Classic Comedy Year: 1994

Chris Hallam
Chris Hallam
September 2012

Chris Hallam has previously looked back at why 1979 was such a good year for comedy, and now he's turning his attentions to 1994.

Fourteen year-old Simon Amstell performs impressions of Dame Edna on Good Morning with Anne and Nick. Brand new series of Jewish ghost comedy So Haunt Me and solicitor romance May To December. Christmas specials of Keeping Up Appearances and Birds Of A Feather. Here Chris explains why, despite all these things, 1994 remains one of the best ever years for British comedy...

Glory Years

"I was there in the glory years. Mid-90s. Four Weddings had just come out. Britpop was kicking off. It was mental." (Jez, Peep Show, 2004).

1994 was indeed a glorious time. Graham Taylor boldly led England towards World Cup glory. Michael Sheen (Tony Blair) struck a deal with David Morrissey (Gordon Brown) to lead the Labour Party following the death of Father Jack Hackett. Across the pond, President Bill Pullman prepared to lead the nation in defence against an under-scripted extra-terrestrial assault.

With all this going on, it's amazing anyone found time to produce comedy at all. But remember: without Angry Birds, DVDs or a proper internet, people were forced to make their own entertainment...

Scorchio!

The Fast Show. Image shows from L to R: Simon Day, Charlie Higson, Arabella Weir, Paul Whitehouse, Mark Williams, John Thomson. Image credit: British Broadcasting Corporation.Actually, it's probably a good thing the internet hadn't really got going by 1994. The Fast Show should, on paper, have been awful. It's easy to imagine cynical bloggers ripping it to shreds before it even began.

For one thing, it relied heavily on repetition and catchphrases. "Where's me washboard?", "Suit you sir!", "Brilliant!", "You ain't seen me, right?", "Hi! I'm Ed Winchester!", "I'll fetch my coat" and many more.

For another, as Paul Whitehouse nervously admitted in pre-publicity it was also not especially "fast" at all. Indeed, he later revealed many of his own characters from the show had already been rejected by his old collaborator Harry Enfield. What was worse, the new series was based around the traditionally patchy and to some extent discredited sketch show format.

As it is, as we know now, the show was a huge success, the clever use of catchphrases and repetition in fact proving one of its main strengths. Within years, Whitehouse would be appearing in Hollywood films, admittedly usually in smallish roles alongside professed Fast Show enthusiast Johnny Depp (The Corpse Bride, Finding Neverland). For the record, the US version of The Fast Show went under the name Brilliant.

Whitehouse was the most prominent figure in the show, playing gamekeeper Ted to Charlie Higson's repressed aristocrat Ralph in some of the show's subtler sketches scripted by future Father Ted scribes Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews as well as, of course, Ron Manager and fictional 1940s comedy legend Arthur Atkins.

But he was by no means the only star performing with Higson; Arabella Weir, John Thomson, Mark Williams and Simon Day all rose to prominence on the show, as well as many recurring supporting players. It was decided that each actor should own copyright of their own characters. Many would thus later appear in adverts, although none of the show's direct spin-offs (Arabella Weir's book Does My Bum Look Big In This? or the sitcoms Swiss Toni and Grass) were especially successful.


Oddly, with the exceptions of Caroline Aherne and John Thomson, it's probably fair to say that nearly twenty years on, all of the cast including Whitehouse are still better known for The Fast Show than for anything else.

But with the show so well loved and in my opinion still holding up better than some more recent sketch show fare (such as Little Britain), there is certainly nothing shameful about that.

Ultranews

The Day Today. Christopher Morris. Image credit: TalkbackThames.1994 saw not just one but two new comedy teams emerging fully formed into the world. Of course, The Day Today team (Chris Morris, Steve Coogan, Rebecca Front, Patrick Marber, Doon Mackichan, Armando Iannucci, David Schneider and others) weren't untested, having first appeared in On The Hour (sample headline: "Ireland has burst") on Radio 4 in 1991. But despite the misfortune of losing rising stars Stewart Lee and Richard Herring in the transition to screen, The Day Today emerged as a gloriously slick looking TV success in 1994.

It wasn't just about the news. Chris Morris's fanatical Paxman-like presenter - giggling flirtatiously with Rebecca Front's traffic correspondent one minute, barking at Patrick Marber's Peter O'Hanraha-hanrahan the next - was undoubtedly the star and the show mocked the hysterical urgency, and even the rhythms of news speak, brilliantly ("Those are the headlines - God, I wish they weren't"). The war episode was another highlight, one correspondent intoning: "As I swilled the last traces of toothpaste from my mouth this morning, a soldier's head flew past the window, shouting the word 'victory'".

