entertainment, if you’re a fan of comedy it’s absolutely fascinating to see.
If you’ve read this far without dozing off, we suspect you’re already aware of the story behind the release, but we’ll skip through it anyway. The BBC didn’t want to release it, so Lee and Herring themselves, along with Go Faster Stripe honcho Chris Not That One Evans bought the rights themselves, and set about making the best goddamn DVD set they could. Yes, it’s £25, but for that you get over ten hours of video, with an extra 4+ hours of commentary tracks. And if it doesn’t sell, not only will that put the kybosh on FoF series two, along with This Morning With Richard Not Judy ever appearing on shiny disc, but might spell disaster for brilliant lo-fi DVD production company GFW.
This must not happen.
And hopefully, it won’t. In an ideal world, this will sell enough copies for all involved to make a decent return, and the idea will catch on. Who knows, maybe one day there could even be a two-tier approach to putting out TV shows on DVD. For the majority of people, the standard set you can pick up in Tesco will contain the episodes and nothing else. For the hardcore, multi-disc sets packed with special features like you’ll find on this set, all for a premium price. It’s something that a lot of bands already do with album releases – bog standard iTunes versions for the casual fans, £25 sets including signed DVDs, live tracks and art prints for the fanboys. Who knows, maybe at some point in the future, we’ll all be sending off for the deluxe boxset of The Pallbearer’s Revue, safe in the knowledge that Jerry Sadowitz will personally gob in each and every digipak.
See, how wonderful could the future be? BUY THE LEE AND HERRING’S FIST OF FUN SERIES ONE DVD.
(QUICK QUIZ ANSWER: It was Children’s ITV computer games show Bad “This Game Is Good Because The Graphics And The Gameplay Are Good” Influence, and their during-credits ‘Datablast’ sequence.)