20 August 2010

"It's because I'm small, isn't it?"


The Young Ones was on telly last night. It was the Nasty episode, featuring a brief reunion for Captain Sensible with the rest of the Damned, Alexei Sayle as a Transvaalian vampire and Terry Jones as a pissed-up vicar.

One of the great flukes connected with The Young Ones was the recruitment of Christopher Ryan to play Mike. Anyone who has digested the background to this most cultish of cult programmes (the Radio Times used to call it "offbeat" in the 1980s, which was a very of-its-time way of saying "parents will ban their kids from watching it") will know that Peter Richardson was supposed to be the straight man of the deranged quartet but had a row - not sure what about - with the producer and walked off.

I've always assumed that Ryan had no connection with the alternative comedy scene at all prior to this. A check on his background suggests he was already in his early 30s when The Young Ones began and he has never been a comedian. My understanding has always been that the Richardson flounce-out happened so close to filming that they had no time to rope in another friend from the "scene" with little acting experience, and instead held auditions for jobbing actors that roughly fitted the role, and Ryan got the gig.

Of course, since then he has become an outstanding supporting actor for so many associated comedy series with the Comic Strip scene. He was a television director in the marvellous Cassie episode of the oft-forgotten Happy Families (wish someone would repeat that), he was Dave Hedgehog in Bottom, and did episodes of programmes like Girls On Top and a fair few of Absolutely Fabulous.

Then there was A Small Problem.

I look a bit to the TV Cream staffers for aid here as my memories of this weirdest of weirdcoms are very slight. As far as I can remember, it was co-written by the bespectacled decorator in Brush Strokes and set in a prejudicial future world which decreed that all adults under a certain height (let's call it 5ft 3in, just so we can include Richard Hammond) were subject to some kind of apartheid. I remember nowhere enough to establish whether it was meant to satirise real apartheid around the world or just some concoction cooked up by a chap who didn't want to write a sitcom about bosses coming round for a burnt dinner. Or, indeed, about jack-the-lad decorators.

Ryan, being diminutive, was cast as one of the featured "victims" of this strange world. There would be scenes of grown-ups (literally and physically) avoiding him in the same way that a fly avoids a cylindrical newspaper. I was 14, so didn't get any political message particularly, but even I wondered what the hell was going on.

And, remember, this was a sitcom. There were lines that made the studio audience - all presumably selected for their likeness to John Cleese and Jodie Kidd - guffaw and holler to the extent of coughing fits. It was promoted as a light-hearted programme, pre-watershed, albeit on BBC2 where few haughty people with a Tunbridge Wells postcode could ever notice it.

And the lyrics to the theme tune made it quite clear from day one what was going on here. "They've got small bodies and small minds, they're all small fry with [can't remember this bit], they're the lowest of the low, they refuse to grow you know, and they like it down there."

To prove how little I remember, I actually initially had this programme down as A Small Wonder, which was that abysmal child-robot monstrosity from America, wasn't it? I'm sure Christopher Ryan wasn't in that. Anyway, edit done prior to posting.

I'd like to see A Small Problem again, just so I can decipher exactly what the intended tone of it was. Of course, the 1980s weren't yet entirely swathed in political correctness. Mainstream sitcoms (and, frankly, soap operas) were still getting away with racial and social stereotyping that had been commonplace the decade before. But this was intending, I expect, to project a combination of surrealism and satire. It was brave, certainly. I just wish I could remember if it was any good.

19 August 2010

Hamilton not bland


I haven't watched much Masterchef in either of its guises of late - I have a problem with shouty, unqualified greengrocers telling people how to cook - but I caught a bit of last night's episode as the final three went to France.

What did occur to me was how likeable and natural a screen performer (if not a cook) Christine Hamilton has become.

That awful, naive Tory wife - she pretty much existed for that phrase's coining - of 13 years ago that gallantly stood by her man is an age ago. I suspect even she looks back on how she was back then and cringes.

There was something to admire about her, albeit from behind the sofa. Throwing the politics aside, women seemed to enjoy the feistiness and the loyalty. That is still in evidence to this day. She had wit, albeit an insular one, and a natural confidence that comes with a previous lack of public profile, in the same way that 17 year old footballers enjoy their debuts and only get nervous after half a dozen games as a regular. But there was a hardness to her, a lack of empathy, of charisma, of world-wisdom and of self-awareness, emphasised by that appearance on Have I Got News For You, immediately after Tatton got rid.

Ian Hislop said his attempt to insult and send up the Hamiltons that day was his biggest regret on the show, as they were so shameless all his barbs misfired. But from that day onwards, out of financial necessity, the Hamiltons became a brand - and the previously famous one, the joyless biscuit-toting ex-MP Neil, had to take a back seat. Christine got her own chat show (on BBC Choice, asking Tony Slattery about chucking his furniture into the Thames), went into the jungle with Tony Blackburn and Rhona Cameron and did HIGNFY on her own, contributing muchly to the slow death as host of Angus Deayton ("if he [Neil] is disgraced, what are you?") while simultaneously arguing, admirably, with Rod Liddle. Neil's only bookings came as one half of a couple, whereas plenty wanted Christine on her own.

