11 September 2009


I enjoyed Jim Meskimen's musing on turning 50 which he published on his big day yesterday.

I'm a fan of Jim, and that's where this relationship starts and ends. We have never met and are unlikely to, and we communicated by email a few times a decade ago. I have his three most accessible UK television appearances within my stack of VHS tapes in the loft.

He's an American actor, impressionist and, for the purposes of his smaller UK audience (me), an improviser. You movie buffs may recognise him from the big screen but as a cinema-avoider, I don't. I know him for one project only - he appeared on Whose Line Is It Anyway?, one of my biggest television loves, three times in the early 1990s when the series was taken to New York, still under its British banner, for a brace of special American seasons.

WLiiA? was compulsive Channel 4 viewing in the 90s, especially once it picked up pace after the first couple of series' and the Hat-Trick stalwarts like Rory McGrath and Jimmy Mulville were replaced by career improvisers from both sides of the pond.

Ten things you could always expect from the programme, then:-

1 - Colin Mochrie would faint, feign a heart attack, make up 'foreign' gobbledegook, change the subject entirely or, memorably on his debut, shout 'Instrumental!' in order to cover the fact that he couldn't find a final rhyme on any of the group songs.

2 - Josie Lawrence would be just awful.

3 - Tony Slattery would do something either gross or obscene for shock value, such as full-scale gobbing, swearing at Clive Anderson or revealing his genitals.

4 - Mike McShane would attain such levels of respect for his performance level that nobody would ever refer to his obesity, in jest or seriousness.

5 - Paul Merton would break the fourth wall and whinge to either Clive or the camera about something said during a game.

6 - Ryan Stiles would refer to an ex-wife in an unflattering context.

7 - Greg Proops would have words with Clive, usually on some faux Anglo-American difference of opinion, or just on the subject of the host's lack of hair or neck, or both.

8 - Steve Frost would wear something very loud.

9 - John Sessions would be uncomfortably dominant but capable of cracking up totally when someone funnier, usually Paul, came out with a punchline to all of his nonsense.

10 - Clive would ask the American participants if they "had" something in America, such as fridges, muggings and sport.

I cannot watch the US version which is shown sporadically on digital channels here. Drew Carey is too full of himself, making the show far more about the host's banter with the contestants than Clive would ever have dared, and the whooping and hollering of American audiences is as overbearing as you would expect. There was evidence of this when the New York episodes were filmed in the early 1990s, but with Clive in the chair at least he could puncture the overreactions with a pithy British putdown, which endeared him to everyone.

Jim did three of these episodes, and his Party Quirks were, in order, a tough Wall Street businessman ("You got a fax machine? I'm gonna need you!"), an old timer ("I remember when this house was just a barn!") and a boxing trainer ("Let me Vaseline your nose!"). He and his Interplay partner Christopher Smith, who appeared on each episode with him (the above clip is from their debut appearance), were polished performers who took the tough medium of improv to dramatic levels, while still prompting laughter for both recognition and actual gags.

And he was a songsmith too, with his talent for mimicry allowing him to make up a song about a spatula in the style of Sting ("You're one heck of a girl, scrape me up so gentle!") and a microwave oven in the style of Frank Sinatra ("My how you make, my how you make my coils glow!"). He even "won" two of his three outings, reading the credits in one as Popeye and another as Kevin Costner ("Stage manager was supposed to be Leveson, but look at this picture - does that look like Leveson to you?").

Jim himself would admit that he was peripheral on the show, and it remains a shame that he never got to perform in the UK for the UK WLiiA? audience. He also failed an audition for what his pal Christopher called the "Drew's Whose", which surprised me at the time and still surprises me to this day, though I recall Jim telling me on our brief round of correspondence that he was quite cool about the decision. Yet among the star names of the show like Ryan Stiles and Colin Mochrie (the two greatest improvisers of them all) and well-known British faces such as Tony Slattery and Steve Frost, I always remember Jim's contribution to WLiiA? with great fondness, possibly more than he does himself. I'm a fan, after all. As he says himself, roll on the next 50 years...

