Comedy Corner: The Smoking Room

BBC Three, 2004 – 2005

The notion of there even being a room for smoking in a workplace is now nothing but a memory. This sitcom came just a couple of years before smoking indoors at work was outlawed.

The Smoking Room was a weird lounge with yellow walls and old files in an office building, the exact nature of the business was never really revealed but its staff gave glimpses of the world beyond the smoking room, we never saw outside of its four walls for the whole series.

The cast were the smokers. Robert Webb played Robin. He was the only character to remain in the Smoking Room for almost the entire time, exactly what his job was isnt clear but he obviously didn’t spend much time doing it, although he would often state that he would finish off his cigarette then he really must go back to work.

There was also one more thing about Robin. He was (probably) gay, in the closet and obsessed with Ben from the Post Room. He’ll try and drop him into conversations but usually gets little response. Everyone else in the smoking room is pretty much clear on the reality when it comes to Robin.

So who else was in the smoking room? There was Sally who could be sarcastic but probably the most down to earth of the lot. Her friend was Annie who was over dramatic about everything and Barry who was your typical loser, he was always struggling with a crossword.

Annie are you okay?
Are you ok Annie?
Annie are you okay?
Are you ok Annie?

Also popping in were Clint the handyman, who was fairly hapless at fixing things and Len the security guard. He tended to leave most of the work to his junior Ranjit, who is never seen. In season two Heidi popped in, she wasn’t a smoker and was definitely weird.

Occasionally popping in for a fag was Sharon, the manager of the business – nobody liked her but she tried small talk because she had been on courses suggesting she should. Her assistant Janet had no confidence and would often talk about standing up to Sharon, but never did.

The Smoking Room could easily have been a radio comedy as there is very little visual humour and everything takes place in one room. It is also set in real time and while episodes have some threads running through them most are self-contained.

I don’t think you could call it laugh out loud funny but there are enough jokes in there. The bulk of the humour comes from the scenario and pictures painted by the cast.

The series came to an end with a Christmas episode set during the office party. It concludes with an excited Robin being greeted by Ben from the postroom. There were no further episodes made, partly as Smoking Rooms became outlawed.

Being tucked away on BBC Choice this programme probably didn’t get the audience it deserved. It was well observed and full of dry wit and I really enjoyed it. Coming out around the same time as the Office it probably deserved more recognition as there haven’t been many sitcoms set in a single location.

A few extra useless details I remember from the BBC website of the time, the theme tune was Close to Me by The Cure. Also the majority of the cast were non-smokers and so low-tar cigarettes were used which apparently smelt worse than normal ones.

Comedy Corner: Look Around You (Series 2)

Welcome into my Comedy Corner, where I write about lesser-spotted television comedy programmes most people have forgotten.

You have probably worked out that I like television and I like nostalgia. That is fundementally what this entire blog is about. Look Around You was a comedy based on the same things. The first series was a set of short ten minute episodes parodying old schools TV progammes from the 1970s. I may write about that series at a later date, today however I want to go into detail about the second series.

The simple reason for my reverse order is that I saw the second series first, but it was very different to the first running for six half-hour episodes and being a parody of Tomorrow’s World. The writing team of Peter Serafenowiz and Robert Popper were the same but there were aditional reoccuring cast members in the shape of Josie D’Arby (who I grew up watching as a Children’s BBC presenter) and Olivia Coleman, who is a massive star these days.

Each episode had a theme, sport, music etc. The show was presented by the cast who were all suitably attired and in a very brown studio which you’d typically find in the 1980s along with the theme tune which was brilliantly synthasied as you would expect.

While I am critiquing the attention to detail on making this look like a genuine archive programme I should mention that the show (which aired on BBC 2) was preceded with a period BBC 2 logo. To keep things looking authentic, the programme wasn’t even broadcast in widescreen – which almost all new programmes were by this point.

The comedy was slightly wacky and off the wall. The various ‘Inventor of the Year’ inventions were basically ridiculous. There was a gender swapping machine and a spray on skin spray. There was a Music 2000 competition which resulted in one of the hosts, Robert Popper launching a music career.

Thank’s Ants… Thants.

Peter created Portmanu to thank the guests every episode.

The culmination of the series came with the final episode and the Inventor of the Year. This episode featured Prince Charles – not a look alike – the real deal, pasted in from a genuine Tomorrow’s World episode and redubbed by Peter Serafenowiz. He is always refered to as H.R.H. Sir Prince Charles, which of course is incorrect.

In keeping with the general humour of the series overall, things go awry when one of the hopeful inventors goes mad, which results in Prince Charles face being completely removed with the spray-on skin. The programme goes ‘off the air’ and is replaced by what looks like a genuine schedule filler from the time about birds (It’s actually a film that was made for the first series DVD) before returning to the studio with sombre voices and faces.

While most of the content was ridiculous the attention to detail was amazing. If I was to pick on one bit that was a letdown it would be the giant ‘air-lock’ space age entrance that guests entered through which was clearly CGI, but I honestly think that over-the-top look was all part of the joke.

After watching the second series, I then bought the first series on DVD. Having seen how both were completely different I hoped for a third series, maybe with Look Around You being a parody of a regional news programme or something similar – but sadly there were no further Look Around You’s, but thanks guys… thuys.

Comedy Corner: Keeping Mum

BBC 1, 1997 – 1998

Welcome to my Comedy Corner, the bit of this blog where I gather up my memories of long forgotten Comedy programmes.

Previously I wrote about the Sitcom Dad, so it seems appropriate that I follow that up with a sitcom about a Mum, specifically one played by Stephanie Cole.

Airing on BBC One around the turn of the Millennium, Keeping Mum was the story of Peggy who at best could be described as forgetful but probably more accurately was suffering from some form of dementia – although that is never specifically mentioned.

