Monday, 19 April 2021

The Memory… Kinda Lingers

G Neil Martin celebrates one of TV comedy’s finest double albums

It ended, in a way that didn’t really befit it at all, in a dusky power station, full of sinuous pipes, and shadows and angry gas and steam. As if HR Giger had been brought in to design satire. Four people - three men, one woman - and one monumental double entendre.

Series four of Not The Nine O’Clock News is the apogee of the series’ run. Broadcast in 1982, it led to the final of the NOT albums - this time, a double album (“Not The Double Album”, proper gatefold and all) which included a compilation of the best sketches and songs from series four on one disc and the group’s live Drury Lane show on the other. The CDs, which came later, were designed as two little 33 1/3 LPs. It is probably the greatest comedy double LP based on a sketch show ever produced.

Not A Lengthy History

Not The Nine O’Clock News occupies that rare category of show: the successful TV satire sketch show, a remarkably select and exclusive club. In the UK, you can tally TW-3, Spitting Image, Carrott’s Lib, Have I Got News For You and Not. Extend this to radio and you have Weekending, The Now Show and The News Quiz. There are others, of course,  but they are johnny come latelies compared to the enduring behemoths of the five here. Not The Nine O’Clock News was the second of the UK’s TV satire shows to demonstrate a longevity and quality which secured its place in comedy history. 

First broadcast in 1979 and beset with teething problems of timing, cast, quality and schedules, serendipity was the midwife of its success. Only one cast member survived the first edition that was never broadcast but scheduled to be broadcast on 2nd April (Rowan Atkinson); one and a half if you include Chris Langham who was retained in the “second” (i.e. the proper, first) series but dropped for the others. The first episode’s cast included Chris Emmett, Christopher Godwin, John Gorman, Chris Langham, Jonathan Hyde and Robert Llewelyn, and was to be introduced by John Cleese as Basil Fawlty bemoaning the fact that a technician’s strike had sabotaged Towers’s production and replacement tat was to appear in its place (this can be viewed on YouTube).

The expected broadcast date clashed with the calling of the 1979 General Election and so the episode was jettisoned. As John Lloyd, Not’s co-producer with an “insane, young” (according to Lloyd) television Current Affairs producer Sean Hardie, remarked in The Oldie (January 2020), “it was the second series that aired first because the first one, which only lasted one episode, was cancelled just before transmission”. This was a serendipitous gift because it allowed Lloyd and Hardie to regroup and re-think the cast and the show. 

It was originally titled Sacred Cows and Lloyd and Hardie were tasked with a show mocking political correctness (not politics). This suggestion was quickly shown the door as Lloyd and Hardie went about assembling the cast with Atkinson as its omphalos, the “magically gifted, rubbery-faced electronic engineer as the centrepiece of our enterprise and set about surrounding him with what his agent dubbed ‘lesser talents’” (Lloyd). One of these ‘lesser talents’ was to include Victoria Wood, who turned down the opportunity to occupy the role subsequently occupied by Pamela Stephenson. Alison Steadman and Susan George turned them down, too. Langham was retained from the aborted first edition and was joined by Mel Smith (“more ticket tout or a minicab driver than an actor”, sick of his directing work at the Royal Court) and Griff Rhys Jones (a co-performer with Lloyd in the 1973 Footlights Revue, and a then-radio producer at the BBC). 

After this chaotic beginning, the show went to four successful series, three comedy compilation albums, a live stage show, three books and two desk diaries. A BAFTA, a Montreux Rose and an Emmy followed. It made the careers of all of its stars, that much is known. Less well-known, but known to those in the know, is the roster of comedy writing talent that created the show. It was phenomenal and included Nigel Planer, Guy Jenkin, Colin Gilbert, Stephen Fry, Colin Bostock-Smith, Andy Hamilton, Ian Brown, Clive Anderson, David Renwick, Andrew Marshall, Dick Fiddy, Alastair Beaton and Richard Curtis (Atkinson’s stage performing partner).

And, yes, it is rather gent-heavy. Howard Goodall took on the role of Musical Director and was supported by Pete Brewis and Nic Rowley (more gents). Bill Wilson (series one and two - seven episodes; series three - eight episodes) and Geoff Posner produced (series four, 1982; six episodes). Gents, again.

