The Comic Strip Presents… Susie (1984, Bob Spiers)

A weekly series of reviews looking at the film and TV output of the Comic Strip group of comedians…

Spoiler warning: plot points may be revealed.

Synopsis: A young woman is married with a baby, but is also having an affair with a local farmer. Then her head is turned by an exciting new neighbour…

Written by: Peter Richardson and Pete Richens. Directed by: Bob Spiers. Broadcast: 14 January 1984, Channel 4. Series: 2. Episode: 3.

Notable cast (with a running total of Comic Strip appearances):
* Nigel Planer (7) plays Dave, a local working-class man who darts about his village in a battered yellow van, swapping CB-radio banter with colleagues. He’s having an affair with a married woman and they share nookie sessions in the back of his van.
* Dawn French (9) is Susie, a schoolteacher who’s bored with her drab domestic life. She finds her husband tedious and barely notices her baby daughter. A wild, free spirit, Susie thinks nothing of telling her young pupils about polygamy as she lounges around the classroom in her bare feet. As well as being married to a man called Martin and having an affair with Dave, she meets and falls for a pop star called Garry. But the triple wooing takes it toll and she eventually ends things with two of the men (who have vastly different reactions: apathy and a suicide attempt). Dawn French holds the whole film together, adding charisma and energy to a character who is – on paper – thoroughly selfish and obnoxious. ‘She’s not really a slag,’ French told Time Out magazine on set. ‘She’s just after a good time.’
* Robbie Coltrane (7) appears as farm manager Gerald. The farm’s manor has recently been bought by a pop star – the kind of person who, in Gerald’s eyes, ‘moves to London, takes drugs and becomes a homosexual’.
* Serena Evans (2) plays a barmaid.
* Peter Richardson (9) is Garry Dreadful, a fading pop star who’s just moved to the area. He’s glad he’s ‘sold out’ because he’s now filthy rich – he can crash his Range Rover, for example, and simply order his PA to buy a new one. And he wants to shake up the status quo by purchasing combine harvesters – not to use on his farm but to race each other. This carefree attitude soon attracts Susie… A pastiche of various self-obsessed and/or deluded musicians, Dreadful reminds you visually of Spandau Ballet’s Gary Kemp. He could also be Richardson’s character from an earlier Comic Strip film, The Beat Generation‘s poet Alan, if born 20 years later.
* Al Pillay (1) debuts in the Comic Strip series as Ray, Garry’s personal assistant. Ray does a variety of tasks, such as washing smalls in the mansion’s interior fountain, and is very attentive to his demanding boss. ‘I never really wanted to be gay,’ he tells Susie at one point, ‘but I was forced into it by the recession.’ (The actor has been credited under many slightly different names in his career – on Susie, for example, it was Alan Pellay.)
* Adrian Edmondson (9) plays Susie’s husband, Martin. He’s a boring, lifeless man who drones on about how many onions have come through in his vegetable garden, but he’s genuinely in love with his wife.
* Jennifer Saunders (9) is Dave’s drunk and chain-smoking mum, Lorna, who he lives with in a caravan. She thinks Susie is a bit ‘blatant’ for round here.
* Michael Buchanan (1) plays Kenny, an ambulance driver who catches the attentions of Susie *just* after she’s committed to one man. Buchanan was the production designer of the next Comic Strip Presents film to be broadcast, A Fistful of Travellers’ Cheques.

Best bit: Susie accuses a pupil of being pernickety. ‘How do you spell pernickety, miss?’ the little girl asks, so Susie replies, ‘F-U-C-K-O-double-F, okay?!’

Review: The cast and crew of Susie filmed in Norfolk, in and around the village of Heydon, but the fictional setting is never specified. Given that it’s a sleepy, pastoral, English location, we could be in a modern version of Wessex, the idealised south-west county created by the novelist Thomas Hardy. Hardy was born in 1840 and initially trained as an architect. But the success of his fourth novel – Far from the Madding Crowd, published in 1874 and the first to be set in Wessex – meant he could become a full-time author. He wrote novels and poetry that lamented the state of rural Victorian Britain and which often subverted and questioned social barriers. He always had a genuine empathy for his characters’ plights – no matter their station or status.

The debt to Hardy in this Comic Strip Presents episode becomes obvious when Dawn French’s lead character says she feels like ‘Julie Christie in that Thomas Hardy film’. She’s referring to 1967’s adaptation of Far From the Madding Crowd, which was directed by John Schlesinger and also starred Terence Stamp, Peter Finch and Alan Bates. Both the book and the film tell the story of Bathsheba Everdene, a young 19th-century woman who – like Susie – attracts the attentions of three very different men.

Although the Comic Strip equivalent plays out its own storyline, there are distinct echoes with Hardy’s story. In the place of Bathsheba’s suitors – the abusive and abrasive Sgt Francis Troy, a farmer called William Boldwood and the shepherd Gabriel Oak – come pop star Garry Dreadful, farmhand Dave and devoted husband Martin. The flighty and self-centred Susie is spoilt for romantic choice with this disparate trio, and as the story develops she drifts around from man to man to man, not really caring about anything other than her own happiness. It’s all very loose and languid, like a French New Wave film. In fact, co-writer Peter Richardson was actually thinking more New Wave than Thomas Hardy: ‘a touch of Chabrol maybe, amid the Mills and Boon,’ he told a journalist on set, referencing the director Claude Chabrol. Like many French New Wave films, Susie is fun and interesting – but too self-conscious to be convincing as a piece of storytelling.

Seven indecisive fingers out of 10

Next: The Comic Strip Presents… A Fistful of Travellers’ Cheques

The Comic Strip Presents… Dirty Movie (1984, Sandy Johnson)

A weekly series of reviews looking at the film and TV output of the Comic Strip group of comedians…

Spoiler warning: plot points may be revealed.

Synopsis: The manager of a cinema wants to put on a screening just for himself, but the local postman is keen on seeing the film too…

Written by: Adrian Edmondson and Rik Mayall. Directed by: Sandy Johnson. Broadcast: 7 January 1984, Channel 4. Series: 2. Episode: 2.

