THE disparate works of Alan Bennett, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller aren’t too hard to find on DVD. Miller directed a fair chunk of the 1980s BBC omnibus The Shakespeare Collection , which pulled together some of Britain’s finest for the screen, including Laurence Olivier, and he pops up in documentaries and as director of some notable operas that are a little harder to track down.
Bennett is one of the great contemporary playwrights, with occasional forays on to the screen, including his Talking Heads monologues and the films The Madness of King George and, most recently, The History Boys , generally of a high calibre.
And Peter Cook and Dudley Moore are an important comic presence, Moore most particularly in ’ 80s film gems such as 10 and Arthur . Their best work on screen was together, though, both in their television program, Not Only . . . But Also , which has been re- packaged for DVD as The Best of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore , and in the 1967 film Bedazzled . That film remains one of my favourites and, in an obtuse fashion, it serves as a marker for Hollywood’s arrogance and idiocy. It is still inconceivable anyone would attempt to remake or improve on Stanley Donen’s film.
But Harold Ramis — who, let’s face it, hasn’t distinguished himself since 1993’ s Groundhog Day — tried it in 2000 with Brendan Fraser playing Moore’s everyman and Elizabeth Hurley taking on Cook’s Devil. Just writing about it makes me retch.
Anyway, all four have distinct works that are well worth finding on DVD.
Yet the one piece that in many ways defines them and pretty much all British comedy that followed is their collective work, the comedy revue Beyond the Fringe . It hasn’t been available on DVD until now. Acorn Media has recently released the one video recording of what was a seminal moment in the rise of British satire. It was when the silly japery of the Goons made way for a sharper, anti- authoritarian bent that also incorporated a love of the English language’s vagaries.
This is not the place to debate Beyond the Fringe ’ s influence on comedy, though, or rank the company against the other comedy titans emerging in England before and after, the Goons and the Monty Python troupe.
But it is worth celebrating a DVD of what was the show’s farewell 1964 performance from the West End.
Even so, this version does raise the question of what audio and video quality is permissible before viewers take offence. I think in this instance, given the show’s vaunted reputation, anything is watchable.
Certainly, this one isn’t great quality. You can’t blame the distributor; the source material, what must be 40- year- old tapes, has not travelled well.
The black- and- white vision jumps and fades and the contrast varies. Visually, the one thing going for it is the fact Cook, Moore, Miller and Bennett were sparing with props and sets. The soundtrack occasionally drops out, too, but not to a frustrating degree.
Nevertheless, for me at least, after reading so much about Beyond the Fringe , it’s quite a delight to see at last the show’s sense of time, place and style. Even better, the jokes remain funny.
* * * DISC WATCH: The Classic Australian Collection ( volume one) ( Roadshow, M, $ 119.99) THIS box set is a beauty, with 14 films including Strictly Ballroom , The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert , Gallipoli , Shine and The Castle . Replace The Dish with volume two’s Babe and it would be perfect.