She lives at home with her son Andrew played by Martin Ball – one of those actors you recognise but not exactly where from, almost certainly a dodgy advert. I digress…

He is charged with looking after her whilst trying to juggle a freelance journalism career and any hope of a relationship. Ultimately his ambitions are never realised due to his ties to his Mum.

Meanwhile Andrew’s brother Richard played by Haig Gordon had a successful career as a dentist (to the stars, no less) and a happy family life with his wife Tina played by Meera Syell. They rarely help with the care of Peggy but are quick to judge Andrew.

Two series were made, the first series largely slipping under the radar but the second series courted controversy before it even aired due to its making light of dementia.

It’s hard to deny that the show did that but most of the laughs come from the performances. The accent that Stephanie Cole uses, particularly when calling her sons name Andrew with emphasis on both syllables is funny in itself.

Sometimes the humour is purely based around Peggy’s absent-mindedness, like trying to heat an electric iron on a stove or wandering off but sometimes its just the wit that Peggy still possesses or how Richard thinks he knows it all and has it all but clearly isn’t as great as he makes out.

Two series was probably enough. While I dont agree that the show was just making fun of a series health condition there are only so many dodery-old-lady-forgetting-things jokes that can be made.

In the course of trying to find some pictures to add to this post (I failed) I discovered that the show was a loose remake of an Australian sitcom called Mother and Son. So there you go.

Comedy Corner: Dad

Welcome to the first post from my Comedy Corner, the bit of this blog where I gather up my memories of long forgotten Comedy programmes.

BBC 1, 2 Series, 1997 – 1999

George Cole starred in this sitcom which didn’t quite gain widespread popularity and hasn’t really been repeated on UK screens but my quest to find it a few years ago revealed it was released on DVD in Australia.

George Cole played ‘Dad’ Brian

Written by Andrew Marshall, who also wrote 2 Point 4 Children. That show was undoubtedly popular throughout the 1990s, even if its not so well remembered today.

Both shows were set in bog standard family settings but they were not conventional sofa sitcoms. Instead the plot would go down a surreal route. Dad was a bit tamer in this respect but I still remember it being extremely funny.

The sitcom was set primarily around Alan, played by Kevin McNally, the son of Dad Brian, played by George Cole. Brian was a source of constant embarrassment for Alan who himself embarrassed his son Vincent, despite his best efforts to do the opposite.

Alan, his finger is glued up his nose in this scene

Alan’s wife is Beryl, played by Julia Hills, whose character was completely the opposite of Rhona who she played in 2 Point 4 Children. Beryl was a straight laced librarian – the kind of person Alan would probably find embarrassing to have as a parent, but of course she comes across as down to earth and normal.

That was the bulk of the main cast, Alan’s Mum is rarely mentioned and its assumed she died when Alan was young. Alan is also an only child so no sibling rivalries to be spoken of.

Instead Alan is seemingly at war with everyone but in reality at war with himself and his desperate bid to not embarrass Vincent. Much hillarity ensues. In one scene Vincent is berating Alan’s taste in music by listing various genres of music like Trance, House, Handbag.

“I don’t think you want to do that Alan…”

Brain typically advising Alan, who is doing something risky to prevent his Dad being put at risk.

There is genuine sencerity. Brian has a heart condition which Alan is constantly anxious about. It’s something Brian plays on if Alan is getting a bit too much.

Brian has the most unlikely catchphrase ever, a simple ‘Hello…’ which is enough to irritate Alan. Worryingly I sometimes find myself replicating it when I am greeting people in am insincere way.

As with 2 Point 4 Children, Andrew Marshall writes ridiculous but almost believable situations. Like Alan getting locked in a greenhouse with a faulty irrigation system, he’s saved by the opera music blasting out of speakers as a cat deterent shattering the glass.

Alan trapped in a greenhouse full of water.

As with a lot of genuinley funny comedies sometimes the best laughs come from the smaller incidental scenes, like Beryl being on hold on the phone. She hums along with Raindrops keep Falling on my Head but is belting it out by the time the other end picks up.

There were two series, every episode played on the word Dad, like ‘Holidad’, ‘Securidad’ etc. The final episode a Christmas special broke with that tradition as the BBC reportedly felt ‘Feliz Navidad’ was too obscure for a title.

That final epsiode also marked a possible change in direction had the series continued with a rival childhood friend returning to haunt Alan. But the series ended there to the surprise of the cast and the writer.

I was a big fan of the show when it first aired. While it has been written that the writer Andrew Marshall was certain of a third series I didn’t really like the change in direction that the Christmas episode showed but it is a shame that the series has never been released or repeated.

Maid Marian and her Merry Men

Tony Robinson wrote and started in this kids comedy series. He was the sheriff of Nottingham and pretty much constantly trying to outwit and seek revenge on Robin Hood and his band of men.

Brilliantly the traditional story is turned on its head. Robin, traditionally portrayed as the hero of the piece is instead a vien, self-obsessed and slightly dim-witted character.

This means the Merry Men really have a different leader and the fair maiden Marrian from the original story is instead portrayed as as a straggly, Tom boy. She makes for the perfect foil to the sherrif’s antics.

One of my personal favourite episodes featured a Crystal Maze spoof. Brilliantly executed down to Robin Hood revealing himself as bald just like Richard O’brien and wearing similar attire.

Who should have replaced Richard O’Brien

The series was one of my favourite as a small child but towards the turn of the millennium CBBC gave it a repeat run and I can confirm that the humour travelled well. There are jokes for all the audience in a way you don’t see from things primarily aimed at children anymore.

The humour ranges from juvenile and purile to being genuinely very funny

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