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.

Dennis the Mennace and Gnasher

I’ve already covered the Beano and described how, for a brief time it was my comic of choice as a kid. Naturally when it’s cover star was made into an animated series I was all over that.

The characters were straight from the Dennis and Gnasher strip, Dennis was the rebel kid, Gnasher was in on it but spoke only in ‘Gnash Gnash’. Mum was slightly mad (just like my own mum) and Walter was as soppy as ever.

Most episodes were standard Dennis fare, he would come up with some sort of rebellious plan and eventually pull it off.

One episode that sticks in my mind particularly was the one featuring the then presenters of Blue Peter Katy Hill and Stuart Miles. The making of was also featured on the programme itself.

This episode sticks in my head particularly because they used a previous Blue Peter theme tune, probably as the dustbin lids of stomp would have jarred a bit amongst the cartoon music.

The series stands up well and the more recent animated series probably owes a lot to this one, personally I think traditional animation suits Dennis best but then he is straight out of a comic book.

The BBC didn’t own the series and it was often repeated on the Fox Kids channel, to the point where it was almost the only thing on the Fox Kids channel. Thesedays all episodes are avaliable on YouTube.

To Me… To You…

BBC 1, 1996 – 1998

So someone had the idea of creating a gameshow for the Chuckle Brothers and you know what, it wasn’t actually that bad.

Set on Chuckle Island (you better there were lots of Chuckle names in this show), it was actually more like a board game than a gameshow (roll the Chuckle dice).

The game board was semi-circular with the start space in the middle. The Chuckle Dice would be rolled by each team and then move the prize trolley. Any prizes won, either by answering a question or playing a mini game stayed on the trolley until a team reached the home Square and won all the prizes.

That wasn’t the end of the game everything was reset and more prizes would be earned. Along with this Coconuts were earned and the team with the most at the end won. All good fun.

For a show named after the Chuckle’s most famous catchphrase you bet there was plenty of the usual shtick with Paul and Barry… oh dear oh dear. There were also some new gags like the space on the board where you could steal a coconut, Knickers naturally.

Each show featured a CBBC celebrity and at the time there was a huge pool to choose from. There were one or two sketches but on the whole it was done as a straight forward kids gameshow.

While ChuckleVision will be remembered by many as a bit cheesy and naff, although we all at one point must have found it amazingly funny, I think it is a shame more people won’t remember this.

It’s three series do the fact that Paul and Barry held it together no justice at all. To support kids, present a quiz show and never break character is no mean feat.

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.

Bucky O’Hare

This was one of those cartoons that were ten a penny. Vague superhero, possibly a mutant to sponge off the hero turtles success. Bucky waw a hare, or perhaps a rabbit I was never sure.

There was a tie-in toy range. I don’t know if the toys came first, I had some and undoubtedly the cartoon was designed to sell toys. Typical of tons of animations, it’s funny what sticks and makes a success of it.

Chances are Bucky would have passed by the audience had it not had a really catchy theme tune/rap (90s style not very good rap). Catchy enough that Andi Peters sang the theme tune on more than one occasion following on from his broomcupboard predessors habit of singing badly live on air.

Even if you remember Bucky, do you remember what it was all about? I barely do. Bucky was the captain of a spaceship in a universe where humanoid animals were at war with toads. Cue the usual adventures at scuppering the bad guys plans.

That’s about all I remember so I did a bit of Google research and it turns out that the animation was based on a comic book (funnily enough so was Turtles). It was made between 1991 and 92 but the comic was ten years older.

Bucky was there for only a short while, the one or two toys I had soon found their way into the box full of other toy tat and Bucky largely left my memory and probably most others, largely insignificant children’s cartoons.

To quote the theme tune “He’s the funky-fresh Rabbit (sic) who can take care of it!” Er… OK then!

Fun House

It’s Wacky, It’s Fun, It’s outrageous! What kid didn’t want to get up close to Pat Sharp’s mullet and play Fun House.

Usually airing on CITV on Fridays, you knew it was the weekend when Fun House was on. The main draw of the show was meant to be the big fun House (think of a giant soft play centre) but as far as I was concerned it was the Fun Cart Grand Prix.

But before either of those rounds were reached there were various games, they usually involved gunge and sliding about in ridiculous costumes – classic children’s gameshow stuff, seach separated by general knowledge questions.

There were always two teams, sometimes it was girls vs boys. The team colours were yellow and blue. Something a little unusual was that there were two cheerleaders, one supporting each team. The kind of over the top American bubblegum cheerleaders that could only come out of the late 1980s, along with Pat’s mullet.

