Chain Reaction - In The Press

This enduring Radio 4 show is one of those excellent ideas that seems glaringly obvious once someone else has thought of it. The basic concept is a hostless chat show; an initial guest chooses a sparring partner who, the following week, chooses another, and so it goes on in a cheerful human centipede of chat. This series began with Adam Buxton talking to Reece Shearsmith and has passed through a range of comedy luminaries, including Vic Reeves and Sharon Horgan.

Phil Harrison, The Guardian, 28th March 2015

Chain Reaction; an ingenious little show that's been bubbling away on radio's equivalent of People's Friend magazine for years.

Written by Rob Gilroy. Giggle Beats, 27th March 2015

The idea behind Chain Reaction, if you haven't listened (why?), is that last week's interviewee becomes next week's interviewer, so we get a long list of famous people (usually comedians or actors) interviewed by a similar person who they admire or have worked with. Each person's interview technique is very different, so the show is hit and miss. The last two week's programmes, which featured Bob Mortimer interviewing Vic Reeves, and then Vic Reeves talking to Olivia Colman, have been tricky listens. I love Reeves and Mortimer but they don't do interviews, really. When they were together it was funny but utterly random; when Reeves talked to Colman, I had to switch off. He had no questions; he didn't really listen to the answers. Argh! It was frustrating.

This week, Colman talked to Sharon Horgan, and I enjoyed the whole show. Colman managed to take the mickey out of the interviewing process ("Do you have a favourite sibling? Do you have a favourite child?") and also get revealing answers. Revealing of both Horgan and herself, which made up a bit for the week before. So we learned that Colman can't cope with too much to do (and then her husband points out that what she's worrying about could be done in a hour), that Horgan prefers writing to acting, and that despite being born in England she considers herself Irish - "it's very important to me that I'm Irish". The chat brought out the contrast between Horgan's career-minded pragmatism and Colman's family-comes-first attitude. As well as both women's wit. Colman was a great host. Give her a show. Nurture the "talent". Manage it.

Miranda Sawyer, The Observer, 22nd March 2015

"Do you have a legal list?" Olivia Colman asks her interviewee Sharon Horgan. "Sorry, what's that?" responds Horgan, in answer to which Colman informs her it is a list of people you are allowed to sleep with without your husband getting cross. The audience roars with laughter, which soon increases in volume when an innocent Sharon asks, "Can they be dead?" -- not quite making the necrophilic link implied by her wish to have Steve McQueen on her "legal list".

This gives a flavour of the conversation between these two very funny women. Colman's questions cover topics ranging from work--life balance to the joys of nit-combing a child's hair, and Horgan's wickedly witty responses exemplify why she is at the top of her game at the moment.

Jane Anderson, Radio Times, 18th March 2015

Graham Norton, Jonathan Ross and Alan Carr are not going to lose any sleep if they listen to this. Jim Moir, better known as Vic Reeves, is not a natural interviewer. It's his guest, Olivia Colman, who holds the show together, using her ability to ad-lib with wit.

I love this series. I love Vic Reeves. I love Olivia Colman. It's why I chose this as my Pick of the Week. But were it not for Colman's thespian talents there are moments when tumbleweed would have blown through the studio (à la Shooting Stars). She picks up when Reeve's questions or direction of thought trails off, and yet, while he sounds delighted to have got to the end of the show intact, there are some parts where this interview is so funny it should come with its own health warning.

If Olivia Colman had to choose between a plastic hand and a hook, which would she favour? Is she any good with blood? As I said, Reeves is not your typical interviewer, but these surreal questions do encourage Colman to reveal more about herself than she would on a predictable chat show.

And so, I now know that she believes that the path to true love depends upon clutching a fallen eyelash with one's intended and making a wish. And that she can spend hours staring at pictures of men's swollen testicles (in medical books, not real life).

It's a peculiar half-hour, but one I wouldn't have missed for the world.

Jane Anderson, Radio Times, 11th March 2015

Bob Mortimer may well be in trouble with his wife after this broadcast. He has told her that he works from 9.30am to 4pm with his comedy cohort Jim Moir (Vic Reeves). He now confesses to Reece Shearsmith that they stop feeling funny around 2pm and he has a nap in a car park.