The Album, The Sketches, The Songs

Which brings us to The Memory Kinda Lingers. The roll-call of sketches, now classic sketches, in this release is formidable and this is even before we appreciate the sumptuous terpsichorean valediction that is the oral sex tribute at the end of the very last show (of which, more soon).  If this were a Spinal Tap analogy, the album is where the Dobly is set to 11.  The first two albums (Not The Nine O'Clock News from 1980 and Hedgehog Sandwich from 1981, the cassette version of which was reviewed by Ben in the second issue of Curious British Telly) featured songs and sketches that are amongst the best and cleverest in comedy - Gerald the Gorilla (David Bloody Attenborough), Constable Savage, I Like Trucking, General Synod’s Life Of Python, Hi Fi Shop, Supa Dupa, That’s Lies, The Ayatollah Song (with its simple, perfect rhyming intro “There’s a man/In Iran”)…

Kinda Lingers meets all these and raises them higher, by several chips. It starts with one of the best self-contained (and not satirical) sketches with the perfect punchline of any show (The Spy Who Came In From The Cold written by Neil MacVicar). This is such a perfect example of incongruity, I use it to illustrate this theory of comedy in a lecture that I give on the psychology of comedy (I pair it with Newman and Baddiel’s History Today). One of the major theories of humour and comedy, incongruity theory argues that we laugh when we perceive two or more contradictory or opposing elements being placed together when we do not expect either to co-occur. It has a long history - a version was suggested by Cicero - but gestated in the work of Hazlitt and later Kierkergaard.

No spoilers here but for the uninitiated, the sketch is worth seeking out on You Tube for the full audio-visual glory and the crisp, exemplary delivery of Mel Smith and Rowan Atkinson who feature as spy and potential spy. Then, it is straight onto the traditional quickies and news one-liners before we encounter another of the series’ classic sketches, its spoof of Question Time which punctures Robin Day (here played by Griff Rhys Jones), the Question Time format, the stereotypical panel, the QT audience and bland political sloganising and sophistry. 

This is followed by another TV spoof, this time of Game For A Laugh in which the GFAL team, in the style of one of their Candid Camera set-ups, kills a viewer’s family to the alarm of the clearly distraught viewer, Geoffrey Lewis, whose distress turns to embarrassment and laughter when he discovers he is the patsy of the set up (“You guys!!!” he says to Mel Smith’s Beadle as his family lies dead inside his house and the corpse of his brother lies on the road outside after having been machine gunned by Pamela Stephenson’s Sarah Kennedy). 

This half of the album also includes two perfect phonological and visual quickies (Pizza Moment written by John Lloyd) and Hey Bob (written by Graham and Wilson), the latter featuring the brilliant punchline, “The new BL Ambassador. Built by Roberts” after a succession of Bobs in a car factory ask other Bobs where Bob’s torque wrench is. Webb’s Bread of Heaven is mercilessly lampooned, as are the Welsh, in a pastiche of the song in which a series of things is listed and the tune ends with “Failed in Wales” or “Made From Whales”. The Swedish Chemists Shop sketch (Great Old Chestnuts of the World, No 8) written by Barry Faulkner is also a quick and perfect play on phonology with its confusion between “aerosol” and “arsehole”.

The second half includes three of the show’s most admired sketches - Hey Wow (written by Smith and Jones) a spoof of a youth TV programme in which Griff Rhys Jones plays the presenter as an irritable and peremptory school teacher (“Would you do that at home?? Well, DON’T DO IT HERE”) and features the line “Mr Carpark has been kind enough to come here all the way from Nottingham”; McEnroe’s Breakfast (written by Tony Mather), another nice incongruity sketch in which Rhys Jones plays the querulous tennis player at the family breakfast who throws a tantrum because nothing is to his satisfaction; and Aleebee, written by Paul Smith and Terry Kyan, which is an extended funny joke about mis-pronunciation and the harbinger of Nigella and her "micro- waveh". The sketches culminate in Rowan Atkinson’s lubricious, phallocentric performance in What A Load of Willies written by Richard Curtis (“The Post Office Tower? THE POST OFFICE TOWER?? Pah! It’s the Post Office PRICK!”). 

And it is this theme, and this end to the first album, which brings us to the pinnacle of the discs, and the show’s, achievement: its swansong. But the filth did not start here, even if it ended here. 

Colin Pearson’s Two Ronnies skit/parody, The Two Ninnies, and its musical number written by Peter Brewis were written as if on a dare to see how many filthy double (and single) entendres the cast and writers could fit into one sketch and song while sending up the Two Ronnie’s formulaic comedy structures. “We like birds; we’re ornithologists”, begins the song, “HORNY, PORNO- thologists” and, later, “we’re marching up and down on the spot, spot, spot because the sodding choreographer’s a twat, twat, twat.”  It climaxes, in a manner of speaking, in a torrent of just about broadcastable filth.