9 September 2009

Hector, be lenient

I'm ploughing through hundreds of receipts today, steeling myself for the annual bout of victimisation of the self-employed by HM Revenue & Customs.

I need to save every penny I can get, so if you can think of ways that a person who plays gramophones on radio and in live venues can claim for...

- an eye test
- about 600 quid's worth of pet food
- any number of football tickets at roughly 30 quid a time
- the complete Yes Minister on DVD

... then by all means leap in. Meanwhile, I am about to take a break from the receipts and go looking for a cap to put in my hand...

8 September 2009

Chris and Tel

Terry Wogan's leaving Radio 2, then. A great loss to broadcasting, of course, but you'd think from some of the comments left on the BBC's Have Your Say pages that the decision to replace him with Chris Evans was tantamount to appointing Robert Mugabe to the job.

Some people's sense of self-importance really staggers me. Try this, from "Julie"...

Please note that when Chris Evans takes over the Radio 2 breakfast show I will no longer listen. I will switch off or change stations at 7.30am. I currently switch off at 5pm as soon as the Chris Evans Drive time show starts. I do not like the the style of his presentation.

What a pompous piece of crap this woman clearly is.

My main bugbear, however, is how the web people have titled the page.

Should Wogan leave his breakfast show?

This suggests that he is somehow wrong, or unthinking, or disrespectful, for even contemplating the idea of quitting the programme. The man is 71, for heaven's sake. If anyone of that age was still working in most industries then there'd be severe concern for their well-being, so why not for a chap who has had to thrive on the stress of keeping eight million people per day contented on their way to work?

And, licence fee or nay, what the hell has it got to do with any of us? Any of us at all?

Other radio-centric bloggers (and I look to the great James Cridland here) have rightly said, in so many words, that this is a watershed moment for both Radio 2 and its commercial rivals everywhere. When the breakfast show on a major station has telegraphed a change, it allows other stations the notice period involved to look carefully at their own morning acts and make changes or tweaks where they feel necessary. I love Chris Evans as a radio man (he has always been a genius on the radio, while merely being very good on TV) but plenty will not, and so they will use his elevation as an opportunity to see what else is on the dial. This means that all other radio stations should be honing their breakfast time performances to the highest possible level.

Meanwhile, it gives Radio 2 the opportunity, with a younger voice in the morning, to go for a proper head-to-head with Chris Moyles. Wogan has the edge on Moyles but there is the chance with Evans that they could match the shows up, starting at 6.30am instead of 7.30am and making it even more stark a choice for the listening public. The target audiences are different, of course, but Wogan appealed very much to the older audience that, weekends aside, Radio 2 has rightly spent the best part of the last decade trying to shake off. His exit will act as the last rites for the remainder of the "old" Radio 2 audience.

Individuals get older - individual broadcasters and individual listeners - but demographics remain the same, hence why Matthew Bannister shelved three quarters of Radio 1's schedule in the 90s and Jim Moir and then Lesley Douglas altered Radio 2's outlook similarly in more recent times.

A 6.30am start for Evans would also provide the perfect opportunity for Radio 2 to get shut of the increasingly dangerous and unbalanced Sarah Kennedy, as an added bonus, and allow the early show presenter - currently Alex Lester, of course - a chance to deservedly enhance the reputation that one million overnight listeners have established. Alex is my close friend of course, and therefore I'm biased, but seeing as they've given a proper broadcaster the breakfast show, thereby stalling the recent policy of putting egotistical comics and actors on air without any training at all, they might just choose to do it with other areas of the schedule that require a tweak too.

It's not a greatly-kept secret that Simon Mayo, one of my broadcasting heroes, is set to replace Evans on the drivetime show, which would be a sore loss for 5 Live but, given that the speech network is shifting to Salford but seemingly unable to persuade its biggest names to move there with it, cannot be avoided. Having Mayo, a communicator of wit, subtlety and intellect, back on daytime music radio - hopefully with a continuing dose of Wittertainment on a Friday - would be the best move of them all.

Anyway, if you enjoy a good laugh and a cringe at how awful people are, have a look at the Have Your Say page on the subject of Wogan. Then be thankful you're not like them.