Given that I’ve written two entire books on the subject, you probably won’t win any prizes for guessing that I’m ever so slightly interested in lesser-known radio comedy and drama, and this piece was little more than an excuse to try and generate a bit of interest in a handful of shows that I felt deserved a little more attention than they ever seem to get. It was essentially just a filler article to maintain traffic towards my old site while I worked on other projects – to the extent of having a tedious perfunctory introduction that I’ve quietly omitted this time around – and I was surprised when it briefly went viral, largely due to the efforts of equally enthusiastic radio-head Jem Roberts. It did however give me with the idea for what eventually became The Larks Ascending, so I guess it just goes to show that it’s worth doodling casual thoughts in the virtual margin occasionally.
After this was originally published, a lot of kind souls helpfully responded by pointing out the potential clearance issues already clearly flagged up in the relevant entries, or explaining why the moment had passed where x and y would be in any way commercially viable, and I’m unsure of what the purpose of any of this was outside of some bizarre potential intention to somehow make me un-write the piece. Whatever it was, the arguments will simply still not wash with me – in a world where, despite the almost daily dour predictions from broadsheet columnists of the ‘end’ of physical media, people still buy the Marvel Cinematic Universe ‘Phase’ box sets in sufficient quantities that it can take you over a week to be able to buy a stock copy over the counter, there is clearly still room for a complete Rawlinson End collection. Then again, I’d buy ‘Phase’ box sets of Richard Herring’s stand-up DVDs for Go Faster Stripe (including the Collings And Herrin and Nine Lessons And Carols For Godless People material), so what would I know?
Speaking of buying stuff, you can get Fun At One – The Story Of Comedy At BBC Radio 1 in paperback here and from the Kindle Store here, and The Larks Ascending – A Guide To Comedy on BBC Radio 1 in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
The Psychedelic Spy (BBC Radio 4, 1990)
Writer Andrew Rissik was responsible for this witty, action-packed pastiche of every last military-jacketed secret agent from lurid late sixties pulp paperbacks and equally lurid mind-hurting lava lamp-drenched late sixties post-Bond cinematic knock-offs, following reluctant globetrotting spy Billy Hindle as he wrestles with the end of the sixties – Rissik deliberately set it in 1968 as “by then the whole thing had turned sour” – and the constant demands of his superiors to take on ‘just one last job’. The impressive cast includes such pop art-hued espionage drama veterans as James Aubrey, Joanna Lumley, Gerald Harper and Ed Bishop. The Psychedelic Spy occasionally shows up on Radio 4 Extra, but really is crying out for a proper release in suitable pastiche packaging.
Black Cinderella Two Goes East, Or Confessions Of A Glass Slipper Tryer-Onner (BBC Radio 2, 1978)
A decidedly non-family friendly pantomime as the comedy stars of the sixties – Peter Cook, John Cleese, David Hatch, Bill Oddie, Graeme Garden, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Jo Kendall – join forces with their late seventies counterparts Douglas Adams, John Lloyd, Clive Anderson and Rory McGrath for a half-satirical half-silly sendup of standard issue oh-no-he-isn’t clichés with a side order of sarcastic comment about rampant strike-mania. Also making slightly more incongruous appearances are wartime radio laughtermaker Richard Murdoch, Ragtime presenter Maggie Henderson, and self-mocking real-life Lib Dem MP – for about another five minutes – John Pardoe. The overall effect is essentially an I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again sketch run nightmarishly beyond control, which is every bit as fantastic as that sounds. Black Cinderella Two Goes East is widely circulated amongst collectors, but otherwise is a noticeable omission from the available works of certain performers whose every last other recorded moment has been repackaged again and again and again.
The Chris Morris Music Show (BBC Radio 1, 1994)
Still seeing himself as very much a pop radio DJ rather than a television comedian, Chris Morris followed the success of The Day Today with a high-profile, much-coveted and long-promised slot on Radio 1. What followed can best be described as barely controlled mayhem, with a suspension partway through the run and the show pulled off air shortly before broadcast on more than one occasion; and yet every single second of it was achingly, genuinely side-splittingly funny. And of course you can find the full story of that in my book Fun At One – The Story Of Comedy At BBC Radio 1. From caustic tearing apart of the mechanics of journalism and surreally humiliating celebrity interviews to simply making fun of records he actually liked, Chris Morris hit Radio 1 like nothing before and arguably nothing after it. Inevitably his reign of terror (or, as he preferred, ‘playing records and shouting’) didn’t last very long – as much because of fresh television offers as any nervousness over the content – but it disappeared as quietly as it arrived loudly; a sole promised BBC Radio Collection compilation, Newshound From Hell, ran into clearance problems and was never released. Possibly the single most important and influential radio comedy show of the nineties, and you can’t buy a single second of it.
