Comedy Rewind

Why not up your Bleak Expectations?

Bleak Expectations. Image shows from L to R: Pippa Bin (Susy Kane), Hardthrasher (Geoffrey Whitehead), Aunt Lily (Celia Imrie), Young Pip (Tom Allen), Mr Gently Benevolent (Anthony Head), Sir Philip Bin (Richard Johnson), Harry Biscuit (James Bachman). Copyright: BBC

My father's family name being Bin, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Flip-top Bin. Over the years this was shortened to Ip, then extended once more to the far more name-worthy name of Pip.

Thus began the extraordinary adventures of Pip Bin, inventor of the bin, writer of many English literary classics, preventer of the great Martian invasion of 1845 and the protagonist of Radio 4's much-loved, long-running, (modern) Dickensian classic, Bleak Expectations.

Each episode begins with the elderly Sir Phillip Bin, voiced superbly by the distinguished Richard Johnson. He acts as narrator of the series under the guise of dictating his entire life story to eager biographer Sourquill, played by a rather timid Anthony Head. Sir Phillip has, over his remarkable career, become something of a celebrity and is determined to set the record straight regarding his origins, even though many clues to his early life can in fact be found spread throughout his great works: A Story of Two Towns, Miserable Mansion, The Old Shop of Stuff, Graham Grambleby and Massive Dorrit. Sir Phillip claims that every one of his novels contain hints of truth, apart from Lustful Killer Bees from Mars, which he grants is almost entirely fictional.

We follow Pip as he reminisces over the adventures of a much younger Sir Phillip Bin, then merely Pip Bin, played by Tom Allen, who was, back in 2007 when Bleak Expectations began, something of a rising star on the stand-up comedy circuit. Tom perfectly captures the charmingly cavalier attitude of the youthful Pip, who, despite his self-assuredness is actually considerably dim-witted and fairly gullible most of the time.

Bleak Expectations. Image shows from L to R: Young Pip (Tom Allen), Mr Gently Benevolent (Anthony Head). Copyright: BBC

Pip is constantly at risk of losing everything to his legal guardian, Mr Gently Benevolent - also voiced by Anthony Head - albeit this time much less timidly and a lot more evilly. Benevolent, with his trademark maniacal laugh is perhaps the cornerstone of the Bleak Expectations brand. Steeped in preposterous pantomime villainy, Head's delight in playing the character is almost tangible; he relishes in the delivery of every line - a prefect antagonist for the saga.

In the first series Pip was ripped away from his idyllic family life. His father died tragically, torn apart by monkeys in an unfortunate accident (he had built a successful hotel out of primates, until the fateful day when somebody opened up a peanut and banana factory next door). The resulting grief caused Pip's mother to go insane, believing that she was a piece of table linen. Pip's newly appointed evil (yet ironically-named) guardian then forced him to become a boarder at Britain's fiercest school... St Bastards.

The abominable school was overseen by headmaster Jeremiah Hardthrasher (Whitehead): a school where there was only one rule: 'Obey all rules, and there are over 8,000 of those.'

It was a place of amoral cruelty where classes were rigorously streamed (literally, taking place in a stream); children were beaten; forced to use hedgehogs as sponges; and used as rugby footballs in a game called 'Bastard ball'. Meals were also only served once every three months. Pip seemed almost certain to die there, until one day he found a glimmer of hope in the shape of a fellow pupil who would become his lifelong friend, Harry Biscuit.

Biscuit is one of the greatest and most underappreciated comedy characters in recent years. James Bachman brings the absurd young man to life in a warm and naturally hilarious way. Recorded in front of a live audience, almost any single utterance from Harry Biscuit is enough to bring the house down - curiously this wasn't even something that developed over time, as Harry's first ever line of dialogue was rewarded with a chorus of bewildered guffaws that would only serve to build in the four series that followed.

Harry Biscuit (of the Warwickshire Biscuits), whose father invented the biscuit, is, despite his rampant enthusiasm, perhaps the world's worst inventor. The only half-decent thing that he ever managed to create was the catchphrase 'harrumble' to be used instead of words such as 'hurrah' or 'hooray' but not instead of words like 'cauliflower' or 'mattress'.

United alongside Pip; Pip's sister, Pippa (Susy Kane) who eventually becomes Harry's wife; and Ripely (Sarah Hadland), Pip's second wife (his first wife, Flora Diesearly having died early), the unlikely team spend most of their time thwarting the evil schemes of Mr Benevolent and his accomplices. These adversaries are often related to one family and all are voiced by Geoffrey Whitehead. Over the course of the series Pip managed to see off the Hardthrashers, the Sternbeaters, the Wackwallops, the Grimpunches and finally he defeated the Clampvultures. Whenever Harry Biscuit had anything to do with these victories, swans would become involved in some way or another. It is hard to explain why it is that when James Bachman says 'Swans!' it is so hilarious, and somehow never gets old, but it just is, and it just doesn't.

Bleak Expectations. Image shows from L to R: Grimpunch (Geoffrey Whitehead), Mr Gently Benevolent (Anthony Head), Young Pip (Tom Allen). Copyright: BBC

As the name suggests, Bleak Expectations is at its core a parody of Charles Dickens's celebrated Great Expectations, mixed with a little bit of Bleak House, and peppered throughout with many a nerdy Dickens joke - however, the parodying nature of the series is loose; this isn't just a Charles Dickens adaptation with a few jokes thrown into the mix, a tried and tested formula in the world of comedy. What Bleak Expectations does so cunningly is to pastiche the entire Dickensian world - concepts, tropes, characters and plot points - whilst still following its own plotline; a plotline that is often completely daft, but always compelling.