Notable cast (with a running total of Comic Strip appearances):
* Adrian Edmondson (8) stars as Mr Bean (no seriously; he predates his more famous namesake by six years). He’s a hapless postman who’s cheered when he spots that his local cinema is showing Sound of Musak (sic), which is his ‘most favourite film of all time’. Not only that, but it’s a 9am showing which is ideal for a shift-worker like him.
* Rik Mayall (6) is the grubby cinema manager Terry Toadstool. As the episode begins, he’s impatient for a delivery from the postman: ‘Hurry up, you lazy bastard!’ he cries. The package is a film can containing a pornographic feature called Dirty Movie, but Toadstool quickly covers the label up with a new one saying ‘Sound of Musak’. His plan is to screen the porno for himself at his cinema and engineer it so there are no punters. As with every character he ever played in his career, Mayall is blisteringly brilliant. He’s full of the kind of manic aggression that seems untamed and unpredictable but which is actually being skilfully moderated and focussed. Christ, he was good at what he did.
* Jennifer Saunders (8) plays Terry’s wife, June. She’s a disturbed woman who cooks bacon directly on the hob’s flame and is easily distracted by a room full of sweets. When Terry moots screening Sound of Musak at 9am, she says that no one will come because they’re busy ‘doing jobs’.
* Bert Parnaby (2) appears as a neighbour of Toadstool’s. In an absurd moment, he bashes a rough hole through his own front door when Bean points out he doesn’t have a postbox.
* Peter Richardson (8) and Nigel Planer (6) play police officers Peter and Nigel, who cling to a roof spying on the local area. They bicker childishly and later engage in some police brutality: a topical gag in the early 80s.
* Robbie Coltrane (6) is the chief of police, a brusque and dimwitted Ulsterman who wants any local ‘photography’ quashed. (Copper Pete points out that he means pornography.)
* Dawn French (8) is Bean’s wife, Monica. She’s a traffic warden who likes to take a pet lobster for a walk. But she also has a secret: she’s the star of pornographic films such as Just the Ticket, Santa Monica and Scuba Dooper.
* There’s no real conclusion to the storyline – instead we get a fourth-wall-breaking moment as the cast drop out of character. The meta fun is them extended as co-writer Ade Edmondson and the director, Sandy Johnson (3), are heard in voiceover discussing what a poor ending this is.

Best bit: When his illegal screening of pornography is rumbled by the cops, Toadstool attempts to fool them into thinking he’s actually showing The Sound of Music for real. Grabbing the mic to the cinema’s PA system, he attempts to mimic the movie’s dialogue. Among many mangled gems of half-remembered dialogue is a moment when he encapsulates the central tenet of the 1965 Julie Andrews classic: ‘Look, more nuns! Two hundred and 50 of them! Quickly, phone the Nazis!’

Incidentally, for the filming location, the production team used the ABC cinema on Kingston Road in Ewell, Surrey. Originally called the Rembrandt Cinema, it opened as an independent in 1938 before being taken over by Associated British Cinemas in 1943. After a few name changes, it closed down in April 1998 (the final screening was an apt choice: the 70s film The Last Picture Show). The building was demolished and replaced by a housing development called Rembrandt Court.

Review: Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson met while on a drama course at the University of Manchester in the mid 1970s, and quickly formed a friendship that lasted until Mayall’s tragically early death in 2014. Their double act, formed in 1978, was initially called 20th Century Coyote; they found success at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, appeared on Radio 4, then became a mainstay at Soho’s Comic Strip club. As the 1980s developed, they lit up many of the best comedy shows on British television – as performers, as writers, as individuals, as a double act now called the Dangerous Brothers, and as parts of larger teams. The pair wrote their own contributions to variety shows such as Saturday Live, while Mayall co-created the sitcom The Young Ones and Edmondson wrote an earlier Comic Strip Presents episode. They would also eventually pen a successful sitcom together – the gleefully violent Bottom. But Dirty Movie is the first complete piece of telly co-written by Edmondson and Mayall – and it’s a thing to be cherished.

Despite its subject matter (one-line pitch: a man wants to have a wank) and the fact there’s dialogue, Dirty Movie owes a great deal to pre-talkie geniuses like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. ‘Like a silent movie that speaks now and then,’ is how star Nigel Planer once described it. We actually open with the kind of title card you’d get in a silent movie, then the film contains visual gags, exaggerated comic characters, inventive plotting and a general sense of playfulness – all things that typified silent-era comedy. This feeling of a bygone age is also enhanced by the near-constant incidental music, which evokes the chintzy Wurlitzer organs once ubiquitous in British theatres and cinemas. (Admittedly, the music does get a bit tiresome after a while, but you still appreciate the joke.)

There are other comedic connections too. At one point, Mr Bean says, ‘Turned out nice again, ant it?’ – a clear nod to the gently humorous films of George Formby. And in an early scene he hides behind a piece of topiary by mimicking its shape exactly, which is the kind of gag you’d expect in a Tom & Jerry cartoon (or in a later Aardman animation film). The script and the cast of Dirty Movie are clearly revelling in the history and heritage of comedy. It’s celebratory and infectiously funny.

But that’s not to say the piece is throwaway or solely silly. The plot, for example, is smartly constructed so’s not to waste a single second of screentime. In a pleasingly kaleidoscopic way, the elements in this story are continually folding in on themselves and causing ripples. The postman who delivers the film can to Toadstool is the man who later threatens his private screening of porn; the police chief lives on the same street as both Toadstool and his cinema; the local traffic warden is Bean’s wife, the star of the pornography, and the woman who investigates Toadstool’s poor parking… Elements keep colliding with each other and create a farce-like structure that keeps things moving swiftly and entertainingly.

Perhaps the budget limitations are detectable a few too many times for Dirty Movie to be considered a masterpiece. Some of the purpose-built sets are a bit basic, while Saunders’s wig is distractingly unconvincing. Many scenes shot on location also sound like the dialogue has had to be rerecorded later. And another criticism you could level is regarding Dirty Movie’s treatment of women, which is fairly unflattering. There are two female characters… one is a food-obsessed simpleton, while the other secretly stars in pornography. Not that either of the writers were sexists, of course. According to Dawn French, in fact, Rik Mayall once found out that she and Jennifer Saunders were being paid less than their male colleagues – so he called a meeting of the Comic Strip team and threatened to quit unless equality was established.

As for Mayall himself, he was proud of Dirty Movie. ‘I’m very pleased with it,’ he said just before the film was broadcast on Channel 4, ‘because it’s just exactly what we used to do in the early days. It’s got a real absurdist feel to it.’ He wasn’t wrong.

Nine things called anything, June, out of 10

Next: The Comic Strip Presents… Susie

The Comic Strip Presents… Five Go Mad on Mescalin (1983, Bob Spiers)

A weekly series of reviews looking at the film and TV output of the Comic Strip group of comedians…

Spoiler warning: plot points may be revealed.

Synopsis: The Famous Five are on holiday in the countryside again, but their trip is ruined when they stumble across a secret plan involving a place called Love Island…

Written by: Peter Richardson and Peter Richens. Directed by: Bob Spiers. Broadcast: 2 November 1983, Channel 4. Series: 2. Episode: 1.

