Of all the live performances I’ve attended that I could legitimately shout “I WAS THERE!” about, the one that I’m actually the most pleased about in retrospect wasn’t a soon-to-be-massive band playing rough versions of songs that ultimately wouldn’t make it onto their debut album in a tiny venue but a recording of a radio comedy show. I was in the audience for The Sea, the fourth episode of the second series of Stewart Lee and Richard Herring’s first starring vehicle Lionel Nimrod’s Inexplicable World – if you know me, you can probably just about make out my laugh – and afterwards I met the cast for the first time, none of whom looked anything like I’d expected and all of whom were probably more than a little bit alarmed that anyone would actually want to meet them in the first place. There wasn’t really anything that remarkable or out of the ordinary about the recording itself, but it is strange to think that any visual element of Lionel Nimrod’s Inexplicable World – which inspired two series and a stage show – now more than likely only exists in the memories of anyone who can legitimately shout, well, “I WAS THERE!”. Even over a decade later Rich and Stew were still struggling to get proper video versions of their live shows recorded – while Armando was struggling to get one of his actual television series released on DVD – and there is a whole lost mini-universe of shows that existed after comedy became The New Rock’n’Roll but before anyone realised that they could make any actual money out of it, which were only ever captured in sound or simply not captured at all. It’s difficult enough to find decent early footage of Suede, who I saw on numerous occasions around this time. The original stage version of Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out or The All-New Alexei Sayle Tour, both of which I also saw around the same time, you’ll struggle to find any trace of at all. And how I wish there was some kind of a recording of the This Morning With Richard Not Judy live show where Rich went into an extended improvised rant about what ‘The Businessman’ did with Superlambanana, leading a speechless Stew to splutter that “on this occasion, I think he actually is the sick man after all”.
Fortunately, I eventually got the chance to translate those memories of seeing Lionel Nimrod’s Inexplicable World into the chapter dealing with Lee And Herring in Fun At One – The Story Of Comedy At BBC Radio 1, which is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here. This is essentially just an edited version of the section on Lionel Nimrod’s Inexplicable World, originally posted on my previous site for no other reason than to promote the book. Though it might also help you to answer the unanswerable, think the unthinkable, and finally know the mind of God…
By late 1991, with their stint on Radio 4’s weekly topical satire show Week Ending thankfully now behind them, Stewart Lee and Richard Herring were in considerable demand as writers. Significantly, December had seen the launch of The End Of The Road Show, a sketch comedy show for Radio 4 which – barring some additional material from Armando Iannucci – they had almost entirely written.
Billed as “a four-part comedy series from Radio 4’s student roadshows”, the series poked fun at the contrasting approaches of BBC Radio 1 and Radio 4, combining the boisterous ‘Roadshow’ traditions of the former with the more formal and less frivolous tone of the latter. The sketch material, performed by Rebecca Front, Tony Hawks, Nick Hancock and Neil Mullarkey, was generally good rather than great, but at the same time it provided an insight into the rapid development of Lee and Herring’s comedy style; indeed, many of the later staples of their act – such as Herring’s insistence on introducing himself in a strange manner – have their roots in The End Of The Road Show. Most interesting of all in retrospect, however, is the sheer irony of the central joke; Radio 4 would soon make some surprisingly successful attempts at aligning its comedy output with that of Radio 1, and Lee and Herring were responsible for perhaps the most successful of all these shows.
In July 1991, Lee and Herring had written and recorded a pilot show for Radio 4 under the title Lionel Nimrod’s Spooky World Of…, which parodied a recent trend for television programmes fixated with the paranormal and the unexplained. Neither felt that the pilot was a tremendous success, not least because Radio 4 insisted that they should present the show not as themselves but in the guise of ‘popular Northern youth TV celebrity’ Barry Crustings and science writer Francis Sousa, although producer Sarah Smith was sufficiently convinced of its potential to threaten to resign in protest when Radio 4 initially suggested that they would not commission a full series.