Lee & Herring (BBC Radio 1, 1994-95)
While not quite as problematic as their old comedy cohort Chris Morris, Stewart Lee and Richard Herring also enjoyed a significantly longer stint as ‘proper’ Radio 1 DJs, their popularity underlined by their briefly joining the roster of Top Of The Pops presenters. In addition to playing weird and wonderful records that may well have never been heard on any other radio show ever, they also spent their time trying out new comic ideas and encouraging the audience to indulge in situationist pranks such as paying to advertise their show in newsagents’ windows; indeed, many of their most famous characters and routines including the lists of ridiculous pun sitcom titles, Ian News, Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Harris and The Fake Rod Hull made their first appearances here. Yet despite the rabidly obsessive nature of their still considerable fanbase, little of the Radio 1 shows has been heard from that day to this. A couple of sketches escaped as extras on the Fist Of Fun DVDs, but apart from that, nothing. There’s a couple of good compilations in them at least. And I said good compilations, not those rubbish ones Radio 1 did after they left. Incidentally, those compilations are covered along with the actual proper shows in Fun At One. While we’re about it, can we have a proper release for Lionel Nimrod’s Inexplicable World too?
Room 101 (BBC Radio 5, 1992-94)
Room 101 was much better in the early Nick Hancock-presented days, but even better still in its original Nick Hancock-presented radio incarnation. With no audience and on the whole a more interesting selection of guests, they had to rely more on actual reasons and often hilarious anecdotage to get their choices in – and Hancock in turn had to argue harder to keep them out – and it was a far more esoteric and cerebral show than you might understandably expect. A handful of editions were repeated on Radio 1 and later on Radio 4 Extra, but most remain unheard from that day to this; the impressive roster of guests included Paul Merton, Jo Brand, Danny Baker, David Baddiel, Steve Punt, John Walters, Frank Skinner, Trevor And Simon and Donna McPhail. Clip clearance and the sheer number of choices that would prove ‘problematic’ post-Yewtree probably mean that compilations are the best we’ll get, but if you’ve never heard of O! Punchinello, ‘This Train Has Failed’ or Golfiana, or indeed heard Danny Baker explaining why he hates Pete Sinfield of King Crimson’s solo album so much, you’ll probably agree that we need some.
Orbiter X (BBC Light Programme, 1959)
You can read a lot more about this fantastic Cold War-allegorising tale of space station subterfuge in Can’t Help Thinking About Me; what’s surprising is that despite the enduring popularity of the long-running Journey Into Space, the BBC have never really done very much with the various serials that followed in its wake, such as Orbiter X, Orbit One Zero, The Lost Planet and Nicholas Quinn – Anonymous. They have all spent far too long gathering cosmic dust and it would be nice to see them given the exposure and recognition they deserve. Preferably with booklets featuring rare photos and archive material.
Patterson (BBC Radio 3, 1981)
Radio 3 went through a very odd phase of trying to score a hit highbrow sitcom in the eighties, including such angular and intellectual takes on the genre as Such Rotten Luck and Blood And Bruises; the closest they came to scoring an actual success with audiences and critics alike was with the genuinely brilliant Patterson. Written by Malcolm Bradbury and Christopher Bigsby – not exactly your average sitcom scriptwriter pairing – the series was a loose thematic follow-on from the former’s celebrated novel The History Man, and followed hapless University lecturer Andrew Patterson through a chain of absurdist happenings on campus; as you are probably imagining, it does bear some strong – though apparently genuinely coincidental – similarities to A Very Peculiar Practice. Repeated once by Radio 2 in a new Radio 2-friendly re-edit, it still inspires a significant online following, which makes its failure to resurface all the more like Prof. Misty has been put in charge of remembering it. You can read much more about Patterson in The Larks Ascending – A Guide To Comedy On BBC Radio 3, and hear me talking about it here.
The Mary Whitehouse Experience (BBC Radio 1, 1989-90)
Staggeringly, apart from The Mary Whitehouse Experience Encyclopedia and a couple of bits on individual live videos (oh, and Minutes Of The Parish Council Meeting, if you insist), nothing from any incarnation of The Mary Whitehouse Experience has ever been made commercially available. This is astonishing when you consider both how popular and influential it was; rumours have long flown around that this was in fact down to one of the team blocking it, but while I was researching Fun At One all four confirmed to me that this wasn’t the case (as, for that matter, did Mark Thomas, Jo Brand and one of Skint Video) so we can discount that right now. A couple of people associated with the show indicated that the issue had been raised with BBC Worldwide who felt that it was ‘too topical’, which if true indicates that nobody working there had ever actually heard any of it. Newman, Baddiel, Punt and Dennis are all still hugely successful – more so than ever in some cases – and enough time has elapsed for the original long-sleeve-t-shirt-sporting listeners to become genuinely nostalgic for it, so why isn’t any of it available to buy? Conclusion: Ken Dodd Is Innocent.