Notable cast (with a running total of Comic Strip appearances):
* Dawn French (7) returns as George, the member of the Famous Five she played in the first Comic Strip Presents film. George is still a favourite of the gang’s dog: ‘Oh, Timmy,’ she says, giggling, ‘you’re even more licky than last time.’
* Jennifer Saunders (7) again plays Anne, who is now a touch more assertive and confident than she was in Five Go Mad in Dorset.
* Peter Richardson (7) is Julian, still the de factor leader of the group. As before, he reacts badly to any threat to their cosy, conservative existence: we see him riled by loud people (‘Perhaps they’re Catholics’), women being good at sport, and any suggestion that sex might exist in the world.
* Adrian Edmondson (7) plays Dick for a second time. After his minor outburst in the first Five Go Mad film, when he grew frustrated with the gang’s lifestyle, here he has his head turned by an attractive woman working in the local cafe. He later finds her in a cave down by the beach, and she opens his eyes to a new way of thinking… Before too long he’s strumming an acoustic guitar and singing about love.
* Candy Davis (1) is Janie, the woman who works in the cafe. Whereas the Five are eternally happy and exuberant, she’s a more modern young person: she hates her boring job, her boring town, her boring life. ‘We’ve only got 7-Up,’ she says with no enthusiasm when Dick asks for ginger beer. Anne thinks Janie looks cheap, while George suggests she’s mentally retarded. We later see Janie after her liberation by a mystery man called Dr Love – she’s now a proto-hippy, spaced out and laid-back and with flowers painted on her face.
* Robbie Coltrane (5) drags up again to cameo as Janie’s mother who tells the Five about the nearby Love Island, where strange things are going on.
* Harry Towb (1) and Kerry Shale (1) plays American father and son Wally and Willy Budweiser. They’re in the area, staying at the same farm as the Five, so they can buy up anything they can get their ‘uncultured hands’ on. Both are brash, rude and arrogant, and are inspired by similar characters in the 1960 Edin Blyton book Five on Finniston Farm.
* Ron Tarr (2) and Nosher Powell (2) appear as Red and Mr Knuckles, two simple-minded Cockney villains not a million string-vests away from their characters in Five Go Mad in Dorset. (Incidentally, Red owns a burgundy Jaguar Mark 2. Although it looks suspiciously similar to the car later driven by Inspector Morse in the ITV detective show, the number plate seems to be different.)
* Fiona Richmond (1) plays Mrs French, the owner of Hot Turkey Farm where the Five are staying while on holiday. She’s also the mother of Red, despite the actress being nine years younger than Ron Tarr. The flirty Mrs F has lingerie exposed under her farm coat, but her suggestion that Dick and Julian could sleep in her room is not taken up.
* Ronald Allen (2) returns as Uncle Quentin, ‘the well-known scientist and homosexual’, who since his last appearance has escaped from prison and gone on the run. He’s now styling himself as Dr Love and plans to form a flower-power commune on Love Island
* Daniel Peacock (4) also appears as his Five Go Mad in Dorset character, Toby, who’s introduced via a Hendrix-style shriek of electric guitar on the soundtrack. He’s no longer a cocky, posh oik – he’s now under the spell of Dr Love and has become a psychedelic drug addict.

Best bit: Reluctant to spend the night in the same room as the whining Willy, Julian and Dick sleep in the barn. But soon after turning in, they’re disturbed by Red and Mr Knuckles driving a van in and loudly discussing their secret, evil plan. After the men have left, Dick asks Julian if they should call the police. Julian says no. He reckons the telephone wires will have been cut. ‘Yes,’ agrees Dick. ‘That’s usually the case in a situation of this type. And there’s absolutely no point of going into the farmhouse to see if they really have been cut, is there?’ The boys then hunker down for sleep.

Review: When the Comic Strip Presents series began, some viewers will have noticed a similarity to another television comedy anthology. ‘We were following on from Ripping Yarns,’ Adrian Edmondson has admitted. Written by Michael Palin and Terry Jones soon after the end of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Ripping Yarns only lasted for nine episodes between 1976 and 1979 – but it had a lot in common with the Comic Strip Presents series that followed. Both shows gave us different, self-contained stories each week with their regular performers taking on new parts every time. Both series were shot on film, often on location – a format that immediately set them apart from most TV comedies and made them feel more like short movies.

There were difference, of course, such as the range of subject matter. Whereas the Comic Strip series felt able to take on any era or style, Palin and Jones’s scripts were specifically spoofing old-fashioned, boys-own-adventure fiction and pre-war derring do. (All nine Ripping Yarns episodes are set between 1913 and 1935 and feature idealistic British men.) Conversely, by the time of Five Go Mad on Mescalin, the Comic Strippers had already tackled literary pastiche, warfare satire, a rock-band comedy and a social-studies drama.

Also, Ripping Yarns never returned to characters seen in a previous episode. Five Go Mad on Mescalin, however, features the same gang of young, intrepid and politically dodgy kids we met in Five Go Mad in Dorset. It’s the first Comic Strip Presents sequel – and actually debuted on TV a year to the day after the original Five Go Mad.

A big risk when reprising a successful comedy creation, of course, is the principle of diminishing returns. The joke has been told once, so the effect has been dulled. And that’s unfortunately the case with Five Go Mad on Mescalin. (Note: usually spelt ‘mescaline’, the drug of the title is a protoalkaloid that produces hallucinogenic effects.) The central joke of these characters being bigoted and right-wing as well as cheerful and optimistic, which was understated in the original film, has been cranked up significantly. Julian, Dick, Anne and George now talk about how the starving poor shouldn’t have so many children, about how they wish George III had quashed the American Revolution, and – most on-the-nose-ingly – about how the wrong side won the Second World War. Frankly, it’s just not as funny because a lot of the irony has been lost – the kids are now just openly objectionable. The new American characters don’t raise much of a laugh either, nor does the introduction of the hippy element into the cosy universe of Edin Blyton. The weakest film in the run so far.

Five well-known public schools in the area out of 10

Next: The Comic Strip Presents… Dirty Movie

The Comic Strip Presents… Summer School (1983, Sandy Johnson)

A weekly series of reviews looking at the film and TV output of the Comic Strip group of comedians…

Spoiler warning: plot points may be revealed.

Synopsis: A group of people gather at a university campus to take part in an experiment – can they live unassisted in an Iron Age village for a whole summer?

Written by: Dawn French. Directed by: Sandy Johnson. Broadcast: 31 January 1983, Channel 4. Series: 1. Episode: 5.

Notable cast (with a running total of Comic Strip appearances):
* Adrian Edmondson (6) plays Peter, a meek man who’s chosen to live for a few weeks with other people in an Iron Age-era mock village. The dozen villagers will have no technology, no electricity, no supplies, no help from the outside world. The village consists of just three small structures and an enclosure.
* Jennifer Saunders (6) plays Peter’s wife, Liz. She’s a good-natured, nervous woman who initially wants to keep her bra on under the period clothing. Once in the village, however, she asserts herself as the mumsy leader – suggesting tasks and encouraging everyone to develop a new language of grunts.
* Lois Baxter (1) and Gerard Ryder (1) are a married couple taking part in the experiment, Beth and Jake Forester.
* Rupert Frazer (1) is team member Simon.
* Martin Potter (1) and Elaine Ashley (1) are a pair of mute characters referred to in the credits as Tarzan and Jane. We later find out that they sneak off to a caravan at night.
* Nigel Planer (5) is Julian, the overly cheerful teacher-type who’s running the experiment. He takes the group to the mock village, clipboard in hand at all times, then pops back later to check up on them.
* Rik Mayall (5) plays the confrontational team member Tarquin. He was in last year’s experiment too, where he wore a loose-fitting outfit and his bollocks kept falling out. This time, he advocates killing any outsiders who threaten their new community. (Beth kindly points out that no one *is* threatening them.)
* Dawn French (6) – who also wrote the episode – is Ursula, a highly sexed young woman who quickly takes a shine to Peter (‘Is your seed plenteous?’ she asks him) and later has a bath to get ready for some free-love hedonism within the group.
* Peter Richardson (6) is Nick, who doesn’t really take part in village life and instead spends his time trying to cop off with a Japanese girl – played by Megumi Shimanuki (1) – who he incorrectly thinks is called Margaret.
* Robbie Coltrane (4) plays Desmond. Although he arrives at the university in a buttoned-up suit, his repression soon gives way to a primal power and he ‘goes native’. We see him sculpting a large, phallic idol, and he refers to himself as Lugg. Later, he eyes up Peter and offers to show him how his ‘magic staff’ works. ‘Yes, that’ll be nice,’ says Peter, not knowing what Desmond means.
* The director, Sandy Johnson (2), cameos as a bewildered barman in the university bar.