But the show had a pop at everything, brief samples including George Formby singing Bob Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues, an advert for tampons performed by a Nirvana-like band, a snippet from fictional racist 70s sitcom Them Next Door and soap opera The Bureau (set awkwardly in a narrow Bureau Du Change). There was even a segment called The Office, a parody of a fly on the wall documentary which could (at a stretch) be viewed as influencing the most successful sitcom of the next decade.
Despite its references to Boris Yeltsin, and Virginia Bottomley, The Day Today has stood the test of time remarkably well, certainly better than the more recent Broken News. However, its most immediate influence was to spawn a new chat show.

On that bombshell...

Knowing Me, Knowing You... With Alan Partridge. Alan Partridge (Steve Coogan). Image credit: TalkbackThames.Oliver Reed and George Best drunk live on air. Grace Jones punching Russell Harty. Actor Christopher Lloyd refusing to talk to Terry Wogan. Actress Anne Bancroft refusing to sit down.

Given how many genuine tremendously awkward chat show moments there had been in the Eighties, it's surprising how few spoof chat shows there had been before Alan Partridge. The only notable exception being Dame Edna Everage's series, which like most of the later post-Partridge inferior offerings such as The Mrs Merton Show and The Kumars at No. 42, actually had real guests.

The secret of Partridge was not so much about the show but the extent to which it revealed the massive personality flaws of its sexist, borderline racist, "homosceptic", ex-sports presenter, host.

The character had, of course, first existed as an improvised voice on On The Hour. The TV version of Knowing Me, Knowing You... With Alan Partridge (or "The Alan Partridge Show" as its host is keen to call it) was actually the fourth series the character had been on. By then Steve Coogan, still in his twenties at this point, had fine-tuned the Norwich City fan to perfection.

The awkwardness with women (particularly lesbians), bouts of rage (particularly with both precocious child actors and anyone who forgets his name), the obsession with catchphrases and terrible introductions ("she's a trooper, I think she's super...") and little touches such as his miming an increasingly aggressive attack on the audience at the start of each show before the final episode culminating in the accidental shooting of a guest ("On that bombshell: Forbes McAllister is dead") have ensured Coogan's career and the character's immortality.


Although the jury's still out on one question... Is this, or his later incarnation as a permanent guest at the Travel Tavern, Alan Parrtridge's most successful manifestation?

Four Weddings And A Funeral

Four Weddings And A Funeral. Image shows from L to R: Carrie (Andie MacDowell), Charles (Hugh Grant), Fiona (Kristin Scott Thomas), Gareth (Simon Callow), Tom (James Fleet), Scarlet (Charlotte Coleman), Matthew (John Hannah). Image credit: Working Title Films.Okay, it may not seem very cool to sing the praises of a Hugh Grant film. But the fact remains: Four Weddings And A Funeral is one of the best British comedy films there has ever been.

Yes, it does go off a little towards the end. Yes, Andie "Is it raining? I hadn't noticed" MacDowell who famously had her voice dubbed over for the film Greystoke ten years before, could happily have been surgically erased from the whole film in many people's view. And then there are the questions. How do all these friends know each other in the first place? Why does Andie MacDowell's character invite them all to her wedding in Scotland when, aside from Hugh Grant, she's barely met any of them at all at the previous weddings? Do any of them work?

These quibbles aside, the film remains very funny. The mad old man for example is hilarious. And it revived the British film industry. So stop complaining.

Other Stuff

Image shows from L to R: David Baddiel, Frank Skinner. Like Britpop, the comedy boom of the 1990s had a bit of a false start. Just as the short lived ascendancy of Suede had appeared to herald a new musical age in 1992, before fizzling out until the successes of Pulp, Blur and Oasis two years later, comedy too had a false dawn. Newman & Baddiel and the notion of comedy as "the new rock and roll" had effectively died a death by 1994. Newman and Baddiel themselves fell out. Rob Newman fell into relative obscurity while in 1994, the intellectual Baddiel formed an unlikely partnership with Frank Skinner to front Fantasy Football League.

