Thursday, June 18, 2009

Radio 4 comedy: no laughing matter

The much-anticipated post-Huphrey Lyttleton series of I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue has now started, under the genial chairmanship of His Twittership Stephen Fry. I didn't think it worked very well. Even under Humphrey, the programme had become stretched and formulaic, giving increasing time over to rounds to allow bad singers to sing badly, at the expense of lively wit. But Fry didn't work very well, mainly because he followed so closely the phrasing and persona established by Humphrey. The same occurred when Angus Deayton was replaced on Have I Got News For You? : not only did his successors sound like ill-at-ease imitators, by demonstrating how much was scripted, it cast a retrospective pall over Deayton's talent by revealing its origins. It seemed to be a lack of confidence by the Clue producers: Samantha and Sven have been a running joke for 10 years or more - isn't it time to start a new one? And when Fry introduced Sound Charades with a reference to Give Us a Clue, last broadcsat in 1992, didn't someone pause to calculate how many people will never have seen it? It is a shame that the opportunity to introduce some new rounds or jokes was missed.

But it is still the best comedy on Radio 4, compared to the anaemic Hut 33, the bizarre and laughter-free WW2 Bletchley Park drama, in which the cast do what they can with funny accents and overacting to compensate for the lack of jokes, or Elvenquest, the Lord of the Rings parody. Successful parodies of fantasies have to be based on a credible sincerity about the world they inhabit: Elvenquest instead was a rag-bag of incongruous banter. This wouldn't matter so much if the elements had been original, but they included an evil master suffering disillusionment at his role and an incompetent sidekick (as in Old Harry's Game), a dog's view on human behaviour (as in About a Dog), and the central relationship between a dithering 'hero' and a strong and dismissive heroine (as in Hitchkiker's Guide to the Galaxy). This last comparison is fatal - at one point I thought to myslef 'that's nearly up to H2G2 standards' - in other words, the comdey had almost got as far as a programme made 30 years ago.

There appears to be a strangehlold of large-cast underwritten mediocrity at the moment, in which series like Claire in the Community and Old Harry's Game stand out like beacons of competence.

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