Although many of the Dickens references are obvious - there is an obligatory A Christmas Carol parody in Series 3, and Charles Dickens himself (or Chickens, as he likes to be known) even plays a small part in Series 5 - there are many other Dickensian references that aren't so obvious, yet it would hardly matter if you missed them. The series is not snooty with its subject matter.

Much has been made of the sitcom's similarities to The Goon Show, of which it shares a certain quality of heightened surrealness, whilst other comparisons have been drawn with Alec Guinness's multi-roles in 1949 Edwardian satire Kind Hearts And Coronets. Bleak Expectations does feel as though it comes from another age, evoking the mood of old-world radio, the sort of charming adventures that would have its avid audience huddled around the wireless each week, but the slick production and sharpness of the writing gives the series a modern sheen.

Bleak Expectations. Image shows from L to R: Young Pip (Tom Allen), Harry Biscuit (James Bachman). Copyright: BBC

The comedy was created and solely written across its impressive five-series run by Mark Evans. Mark began writing comedy at the University of Cambridge, where he became president of Footlights and met his future writing partner (and the future Harry Biscuit), James Bachman - it is perhaps thanks to their years of working together that Bachman is so adept at delivering Biscuit's lines.

It was at Footlights that Mark also met another long-term collaborator, Robert Webb, who went on to star in The Bleak Old Shop Of Stuff, a 2011 TV outing for the Bleak Expectations world, as Jedrington Secretpast. Webb's comedy partner David Mitchell also made occasional guest appearances in Bleak Expectations as Pip's father-in-law, The Reverend Godly Fecund.

After leaving university, Mark became a jobbing script writer and began submitting sketches for various Radio 4 vehicles such as the long-running sketch show Week Ending, before embarking on something of a double act with Bachman. Their writing/performing partnership saw them create for both Mitchell & Webb's TV and radio sketch shows. By the final series of That Mitchell And Webb Look the pair were such an essential part of the troupe and so recognisable to fans that they were directly referenced and worked into the episodes. In one tongue-in-cheek behind the scenes sketch, they briefly discussed killing Mark Evans off in order to give the series a sad ending, before finally settling on putting James Bachman into a wood chipper for "narrative reasons".

Whilst Evans penned some great sketches for Mitchell & Webb (particularly the 'James Bond Casino Royale-style' guess-the-weight-of-the-fruit-cake sketch, co-written with David Mitchell), it is Bleak Expectations for which he remains most widely known. The idea came to him in 2005 when he read Great Expectations and fell in love with it, despite being a little lukewarm on Dickens previously. He also cited another epic Dickensian-themed novel as an inspiration for the series: Charles Palliser's The Quincunx. He told British Comedy Guide:

Those books made me go a bit nineteenth century mad for a while, and I thought 'what a great place to set something big, daft and melodramatic'; then when it turned out the BBC were doing Bleak House on TV, I thought 'what about a costume drama... but silly'. So, I wrote a slightly strange script, in the first instance for television. Gareth Edwards was one of the producers I sent it to, and he said 'I think this might work better as a radio script...' Because Gareth is right 99.7% of the time, I said 'yes, sir, Mr Gareth', rewrote it into a radio show and we pitched it to Radio 4'.

A pilot was recorded in 2006 but was abruptly turned down. Production stalled entirely and it seemed as if Bleak Expectations was over before it had begun, until the then-head of Radio Comedy, Paul Schlesinger, expressed a love for the pilot and called upon Radio 4 executives to change their minds. The first series aired in 2007 and quickly acquired something of a cult following.

The annals of television and radio comedy are littered with the husks of series that enjoyed just one short run. This is especially true in the world of radio, where many a series seems to vanish without trace, so it takes a certain special something to make a real lasting impression. to really break the glass ceiling, and Bleak Expectations is one of all too few radio series that actually managed to do it.

The Bleak Old Shop Of Stuff. Image shows from L to R: Malifax Skulkingworm (Stephen Fry), Victoria Secret-Past (Ambra Lily Keegan), Maggoty (Pauline McLynn), Conceptiva Secret-Past (Katherine Parkinson), Jedrington Secret-Past (Robert Webb), Victor Secret-Past (Finlay Christie), Jolliforth Jollington (David Mitchell). Copyright: BBC

Aforementioned TV spin-off The Bleak Old Shop Of Stuff - including a feature-length Christmas special starring Stephen Fry - was not the only extension of the world, with Evans also penning a delightful novelisation of the first radio series. One could argue that not since the almighty Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy has a fantasy comedy serial stood out on its own, nor left such a lasting impression as a radio icon.

Bleak Expectations took us to some extraordinary places across its five-year run: Mars, the Antarctica, a volcanic dinosaur-populated dessert island (yes, a dessert island, surrounded by sea toffee), and amongst many, many other weird and wonderful places, The Ealing Custard Marshes.

The farcical nature of the series may seem at first glance as though it's not something that's supposed to be taken tremendously seriously, which of course it isn't. However, the story is told to us with such art and sincerity - and with its beautifully sweeping soundtrack - that we as listeners find ourselves genuinely caring about these madcap characters. There are a few candid moments across the saga that are sincerely moving. A scene towards the end of the final episode encapsulates this perfectly, evoking a unique reaction from the studio audience: a sort of sad, moved, wistful sigh. A stunning moment.

After years of Pip foiling Mr Benevolent's vengeful schemes, Bleak Expectations bowed out in style, its grand finale taking pride of place in Radio 4's 2012 Christmas Day schedule. It was a tearful goodbye, but one that left expectations far from bleak.

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