Ah, the Great British sketch show, now there's a glorious helping of British comedy if ever there was one. Time was that they pretty much ruled the airwaves along with sitcom and, when I was a lad, you could open up a copy of the Radio Times, randomly stick a pin in and chances were it would stick into a listing for a sketch show - much to the chagrin of my Dad who prized his collection of Radio Times stacked in the garage.
However, open up a copy of the Radio Times now and, firstly, you'd be one of the few people left in Britain who still buy the magazine (the Christmas edition aside which still sells by the bucketload) and, secondly, if you were to stick a pin into it the chances of you sticking it into a sketch show would be virtually nil. Perhaps it's down to the budget friendly antics of panel shows, maybe it's down to writers concentrating on sitcoms these day. Who knows, but it's certainly a shame that there aren't more sketch shows to be found.
After all, they're a fantastic breeding ground for talent - would we have had Fawlty Towers without John Cleese's early forays into sketch shows? And, more pertinently, they can be incredibly funny - just take a look at the Ted and Ralph drinking game sketch which manages to conjure up an amazing symphony of comedy and emotion, it's almost otherworldly in its genius and it's delivered in less than three minutes.
As you can tell, I love sketch shows and, somehow, they've barely featured on Curious British Telly, so I decided to track one down that's been on my curious radar for some time. And, by the end of it, maybe we'll have a bit more evidence to decide whether the sketch show format should be Pushing up Daisies or, in fact, Coming Next.
Channel: Channel 4
Transmission: 1984 - 85
Comprising a cast of Chris Barrie, Hale and Pace and Carla Mendonça, Pushing Up Daisies (renamed Coming Next for the second series) is a sketch show which serves up parodies, impressions, satire, songs and plenty of recurring characters and motifs. EastEnders is reimagined as WestEnders featuring Kensington's finest celebrating their wealth in the Schitz Cocktail Bar, Ronald Reagan delivers an address where he spells out his desire for an anti-Mexican holiday (Wop a Wop in 84) and the Two Rons discuss their latest undertaking which is a funeral parlour, they put the fun in funeral apparently.
And, of course, there are Hale and Pace's two pun obsessed friends who take on various guises and dispense pun after pun such as the tennis players ("I've got a new car that my friend Ivan Lendl me, it's good at going round Connors. I wasn't Bjorn yesterday") and the chefs ("How's Suzette? Crepe! And Olive? Oh stuff Olive!"). Chris Barrie's impressions continue with Barry Norman presenting British Film Awards 1985 ("The purpose of British Film Year is to go round telling everyone that it's British Film Year so that people will go to the cinema and watch American films. And why not?").
Carla Mendonça and Chris Barrie star as Kevin and Helen, a sickeningly soppy couple who speak to each other in sugary, saccharine drenched sentiments whilst subtitles pop up to translate what they're saying. However, all this slushly nonsense is just hiding what they really think as the subtitles reveal e.g. Helen's declaration of "Poodle woodle pudgy pom" is deciphered as "Christ, has he been drinking?" and their post-coital chat is no better with Kevin's statement of "Chimpy woozy flippity dippity" hiding the message of "I think I'm going off her".
There are also several sketches aping films such as James Bond and The Great Escape whereby the cast also communicate the script directions and character notes such as Carla Mendonca's POW Freddy popping out of an in progress escape tunnel and joyfully calling out "I'll be finished in a jiffy, skipper - said Freddy popping his head out of the tunnel - or my name's not Freddy Sex-Change No-Hampton - he turned in closeup to camera 3, Freddy Sex-Change No-Hampton was one in a million mainly due to the National Health Service waiting list".
Know it all (but painfully dozy) London cabbies discuss their mundane observations and cab philosophies, Hale and Pace become RAF fighter pilots without any experience of flying a plane due to government cuts, but are granted the luxury of using a flight simulator which turns out to be a coin operated kiddie's plane ride and we see an alternate take on Lawrence Oates "I'm just going outside" scenario where the rest of his team share out his belongings but this time he actually comes back and suffers the ignominy of his crew already wearing his socks.
And then there's about a million other sketches, but I don't have time to detail them all so, instead, let's take a look at the production side of things.
Planting the Daisies
Pushing Up Daisies and Coming Next were both produced by Paul Jackson Productions (PJP) and were part of Channel 4's output in the mid 1980s. Seven episodes of Pushing up Daisies and six episodes of Coming Next were produced and transmitted at 11pm on Saturdays. The series was never repeated and there were no commercial releases, so footage of the show is currently scarce - the videos scattered through this article come courtesy of YouTube uploads.
PJP was a fledgling company at the time, so Pushing Up Daisies was an important development for Paul Jackson and recalls that it was made possible by the connections he had garnered:
"I was running my company, PJP, and I wanted to do more with some talented new comedy performers who I had been working with on other shows. So I got together a team with Geoff Posner directing and Kim Fuller as head writer, along with Geoff Atkinson as another writer. We then sold the show to Channel 4.
Hale and Pace were actually well known on the comedy circuit and I had done a few things with them, including guest appearances on The Young Ones. Chris Barrie was also around on the circuit and had done bits for me on Carrot's Lib and Saturday Live. Carla was introduced to me by Carrot's manager. He had seen her in a college showcase and took me to see her. So I rated them all and wanted to do something more substantial with them. And they all went on to more success after Coming Next.