Best bit: The big joke with the gang’s experiment is that the Iron Age village is not a remote, rural encampment far away from any 1980s amenities. It’s built slap-bang in the middle of a modern university campus. So when we see Tarquin trying to spear fish in a stream, it’s a stream over which runs a concrete bridge and the only thing he catches is a used condom. Other students even wander through the village on their way to the cafeteria. As well as an absurd backdrop to the drama, it means that our guinea pigs’ fidelity to the experiment is not quite so true. When starving hungry after three days, for example, they resort to kidnapping some rabbits from the uni’s animal-husbandry department.

The filming location for Summer School was the Brutalist architecture of Brunel University in Uxbridge, just to the west of London. Built in the 1960s, its distinctly ugly buildings can also be seen in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Summer School (1983)

Review: As the days go past in the village, the sexual frustrations and tensions grow within the camp. Tarquin suggests a democratic approach to pairings – he thinks it would be best if ‘we shag all the girls in rotation’ – while both Ursula and Desmond set their sights on Peter. So far, so conventional – the script is a spin on a sex farce, albeit a sex farce in an unusual location. But the longer it goes on, the more Summer School begins to dabble in edgy material not usually covered in comedy, ranging from the everyday to the extreme. Events then take a surreal turn as one of the team is found dead after a night of passion. Before you know it, everyone has fully devolved into prehistoric culture: chanting and dancing, wearing warpaint, and building a funeral pyre.

The script was written by Dawn French – so this is therefore the first female-written Comic Strip film – and often feels more like a Play for Today than the episode of an anarchic TV comedy. The piece has things to say about the breakdown of society when deprived of comforts, but while generally amusing on a conceptual level, there aren’t exactly a volley of hilarious moments. Sadly, Summer School lacks the conviction a dramatic play would have and the disjointed storyline doesn’t really draw any conclusions. It’s all watchable, of course, thanks to the talented cast and a general sense of unusualness. The strange but effective incidental music is a treat too. Eerie, low didgeridoo sounds are mixed with early-80s electro bleeps to suggest plenty of threat – from both primal nature and something unnatural.

Six fellow travellers on the path of knowledge about our forefathers out of 10

Next: The Comic Strip Presents… Five Go Mad on Mescalin

The Comic Strip Presents… Bad News Tour (1983, Sandy Johnson)

A weekly series of reviews looking at the film and TV output of the Comic Strip group of comedians…

Spoiler warning: plot points may be revealed.

Synopsis: A struggling heavy-metal band from London set off on their ‘tour’ – actually just one gig in Grantham – while being filmed by a documentary camera crew…

Written by: Adrian Edmondson. Directed by: Sandy Johnson. Broadcast: 24 January 1983, Channel 4. Series: 1. Episode: 4.

Notable cast (with a running total of Comic Strip appearances):
* Adrian Edmondson (5) plays the vocalist and lead guitarist of the metal band Bad News. He styles himself as Vim Fuego, but really he’s called Alan Metcalfe (so this is therefore the second Comic Strip film in a row to poke fun at an artistic character called Alan). Bad News have huge confidence and bravado (‘I could play Stairway to Heaven when I was 12,’ says Vim. ‘Jimmy Page didn’t actually write it until he was 22.’) but nothing to back it up – no fans, no recording contract, little talent. Nevertheless, they’re ambitious and are being filmed for a documentary as they head to a gig in Grantham.
* The episode’s director, Sandy Johnson (1), plays the director of the documentary. We hear him from out of shot and he occasionally appears in frame too, getting increasingly exasperated with both the feeble band he’s covering and his inept camera operator. Johnson often gives himself Hitchcock-like cameos in his work: he crops up a few times in Jonathan Creek, for example.
* Bert Parnaby (1) appears briefly as Vim’s neighbour who complains about his loud music.
* Nigel Planer (4) is Den Dennis, the band’s dopey rhythm guitarist. He’s especially nervous of the documentary crew and is aware that he must perform certain ‘spontaneous’ moments correctly for the camera. He’s also the puritan of the group: he flounces off when someone suggests the band could be like the New Romantics and only returns after Vim confirms that they will remain heavy metal.
* Rik Mayall (4) plays bassist Colin Grigson. He can’t play very well but the band need him as they use his brother’s PA system. A poseur from a posh family, Colin tells an elaborate story about getting high with a chick and kicking in the TV while watching Whistle Test and setting fire to the curtains, only for Den to undercut it all by asking if Colin’s mum was angry when she got home.
* Peter Richardson (5) is the spaced-out drummer, Spider Webb. When the others pick him up from home, a young woman in a pyjama top is pleading with him not to go out and leave her alone… but we overhear that he’s paid her to pose as his girlfriend.
* Dawn French (5) is Tracy, a schoolgirl the band chat up when they spot her in the street. She jumps in their van and becomes a groupie, accompanying them to Grantham. In a chilling joke about the music industry’s attitude to underage girls, the gig venue’s manager suggests Tracy stay behind in his office while the others soundcheck.
* Serena Evans (1) plays Tracy’s pal Cheryl.
* Jennifer Saunders (5) plays Sally Freidman, who interviews the group while they’re on the road. She’s ‘Britain’s number-one sexy-chick rock journalist’ and is introduced via an artful sequence that’s lit like a TV ad for a tabloid magazine. Later, she asks a tortuously complicated question – rattled off by Saunders in a continuous long-lens shot that features all six of the main cast – only for the take to be ruined by a truck stopping in front of them.
* Neville Smith (1) is Rob. He’s the manager of the Roxy Grantham, the venue of Bad News’s gig. Only four people and a dog show up (including Tracy) so Rob refuses to pay the band.

Best bit: While stopping for lunch at a motorway services, Den gets into a argument with the woman behind the counter. He’s aggrieved at being charged £2 for sausage, beans and chips because you only get one sausage. Then a while later, as the band sit at a table, he suddenly notices the menu up on the wall. ‘Wait a minute,’ he interrupts, outraged. ‘It says sausages up there! Not just one sausage.’