I met the Hamiltons once, briefly. I had actually clean forgotten about this until the rest of this post was written, but nonetheless they came to Imagine FM to record a couple of special Christmas shows one year and while I didn't hear the eventual broadcasts, they were affable and pleasant in the office beforehand. Well, she was. That's the point. She talked, he laughed. I suspect that was how they were advised to go about their "appearing in the media" career from the off.

There really is a stark difference between the 1997 Christine Hamilton of blue polka-dots and cake-maker hairdos and this brassier, amiable model of today. She quickly took the advice of a stylist and a publicist, toning down her vocal delivery and softening her image. The television seems to really agree with her. I have no real desire to watch Masterchef for the rest of this week, to be honest, but even though the other two semi-finalists are likeable enough (though Dick Strawbridge has to be a health hazard with that 'tache - don't chefs have to keep tasting their food?), I would rather like her to win.

For all that, her husband remains a charmless buffoon. When was he last on telly, anyway?

16 August 2010

"I'm worth far more than Lauren Laverne!"


A close-up of the estimable Charles Nove and I at the latest Nerd Night. Swindon was the venue and it was as simple as these nights can get; one hotel meeting point, one restaurant, one pub.

Fortunately, the pub kept us in place until 3.30am and so extra drink could be taken in the time it would take to wander from hostelry to hostelry.

Those of us from outside the area stayed at a local Premier Inn, and so it didn't take me long to bleat at the poor receptionist that the £29 a night deal endorsed by Lenny Henry simply did not exist. She assured me it did, but it applied only to stays of more than one night. So the upshot of it is, it may be £29 a room, but you would never be allowed to leave with a bill of £29. I feel vindicated.

Charles, Alex and I chatted with a local BBC chap in the pub adjacent to the hotel until it was time to beetle into town and meet the rest of the throng at a Chinese all-you-can-eat buffet called Cosmo's. During this period, I was advised that I should brush up on my reading upside down skills if I ever wanted to embark on a career within the BBC. I'm currently writing this blog while standing on my head.

The buffet was tremendous and I put back as many mouthfuls of chicken in black beans, rice, noodles, garlic mushrooms and various other deep-fried sundries as I could. I took four trips in total to the buggies of grub, doing what all people when faced with an all-you-can-eat deal do - eating far more than your physical being will allow. All those swimming sessions in the last seven days were gone for a burton.

Then we piled into cabs to a pub called the Steam Railway, owned by a local radio DJ who had, with sensibility and nerve I could never muster, realised a while back that the industry's arse was weakening substantially and looked for something else to do. We took seats in a corner and stayed there, swapping stories, jokes and wisecracks that had our host, the marvellous Fat Mancunian himself (exiled on the wireless in Wiltshire now), removing ceiling tiles with the force of his laughter.

Among the stories related were:-

* The well-known female presenter who would habitually call the police because she was lonely and change into a mere négligée once said officer had turned up at her flat to deal with the non-existent "intruder"...

* The well-known female presenter who on a particularly drunken night out, said hello to a group of people who recognised her from her television work - and then promptly fell face down into a load of dustbins...

* The now-deceased national radio presenter whose hissy response to being bollocked for not introducing the newsreader properly was to say, on air as an introduction, that she had four buttocks...

* The presenter who had received a "visit" from an impressionable (and, presumably, easy on the eye) sales girl at his home on the very day that Google Streetview turned up on his estate with their big cameras, meaning that this lass's car is now permanently photographed outside his house...

* The obsessive (ie, lonely) listener to a local show who told the presenter she was ill and unable to listen for a while and, when the presenter chose not to ask for details, sent a long email about her Paget's Disease (click the link only after bracing yourself) which went into waaaaaaaay too much detail.

That last one was extraordinary. It involved the removal of skin from buttocks and legs and, well, that's the bit I have the stomach to reproduce. The moment couldn't pass by without asking Charles, one of the country's leading voiceover artistes and continuity types, to read the whole email as if doing his stuff on a lottery night. This knocked previous revelations about Toblerones into a cocked hat, frankly.

Brilliant evening in a smart pub within a town that seemed quite sparse, both of architectural features and, well, people. Friday night in Swindon is quiet. Or at least it is until radio people choose it for a night out.

My health regime has prompted me to knock the Guinness on the head and switch to vodka and tonics instead. Elton John once famously sang that it'd take a couple of vodka and tonics to set you on your feet again. It took about ten of the blighters to have the opposite effect on me.

It's York next. If any local radio presenter in North Yorkshire wants to come along and even it up by grassing on a listener with priapism, you'd be most welcome. Otherwise it's back to the jingles, roadshows and playout systems. And there isn't much wrong with that.

15 August 2010

Fight like cat and dog?

Rarely do the dogs and cats find themselves within touching distance of one another, and when it does happen the cats tend to disappear or climb to a vantage point unreachable by Basset hounds.

And then Ruby met Oliver. Cute doesn't do it justice.