The Armstrong & Miller Show launched on BBC One on Friday 26th October 2007. It saw Alexander Armstrong and Ben Miller carrying on from where their 1997 to 2001 Paramount and Channel 4 sketch show left off.
Amongst their new creations were Brabbins and Fyffe - a filthy spoof of the 50s British comedy duo Flanders and Swann. Other recurring characters included Divorced Dad, who gives his son brutally honest answers to innocent questions; the Inappropriate Dentist, who regales his captive audience with tales of swinger parties and the state of his pet dog's prostate; and Tony and Dimitri, a hapless football manager and his Russian oligarch boss (a thinly veiled reference to the power of Chelsea FC boss Roman Abramovich).
There's also near-the-knuckle instructions from the Politically Incorrect Sat Nav to laugh at; and Pru and Miranda, two bickering middle-aged ladies who struggle to run Dandy Lion's, a brain-meltingly inefficient vegetarian restaurant in Hampstead. These sketches end with the fantastic line: "Pru, It's kicking off!"... at which point their customers (and their front window) feel the full force of their pent up frustrations with each other.
Armstrong and Miller's most popular new characters though were the World War II fighter pilots, who use their 1940s upper class tones to speak in an interesting modern-day patois.
There was also Rog, who is oblivious to the clues that his wife is having an affair with work colleague Peter. In the first sketch Rog walks in on Peter and his wife in bondage gear, but still swallows his friend's excuse that it all in aid of a surprise party for him... at 9:30 on a Monday morning... six months before his birthday. Subsequent weeks saw Peter's excuses get even more ludicrous, yet Rog still buys them!
Add to that nearly a hundred other characters, plus Armstrong and Miller's exquisite nose for the absurd and it's no wonder that this programme had little trouble winning over their loyal Channel 4 audience, and making a whole new generation of BBC One viewers laugh.
After their previous series ended in 2001, Alexander (aka Xander) and Ben decided to work together again on this show after having appeared together in a 2005 charity show at the Groucho Club. As Armstrong explains: "It was the first time we had performed together for many years, and it was lovely, really good fun. Because we'd worked together so much and so intensively, we thought we'd done enough to last a lifetime. But we realised how much we missed it and how the chemistry just worked. Re-uniting suddenly seemed the sensible thing to do." Miller adds: "Our wives Belinda and Hannah were there to watch. They had never seen us do our act before, and they encouraged us to get back together."
The duo first began performing together in 1993 when they left Cambridge and started working together at a comedy club in Notting Hill's Gate Theatre. Alexander laughs: "We didn't know each other at uni because Ben was a bit of a superstar - an amazing astrophysicist and left-field comedian who was going out with Rachel Weisz - so he seemed to live on another planet."
After guest appearances on French & Saunders, Smith & Jones and Harry Enfield & Chums, the pair got their big break on Channel 4's Saturday Live. This then led to their own show on Paramount Comedy, which moved Channel 4, running to four series in total.
Jimmy Mulville of Hat Trick Productions - with whom Armstrong and Miller have made a number of programmes (including The Worst Week Of My Life and Have I Got News For You) - was one of those encouraging them to do another series together.
Armstrong explains: "Hat Trick started making noises to me about Ben and me getting back together a while ago, at around the time they were discussing the possibility of my becoming the permanent host on Have I Got News For You. I remember having lunch with Jimmy Mulville and Denise O'Donoghue and I said that Ben and I had done so much over a four-year period and worked at such a pace that our ideas were all wrung out and I wasn't sure if we had anything fresh to say. But now a few years down the line the reservoirs are full again and the timing seemed right."
Having decided to reunite, Ben and Xander then had a lot of fun conjuring up a crack team of writers to work with them, with Jeremy Dyson of The League Of Gentlemen fame as their script editor. "We have always been big fans of Jeremy. He has a fantastic outlook and a wonderful scientific and emotional handle on comedy. He's really good at putting his finger on what is funny and we leapt at the chance when he was suggested."
Choosing the writers for the series was a long process: "Lots of people sent in ideas, and the ones who consistently hit the mark are the ones we decided to work with." The chosen writers include a number of famous names - notably Andy Hamilton (Outnumbered, Drop The Dead Donkey), Justin Sbresni and Mark Bussell (The Worst Week Of My Life), Bert Tyler-Moore and George Jeffrie (Star Stories), Laurence Howarth (Dead Ringers, Alistair McGowan's Big Impression), Simon Blackwell (The Thick Of It) and Anil Gupta (Goodness Gracious Me).
Ben explains: "We chose writers from shows that we love and people that we had worked with during the intervening years. I had done Worst Week with Justin and Mark, and asked them to write something for us. They came up with the 'Pete and Rog' sketches. Bert and George wrote a lot of the best stuff from our Channel 4 series and we were very keen to have them back. "
Before filming each series they try out some of their sketches in front of a live audience, as Ben explains just after Series 1: "It was one of the best things that we did. It got us used to performing in front of an audience again, and helped us try out lots of material before we went into the studio."
Alexander agrees: "It was very fruitful and incredibly helpful and got us back into the swing of performing. You can't beat having a live audience, and it also meant we had a chance to develop the characters and to see which ones worked and which didn't - and there were some surprises."
Miller elaborates: "When we did the Channel 4 show, the subjects that we showed and the targets that we picked were sometimes a little bit obscure - the more obscure the setting the better, in fact. For example, we'd do a whole sketch about a Mike Leigh film in which the improvisation was very bad - some chap with a broken arm and the gags connected to that - but of course Mike Leigh films aren't something we all share. So this time round we wanted to work from mainstream reference points. And treat them in a barmy way."