Review: Bad News Tour is presented as a ‘mock documentary’ – or, if you will, a mockumentary. This format coupled with the subject matter has inevitably led to comparisons with the near-contemporary comedy film This Is Spinal Tap (1984). Both projects were cooked up at the same time, so there’s no suggestion of copying – the Bad News script was actually inspired by a 1976 BBC documentary about the Kursaal Flyers. But the similarities are uncanny. Like Bad News, Spinal Tap are a British metal band with delusions of grandeur, a habit of embarrassing themselves, and inter-group tensions. Both are being filmed for what they hope will be a triumphant documentary, but which actually exposes their failings, and the directors of the documentaries both appear on screen, playing an active role in the story. There’s also the curious oddity of each film featuring a joke where a band member is indignant over the food on offer: while Bad News’s Den is appalled by only getting one sausage in his sausage, beans and chips, Spinal Tap’s guitarist Nigel Tufnel complains because some bread is too small to use for sandwiches.

However, it’s the differences that are most interesting. Whereas Spinal Tap are veterans and has-beens, Bad News are inexperienced and never-likely-to-bes. Spinal Tap are famous and have released several records; Bad News are yet to be signed. Spinal Tap plan an audacious theatre show based around an elaborate Stonehenge set; Bad News play their one and only gig on a small stage in an empty cinema in Lincolnshire. And perhaps most noticeably, whereas Spinal Tap’s musicianship has a polished sheen, when we hear Bad News play live it’s raw, ropey stuff. All this means Bad News are underdogs and that makes them more relatable. The whole cast understand the tone of the joke so well – playing things broad and full of unfounded swagger, but not without heart. Nothing is cruel or patronising. You can also really tell that the four members of the band are performers who know and trust each other.

The first Comic Strip Presents film written by someone other than Peters Richardson and Richens, Bad News Tour was the brainchild of Adrian Edmondson. A decent musician with experience of writing music and playing live, he based the script on his memories of being in school bands. Nigel Planer was also no stranger to a guitar, having played one as his stand-up character Neil the hippy. Rik Mayall was less confident: ‘He thought he could almost play,’ Edmondson joked in 2018, ‘and he was right: he could *almost* play’.

As well as a satire of youthful arrogance, Bad News Tour is also playing around with the filmmaking form. Edmondson has said that Eric Idle’s All You Need is Cash – a fake documentary about an ersatz Beatles – was an influence, but Bad News Tour exposes the mechanics of making a documentary even further. In a key moment, the band’s van breaks down but the director refuses to help fix it – he says he’s not allowed to interfere with the story. Vim points out that this principle doesn’t prevent the director telling the band not to swear so much. He will interfere when it suits him, when it helps craft the narrative in a certain way. We actually see plenty of examples of documentary artifice – staged moments, retakes, engineered drama – and we come to realise that the band are not the only ones guilty of trying to present a certain image to the world. In fact, while their sins are hubris and naivety, the documentary makers are engaged in the more craven act of manipulation. Taken literally, the joke sometimes doesn’t work – why would the fictional production team leave multiple takes of the same moment in the final edit? But as a piece of comedy it *excels*.

Nine fucking bleeps out of 10

Next: The Comic Strip Presents… Summer School

Hotel Transylvania: The Series – Enter the Nosepicker (2017, Robin Budd)

An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: The eponymous hotel. The modern day.

Faithful to the novel? The first two Hotel Transylvania animated feature films, which centred on an eccentric hotel run by Count Dracula, were such successes that a TV spin-off was soon put into the works. The resulting show is a prequel focusing on Dracula’s daughter, Mavis, and has so far run to 52 episodes across two seasons. Each episode is made up of a pair of stories – and the first story in the first episode, Enter the Nosepicker, is what we’re reviewing here as a sample of the whole series… Count Dracula must leave his hotel in the care of his elder sister Lydia (‘the dark baroness’) while he heads off on Vampire Council business. This is bad news for young Mavis in two ways: she thought she’d be left in charge, and she then accidentally allows a nose-picking baby into the hotel just before a fearsome reviewer from a website called Scream-cation is calling round.

Best performance: Mavis is voiced by Bryn McAuley, taking over from Selena Gomez who plays the part in the movie series. She’s relentlessly energetic, as befits the hyper storytelling.

Best bit: The premise of this 15-minute segment is summed up in a fun opening sequence. A mariachi band made up of Day of the Dead skeletons sing a song that details Dracula’s departure, Lydia’s arrival and Mavis’s wish to run the hotel.

Review: As the opening story of the series, Enter the Nosepicker sets the template for fast-paced and frenetic animation aimed at a very young audience. In order to keep the kids’ attention, there are lots of quick cuts, rapid movement and whooshing sound effects. The character designs, meanwhile, are angular and highly stylised. Mavis and Lydia, for example, have spindly legs and tiny waists but huge faces – let’s sidestep the worrying implications for feminism and accept that children like this kind of thing. It’s all made with the right pre-teen sense of fun, but has precious little to do with any Dracula mythology an adult would recognise.

Six kazoos wedged inside your brain out of 10

The Comic Strip Presents… The Beat Generation (1983, Bob Spiers)

A weekly series of reviews looking at the film and TV output of the Comic Strip group of comedians…

Spoiler warning: plot points may be revealed.

Synopsis: August 1960 – a beat poet and his clique hold a party at the house of a young fan.

Written by: Peter Richardson and Pete Richens. Directed by: Bob Spiers. Broadcast: 17 January 1983, Channel 4. Series: 1. Episode: 3.