Such endearing revelations are all part of this show's appeal -- it gets great stories because the interviewees feel comfortable enough to share.

Jane Anderson, Radio Times, 25th February 2015

The driverless car of chat shows, Chain Reaction (BBC Radio 4), returned this week with Adam Buxton firing questions at The League of Gentlemen's Reece Shearsmith. The tag-team format allows for a nice variation in tone (the host baton passes to Shearsmith next week, with a new guest in the other chair), but when the host is as thoughtful and considered as Buxton I almost wish it was his show alone. He's the ideal blend of gentle irreverence and a genuine interest in other people. For all the novelty of the format, it was a good, old-fashioned interview, with Shearsmith offering up everything from impersonations of his old acting teacher and revelations about his childhood (he was nearly christened John Wayne) to the intriguing story of the time he became the apprentice to special-effects artist Christopher Tucker, only to run away from his house in the middle of the night "like Jonathan Harker fleeing Castle Dracula". In a brilliant summation of his comedy oeuvre, including The League of Gentlemen, Psychoville and Inside No. 9, he describes the template as: "Three people in a room. One of them goes mad." Chain Reaction is such an obvious candidate for translation to television that it's puzzling it has yet to make the jump.

Julia Raeside, The Guardian, 19th February 2015

Reece Shearsmith looks rather dour as he explains to his interviewer, Adam Buxton, that his looks have helped cast him as the villain/psychopath/character-most-likely-to-run-amok in the sketches of The League of Gentlemen. Is he angry in real life asks Buxton? Not really, he says. If anything, he thinks he has gone soft in his middling years.

He confesses to looking back at a sketch where a vulnerable character is bullied by teenage girls and thinking that he'd crossed the line, that the cruelty had outweighed the laughs. Push him a little harder though and he is soon chuckling over the Sardines episode of last year's Inside No. 9, which he co-wrote with fellow Gentleman, Steve Pemberton. Inspired by a cupboard in the office they share it involves 12 bodies squashed together -- and some child abuse. It does not sound funny but, as Shearsmith points out, it's the dark drama that has made his comedy so different.

Next week he gets to be the interviewer and Bob Mortimer answers the questions.

Laurence Joyce, Radio Times, 18th February 2015

When I spoke to Carl Cooper, the producer of this series, I asked how much of the material for this edition - Kevin Bridges interviews fellow Glaswegian comedian Frankie Boyle - had to hit the cutting room floor. "It was a tricky one, content wise," he conceded, but you'd never know it from this brilliant edit.

All right, you might have an inkling when Boyle starts talking about beaming porn onto the outer walls of primary schools - not a practice he supports, takes part in or suggests, I should add, before the green biros come out to start an "appalled from . . ." letter.

For the most part, the conversation is on why the controversial performer has decided to stop - spending time with his family became more appealing than being under constant scrutiny for every word he said or wrote. There's an interesting section on why Boyle hates comedy panel shows where he reveals how scripted and planned they are, and how much he liked to drop a grenade into such proceedings.

He's certainly not lost his precocious comedy gift and shows like this are evidence that he can be put before a microphone without bringing a broadcast company into disrepute. I'd like to go on record now that he should be a guest editor on The Today Programme next year.

Jane Anderson, Radio Times, 3rd January 2014

Chris Addison will be pleased with this picture - there is very little bare flesh on show and certainly nothing suggestive of his nether regions. In a terribly British section of his interview by friend and fellow comic thespian Rebecca Front, they discover a shared aversion to nudity, especially their own, in performances.

As Addison remarks, his modesty is based upon his body resembling a stick man made out of Twiglets. Their similarities do not end here, however: both confess to having been goody-two-shoes at school and how many other modern comedians can claim to have been part of madrigal groups? Middle-class and brainy does not have to mean smug, though, and so this interview rubs along nicely. I look forward to Addison asking the questions of Derren Brown next week.

