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 credit: Channel 4 Television Corporation.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...

 
New sitcom The Delivery Man

New sitcom The Delivery Man

Spy and Green Wing star Darren Boyd will play a midwife in The Delivery Man, a new sitcom pilot for ITV. Read

Josie Long podcast

Josie Long podcast

This week's episode of Richard Herring's Leicester Square Theatre Podcast has stories from guest Josie Long. Listen

Katherine Parkinson pilot

Katherine Parkinson pilot

Katherine Parkinson, Ralf Little and Stephen Tompkinson are to star in a brand new sitcom pilot for ITV. Read

Babylon series now filming

Babylon series now filming

Six episodes of Channel 4's police-based comedy drama Babylon are now being filmed in London. Read

Marcus Brigstocke interview

Marcus Brigstocke interview

A snapped heel, torn cruciate and broken relationship - 2014 has been turbulent for Marcus Brigstocke. Read

New Julia Davis C4 pilot

New Julia Davis C4 pilot

Julia Davis has written and is starring in a new pilot about a breakfast TV host, called Morning Has Broken. Read

Trigger Happy TV USA

Trigger Happy TV USA

Dom Joly is reportedly having another go at taking his prank show Trigger Happy TV to America. Read

Ross Noble Freewheeling 2

Ross Noble Freewheeling 2

Ross Noble Freewheeling, the improvised comedy series which sees Ross Noble travelling the UK, is to return. Read

Frankie Boyle sitcom pilot

Frankie Boyle sitcom pilot

Frankie Boyle is amongst the stars talking part in a read-through for Wildlife, a new sitcom pilot. Read

Chris Addison podcast

Chris Addison podcast

A podcast in which Chris Addison talks about his career, and how they made the new sitcom Trying Again. Listen

Jason Lewis interview

Jason Lewis interview

Jason Lewis introduces Sniggers With Attitude, the sketch show he has made for TV channel London Live. Read

Damn the Torpedoes!

Damn the Torpedoes!

BFBS Radio, the British armed forces broadcaster, is launching Damn the Torpedoes!, a new sketch show. Read

TV Comedy Preview

TV Comedy Preview

A panel show celebrating BBC Two, and a sketch show pilot called Sniggers With Attitude are amongst our picks. Read

Michael McIntyre Series 2

Michael McIntyre Series 2

The BBC has ordered a second series of Michael McIntyre's chat show. He will return to BBC1 later this year. Read

C4's latest Comedy Blaps

C4's latest Comedy Blaps

Channel 4 has launched three more mini-series on the internet under its Comedy Blaps branding. Read

Al Murray's new tour

Al Murray's new tour

Al Murray has announced a new Pub Landlord UK tour titled One Man, One Guvnor: 20 years at the lager top. Read

Russell Kane hosts Vidiots

Russell Kane hosts Vidiots

Russell Kane is to host Vidiots, a panel show pilot in which comedians compete over viral video clips. Read

Underbelly Festival returns

Underbelly Festival returns

The Udderbelly Festival is back on London's Southbank until the 13th July. Lots of comedy on offer. Read

Want Doc Brown as a mentor?

Want Doc Brown as a mentor?

Comedian Doc Brown will be offering free mentorship and career guidance via the Noise Festival website. Info

Jason Manford footy shows

Jason Manford footy shows

Channel Dave has signed up Jason Manford to provide the voiceover for three football-based specials. Read

Tommy Cooper drama photos

Tommy Cooper drama photos

Photos from ITV's new drama focusing on Tommy Cooper. The comic is portrayed by David Threlfall. View

Paul Whitehouse's new show

Paul Whitehouse's new show

BBC Two is to make a four-part comedy series based on Nurse, Paul Whitehouse's Radio 4 show. Read

A Seance For Thatcher

A Seance For Thatcher

'Bile merchant' Nathaniel Tapley has written this to explain why he's doing a Margaret Thatcher seance. Read

