Saturday 20 July 2013


Genre: Comedy
Channel: BBC3
Transmission: 26/03/2007

Curious British Telly has a few comedy icons who have influenced our sense of humour. Woody Allen always had that talent for mocking our fears, Stewart Lee counters the hypocrisy of the world we live in and Paul Rose introduced us to Mr T and his bins. What's that I hear you cry? Paul Rose? Oh, you may know him better by his name of Mr Biffo. Anyone? You there at the back? Mr Biffo? No? FOOLS! It's become painfully obvious that it's time you watched Biffovision.

A spoof of saturday morning kids TV, Biffovision saw Hugo Visage (James Lance) leading fellow cast members such as BW (an irritating puppet) and Peggy Pigstrap (Ingrid Oliver). The show took no prisoners and mocked American import cartoons, machine like reviews of pop music and the fact that on live TV anything can go wrong. Several sketches were inserted throughout the show which featured performances from Jim Howick, Daniel Lawrence Taylor and Paul Rose himself.

Biffovision was a one off comedy pilot produced by Hartswood Films for BBC3 and broadcast on 26th March at the unenviable time of 3.15am. The show's rather strange broadcast time was, apparently, down to it being the end of the financial year and the only slot available. It was promised a better repeat slot and had to settle for midnight on 5th June - hardly an improvement. As you can probably guess by the show's title, Mr Biffo aka Paul Rose was behind its concept. Helping with the writing was Mr Biffo's old friend Tim Moore who between them had created the Channel 4 teletext series Digitiser. Directing the proceedings was Richard Boden who has been involved with everything from Blackadder, The IT Crowd and even Life of Riley.

As mentioned above, Paul Rose is something of a hero to us. He was the driving force behind Digitiser for ten years. Every morning we would get up early so we could view the latest edition before heading off to school/work; pretty much every day saw us rolling about on the sofa convulsing with laughter at the surreal insanity of it all. It was a world away from Channel 4's Teletext mascot Turner the Worm and saw a mixture of blocky 8-bit weregiraffes mixing it up with crank calls to the video games industry. It was very dadaist in nature and developed a cult following who, to this day, still quote phrases such as "And!", "Keep away from Mr T's Bins!" and "moc moc a moc!".

Despite being a huge Mr Biffo fan we somehow missed the original broadcasts of Biffovision and didn't become aware of them until a few years later. We've recently revisited the show for the purposes of this blog and were glad to find it still in fine fettle.

It's closest relative is Look Around You, but the lampooning nature of the show also calls to mind This Morning with Richard Not Judy albeit it slightly less knowing. Saturday morning kids TV was always packed full of cliches, so it's an environment rich for spoofing. Whether this environment could have sustained a whole six part series is up for debate, but with some tinkering such as giving other characters more to do then it could have pulled it off.

James Lance brings his laid back charm to the role of Hugo, but manages to create a sense that underneath this cool persona lays the soul of a tortured presenter. One who would much rather be hosting Saturday night primetime than mucking about with awful puppets. It never did Schofield any harm though, so maybe Mr Visage just needed to hang in there. As mentioned above, the other characters aren't given that much room to breathe, although the megalomaniac Professor Derek Doctors had the potential to be quite sinister what with his vapourising eye laser. Ingrid Oliver plays the role of reliably positive female presenter well, but it would have been nice if her character had been given a bit more depth.

Paul Rose and Tim Moore have really let their minds off the creative leash with Biffovision. The sketches running throughout are quite, quite hilarious. The 'Mr Botton' sketch is a flash of surreal genius that Vic and Bob would be proud of and the 'Futurewest Telecom' sketch could easily slip into an episode of Big Train. The 'animal section' desecrates the grave of The Really Wild Show by deciding to explore the world of tortoise pickling which is met with cheers from the young studio audience. Then there are the lovely little suureal quips such as when a mysterious character in a top hat and cape approaches two children and one remarks "It's Santa Claus!". There's a lot of this anti-humour on show and is another nod to Vic and Bob's tireless pursuit of the 'non-joke'.