Jane Anderson, Radio Times, 3rd August 2012

The return of the series in which the interviewee becomes the interviewer in the following week's programme opens with the writer, actor and comedian Jeremy Front asking questions of the writer, actor and comedian Rebecca Fron. Fans of the recent and superb Incredible Women series will know that the brother and sister have already proven their comedy worth as a Radio 4 double act, but this takes it to a more intimate level with discussions about their shared memories. Jeremy soon realised that his younger sister was ripe for ribbing and began years of mental torture involving a pixie and Ken Dodd. He's heard all of Rebecca's anecdotes before, but we haven't, so he's kind enough to encourage her to let rip. The Mike Leigh audition story is truly hilarious.

Jane Anderson, Radio Times, 27th July 2012

The scourging of the Murdock empire is a goldmine of new material for comedians. The biggest audience guffaw in this returning series comes when interviewer Rhys Thomas asks his guest - fellow comedian Simon Day - if there really isn't anything that he wouldn't do for money. Day, fast as a whip, comes back with "Well, I wouldn't hack into people's phones." It's no secret that I love this series: it's akin to the empathetic questioning techniques of Kirsty Young or Victoria Derbyshire being channelled through Alexei Sayle or Steve Coogan - lots of insight, but even more laughs. Rhys does not push Day too closely on his addictive personality - something that the comic has been very open about in his recent autobiography - but we do get to hear about his spell in a borstal, which he refers to as being like "a violent boarding school".

Jane Anderson, Radio Times, 29th July 2011

Stephen Merchant gets nervous before hero Jarvis Cocker.

Written by Elisabeth Mahoney. The Guardian, 20th September 2010

Final show in the series. Stephen Merchant (last week's interviewee) talks to Jarvis Cocker about the disadvantages of wearing spectacles, being tall and gangly, rock festivals, rock idols and what really happened when the Pulp singer threw the contents of an ice bucket over Michael Jackson at the Brit Awards in 1996. It's on FM only because the special ecumenical Westminster Abbey Service of Evening Prayer, to be attended by both the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury, is on Radio 4LW from 6.00-7.15pm. Edward Stourton (as so often this week) presents.

Gillian Reynolds, The Daily Telegraph, 17th September 2010

Harry Shearer, voice of evil Mr Burns and hapless Ned Flanders on The Simpsons, American comedian, writer, and radio host, chooses as his interviewee Stephen Merchant, co-writer of TV's The Office and Extras, more recently an actor, standup and 6 Music presenter. The resulting conversation is most entertaining, a rare glimpse of comedy back rooms, a snowball of reflection on what makes something funny, how jokes grow. Merchant on his youthful experiments with a radio station in a hedge is sublime, their thoughts on comedy as a control mechanism is a tonic.

Gillian Reynolds, The Daily Telegraph, 10th September 2010

Ruby Wax was on Radio 4's Chain Reaction this week (hooray! A woman!). Her turn to interview, and her guest was comic actor Harry Shearer - Derek Smalls from Spinal TapMr Burns and others from The Simpsons. Ruby is one of the best interviewers ever, in my opinion, and she didn't disappoint, hurrying Shearer on when needed - "so cut to when you're funny, we haven't got all day" - or pulling him short when he glossed over a tale. "Are you bitter?" she asked Shearer, an old friend of hers. "You still look bitter." I wish she still had her own chatshow.

Miranda Sawyer, The Daily Telegraph, 5th September 2010

There's a lovely bit of bonding going on in tonight's edition as last week's interviewee, Ruby Wax, selects actor and comedian Harry Shearer as the guest she would most like to probe. Both are from the other side of the Pond but share an astutely observed fondness for the British and, indeed, for Radio 4. Shearer is best known here for his range of Simpsons voices and as Spinal Tap bassist Derek Smalls, but in the States he's hosted a syndicated satirical radio show since 1983. Their combined wit and experience is electrifying.