History Of Britain on DVD

History Of Britain on DVD

We take a look at the definitive box set of Terry Jones and Michael Palin's historical documentary spoof. Read

Bath Fest's New Act winners

Bath Fest's New Act winners

Archie Maddocks and Paul Revill won at Bath Comedy Festival's 2014 New Act of the Year competition. Read

Bob Larbey interview

Bob Larbey interview

In this interview, top sitcom writer Bob Larbey - who died last week - talks about writing comedy. Read

Steve Best's Snapshots

Steve Best's Snapshots

Check out some of the interesting facts from Steve Best's photo book from the comedy circuit. View

BAFTA Awards nominees

BAFTA Awards nominees

The IT Crowd leads the comedy-related nominations for the 2014 BAFTA TV awards. See the full list here: Read

RIP Bob Larbey

RIP Bob Larbey

Bob Larbey, the prolific sitcom writer and creator of shows including The Good Life, has died aged 79. Read

Greg Davies podcast

Greg Davies podcast

Stand-up comedian and actor Greg Davies is a very funny man indeed. Check out this great interview. Listen

Comedy Central's new site

Comedy Central's new site

Comedy Central is creating a website featuring 'funny videos, lists, quizzes and articles featuring celebs'. Read

Alan Partridge film sequel

Alan Partridge film sequel

Alan Partridge will return with a feature film sequel, as well as a new series and Coast-like special on Sky. Read

Monty Python's new song!

Monty Python's new song!

Monty Python have published their brand new music track The Silly Walks Song. See the video here: Watch

Shaun The Sheep - Trailer

Shaun The Sheep - Trailer

Shaun The Sheep is coming to the big screen in 2015. Here's the first trailer for the film - it's funny. Watch

Sony Radio Awards nominees

Sony Radio Awards nominees

Bridget Christie and John Finnemore are amongst the comedy nominees for the Radio Academy Awards. Read

Simon Nye's new sitcom

Simon Nye's new sitcom

Men Behaving Badly writer Simon Nye is working on Private Parts, a new sitcom project set in a hotel. Read

Tommy Cooper trailer

Tommy Cooper trailer

The first look at David Threlfall playing Tommy Cooper in the new ITV drama. It's a rather good impression? Watch

Audio: Vicar Of Dibley

Audio: Vicar Of Dibley

Hear Dawn French appearing as The Vicar Of Dibley, as she delivers Radio 4's Thought For The Day. Listen

CBeebies comedy Boj

CBeebies comedy Boj

Jason Donovan is to provide his voice to Boj, a new animated comedy series for the CBeebies channel. Read

Mrs. Brown's Boys D'Movie

Mrs. Brown's Boys D'Movie

The trailer for the Mrs Brown's Boys movie. Agnes has to fight to save her market stall. Out in June. Watch

Miranda Hart in new film

Miranda Hart in new film

Miranda Hart has signed up to star in a big movie. She will appear in a film by Bridesmaids' Paul Feig. Read

Stella is not yet axed

Stella is not yet axed

Sky TV has denied the reports that Ruth Jones' comedy drama Stella will end after the next series. Read

Psychobitches - Series 2

Psychobitches - Series 2

Production is underway on the second series of Psycobitches, the excellent Sky Arts sketch show. Read

Chortle Awards 2014

Chortle Awards 2014

The results of the stand-up related awards run by the website Chortle have been announced. Read

Omid Djalili autobiography

Omid Djalili autobiography

The first volume of actor and stand-up comedian Omid Djalili's autobiography will be published later this year. Read

Keith Lemon's Keyhole 2

Keith Lemon's Keyhole 2

Keith Lemon will go Through The Keyhole again later this year in a second series of the comedy panel show. Read

Hebburn axed by BBC Two

Hebburn axed by BBC Two

BBC Two sitcom Hebburn, starring Chris Ramsey, Kimberley Nixon & Vic Reeves will not return for a third series. Read

Top 5 Monty Python songs

Top 5 Monty Python songs

With a new Monty Python music album on the way, it's a good time to look back at some of their classics. Read