Saturday 30 July 2022


What's this? Astronauts? A sitcom written by Bill Oddie and Graeme Garden? And there's more? It was script edited by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais?

Yes, that's right, it's not April Fools Day at Curious British Telly, Astronauts is a bona-fide sitcom, one which is shot through with a comedy pedigree of such renown, it's a surprise hardly anyone's heard of it. And Astronauts is a series which has made a decent stab of establishing itself, with two series airing and a DVD boxset of the entire thing emerging in 2012. Nonetheless, a recent mention of it on the Curious British Telly Twitter feed resulted, mostly, in a procession of puzzled faces, punctuated only occasionally by someone who vaguely remembered it. So, Astronauts, what's it all about and what's it like?

Britain is finally entering the space race, and it intends to do so in grandiose fashion by breaking the space endurance record. All that its astronauts need to do is spend six months in space, should be easy, right? Unfortunately, for the well spoken Commander Malcolm Mattocks (Christopher Godwin), the equally refined tones of Dr Gentian Foster (Carmen du Sautoy) and the rich Yorkshire brogue of technical officer David Ackroyd (Barrie Rutter), these will be six of the hardest months they've ever faced. They're not on their own, of course, as there's a fourth astronaut in the form of Bimbo, a shaggy terrier. And, down in ground control, the whole operation is overseen by ex-astronaut Beadle (Bruce Boa).

The main problem facing our astronautical protagonists is the eternal boredom of life in space. Once all the excitement and flashbulbs of the launch are over, it's time for the crew to find out there's very little to do when you're crammed into a small space with a handful of people you barely know. Whilst the crew are all assigned various projects to undertake, there's a mind-numbing amount of downtime to contend with. Sleep remains out of reach, and the speed with which they fly through time zones is equally disorientating. Naturally, this strained existence soon leads to tensions between the crew, most pointedly between the middle class outlook of Mattocks and the working class Ackroyd.

In amongst the bickering, however, there's also time for the plots to get more involved and, you know, actually go from point A to C and back to B before, quite by accident, reaching D. Foster is tasked with venturing outside the space station to repair a damaged aerial, all whilst receiving technical instructions from a poorly Ackroyd who's eaten too much ravioli. Mattocks, meanwhile, is discovered sending scrambled messages as part of a secret mission he's been tasked with called Project Sparrowhawk. In perhaps the most dramatic storyline of Astronauts, the crew encounter a Russian astronaut also orbiting the earth and gradually build a firm friendship with him. And, of course, there's the small matter of getting back to Earth.

Produced by Witzend Productions - which was part owned by Clement and La Frenais - Astronauts was originally developed for ATV, but, by the time of the second series, ATV had lost their ITV franchise and Astronauts' final outing came under the watchful eye of Central Television. 13 episodes were produced with the first series airing in 1981 and the second coming in 1983.

had been in the periphery of my curious gaze for sometime, although it somehow evaded my 50 British TV Comedies From the 1980s You Forgot About article. Nonetheless, I eventually found time to delve through several episodes to work out whether it lived up to its promise. And... well... despite a slow start it gradually picked up.

Everyone loves a rocket launch and, as such, the first episode gets off to a good start, but once in orbit around Earth, you do start to wonder where the series is going. Oddie and Garden try to ratchet up the tension between the crew members, but, at this point, there's little chemistry between Mattocks, Ackroyd and Foster. Accordingly, the comedy also falls flat, with most of it turned over to a rather weak 'joke' whereby Beadle refers to himself as 'Pooh' and the crew 'Piglet' - a gag which persists through the series.

The next couple of episodes focus on the minutiae of life in space under cramped, testing conditions. It's a situation which is the very definition of what makes a successful sitcom, opposing personalities trapped together with nowhere to go. And, as many have pointed out before me, there are certain parallels with Red Dwarf. However, whereas Grant and Naylor nailed this premise with unerring accuracy whilst combining it with engrossing narratives and richly drawn characters, Astronauts struggles to take its story or characters anywhere.

Instead, the characters spend their time sitting around struggling to relax or sleep. Yes, it captures the relentless fatigue of life in space, but all too often it seems to be at the expense of the viewer's enjoyment. Thankfully, matters start to pick up towards the end of the series. The penultimate episode may consist of little more than the crew getting drunk on illicitly made rum, but it's a fun break from the slower-paced episodes. The final episode takes things further by finally delivering classic Oddie and Garden farce, whilst remembering to include a plot which keeps the viewers onboard. Reaching the end of the series does, however, require a certain amount of patience in 2022. But stick with it and the second series develops the promise of Astronauts' first series.

Yes, the gag rate isn't a roaring success - with even the studio audience struggling to find the energy to laugh at times - but the depth of the narratives and chemistry between the crew has certainly improved for Central's run of the series. The first episode may struggle to move beyond the inanity of the astronauts' experience, yet again, but the second episode suddenly brings some gravitas and intrigue. Mattocks' secret mission irks Foster and Ackroyd, and whilst Foster is somewhat sidelined in the script, it provides a fine opportunity for some class clashes between the male astronauts - Bimbo remains relatively neutral. The strongest episode, and certainly the most emotive, is 'We Are Not Alone' which ends on a downbeat, yet poignant note and feels more like a comedy drama.

Astronauts is far from a perfect sitcom and there are countless others which I would rather see available on DVD, but there's still plenty to intrigue fans of British comedy. Some commentators have remarked that the series suffers from not being a full on Goodies production. And, sure, there are similarities between the character's dynamics, but nothing which is resolutely trademarked by Messrs Oddie, Garden and Brooke-Taylor. Yes, there's a need for more vibrancy in Astronauts but this is more in the wit stakes rather than the performances, with Godwin, Rutter, du Sautoy and Roa all putting in performances they can be proud of.

Ultimately, it's unlikely I'll revisit Astronauts but, for us completists of British comedy, it still represents a satisfying tick off the list. Also, a quick question: did anyone feel like the 'theme' to series one sounded similar to the start of Astronomy Domine by Pink Floyd? Or was it just me?