Jane Anderson, Radio Times, 3rd September 2010

When writer and impressionist Ronni Ancona appears on QI, the show is sometimes a little less funny than usual but always greatly more interesting and even absorbing. She was a boon to QI and proves to be the same again here as she takes the role of first interviewer in a new run of the tag-team chat show. Her guest is comic Lee Mack, who has as many one-liners at his command as you'd hope and expect but gets drawn into richer areas about working in comedy. This is the joy of Chain Reaction: the guest is interviewed by someone who really knows their work and enjoys pressing for information that lighter chat shows miss. And you'll never guess who Lee Mack chooses to interview in next week's episode.

William Gallagher, Radio Times, 13th August 2010

Chain Reaction (Radio 4, Tuesdays, 6.30pm) has been the highlight of my late-summer listening. Through it I've come to like Frank Skinner, discovered that Eddie Izzard can still throw aside the ponderous trappings of Hollywood semi-stardom and be himself again and found, in Alastair Campbell, a charm that he managed to hide so successfully during his years as Tony Blair's minister of propaganda. And every week I've told myself that, this time, I'll resist the temptation to write about it here and focus instead on the new.

But then last week Campbell only goes and interviews Alastair McGowan and all best intentions exit stage right. Last Tuesday's Chain Reaction was probably the best of the series so far, as McGowan gave a masterclass in how he does what he does so well. Slipping from one voice to the other, frequently during a single sentence, he analysed how they came to be. The Nerd Voice, for example, which he was already using as a generic, suddenly acquired a real-life person to attach it to: John Major. "The reason why it's the Nerd Voice," he said, "is because it's completely devoid of emotion and heart.

"Technically, it derives from the back of the throat, which is also used by Brian Perkins" - changing gear ever so slightly to become the legendary Radio 4 newsreader - "but Brian has a connection with his chest, so you have this wonderful, resonant open voice, while Major" - shifting the voice a couple of inches upwards - "is stuck in the throat, so he's cut off from feeling.

"Michael Heseltine," he continued, on a roll now, "had a fabulous oratory voice. He had a trapped 'R' and he couldn't speak properly, but when he really got going he was trapped and there was a little bit of shyness there and there really was a great power to it."

And by God he was right. So simple, and yet so intricate. "There are places the voice goes to," he summed up, "and the deeper it goes, the cooler you are."

Prompted by Campbell, McGowan gave us his Tony Blair, which derives much of its authenticity from the former PM's habit of replacing his "I" sounds with "U" sounds - "Uff the Honourable Member thunks..." but confessed himself stymied by the next PM, David Cameron: "Just sound posh and whisper."

But of course, McGowan is best-known, not for his political voices - Rory Bremner has that covered - but everything else. David Beckham, for example, is an unconfident Stuart Pearce, and when McGowan segued from one to the other you saw exactly what he meant. The same voice, but with a different man behind it.

Look, the latest series of Chain Reaction will soon be naught but a beam in the eye of memory (McGowan talks to Simon Callow today; should be interesting), and I'm going to write about something else in a minute, but there was one last McGowan moment to warm our way into winter. "I've recently discovered Neil Oliver, of The One Show," McGowan said, in Scots character, "and one thing I've noticed is that he's really passionate about everything he does, but he really has to keep his passion under control, because if he ever gets carried away with it, he's just going to turn into" - mid-sentence segue - "Billy Connolly!" The mind's ear caught the connection and thought 'I could do that.' As if.

Chris Campling, The Times, 6th October 2009

A brief mention of the finest put-down of the week. In Chain Reaction (Radio 4, Wednesdays, 6.30pm), Eddie Izzard interviewed Alastair Campbell: a knockabout surreal comic going up against Eddie Izzard. How could it work?

At first, Izzard seemed to have decided that if this wasn't going to get bogged down in talk of bagpipes, writing soft-porn for Forum magazine, alcoholism and nervous breakdowns, then he would have to talk about cats taking over the world. Campbell was limited to the occasional dry interjection. Then Izzard went too far: learning that Campbell spoke French, and being known for having done stand-up shows in French, he began to ask him a question in that language. And Campbell corrected his grammar. Just like that. One sentence in. One felt as bad for the Izzster as one did for those poor political hacks who came up against Campbell during the No 10 glory days. Izzard floundered. He attempted to keep going in French, then collapsed. "This question might be better asked in English," he muttered, a broken man.