After the Willies, we finally reach the pipes, the steam and the electric guitar and plaintive piano which open the show’s final goodbye, Curtis and Howard Goodall’s Kinda Lingers. Goodall had been the cynosure of this season’s musical output, giving us Typical, Bloody Typical, Headbangers and, of course, Nice Video Shame About The Song. When Goodall was asked at the 40th anniversary celebration of the series at the British Film Institute in 2019 how he created these musical pastiches and parodies, he said he simply followed a 2-3 minute formula and that these songs did not take long to create. When you consider the actual musical sophistication and cleverness of a song like Nice Video, it does sound like a testament to the idea that the best ideas are created under pressure. The song was better than the video and the lyrics are as memorable as the sepulchral cast and the goose-stepping Nazi. 

Goodall’s comic and musical pedigree is pretty well-established, his song That’s Why I Hate The French (sung by him) written and composed for Rowan Atkinson’s live show is a beautiful, acidic distillation of Francophobic inferiority with an astonishingly catchy melody. He also composed the Oh Oh Oh Means I Respect You song for the live show and this is another beautiful, heart-breakingly crafted tune and a song of two moods in which Pamela Stephenson translates her sex noises. For a silly concept, the song is perfect. You can say this of many of Goodall’s musical parodies - that they could stand alone as pure little fizzing pop songs if you stripped out the comedy. His and Curtis’s Barry Manilow parody, also part of the live show, shows a virtuoso at work: “The ponderous pounding of the piano, is like the pounding in my heart, but as the verse has just begun, it’s time for the chorus to start!”). It’s almost effortless.

Kinda Lingers, the song, is famous - notorious - for its barely concealed double entendre. What plays out as a melancholy exchange of goodbyes and the bittersweet reflections of parting from a cast to each other on their last ever show, culminates with each reassuring each other that the memory kinda lingers, a sledgehammer double entendre and a brave effort given its broadcast at 9pm on BBC2 in 1982. It begins, of course: “A wise man once said/All good things must end/It’s been the theme of many singers/But goodbye is the hardest word to say/So let’s just say…kinda lingers”/cunnilingus. And if you play the song and listen you know exactly which of those words the cast is singing (“You’ll soon find someone new, who’ll never say cunnilingus to you” promises Atkinson). I liked this song and its sentiment so much that years ago I embedded it in a hyperlink in an old work email signature in the week I left. Nobody noticed.

Not In Front Of The Audience

The second disc is a recording of the live show, Not In Front Of The Audience, at the Drury Lane Theatre in London in 1982. This is more of a hit and miss affair because some of the sketches clearly rely on us the audience being there in order for it to really work. It does mark a milestone, as such, and provides a glorious confirmation of the show’s success in that it was able to create and put on a live show that sold-out thus continuing a long tradition of (mainly Oxbridge) comedians adapting their revues or TV shows for the stage (most famously, Monty Python who also recorded their show at Drury Lane). They’re all at it now, of course.

There are some longeurs in the show - and the need to comply with the constraints of theatre are painfully obvious and seem stretched on occasion. There is a lengthy series of sketches featuring the Pope which overstays its welcome but is redeemed by the pontiff’s impression of Tommy Cooper. As befits theatre, it’s perhaps surprising or not that the most successful portions of the show are musical, it opens with Peter Brewis’s Confrontation Song, includes the Respect You and Manilow songs mentioned earlier, and reprises Gob On You.

Most of the material is new. The show reprises Constable Savage in a new sketch. The original was famous for two reasons. First, it is a perfect satire on police racism where Savage is hellbent on arresting the same man (a Mr Winston Kodogo) for a series of increasingly preposterous and fictitious crimes. And, second, it was scripted by a writer (Paul Newstead) who, by all accounts, only wrote this one sketch for the show before disappearing into comedy oblivion. As became a tradition, the show was accompanied by further comedy material in the form of the show’s souvenir programme which was mercifully short on adverts for Cameron Mackintosh, paeans to the theatre and its history, and tempting post-show specials at Joe Allen’s but long on spoof adverts and features. See below.

Not Another Paragraph of Praise

Like all NOT albums, The Memory Kinda Lingers holds up even now, a rare feat for a show that was defined by and promoted for its satirical drive. It is a testament to the strength and timelessness of its comedy. It is slick, polished, sharp, funny and inventive, created by a crew at the height of its ability. Personally, this was the one album that made me in awe of comedy writing. It is a masterclass. If I were ever invited onto The Rule Of Three, this is the album I’d discuss. And it’s one that, despite the years that have gone by, just - well - kinda lingers, doesn’t it?

G Neil Martin is a Professor of Psychology and writer (@thatneilmartin)
He was a writer and books reviewer for Deadpan, the UK's first - and last - magazine about comedy. His book, The Psychology of Comedy, is published this Autumn by Routledge.

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