Notable cast (with a running total of Comic Strip appearances):
* Making his Comic Strip Presents debut is Keith Allen (1), an alternative comedian who broke through on the Soho comedy scene around the same time as the Comic Strip regulars. He cameos here as Brian Epstein, the manager of the Beatles, but plays the part nothing like the real man. In the opening scene Epstein pitches his acts to a producer played by Michael White (1), who was the real-life producer of the Comic Strip Presents series.
* Adrian Edmondson (4) plays Desmond, an enthusiastic young fella who has a house by the sea all to himself (because his parents have gone away). So, after signing a legal waiver, he plays host to a famous beat poet and his hangers-on for a weekend-long party. At times, Edmondson’s delivery drifts into the same kind of strained extremes he used as Vyvyan Basterd in sitcom The Young Ones (the first series of which was made at roughly the same time as this film), though Desmond is a much more benign and optimistic character.
* Nigel Planer (3) is Charles, the poet’s unflappable and patrician agent (and, it is hinted, occasional lover). The Beat Generation is one of Planer’s favourite Comic Strip films.
* For the third time in four Comic Strip projects, Dawn French (4) plays a character who’s meant to have – indeed, does have – overt sex appeal. Flirty fangirl Eleanor hangs off every word of poet Alan. She’s thrilled by the idea of a wild weekend with ‘so many crazy artists and poets’, though is saddened when Alan seems to dislike her legs.
* Peter Richardson (4) is Alan, the sunglasses-wearing poet at the centre of all the adoration. He affects a cool nonchalance, and modestly says that his success is like going to an orgy in clean underpants. One thing Alan doesn’t seem interested in, by the way, is poetry. He never recites any.
* Rik Mayall (3) plays Jeremy, who’s first seen driving Alan and Eleanor to the house party. He’s an angry, manic soul who then spends a long time on the phone to an ex who’s dumped him and moved to Australia. (As a cry for help he simulates suicide.) Jeremy is a frustrated soul generally. ‘People think it’s easy being a rebel!’ he snaps at one point, Mayall suddenly sounding very much like his Young Ones character, Rick. ‘Well, it’s bloody not.’
* Daniel Peacock (3) plays Kix, an anarchic but not very good poet who steals vending machines and crashes cars. He’s said to be the most promising illiterate of their generation. Halfway through the episode, he finds two underage girls – Judy and Tracy, played by Zoe Clarke (1) and Kim Pappas (1) – and invites them to the party. ‘Got any younger sisters?’ he asks.
* Robbie Coltrane (3) is Kurt, a potential publisher for Alan’s latest work.
* Jennifer Saunders (4) plays Anne, an American filmmaker hanging out at the party (we never learn if she was invited). She falls for Jeremy, saying she likes his style and his naked aggression, and even suggests they kiss while they walk along the beach. (Coincidentally, Saunders’ character in the first Comic Strip Presents film was also called Anne.)

Best bit: As the outsider, the only major character who’s not part of the ‘scene’, Adrian Edmondson’s Desmond is our point-of-view. He represents that feeling most of us will have experienced of wanting to make friends with people we consider to be cool. But when he tries to take advantage of the permissive culture and nervously tells Eleanor that he’d like to ‘do it to her’, she just laughs at him and cruelly tells the others what he’s said. She does eventually let him have a go… but seems bored with the process and reads a magazine as he thrusts away.

Review: After the specific pastiche of Five Go Mad in Dorset and the scattergun satire of War, now comes a mood piece. It’s the cusp of the 1960s, where artistic, hedonistic and sexual possibilities seem endless. Our lead character is a British version of Allen Ginsberg, who was one of the leaders of the American beat-poet movement that flourished in the 1950s. The Beats rejected the formality of traditional poetry, often abandoning rhyming schemes and logic and preferring a free-form sensibility akin to jazz music. (The word beat was a pun: it referred to the rhythmic metre of their work, but also suggested underdogs who had been beaten down by society’s conventions.) Ginsberg and his colleagues such as Jack Kerouac, Michael McClure and Diane Di Prima explored themes instinctively and organically: ‘First thought, best thought,’ as Ginsberg once said. They also dabbled with drugs and carefree sex.

This Comic Strip Presents film pokes fun at all this pretension by presenting us with a leading British poet, Alan. The more he talks, the more he exposes himself as a bore with nothing interesting to say. He just drones on with inconsequential anecdotes. Not that his acolytes notice. ‘It’s so damn crazy when you talk weird, Alan,’ purrs Eleanor, while Desmond adds, ‘Yeah, come on, everybody, let’s go crazy apeshit.’ For them, it’s not about the work or the artistic calling. All the peripheral stuff is much more exciting: partying, laughing, having sex, looking good and being seen as one of the in-crowd. When something genuinely emotional enters this world, such as Jeremy’s anguish over a failed relationship or the extremes to which Eleanor will go to be liked, no one else cares. The temptation of having a good time is just too strong to be concerned with reality. Or as one of Ginsberg’s most famous poems begins, ‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.’

The film plays all this out with a French New Wave aesthetic, a hungover jazz score (with saxophonist Colin Jacas surrealistically appearing in shot) and self-conscious, black-and-white photography. A touch too aimless for its own good, The Beat Generation drifts from character to character, from joke to joke, without ever really hitting home.

Six communist homosexuals out of 10

Next: The Comic Strip Presents… Bad News Tour

Heirs of the Night: season one (2019)

An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: This 13-part TV drama series for a young audience is based on a series of novels by the German writer Ulrike Schweikert which began in 2008. The story takes place in 1889. There are sequences set in Troms, Norway; Hamburg, Germany; Transylvania (specifically at Castle Dracula and the town of Brașov); Epe in the Netherlands; and Naples, Italy. But the chief focus is aboard the Elisabetha, the sailing ship harboured in Naples that hosts a school for teenage vampires.

Faithful to the novel? No, the character of Dracula is used for an entirely new storyline. In 19th-century Europe, vampires exist silently among the human population, just getting on with their lives and avoiding trouble. A convoluted backstory is revealed in which the tears of uber-vamp Lord Dracula created 13 powerful rubies, which gave clans of vampires specific powers. But then a civil war between the clans lead to most of the rubies being lost. Now, an organised group of human vigilantes known as Redmasks hunt vampires down and kill them. So the five remaining clans – the Dracas, the Nosferas, the Pyras, the Vyrad and the Vamalia – realise they must work together in order to survive. Their big plan? Send their youngsters to a special school so they can learn how to defend themselves.

The central character is vampire Alisa (Anastasia Martin), a 14-year-old Vamalia who lives in Hamburg with her younger brother and her foster father. Fleeing Redmasks, they answer the call for the clans to meet up in Naples. There, Alisa is told she must attend the newly formed school – if school isn’t too grand a word for what is basically half a dozen kids and one room. She meets other children including the sullen, arrogant Norwegian vampire Lars (Ulrik William Græsli), with whom she has an attraction; a cocky lad called Malcolm (Jordan Adene) who enjoys taunting humans; a pair of Scandi sisters (Ines Høysæter Asserson and Mina Dale), and others. After a while, a new student called Ivy (Aisling Sharkey) also joins them and forms a friendship with Alisa despite having a secret identity. At the same time as the school is being set up we also focus on the leader of the Redmasks, the Englishwoman Calvina (Christina Chong), who’s said to be the second most dangerous vampire hunter after the famous Abraham Van Helsing. She has a teenage son despite only looking about 17 herself. Almost inevitably, son Nicu (Lance West) bumps into Alisa… and inevitably they like each other… and yet inevitably neither knows the other’s true identity.

Meanwhile, in Transylvania, the evil Lord Dracula (Julian Bleach) is awoken from a long hibernation. He wants to be reunited with his lost love Elisabetha, but is concerned by the actions of the vampire clans. So he sends a shapeshifting acolyte called Tonka (Sallie Harmsen) to sneak aboard the school ship and spy on the children. (She’s always dirty and often naked – though obviously shot in such a way to hide it.)

Best performance: Anastasia Martin, who often reminds you of a young Rachel Weisz, plays Alisa. As the story begins, the young girl has a wanderlust and likes the poet Byron. She also quickly discovers that she has a special, mystical gift called the Spark – she’s actually part vamp, part human, and has a heartbeat. And this draws the psychic attention of Dracula… Alisa is the main protagonist and like a lot of central female characters in teen dramas, she’s capable, smart and caring, but has her head turned by two diametrically opposed yet good-looking boys. Martin is good at making us believe in her character, whether it’s a scene of romance, suspense or the dramatic implications of being stalked by Lord Dracula.