Had they just been pure cheese then the cheerleaders could have easily been ditched after a couple of series. But their bubbly personality, coupled with them being twins gave Melanie and Martina something unique.

They worked well with Pat and did play a semi useful role supporting the contestants in the games and helping with the ‘pit-stop’ changeovers during the Grand Prix.

Pat was an over enthusiastic host. If you ever get a chance to see the show as an adult then I think you will find his jokes terrible but it was marginally less cheesy back then.

Just before the final round came that Fun Cart Grand Prix. Basically petrol go-carts but it was the most exciting bit of the show, for me at least. The kids would have to go round and pick up tokens or in later series hit buttons. Each token was worth either 50 or 25 points.

Like so many gameshows with this kind of game it kinda rendered everything that went before it pointless as you might get lucky and get more tokens, i think some series let the team in the lead start first. As a kid though it was exciting to watch.

As I’ve already mentioned, for me the Grand Prix was the best bit but the final game was the Fun House itself. The idea was to play in the Fun House and collect tags which had prizes on it.

The majority of the prizes were as I remember, fairly pants. I’m pretty sure they even gave away a school stationary set once. There were some better prizes in the mix too and a power prize which when grabbed (it always was even though the kids never knew which prize it was) gave them the chance to win a really big prize like a trip to America etc.

As kids gameshows go it was definitely fun. To me it always felt like a short show, maybe only 20 minutes long but seeing how much they crammed in written down it must have been longer. Running for a decade with virtually no changes – minus the mullet going – it has to be up there as one of the greatest.

It was based on an America show but I guarantee that won’t have lasted as long and certainly won’t have had as good a themetune.

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.

Poddington Peas

CBBC 1989

Down at the bottom of the garden, amongst the birds and the bees, a little lot of little people, they call the Poddington Peas. What more can I say?

The Poddington Peas was another one of those short little animations that probably only ran for one series but was repeated ad-nauseum on CBBC, typically at lunchtime on BBC2. The theme tune (my opening paragraph is the first verse) though was brilliant.

Character wise it was one of those typical give a pun-based descriptive name and a personality to match. Black-eyed Pea, Creepy and Dumpy (those last two probably spelt Cree-pea Dumbpea – and yes those that remember it isn’t the correct order they were sung in!). You can already tell what kind of characters they were like.

Go on, bet you can’t guess his name…

Also in common with a lot of these smaller animations the characters didn’t speak for themselves. The show was narrated by Neil Pearson while the characters made elastic band-style noises in the background.

From what I recall the peas loved out a human-style life amongst human scale garden implements (like tools and plant pots). Cree-pea was the mischief maker but there wasn’t much peril because this was a cartoon aimed at a preschool audience.

In truth thats the most I remember despite the fact that I probably saw each episode at least five times, it’s the theme tune that sticks in the head and still is currently on a loop.

It turns out that the shows creators attempted to produce a second, expanded series in the early 1990s but the project fell through. Then again within the last decade an attempt at a remake in 3D cgi was made but it turns out the BBC still own the copyright, although as with most of these short cartoons it was produced independently.

Just included for completeness. No idea what his dog could be called…

T4

Sunday Mornings, Channel 4

T4 successfully filled a television void around Sunday lunchtimes. Filled with children’s programmes and teen dramas I was probably right in its demographic during the early years.

I remember T4 launching back in 1998. There were lots of promotions for it although they didn’t explain what T4 was going to be and they felt heavily geared to a teenage audience. But T4 wasn’t just for teenagers, not originally at least.

All of Channel 4’s kids and youth programmes came under the T4 banner originally with a notable step-change when Ben Shepherd turned up just before Hollyoaks. There was a presenter earlier on who I dont even remember as I didn’t bother to tune in for those shows.

T4 got good when they focused solely on teen programming and we’re firmly split from kids programmes by way of the Waltons, which had been airing on channel 4 for years but always seemed out of place.

New hosts Margharita Taylor and Dermot O’Leary made the perfect team, plus I was older and they ditched presenting from the studio to presenting around the Channel 4 HQ which appeared to me because of my growing interest in television.

Dermot and Margharita the hosts I remember most

That was my era of T4. Planet Pop, Hollyoaks, Dawson’s Creek, The Real World all shows I watched in my bedroom instead of doing my homework, or socialising or whatever I should have been doing with my Sunday afternoons.

Others will remember Vernon Kay, June Sarpong or Nick Grimshaw but I had moved on from the kind of shows and television they were making by the time they all became involved with T4.

Andi Peters had been the presenter of kids programmes when I was smaller and became the producer responsible for the programmes I watched when I was older. In later years he had a job in a CD factory and more recently has been trying to flog prize draws.

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.

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