Smith’s belief in the show was strong enough to persuade Radio 4 to record a second pilot, and Lee and Herring took full advantage of the opportunity to make changes to the style and format. Recorded nearly a year after the first pilot, what would become the first edition of Lionel Nimrod’s Inexplicable World saw the duo finally allowed to perform as themselves. This brought immediate and noticeable benefits; they sounded more comfortable when performing the material, and the natural conflict between their exaggerated stage personas (Lee the cynical and pessimistic realist; Herring the cheerfully naïve and immature idiot) infused the comedy with a believable edge, embodying the eternal struggle between science and nature as a somewhat more petty struggle between two individuals with equally ridiculous perspectives on the subject (“we must not question what we do not understand” – “but that’s the whole point of this programme”). This second pilot was adjudged to be strong enough to warrant a full six episode series, which was transmitted by Radio 4 between 8th October and 12th November 1992.
Each edition of Lionel Nimrod’s Inexplicable World was introduced by none other than Lionel Nimrod himself, as portrayed by none other than Tom Baker. A washed-up veteran sci-fi star best known as “inventor of the Stellar Laser Ray Gun Toy, and Mackay off of ABC-TV’s Star Ark”, Nimrod was a remarkable comic creation whose fictitious curriculum vitae closely echoed those of certain real life former sci-fi stars who had been reduced to trading on their diminishing fame. A bitter and deluded washed-up ‘proper’ actor, Nimrod’s reminiscences of filming special effects extravaganza The Fantastic Odyssey, the seventh Star Ark movie The Search For Mackayand Spalanski’s fifteen hour epic Lancelot And Guinevere (witness to a sordid incident in which Nimrod and Spalanski joined a coven of teenage witches as ‘research’, ruining their careers and preventing them from ever returning to Wales), attempts to give some semblance of prestige to his recent recreations of the voyages of minor cartographers for Channel 4, reverential recollections of mysterious instructions and commandments that had been left to him by Star Ark creator Phillip Lamarr (most of which seemed to involve nothing more than ensuring that Nimrod was as far away from him as possible at all times), rueful condemnation of the youthful folly that led him to record his pop LP Lionel Nimrod’s Songs From Space and bold proclamations on man’s attempts to comprehend concepts that he cannot possibly explain (from the human subconscious to ‘an elf ‘) were so close an evocation of the actual demeanour of such cult figures that a less knowledgeable listener could easily have mistaken him for the genuine article.
Nimrod’s invitations to “come with me now, into the swirling mists of human inadequacy” led into Lee and Herring’s own dissections of such concepts as Good And Evil, The Human Mind and Love, all examined with a mixture of traditional mythology and that which has been added around them by feature films and television. The biblical and scientific accounts of evolution were weighed against Planet Of The Apes, the route to hell in Dante’s Inferno was compared with the route to heaven (“a sort of lift”) in the BBC childrens’ sitcom Rentaghost, Nostradamus took part in a game show with that equally unsuccessful visionary, television weatherman Ian Macaskill, and HG Wells’ predictions of Things To Come were shown to have been let down by his vision of a triangular video recorder.
Other subjects of discussion included people with telekinetic powers who will only use their abilities to render cutlery useless, Martin Luther King’s other dream about a giant ant (which failed to inspire the sixties civil rights movement to quite the same extent), the proverb that “love is not only blind, but also is deaf and has no sense of touch and is stupid” in the case of attractive young women who go out with unattractive old millionaires, Horseman of The Apocalypse Pestilence’s fill-in job as a milkman, the Oracle of Rome and its close rival the Ceefax of Athens, the sinister reality behind graffiti proclaiming ‘York City Are Magic’, the subsequent career moved of the Naked Man and Woman seen in generations of school biology textbooks, the struggle between the human manifestations of good (the Cubs, who spend their days doing good turns and advising developing world nations on crop rotation) and evil (the scouts, who exist simply to drink cider and give Chinese burns), and elves that steal one of each pair of Ben Elton’s socks from a laundrette.