Best bit: Early in their relationship, Alisa and Nicu go for a meal at a restaurant – the sequence is a nice bit of emotion and the fumbled flirting is handled well. But it’s also a plot-based scene because the shifty Tonka is stalking the pair in order to steal a book on Dracula that Alisa has obtained.

Review: First broadcast in Norway in 2019, season one of this multi-national production was shown in the UK by CBBC between 26 October and 16 December 2020. Across the 13 episodes, the storyline echoes other tales about teenage girls and vampires – bits of Buffy, twinges of Twilight – while the ghost of Harry Potter lurks derivatively in the corner. But almost everything is done with an earnest austerity, a tone not helped by muted lighting and lots of dull colours in the set and costume design. Fun is far too rare and, as is often the case with these kinds of things, the backstory is a muddle of unconvincing jargon and nebulous concepts. Some money’s been spent on the production, so it looks handsome, but the plot drags across the five and a half hours – a lot of which is padded with scenes of Dracula making speeches and and his sidekick Tonka loitering about and spying on Alisa. Also, given that the target audience is made up of teens and under, the horror elements of the vampire myth have been suppressed. The majority of the vampires in Heirs of the Night are good people, unfairly persecuted by a human society that doesn’t understand them. They may sleep in coffins; they may flash their fangs when angered – but these children don’t do anything off-putting like killing people or drinking blood. It’s only Dracula who is treated as a villain, and even he is something of a romantic figure who yearns for his lost love. (His backstory feels cribbed from the 1992 Francis Ford Coppola film Bram Stoker’s Dracula.) But the show struck a chord with some: a second series has already been released.

Six knots out of 10

The Comic Strip Presents… War (1983, Bob Spiers)

A weekly series of reviews looking at the film and TV output of the Comic Strip group of comedians…

Spoiler warning: plot points may be revealed.

Synopsis: England in 1985 is a nation overrun by war – Surrey, for example, has just been invaded by the Warsaw Pact. A young couple move into a new house but are soon separated by the chaos going on around them…

Written by: Peter Richardson and Peter Richens. Directed by: Bob Spiers. Broadcast: 3 January 1983, Channel 4. Series: 1. Episode: 2.

Notable cast (with a running total of Comic Strip appearances):
* Dawn French (3) plays Hermine, a sultry film-noir dame in a trenchcoat. She and her partner Godfrey are moving into a house in the country, where they can learn to mix their own cocktails now there’s a war on. But as soon as they arrive the house is invaded by hapless, blindfolded guerrillas; Hermine and Godfrey are separated as they flee the carnage…
* Daniel Peacock (2) is Hermine’s partner, Godfrey from Islington. He wears punk make-up and a T-shirt but speaks with a posh accent. As the separated couple search for each other in the war-torn landscape, their random encounters with other characters gives us the episodic structure of the story. Peacock is very watchable.
* Adrian Edmondson (3) is one of several cast members who plays a multitude of roles, a la a Monty Python film. Amongst many characters, he’s a wild-eyed, red-haired hippy playing Russian roulette; a faux-Mexican who thinks he’s in a Spaghetti Western; and the leader of a group of British POWs who have secretly dug an escape route (not just a tunnel, but a whole subway network that links with the Northern Line and everything).
* Rik Mayall (2) – making his debut in the Comic Strip Presents series – has a very un-Mayall-like character. As well as some other minor roles, he plays a dimwitted American called General Erwin, a man who can’t read a map and doesn’t know how wars work, and who is far more lethargic and slow-talking than the actor’s usual performances.
* Among the parts played by Nigel Planer (2) – who’d likewise missed the opening episode of this TV series – are a bald man at the Russian roulette game and a stoic Soviet officer who falls in love with Hermine.
* Peter Richardson (3) features as a US Army officer called Wally; a Mexican bandit called Miguel (really a Brit called Donald); and a prisoner of war who’s learnt how to disguise himself as a Scotland football fan.
* Jennifer Saunders (3) also appears in the Russian roulette scene, then crops up as both a bored, cynical cafe owner (‘The middle-class are all selling up and becoming refugees…’) and a peppy member of a POW escape committee.
* Robbie Coltrane (2) has a few roles. One is a dodgy and dated Japanese businessman-cum-prison warden… complete with ‘Asian’ make-up and cod accent… and jokingly called Harry Kiri. It’s a Tenko take-off, only if Tenko’s Major Yamauchi had been an 80s capitalist: he wears calculators on his lapels instead of military medals. Later, Coltrane also plays a Russian military officer during a Soviet occupation of Soho. Given the similarity in accent, shall we assume that this is the same character Coltrane later played in two 90s James Bond films? Perhaps Russian gangster Valentin Dmitrovich Zukovsky had an army background.

Best bit: Amongst all the satirical comedy are some surreal, Pythonesque jokes. When a fridge explodes, raw sausages are flung at Hermine from off-screen. Later, Edmondson plays a prisoner of war who’s being forced to watch a TV screen playing a clip of dripping water. ‘Help me… Help me… Change the channel!’ he cries.

Review: The spine of War is a very loose story about a young couple in love, who are separated by circumstance and must wander through bizarre encounters until they find each other again. But really the ‘plot’ is just an excuse for some sketches on a theme of the madness of war. If you wanted to be pretentious about it – and you probably know, dear reader, that we don’t shy away from that kind of thing on this website – the film is an example of Dadaism.

Founded in the first couple of decades of the 20th century, Dadaism was an anarchic artistic movement that rejected logic and authority and instead embraced arch nonsense. Where its name came from is a matter of dispute, but one story goes that the word was found by German writer Hugo Ball while skimming through a dictionary. He was tickled by its playful meanings, all of which seemed to fit the bill. ‘Dada is “yes, yes” in Rumanian, “rocking horse” and “hobby horse” in French,’ he wrote in his diary. ‘For Germans it is a sign of foolish naiveté, joy in procreation, and preoccupation with the baby carriage.’ Initially, the movement had a political edge: by exploring and exploiting gibberish for its own sake, Dadaists were deliberately contrasting the horrors of the First World War. They wanted to remind people of the humanity that was, in their view, being ignored or taken for granted during the carnage. ‘The war is based on a crass error,’ wrote Ball in 1915. ‘Men have been mistaken for machines.’ The movement didn’t last long, but according to the Smithsonian magazine Dadaism has been hugely influential on all kinds of 20th-century art – modern art, abstract and conceptual art, performance art, pop art and installation art.