As you can probably guess, we absolutely loved Biffovision. There's a lot of love online for the show, but there are also several comments saying that the show was just random nonsense. It's an acquired taste, that's for sure, but it's a shame the BBC gave it such dreadful timeslots. BBC3 is very much the channel for the youth and they may well have taken this to their heart. Perhaps it was best off as a one off due to the format being in danger of running out of steam. Paul Rose mostly works in children's TV now, but we feel it's a great loss to the nation's funny bone that he isn't tackling more ground in the adult hemisphere of comedy. Tim Moore, meanwhile, is busy writing travel books with a humourous edge. Biffovision is hosted on YouTube, so head over there and see what all the fuss is about.

Wednesday 17 July 2013

A Sharp Intake of Breath

Genre: Sitcom
Channel: ITV
Transmission: 20/02/1978 - 15/02/1981

There's a lot of form filling involved in most tasks these days and, perhaps, that's why David Jason isn't keen on sanctioning the release of his lesser known works. In fact, ask him if he wants to let loose the wonders of Lucky Feller or The Secret Life of Edgar Briggs and it's quite likely that he'll draw a sharp intake of breath. We are, of course, with the subtlety of a drunk elephant, alluding to the fact that this edition of Curious British Telly will be taking a look at A Sharp Intake of Breath.

Peter Barnes (David Jason) and his dear wife Sheila (Jacqueline Wilson) appear to live the idyllic 70s sitcom lifestyle. Mini Cooper? Check! No children? Check! Pastel coloured kitchen? Check! However, this innocent world is nothing but a sweetener for the red tape hell that poor Peter must endure at every turn. Standing in his way of an easy life are Alan Armstrong and Richard Wilson who play different characters in each episode. The titular 'sharp intake of breath' refers to audible response that Armstrong and Wilson give to Peter Barnes' simple requests.

A Sharp Intake of Breath ran for 22 episodes (including the pilot episode) over the course of four series between 1979 - 81. The show was created by Ronnie Taylor who also wrote the first three series, the final series being written by Vince Powell. Curiously, the third series only ran for three episodes and it's shortened length was down to the untimely passing of Ronnie in 1980. Part of ATV's programming for ITV, episodes aired at 8pm and the opening credits featured cartoons drawn by Mel Cartman. A repeat of series 2 followed several months after series 3 first aired and series 3 was repeated several months after the final series. Since then, no repeats have aired and there have been no commercial releases.

As discussed in our feature on Lucky Feller, David Jason is not a fan of everything in his back catalogue. A Sharp Intake of Breath falls into the unfavoured category and he has never given a release the green light. In a News of the World interview around 1980, David Jason claimed "I love old Barnsey. He's such an idiot/", so quite what changed is up for discussion. 12 episodes are available if you're willing to search the internet, although we must point out that some websites charge a lot more than others. The six episodes that we have seen are sub-VHS quality, but watchable enough.

The few episodes of Lucky Feller that we had seen were of a decent quality and left us scratching our heads as to why David Jason wasn't keen on it. A Sharp Intake of Breath ran for four series, so we thought it was worth dusting down and giving a damn good viewing.

Head and shoulders above anything, the acting is a real highlight. Alun Armstrong and Richard Wilson both play their varying roles with a zeal that actually dwarfs David Jason's performance. The only poor performance we saw by Wilson is in the episode 'The Gas Man Cometh' where he fails to adopt an authentic Cockney accent. It's been rumoured that David Jason isn't keen with his 'raw' performance in these early roles, but he's not too bad here, although his well spoken accent does keep slipping into Del Boy. The one weak performance is by Jacqueline Clarke, but to be fair, she is lumbered with a lifeless 70s sitcom wife role.

The episodes we have viewed didn't exactly blow us away. The opening episode, 'Your Life in Their Hands', for example is as bare in plot as it is in laughs. Slightly better, if you're willing to suspend your disbelief,  is the episode 'See You in Court' which, although formulaic, does have a nice payoff. Most episodes, however, passed us by and we never felt that bureaucracy was really being lampooned. The laughter rate was very low too. It's difficult to believe that the same decade which brought us Fawlty Towers (still a gut busting laugh fest) could also bring something as limpid as this. Mind you, the 00s and 10s saw the genius of Peep Show running alongside fare such as The Life of Riley, so things haven't changed that much.

The show ran for four series, though, so the viewing public of the time obviously liked it. Despite this, there's little discussion about A Sharp Intake of Breath online, so maybe wasn't a show that people took to their hearts. We would be interested in viewing episodes from later series as it's rumoured the quality improved, but it isn't something we'll be rushing out to locate. Sadly, we're with David Jason on this one: it's no Lucky Feller.