There were also plenty of jibes at the expense of Week Ending, including the revelation that the show is regarded as high surrealist art in the furthest reaches of the universe, and that if an infinite number of monkeys were given an infinite number of typewriters, they would only avoid being mistaken for one of the programme’s writers meetings by virtue of having less bodily hair and not smelling quite as much. Fascinating scientific facts detailed during the course of the series included the first successful human cloning (by Robert Smith, lead vocalist of The Cure, who managed to make hundreds of exact replicas of himself during the eighties), what would result if all of the entrails in a human body were laid end to end (a jail sentence), and the origins of the phrase “you are what you eat” in the unfortunate tale of revolutionary leader Garibaldi.
Boasting that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself… and monsters”, Lee and Herring’s love of ridiculing traditional tales and revered quotes from the likes of Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, ability to recognise why certain public figures and cultural items – such as the Sinclair ZX81 and American actor Greg Evigan – are inherently amusing, affectionate mockery of popular comic devices (“I didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition” – “well you should have done, it’s the seventeenth century and they’re torturing everyone”) and simple odd juxtapositions of words (“Ian Pterodactyl was here”) made for a hugely enjoyable show that succeeded in treating the subject matter with the irreverence it deserved after so many years of earnest televisual ‘study’.
The supporting roles in Lionel Nimrod’s Inexplicable World were played by Lee and Herring’s former On The Hour colleagues Rebecca Front and Armando Iannucci. Both were perfectly suited to the show, and Iannucci’s performances in particular were a revelation to audiences that had previously only known him as a producer, appearing in the guise of such unlikely characters as De Montfort University’s Professor of Urine (who tells the future through the colour of the liquid – orange, for example, indicates that the subject has been drinking too much Irn Bru and will consume slightly less in future), and organist Peter Fenn, whose regular ‘Believe It Or Not Spot’ related bizarre statistics to the accompaniment of a selection of Easy Listening classics.
The final show in the first series, supposedly broadcast live from the ship featured in the seventies television sitcom The Love Boat, examined the mysteries of love and romance. In between charting what became of those who adhered literally to the Beatles’ proclamation that All You Need Is Love and the philosophical ramifications of Howard Jones’ mid-eighties hit What Is Love?, Lee and Herring interviewed representatives of the various forms of love (including Front as a woman who loved her God, her Queen and her fellow countrymen but found it difficult to juggle the various relationships without them finding out about each other; Iannucci as a man who believed in the medieval principle of courtly love and was infatuated with a woman he had never seen; and Peter Baynham as a man who had formed an unhealthy attachment to spaghetti), before Lee fell victim to the crudely pornographic ‘song’ of the mythological Sirens. Herring bemoaned the loss of his one true friend (“sometimes you can’t see what you’ve got until it’s taken away… by evil lizard flying vulture women”), but Lee returned unharmed, refreshed by a night of passion with the legendary flesh-eating creatures and armed with an understanding of the true essence of love – the smell of spaghetti.
The highly individual humour of Lionel Nimrod’s Inexplicable World had much appeal for the same sort of audience as Radio 1’s recent comedy hit The Mary Whitehouse Experience, and despite the considerable distance between Lee and Herring’s work and much of the rest of Radio 4’s output, the show found an enthusiastic audience, many of whom were a good deal younger than the station’s traditional audience. A second series of six episodes ran from 15th July to 19th August 1993, ending with a ‘deus ex machina’ appearance by Lionel Nimrod, turning the Stellar Laser Ray Gun Toy on Lee and Herring after having finally been driven insane by the haunting gravity of Phillip Lamarr’s words.
This was not quite the end of the Inexplicable World; Radio 1 had been sufficiently impressed by the show to repeat four editions of the second series in their regular half hour comedy slot in August, commencing their run before the series had actually finished on Radio 4. In addition to recognising that Lionel Nimrod’s Inexplicable World deserved far wider recognition, this also suggested that Lee and Herring would find a comfortable home on the station. By the time that the final episode of the second series went out on Radio 4, Lee and Herring and Sarah Smith had been commissioned to produce a pilot show for Radio 1.
This is an excerpt from Fun At One – The Story Of Comedy At BBC Radio 1, which is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here. There’s more about Armando Iannucci’s radio days in The Larks Ascending , a guide to comedy on BBC Radio 3, which is available in paperback here and from the Kindle Store here
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.