You can’t beat the British when it comes to cerebral banter. And now, finds James Belfield, they’re nailing slapstick too.
On New Zealand telly’s comic battleground between US and Brit humour, it seems Blighty has decided that a boots-on-theground strategy will win the day. Tune in day or night and you’re confronted with endless reruns of cerebral banterfests called something like Would I Lie about 8 Out of 10 Quite Interesting Echoing Ducks?, another lineup of standups braying at theatre audiences peppered with G-list celebs, or sepia-toned archival footage of tweed-clad pensioners mucking about on t’ moors or speaking in shockingly un-pc French and German accents.
When it comes to the drone wars of animation and the mother-of-all-hitcoms, Modern Family, the US gains comic ground, but no matter how many laser-guided, mainstream, prime-time, audience-pleasing missiles they fire, their style of humour never makes quite the impact as one devastatingly barbed Stephen Fry put-down or awkwardly self-effacing story from David Mitchell’s younger days (if, in fact he had any).
If there’s one area of classic Brit comedy that’s largely missing from the modern panel-show-based-on-a- Victorian-parlour-game, it’s slapstick. Thankfully, Taskmaster, which starts a fifth series on Duke on November 2, uses the same basic cast of familiar funny-faces as the other shows, and then makes them do ridiculous things.
In the US, this would either be as cringe-inducing as an MTV roast or as cruel and dumb as Impractical Jokers, but, instead, Taskmaster manages to be as irreverently madcap as a classload of 11-year-olds unsupervised in a custard factory.
Childishness is the key. Even the “tasks” have an air of end-of-term play-day about them: the first episode involves cuddling, getting a rowboat to shore without a paddle and finding odd ways to get pieces of fruit into a fishbowl without throwing them.
But the humour – as with most successful UK comedy – comes from how self-aware they are, most notably the taskmaster himself Greg Davies and his assistant Alex Horne. As a former schoolteacher, Davies knows the idiocy of what he’s doing and hands out points as if he is a mediaeval lord. The show is his domain (he even asks the audience to applaud the first ad break of the series), the contestants are vying for his favour, and Horne is his jester. The series prize, of course, is a gold statue of Davies’ head.
Horne, who is actually the show’s founder (having created it for the 2010 Edinburgh Fringe Festival) deadpans his role as he leads this season’s contestants – Sally Phillips, Mark Watson, Bob Mortimer, Nish Kumar and Aisling Bea – through the pre-recorded tasks (cue the slapstick) and then the onstage replays (cue the banter).
It’s a magic formula – because, yes, watching Sally Phillips stuff out-of-date chocolate cake under Alex Horne’s armpits is funny, but it’s not as funny as watching Sally Phillips then watch herself do it in front of a live theatre audience.
Taskmaster has been enough of a hit to be franchised out to Germany, Belgium and Sweden… and it’s apparently on its way to the US, too, where Horne will play crazy fool to Reggie Watts’ royalty. It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out.
The beauty of Brit humour is that it crops up in unlikely places – like the new series of Rick Stein’s Long Weekends on Food TV.
There’s always been something Basil Fawlty-ish about the slightly awkward, kind of bookish, occasionally grumpy TV chef’s world journeys but the first episode of his latest jaunt has moments of pure Monty Python.
Stein’s long-time director David Pritchard previously worked with Keith Floyd and knows the value of unscripted humour – even in cookery travel programmes. In the first episode, which is ostensibly a stomach-stuffing trip to Bologna, he has our hero dressed in a bin-liner and hair-net, taking selfies in front of a giant old cheese, stood in the corner of a piazza talking to a wall, discussing tattoos with law students and measuring the dimensions of tagliatelle against the 12th century Asinelli Tower.
Sure, there are recipes and the odd bit of advice for foodie travellers – but it’s this inscrutably dry humour that makes for the best British TV. And you can bet you wouldn’t get Anthony Bourdain taking cheese selfies while the camera was rolling.
Wayy ay back when I first started out on what passes for my “cca “career path”, I picked up an invaluable lesson relating too to a auditions. If you haven’t been there, auditions for young actors are generally horrible things, especially if you either really want, o or financially really need, the gig. (I’m sure “proper” job interview interviews are exactly the same, but I never did any of those, so bear withh with me.)
You spend all day obsessing over your lines, your outfit and your attitudde attitude, only to arrive in a small room filled with a dozen other perform performers, to wait. And wait. Until you finally get five minutes to tr try and make what, in your inexperienced mind, is an absoluteely absolutely life-changing impression on a casting director who has been watw watching fools like you do exactly the same thing for about seven sevenn hours already.
So this piece pie of advice has stuck with me. I can’t remember where I heaard heard it, so I apologise to its uncredited author for inevitably ppa paraphrasing it as this: “Don’t make your whole day revolve arouun around one probably stressful (and almost certainly unsuccessfuul) unsuccessful) audition. Plan to do something you enjoy afterwards.”
That’s something somm that Michele and I constantly try to do in our lives, although althouug we’ve given it a longer lead time and rephrased it as: “Alwayss “Always make m sure you have something to look forward to.”
For us, it usually involves travel. We just came back from a long weekend in Melbourne which we booked after looking at our diaries and assuming (quite rightly) that the month leading up to it was going to be more stressful than usual. Now that we’re back, we’ll start planning our next sojourn. It may be in a month, it may be in a year; the point is we’ll have something up our sleeve that we can count down to when life’s tediums become a bit too much.
We’re very lucky that our schedules and incomes allow us to do it this way, and that we can do some of our paid work (say, writing a weekly newspaper column) from anywhere we may be. But it’s the general concept that I’m enamoured with. The idea of looking ahead and thinking: “Thursday looks like a dog’s breakfast,” and planning a walk on the beach, or meeting an old friend for a drink, once it’s over.
Or retrospectively thinking: “Well, yesterday’s deadline/ unexpected bill/health issue/election result did my head in.” And deciding to treat yourself to a night at the movies, or fish and chips, or a nap.
It isn’t always easy to see, but there will be other days, and other auditions, for better roles, in better stories. May as well rehearse for them now.
There are various ways to read this story – the anxiety of the abandoned wife, the misery of a sister who missed him and presumed him dead – but I like the boy’s-own-adventure of it. When I was a kid, I was enthralled by fairytales that began with a prince (I imagined a princess) throwing a ball of twine between a horse’s ears and embarking on a journey in whatever direction it landed. There would be bread and cheese wrapped in a kerchief and tied to a stick resting over his (her) shoulder. This is why I picture Malcolm Applegate with a bundle of bread and nd cheese. And Winston clutching biscuits.
I am writing this as we wait to board a plane e home. It is our tradition that, on each journey home, we deal with the melancholy of a holiday ay being over by planning the next trip. I realise we are privileged to be able to do this – we have jobs that take us places and pay us well enough to keep us in the air. But I’m not really y talking about the particulars of the destination, n, just the idea that you keep consciously creating g something to look forward to.
Maybe a spot of gardening, or a bike ride that doesn’t last 10 years. These things are specifically noted on my list: a baby shower on Sunday, chicken nibbles on Monday… and our cat on the bed tonight.