Collins And Maconie’s Hit Parade (BBC Radio 1, 1994-97)
Andrew Collins and Stuart Maconie – and resident weekly ‘guest’ David Quantick – were Radio 1’s in-house acerbic music critics with a proper music show during some very interesting times for pop music, which amongst many highlights saw them delivering arguably the definitive take on the Blur/Oasis chart battle, and reacting live to Jarvis Cocker’s stage invasion at the Brit Awards. There were plenty of discussions worth revisiting, numerous ‘guset critics’ who have gone on to enjoy greater prominence, and the weekly ‘Quantick’s World’ rants, which as good as deserve an entire release on their own; not that Morrissey or Paul Weller would be too happy about that, mind. There are tons of contributions to other shows worth considering too, including their ‘Eyewitness Reports’ for The Evening Session, and the absurd bit of ‘walking across the BBC’ business they did when guest-hosting the following show. All of which, incidentally, is covered in a certain book…
The Graveyard Shift (BBC Radio 1, 1993-97)
If one show exemplified Radio 1’s superb and much-needed early nineties reinvention, it was the late-night shenanigans of Mark Radcliffe, Marc Riley and their various friends, wellwishers and hangers-on. Promising “poetry, comedy, live music and a boy called Lard”, it delivered all of this and more, day in day out, with the playlist of promising indie singles – effectively an unofficial testing ground for what might work on daytime radio, and a few major mid-nineties hits got their first play here – interspersed with lengthy and freewheeling chats on any given subject from whether Lady Chatterley’s Lover needed ‘spicing up’ to an argument over what prog rock track was used as the theme music for Weekend World, with interjections from comedians and critics, notably Andrew Collins’ diary readings, Stuart Maconie’s ‘veritable smorgasbord’, Mark Kermode’s Cult Film Corner and John Shuttleworth’s rambling updates on his promising musical career. Oh and not forgetting ‘Slippers, Please!’. Just imagine if there was a book covering all of this. A CD compilation of some of the regular sketches was released at the time, but we really could do with something more representative of the shu-, which after all was always full of loads of quality items. And him, Boy Lard.
Kremmen Of The Star Corps (Capital Radio, 1976-80)
One of the few commercial radio shows that would ever warrant a commercial release, Kenny Everett recorded dozens upon dozens of episodes of tongue-in-cheek cliffhanging sci-fi serial adventures of Captain Elvis Brandenburg Kremmen for Capital Radio during the seventies, some of which were later adapted for the animated version in his ITV sketch show. In fact, Captain Kremmen was just one of several ideas Everett developed for a London-only audience that ended up attracting national attention, which just serves to underline what a true one-off genius he was. One full story was released as the The Greatest Adventure Yet From Captain Kremmen LP in 1979, and a couple of others escaped on Capital promo singles and prize giveaways, but surprisingly nobody seems to have thought of stringing the rest of them together in box set form yet. The Thargoids have probably drained the idea from our collective intelligence.
Rawlinson End (BBC Radio 1, 1971-91)
English as tuppence, changing and changeless as canal water, nestling in green nowhere, Viv Stanshall’s tales of life – or at least what passed for it – in and around Rawlinson End were one of the most popular features of John Peel’s show, and used to provoke a flood of calls and letters asking if they were available to buy. And yet, one single album of rearranged and rerecorded early episodes aside, they never have been. The original unexpurgated exploits of Sir Henry, Aunt Florrie and unwilling company should be held up as a triumph of the language to rank with Dickens, Wodehouse and Adams, but instead they are just sort of sat on a shelf somewhere like disregarded souvenirs from military service in some far flung corner of the Empire. Perfectly in keeping with Rawlinson End itself, maybe, but an entirely ridiculous situation. Mrs. E, we do know what we want and we want it now! And if you want to know more? Now read on, dot dot dot dot dot…
Buy A Book!
You can get The Larks Ascending – a guide to comedy on BBC Radio 3 – in paperback here and from the Kindle Store here. Fun At One, the story of comedy at BBC Radio 1, is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
Alternately, if you’re just feeling generous, you can buy me a coffee here. Please bear in mind I’m not as fussy as The Psychedelic Spy.
It’s Time For… It’s Time For… Comic Relief! is a feature on the story behind the radio version of The Mary Whitehouse Experience; you can find it here.
Come With Me Now, Into The Swirling Mists Of Human Inadequacy… is a feature on Lee And Herring’s Radio 1 debut Lionel Nimrod’s Inexplicable World, which you can find here.
The Road To Rawlinson End is a look at the various Vivian Stanshall broadcasts that inspired the more celebrated exploits of Sir Henry and company, which you can find here.
The Christmas Specials of The Chris Morris Music Show and Lee And Herring are both discussed in the Looks Unfamiliar Christmas Extra with Phil Catterall, which you can find here.
There’s more about Patterson in the Looks Unfamiliar The Larks Ascending Extra – a special devoted to comedy on BBC Radio 3 – which you can find here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.