In War, the second episode of Channel 4’s The Comic Strip Presents strand, we see a Dadaist approach again and again. The situations are all designed to highlight how individuals and their emotions are getting lost in the craziness of conflict. In one sequence there’s a literal interpretation of the blind leading the blind, with a gang of vastly inept soldiers blundering around and endangering themselves and others. Elsewhere, there are spoofs of gung-ho, GI Joe-style militarism that has no care for the human cost, plenty of examples of apathy and disillusion, and some fun pastiches of war movies such as The Deer Hunter (1979), Apocalypse Now (1979) and The Great Escape (1963).

But what the film doesn’t have is much real-world logic: in half an hour, we get a hotchpotch of styles, locations, eras and attitudes, with Hermine and Godfrey’s journeys feeling like trips through a psychedelic dream. Despite this lack of conventional storytelling, everything’s kept entertaining by the thoroughly committed cast, as well as Simon Brint and Rod Melvin’s cabaret-club incidental music, which switches from chintzy to soulful without you really noticing.

Seven pots of tea for four… you bitch… out of 10

Next: The Comic Strip Presents… The Beat Generation

The Comic Strip Presents… Five Go Mad in Dorset (1982, Bob Spiers)

A weekly series of reviews looking at the film and TV output of the Comic Strip group of comedians…

Spoiler warning: plot points may be revealed.

Synopsis: A group of children known as the Famous Five – Julian, Dick, George, Anne and their dog Timmy – are holidaying in the countryside when they stumble across a gang of criminals…

Written by: Peter Richardson and Peter Richens. Directed by: Bob Spiers. Broadcast: 2 November 1982, Channel 4. Series: 1. Episode: 1.

Notable cast (with a running total of Comic Strip appearances):
* Peter Richardson (2) plays Julian, the headstrong leader of the Famous Five. Richardson was 30 at the time of filming – a couple of characters point out that this 10-year-old is ‘rather mature’ – and was the key creative force behind the scenes, co-writing the script and acting as a producer.
* Dawn French (2) plays George, who wishes she were a boy. (‘I think it’s stupid being a girl!’) The others soon tell her to stop thinking she’s as good as a boy.
* Adrian Edmondson (2) is the idealistic Dick, who has a youthful enthusiasm for food, fun and saying things like ‘Rather!’ and ‘Wizard!’
* Jennifer Saunders (2) is the timid Anne, who Dick thinks will make a proper little housewife one day. She doesn’t mind being dominated: ‘At least I’m quiet and pretty,’ she tells Dick. ‘Unlike poor George.’
* The fifth member of the Famous Five is their dog Timmy, who gets poisoned by the criminals and later enjoys licking George late at night in their tent.
* Robbie Coltrane (1), a comic actor who’d recently appeared with Comic Strip alumnus Rik Mayall in sketch show A Kick Up the Eighties, appears in two roles – dragged up as a female shopkeeper, then as a pervy gypsy.
* Daniel Peacock (1) plays Toby, a boy who wants to be friends with the Five. He’s so filthy rich he doesn’t need to use good manners, but the Five are wary of him because they don’t know which school he goes to. Toby is then kidnapped by a pair of shady men who have been lurking around… (Perhaps this role was originally intended for Rik Mayall, who’s oddly absent here. He may have been unavailable: his 1982 CV contains several non-Comic Strip TV projects, both as a performer and a writer.)
* Sandra Dorne (1) is Aunt Fanny, the old soak the friends are staying with in the country, while Ronald Allen (1) – who was then one of the stars of soap opera Crossroads – plays Uncle Quentin. Quentin is a famous scientist who does secret work for the government, but has been kidnapped… again. Spoiler: we eventually learn he staged the kidnapping because he’s a ‘screaming homosexual’ who wants to elope with Toby.
* Ron Tarr (1) and Nosher Powell (1) are the Cockney criminals, Dirty Dick and Fingers.

Best bit: At one point, Dick has a minor breakdown when the unrelenting cosiness of the Five’s lifestyle finally gets to him. He tells Julian that he’s having ‘grown-up feelings’ and he’d rather do something else than constantly have adventures. ‘Like what?’ asks a peeved Julian. ‘I don’t know,’ replies Dick. ‘Just building model aeroplanes or country dancing.’ (Also worth mentioning is the Pythonesque gag with Dirty Dick and Fingers’ dialogue. When the Five overhear them discussing secret matters, the criminals’ lines are meaningless waffle with occasional important phrases – ‘Blah blah blah stolen plans blah blah blah missing scientist blah blah blah atom bomb…’)

Review: After their one-off film The Comic Strip in 1981, the team’s reputation was quickly on the rise. As the group’s figurehead and founder, Peter Richardson capitalised on this by approaching Channel 4 and pitching a series of self-contained filmed comedies. This opening episode – by Richardson and his writing partner Peter Richens, who had previously worked on some Comic Strip stage shows – was screened on the network’s very first night of programming in November 1982 and is a warped, sometimes scathing pastiche of Edin Blyton’s Famous Five stories.

Scored by the theme music from the BBC radio show Housewives’ Choice, there are plenty of shots of characters freewheeling down bucolic, English country lanes on their bicycles. The tone, on a surface level at least, is a jolly-hockey-sticks, middle-class view of 20th-century freedom and contentment – endless summers and scrumptious food and benign adventures waiting to be discovered.

However, the inch-perfect script is actually a satire of this never-existed world. And that soon becomes apparent with many sly digs about the Famous Five’s ultra-conservative attitudes. A black man working at the train station is suspected of being a foreigner called Golliwog; female characters are constantly belittled (and accept it); working-class accents denote criminal activity; and there’s plenty of xenophobia, homophobia and antisemitism – all delivered by buoyantly optimistic characters. The spoofiness also plays around with less offensive cliches. Children stumble across sinister plots, conveniently overhearing vital information, while criminals talk tough but never do anything especially threatening. (Incidentally, despite its pointed piss-taking, Five Go Mad in Dorset was actually sanctioned by the Edin Blyton estate.)

The cast, especially Edmondson, Saunders and French, are fantastic at pitching their performances with just the right amount of stilted line-readings and hackneyed rhythms. The scenes never tip over into smugness or winking-at-the-camera, but the joke is always clear. It takes a real command of irony to play this kind of stuff. A lot of credit must also go to director Bob Spiers, who keeps things moving along as effortlessly as a lazy summer’s afternoon. (He had form for classy comedy: he’d directed the second series of Fawlty Towers in 1979.)

At the same time as Channel 4’s deal with Peter Richardson, fellow Comic Striper Rik Mayall had pitched a sitcom to the BBC. He would write it with his girlfriend Lise Mayer and his old university friend Ben Elton, and the show was to be based around the two tentpole double acts from the Comic Strip club – Mayall and Ade Edmondson, Peter Richardson and Nigel Planer – as well as support from Alexei Sayle. In the event, Richardson clashed with producer Paul Jackson and left the project, allowing him to focus solely on The Comic Strip Presents… But only seven days after Five Go Mad in Dorset aired on Channel 4, seminal sitcom The Young Ones started its run on BBC2. In just one week, British TV comedy had changed in a major way.

Nine lashings of ginger beer out of 10

Next: The Comic Strip Presents… War