Like Loaded magazine, the show perfectly captured the prevailing "lad culture" humour that was so in vogue then, but to be honest, looks less good now. Simon Nye's Men Behaving Badly had begun in 1992 but was approaching the peak of its success in 1994, partly by pandering to this trend. At the start for example, Martin Clunes' Gary (as in Nye's novel) had refused to get a TV, enjoyed classical music and reminiscing about university with his old friend Dermot (Harry Enfield). By the mid-Nineties, he was swigging beers instead with Neil Morrissey's Tony. But this is not to knock it. The show worked better with Tony, not least because Morrissey is a better actor than Enfield.

1995 would see new series for ex-On The Hour alumni Lee & Herring while even more excitingly Irish writers Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews who had produced the "tiger" sequence for The Day Today together (an enormously difficult to film story about a tiger being released as a measure to shut up noisy neighbours), as well as the memorably awkward Ted sketches in The Fast Show, went onto write a sitcom about another Ted. A priest.

But that was another year and another story...

 
Sitcom Geeks podcast

Sitcom Geeks podcast

Here's a new podcast series in which James Cary and Dave Cohen talk about the art of sitcom writing. Listen

Brian Pern to return

Brian Pern to return

Brian Pern, the comedy series starring Simon Day as an art rocker, has been given a third series by BBC Four. Read

John Finnemore's new show

John Finnemore's new show

John Finnemore, the creator of Cabin Pressure, is working on a series called The John Finnemore Project. Read

The John Dredge Show

The John Dredge Show

Series 4 of the insanely silly podcast series has now launched. Check out this funny and surreal sketch show. Listen

Miles Jupp hosts News Quiz

Miles Jupp hosts News Quiz

Miles Jupp will take over from Sandi Toksvig as the new host of The News Quiz when it returns. Read

Not Safe For Work interviews

Not Safe For Work interviews

The cast of Channel 4's new office-based comedy drama Not Safe For Work talk about making the show. Read

Joanna Lumley sitcom

Joanna Lumley sitcom

Joanna Lumley is working on a new show for Sky Television. Thought to be a sitcom, the title is Harmony. Read

Missing Hancocks to return

Missing Hancocks to return

Radio 4 has given the greenlight for five more lost Hancock's Half Hour episodes to be re-recorded this July. Read

David Walliams sitcom

David Walliams sitcom

David Walliams is reportedly working on a sitcom based around a TV talent show, inspired by Britain's Got Talent. Read

Bernard Righton's Gold show

Bernard Righton's Gold show

John Thomson, in character as Bernard Righton, will present an archive stand-up show on TV channel Gold. Read

Sharon Rooney interview

Sharon Rooney interview

Sharon Rooney, the star of My Mad Fat Diary, talks about the final series of the comedy drama. Read

Win The Delivery Man DVD

Win The Delivery Man DVD

We have three copies of new ITV sitcom The Delivery Man to give away. It stars Darren Boyd as a midwife. Enter

Work in progress gigs

Work in progress gigs

Si Hawkins explains why he often enjoys work-in-progress stand-up gigs more than the resultant polished tour show. Read

Catastrophe a global hit

Catastrophe a global hit

Catastrophe, the sitcom created by Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney, has been sold to TV stations across the world. Read

Gein's Family Giftshop

Gein's Family Giftshop

Sketch group Gein's Family Giftshop talk to BCG ahead of recording their first radio series. Get free tickets too: Read

Comedy Awards to move

Comedy Awards to move

It has been confirmed The British Comedy Awards are leaving Channel 4, to move to a new network this December. Read

Nick Frost's memoir

Nick Frost's memoir

Nick Frost's is writing a book about his life. Truths, Half Truths and Utter Bullshit will be released in October. Read

BBC New Comedy Award

BBC New Comedy Award

The BBC Radio New Comedy Award is back. The form to enter the 2015 contest is now available to fill in. Read

Hoff The Record blog

Hoff The Record blog

What's it like working on a sitcom with David Hasselhoff? Here's a blog from Hoff The Record actor Fergus Craig: Read

Mind reading and comedy

Mind reading and comedy

Mind-reading performer Colin Cloud explains how the worlds of 'people reading' and comedy are similar. Read

Julie Bower: So Awkward

Julie Bower: So Awkward

Julie Bower, the creator of new CBBC sitcom So Awkward, talks about how the show was developed. Read

Shush! comes to Radio 4

Shush! comes to Radio 4

Radio 4 is making Shush!, a sitcom set in a library. The show will star Morwenna Banks and Rebecca Front. Read