Armstrong agrees: "The move hasn't affected our style, but a lot of the stuff that was slightly more left-of-field we had to explain a bit more or ditch. We don't want to alienate the BBC One audience. The references had to be more universal which means we do spoofs on programmes like Who Do You Think You Are? and sports programmes rather than Mike Leigh movies. We were determined not to spread ourselves too thinly, though. Our watchword is to do stuff that we find funny. And I think we've pulled it off - our humour is genuinely things that we love and that make us laugh and situations people will recognise only too well."
Ben continues: "For example, we have a running joke set in a chemist. You know when you hand in your prescription and they go into the little room at the back and just seem to take forever? What are they doing? I mean, all they've got to do is open a drawer, get out some pills and give them to you. But 20 minutes later they're still not back and there are usually two or three people waiting patiently in front of you. So we have a sketch where a guy decides he can't stand it anymore and he goes out to the back to find another world, like Narnia."
Several times members of the public got involved in sketches during the filming. Here's an example from Ben Miller: "I was with some youths in the street in Primrose Hill dressed in my fuddy duddy outfit. They drop some litter and I say: 'Oi, pick that up - there's a bin right here!' and then I turn to the camera and say: 'I'm wearing my wife's knickers!' When I told the boys to pick the rubbish up, a woman passer-by started clapping and saying: 'Yes, well done!' I had to shatter her illusions by apologising and telling her that it was make-believe! And then we had to re-shoot the scene."
Filming took place at BBC Television Centre and on location around London, including Barnet and at Wrotham Park, the beautiful stately home where Gosford Park was filmed.
Alexander laughs: "We shot our cavemen scenes not in the New Forest but on a bit of scrubland in a really busy part of London; it's amazing that we managed to dodge the aeroplane noises, really!"
Amongst the plethora of characters they have invented for the show, Ben has his own personal favourite: "It's the forgetful prime minister. He's voiced a bit like John Humphrys and is very dignified. Usually the scene starts with him being in some high-level meeting where he's negotiating some life-or-death situation or saving the planet. Everyone is very impressed and happy with what he suggests and he walks out on a high with the applause ringing in his ears. Then once he's outside he goes: 'Oh s**t, I think I left my briefcase behind!' And Xander, who plays my aide, asks if I want to go back in and get it and I say: 'Um, I think it might be a bit embarrassing, actually. Left on a bit of a high - I think we'll just leave it. That's constantly happening to me in real life. I leave in a gale of laughter and a few passing jokes and then I realise I've left my jumper there and I have to go back in..."
Meanwhile Armstrong has a different favourite: "He's a character called Max. It's all about the conspiracy surrounding half-price pots and how it's a bit of a scam because they're really full price. Ben plays a character called Steve who's talking about this with some friends in the pub and he tells them he can't talk about it any more as he's said way too much already. He then gets bundled into a car at night by some heavies and driven to some sinister place where Max is the big half-price supremo. I really went to town with that character, and had a white lens made for my eye. It's based on a guy I used to know who'd leave the last consonant on every word until about a minute after the rest of the word."
With so many characters in the series, is it immediately clear who is going to play which one?
Armstrong laughs: "Absolutely not! It's a free-for-all usually!", and Ben agrees: "We've both kind of got types, but I think we try and play against them as well, which is fun.". Alexander elaborates: "It's much more fun to confound the writer - I've taken a number of parts on that were actually written for Ben!"
In the main, the writers did know who they had in mind when they were writing: "There's a great divorced dad character. We often see him walking in the park with his son who will ask him why he and his mum had to divorce, and he says: 'Well, it was all your fault; your mum and I were perfectly happy until you came along. What tore us apart was the strain of trying to keep two careers going while looking after you - come on, race you to the swings!' That was a part meant for Ben but I got it."
There are several running characters throughout the series, which is a bit different to the previous show. Alexander explains: "That was another of our rules; at Channel 4 we tried to have as many stand-alone sketches as possible. We had a few running sketches, such as Nude Practice and Strijka, but this time round, we wiped the slate clean pretty much, although there are some similarities. I think there's more fun to be had that way as you can develop ideas and the audience warms more and more to characters they are familiar with."
They are joined in this new series by some very talented comedians: Lucy Montgomery (Tittybangbang), Katherine Jakeways (Extras, Hyperdrive) and Karen Hayley (Bo' Selecta) provide the glamour, whilst Jim Howick (Peep Show), David Armand (Rush Hour, Swinging, Pulling), Dan Renton Skinner (The Office, Mike Bassett: Manager) and Tyger Drew-Honey (Outnumbered) performing alongside them.
Although they have never gone away, thanks to the likes of Armstrong and Miller, sketch shows do seem to be enjoying a bit of a revival now. Ben agrees with this idea: "Definitely. When we started in 1991, we performed at the only sketch club in London, TBA, at the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill. Now 15% of young men between the ages of 18 and 30 are in a sketch comedy troupe!"
Alexander adds: "Sketch shows are like a big box of chocolates; if you're not so keen on one sketch, the next one might be absolutely to your taste. Ben and I have always made a big play for trying to act as well as possible, and I hope our enthusiasm comes across and that people will agree that it is a classy show, and that Armstrong and Miller looks like something we've put a lot of fun and love into."
Ben concludes: "Xander and I have really enjoyed working together again. Hopefully at the end of the day each sketch is in some way about our relationship - a double act."