The recordings were great fun. It's always exciting with a new cast and we had a great team. It was also the very beginning of Indie production in the UK. And we were all setting up new careers for ourselves. It was a very special time"
Carla Mendonça remembers her time on the series as very special and it made for the perfect start to her career:
"I was playing the piano and singing in a bar during the Edinburgh Festival. Jasper Carrot and his manager came in for a drink and heard me and asked me to join them for a drink. He later got Paul Jackson to come and see me in a student production of a one-woman show I was doing. “Female Parts” by Dario Fo and Franca Rame. And this led to my connection with PJP.
I was incredibly excited to be involved with Pushing Up Daisies! I had only just finished my degree and was being given the opportunity to be in a TV sketch show. I had also been offered a chorus part in Guys and Dolls at the National Theatre but I was advised to take the tv show. I've often wondered what path my career would have taken had I chosen the theatre job…"
As regards the name change from Pushing Up Daisies, Paul Jackson can't exactly remember why this happened, but suspects it was down to people not being particularly familiar with the saying. Coming Next was chosen as a sly stab at the cliche continuity announcement of "Coming next..."
The opening titles change between the two series as well with Pushing Up Daisies using a set of illustrated titles and an orchestra led theme tune which feel very 1970s and, in fact, made me think they would have been perfect for a long forgotten Esmonde and Larbey sitcom. Coming Next has much more 1980s titles with its blend of saxophone lines and blink-and-you'll-miss-them cast photos which flash on and off the screen with all the manic hyperactivity of a 1980s merchant banker wired on various stimulants.
The setup of the series and the quality of the cast sounds a fascinating prospect, but what was it actually like? Let's take a look...
Watching the Daisies Grow
Several people had mentioned Pushing Up Daisies to me over the years, but aside from the slim pickings on YouTube, I'd never managed to watch any of it. Having been born only two years before the series first aired, I certainly hadn't been in a position to be up and watching it at 11pm, but now, 30 and a bit years on, I was old enough to skip down to the BFI Archives to watch a few episodes.
Naturally, the cast are the absolute standouts. Chris Barrie is perhaps one of the most highly skilled comic actors of his generation and, with Arnold Rimmer and Gordon Brittas cementing this lofty status, I feel it's a massive loss to British comedy that - the Red Dwarf revists aside - he's barely dipped his toe into TV comedy since the last series of A Prince Among Men in 1998. Back here, of course, Barrie arrived on the crescendo of Spitting Image's steamrollering success and his impressions are worth the entry fee alone.
Hale and Pace, likewise, are magnificent comic actors with fantastic timing and a plethora of facial expressions to wring every last ounce of comedy out of their material. They've been unfairly maligned in terms of their quality in the last two decades - mostly by comedy snobs - but when I revisited five of their best sketches a few years back, it was clear to see see just how much of an injustice this is.
And Carla Mendonça, just entering her 20s, has that excitable air of confidence and gusto that only youth can provide, but it's also backed by a natural talent which is evidenced by the triumph of accents, timing and character work that she summons up throughout the series and has managed to maintain over the decades since.
|Daily Express 10/11/1984|
The material this cast have to play with is a meticulous run through everything that you can do with sketch comedy and it's a comedy palette which finds plenty of talent dipping their brush into. Geoff Atkinson and Kim Fuller are joined by such comedy luminaries as Tony Sarchet, Stephen Fry, James Hendrie and, of course, the cast who all chip in with material. As with all sketch shows, the material can be hit and miss, but once you run the figures, you find that Pushing Up Daisies is mostly hits and avoids any painful, misalignment of the viewer's attention.
The spine of the series is stiffened by the chemistry between the team and you get a real sense of the atmosphere they must have engendered on set as they slay line after line with their comic grace and skill. Mendonça certainly has fond memories of filming Pushing Up Daisies:
"I remember the luxury of having rehearsal days! Of having Monday - Thursday to work on all the sketches and then do the pre-recorded sketches (such as some of the studio songs) on the day before the big studio day. Those days were amazing. I think it was studio 1 at LWT. Huge space with all our sets in it.
We rehearsed on camera all day and then the audience came in. The warm up guys got them going (one of which was Clive Anderson!) and then we were off. I loved the evening recordings. It was kind of great if things went wrong and you had to do them again. The audience always loved that and it relaxed everyone on both sides of the studio"
Sketches are wonderful comic devices as they're essentially a microcosm of longer narrative pieces, with a clear beginning, middle and end. Mini masterpieces which are capable of comedy incisions straight into your sense of humour, they're hilarious, instantly accessible and masters of providing plenty of bang for your buck. Sure, the costs and time involved in producing such a genre are highly prohibitive in an age when advertising costs are stretched thin, but when you take a look at the talent involved in a show such as Pushing Up Daisies, you can understand why they were once greeted so warmly by an admiring public.
Pushing Up Daisies and Coming Next may not be as iconic as other sketch shows which came before or since, but they can quickly seduce you into a reverie which embodies the burgeoning, precocious careers of the cast upfront and the conviction that sketch shows are bloody good fun. Paul Jackson tells me that he believes it's just a cyclical thing and sketch shows will return - let's hope it's sooner rather than later.