Chris Campling, The Times, 28th September 2009

On Chain Reaction (Radio 4), Alastair Campbell was also recalling recent history. He was very comfortable discussing his soft-porn writings ("a mixture of stuff you'd done and stuff you wished you'd done), his drinking, his "crack-up" and his depression. When he was appointed as Tony Blair's press spokesman in 1994, he said, they had a bet as to which paper would dredge up which bit of his past first. "It was the News of the World, on the porn, eight minutes after the press release went out."

Camilla Redmond, The Guardian, 25th September 2009

Eddie Izzard is never off the wireless lately. Last week he was interviewed by Frank Skinner, now he's quizzing Alistair Campbell, once chief spin doctor to Tony Blair and terror of the BBC, now more of a wandering minstrel. Izzard starts off with how the Clan Campbell got its appalling reputation, what it was like for a Campbell to grow upin Keighley, what differentiates a busker from a street entertainer, being a swot, going to Cambridge, trying his hand at pornography, having a nervous breakdown. I think I've heard most of this before. Too often.

Gillian Reynolds, Daily Telegraph, 23rd September 2009

Just time to revise my view on Radio 4's Chain Reaction. This week's interview with Eddie Izzard by Frank Skinner was excellent: funny and revealing. You forget that Skinner used to have a chat show. Though I'm not saying it should be brought back, mind.

Miranda Sawyer, The Observer, 20th September 2009

Comedy probably divides opinion like nothing else - what one generation finds rib-tickling, another can find unfunny, even distasteful. Having started his stand-up career in Edinburgh back in 1987, some might consider Frank Skinner a somewhat fossilised funster now compared to the new, young names on today's circuit. But, during Radio 4's Chain Reaction, it's clear that fellow, albeit very different, comedian and guest interviewer, Dave Gorman, has a healthy respect for the banjo-playing Brummie as he reflects on his love of live performance, football and even outdoor toilets. Dubbed a comedian of the lad culture age, Skinner admits success could have easily made him complacent now he's hit middle age and got money in the bank, but seems determined to try new avenues of comedy.

Growing up, he reveals, he wanted to be a cowboy, footballer or a pop star. Having recently rediscovered his musical bent, all he needs now is to adapt an old George Formby song and he could be storming the charts again, like when Three Lions hit number one and made him a truly household name. The next Chain Reaction sees Skinner swap chairs and interview Eddie Izzard - comedic chalk and cheese if ever there was, not least in wardrobe and make-up departments.

Derek Smith, The Stage, 14th September 2009

And now let's recommend another comedy series that is hardly in the full blush of youth: Chain Reaction (Radio 4, Wednesdays, 6.30pm), which this week will be half-way through its second series. The format is simple: the interviewee in the first programme becomes the interviewer in the next, and so on until the interviewer in the first becomes the interviewee in the sixth. The conversation may range freely, but always starts from the same point - the comedic style of the interviewee. It works best when both are stand-ups - they're good at being automatically funny - and the series reached a peak last week, when Dave Gorman interviewed Frank Skinner.

It's easy to dislike Skinner. There's the football, the laddishness, the swearing, the pornographic stage show. Listening to Chain Reaction, though, it was just as easy to like him. This is one charming guy, as honest when discussing his financial troubles - his life savings took a bit of a hammering when the American bank in which they were residing went under - as he is frank (it's the only word) about his sex life. It takes a very un-laddish lad to admit that the disadvantage to three-in-a-bed sex is the occasional clash of heads and the constant fear, on the part of the man, that the women are whispering about him, and giggling.

He can also tell a story about his straitened upbringing without coming over all Angela's Ashes. Yes, it took some time for the Skinner family's council house to acquire an inside toilet, but when they did his father was not impressed. A toilet inside the house? That sounded unhygienic. And as for the bath, well, the young Skinner bathed only once or twice a year. "Why should I? I didn't have a sex life at the time." Tomorrow's programme is even better - Skinner interviews Eddie Izzard.

Chris Campling, The Times, 14th September 2009

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