Prof Brian Cox panel show

Prof Brian Cox panel show

BBC Two is to pilot Six Degrees, a science-based comedy panel show. Professor Brian Cox will host it. Read

RHLSTP with Bob Mortimer

RHLSTP with Bob Mortimer

Bob Mortimer is the first guest on the new series of Richard Herring's Leicester Square Theatre Podcast. Listen

Episodes Series 5

Episodes Series 5

Episodes, starring Matt LeBlanc, Tamsin Greig and Stephen Mangan, gets another series. Read

CBeebies orders 2 comedies

CBeebies orders 2 comedies

CBeebies is making Go Jetters and Spot Bots, two animated series which aim to teach children via sketches. Read

Drifters gets a 3rd series

Drifters gets a 3rd series

Drifters, the E4 sitcom about three young women struggling to find good jobs, is to return for a third series. Read

Raised By Wolves Series 2

Raised By Wolves Series 2

Channel 4 has ordered a second series of Caitlin and Caroline Moran's sitcom Raised By Wolves. Read

Angela Barnes radio series

Angela Barnes radio series

Radio 4 has ordered a four-part stand-up series from 2011 BBC New Comedy Award winner Angela Barnes. Read

So On & So Forth interview

So On & So Forth interview

An interview with So On & So Forth, the comedy group behind the new Radio 4 sketch show series. Read

Safeword for ITV2

Safeword for ITV2

Rick Edwards will host new ITV2 panel show Safeword with team captains Katherine Ryan & David Morgan. Read

Paul O'Grady interview

Paul O'Grady interview

Paul O'Grady, who is presenting Bob Monkhouse: The Million Joke Man, talks about how he knew the star. Read

Doc Martin US remake

Doc Martin US remake

Friends co-creator Marta Kauffman is developing a US adaptation of hit ITV comedy drama Doc Martin. Read

Lee Mack interview

Lee Mack interview

Lee Mack talks about the future of his hit BBC sitcom Not Going Out in this honest and open in-depth interview. Read

Brotherhood cast interview

Brotherhood cast interview

The cast of Brotherhood, including Sarah Hadland, Johnny Flynn and Ellie Taylor, talk about the show. Read

Croft & Pearce interview

Croft & Pearce interview

Ahead of the recording of their debut Radio 4 series, Hannah Croft and Fiona Pearce talk to BCG: Read

Festival booker interview

Festival booker interview

We talk to Tania Harrison, the comedy booker for Latitude Festival about the event's comedy plans. Read

Greg Davies interview

Greg Davies interview

Comedy giant Greg Davies talks about what's coming up in the second series of his hit sitcom, Man Down. Read

Del Boy's autobiography

Del Boy's autobiography

Ebury will publish the autobiography of Peckham businessman Derek 'Del Boy' Trotter in October. Read

Antiques shop sitcom Bull

Antiques shop sitcom Bull

UKTV Gold is to film Bull, a new studio audience sitcom about a man who runs an antiques shop. Read

New sitcom Marley's Ghosts

New sitcom Marley's Ghosts

UKTV channel Gold has ordered Marley's Ghosts, a 3-part sitcom about a woman who can speak to the dead. Read

Gold making Henry IX sitcom

Gold making Henry IX sitcom

Porridge writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais have written Henry IX, a new sitcom for UKTV Gold. Read

Vicious 2 interviews

Vicious 2 interviews

The cast of Vicious talk about the return of the sitcom, and how the topic of gay marriage crops up in the show. Read

Buzzcocks axed

Buzzcocks axed

BBC Two has decided to end Never Mind The Buzzcocks after 18 years and 28 series on air. Read

Trigger Happy TV to return

Trigger Happy TV to return

Channel 4 has confirmed it is in talks to bring back Dom Joly's hidden camera comedy format Trigger Happy TV. Read

Omid Djalili interview

Omid Djalili interview

Omid Djalili discusses his acclaimed war documentary, plus Oliver Reed, tricky Joe Orton plays, bad TV recordings... Read

BBC Radio Contract Writers

BBC Radio Contract Writers

BBC Radio Comedy has announced the appointment of two new Contract Writers, Sarah Campbell and Liam Beirne. Read

Ben Miller Horrible Science

Ben Miller Horrible Science

Ben Miller is to star in Horrible Science, a new children's comedy-entertainment series for Children's ITV. Read