By Martyn Auty, for Time Out, 8 – 14 September 1983
At last, a comedy group has its hands on Monty Python’s holy grail. They are The Comic Strip and, despite appearances to the contrary, are heavily into clean living, steady relationships and hatchbacks.
Scene: The Channel 4 executive boardroom. Sitting at a king-size desk is C4 chief Jeremy Isaacs. Enter Eddie Monsoon, once famous TV presenter, demanding to know why Isaacs has banned his show. At the end of a stormy interview, Eddie, grovelling for a reprieve, crawls obsequiously under the desk to give Isaacs a blow job…
This autumn The Comic Strip returns to coat your TV screens with dope, jissom and delirious bad taste. Irreverent, irresponsible, insulting but always gleefully inventive, their new seven-film package for C4 will be the comedy high point of the coming TV season – and the most controversial.
Two stories last year in the pop press handed them their reputation as comedy’s Sex Pistols. One was the notorious Sun leader attacking C4 on its opening night: ‘A send-up of Enid Blyton with Crossroads star Ronald Allen playing a homosexual – is that supposed to be funny?’ It was, but the sequel, Five Go Mad on Mescalin, is funnier and far more likely to wind up the Whitehouse mob. This time Ronnie Allen camps his role way over the top (‘Not only am I an outrageous homosexual, but I’m an incurable drug addict as well’).
The second story concerned the banning by C4 of The Comic Strip episode titled Back To Normal With Eddie Monsoon. First time around Channel 4 found the central character hard to take at what was a memorably sensitive time. Eddie’s insatiable violence towards animals, fellow humans and himself coupled with his unstoppable flow of obscenities was a media caricature that seemed too close to the bone. His pathetic cry of ‘Love me, you bastards’ will ring long and loud in many a media skull. After the ban Ade Edmondson took his script away and rewrote it to include the Jeremy Isaacs blow job. (When the new scene was brought to Isaacs’ attention, he wondered if perhaps they hadn’t meant Jeremy Irons.)
The scene remains in the latest script, albeit with impresario Michael White, Comic Strip’s executive producer, standing in for ‘Jeremy’. None of the six group members gives in without a fight; they’ve each had too much experience dishing it out under pressure when the Comic Strip was a stand-up cabaret act only two years ago.
I caught up with the Comic Strip one muggy afternoon outside the Ewell ABC where they were shooting an episode appropriately titled Dirty Movie. Despite their screen personae, they are an amiable bunch: no showbiz aura, no phoney modesty, no coked-out wackiness. Several have steady, long-term relationships and one is married with a nine-month-old daughter. They drive hatchbacks rather than customised Chevys, and if they do any drugs it must be very discreet. Outside the cinema they were sitting around a trestle table quietly playing a kids card game based on Enid Blyton’s Famous Five.
The Comic Strip is the result of the fusion of three double acts that were thrown up by the post-punk ‘alternative comedy’ explosion back in 1978. The first act, ’20th Century Coyote’, was comprised of the now famous Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson, a Bradford boy with pretentions towards serious acting. ‘Coyote’ was formed in the summer of 1978, played Edinburgh Festival Fringe and was subsequently broadcast on BBC Radio 4 while Mayall and Edmondson were touring the act around the club circuit.
Meanwhile another duo, ‘The Outer Limits’, featuring Nigel Planer (better known as Neil the Hippy from last season’s hit The Young Ones) and Peter Richardson, had also become a regular double act on the bill at London’s Comedy Store.
Richardson and Planer are the senior members of The Comic Strip, and Richardson in particular is the group’s dynamo. A wiry, energetic figure, his naked ambition and obsessive perfectionism can make him difficult to work with, though the same qualities have come to guarantee the quality control on each Comic Strip show. His early career was as a straight actor. After Bristol Old Vic theatre school, he had a string of West End appearances before teaming up with Planer to present Rank at the Roundhouse in 1977.
For a while Peter and Nigel, who’d played Che in Evita and already done some telly (Shine on Harvey Moon), shared a Young Ones-style flat in West Kensington where they wrote much of the material for ‘The Outer Limits’.
It was movies and TV that provided the inspiration for the best of their sketches – ‘The Hard Porn Airline Disaster Movie’ and a memorable sit-com piss-take, ‘Are You Being Severed?’. (Ironically, one of the directors Peter chose when they came to do their TV series was Bob Spiers, who’d done Are You Being Served? for the Beeb.)
The movies still exert a strong influence on Comic Strip material, as reflected by several of the episodes in the forthcoming series. Blade Runner was a key inspiration behind Slags, a mayhem-in-the-21stCentury number; spaghetti westerns are the starting point for the package-tour parody A Fistful of Travellers Cheques; and Dirty Movie is a bizarre Bunuelian tale of a cinema manager who screens skinflicks to himself in an empty theatre. In fact, Dirty Movie is a film version of an old ’20th Century Coyote’ act Ade and Rik Mayall used to perform. ‘Like a silent movie that speaks now and then’ is how Nigel describes it.
With such emphasis on film, they must surely be drawn to making a feature soon? ‘We’ve talked about it,’ says Peter, ‘but most of us feel right now we’re better off doing more well-crafted, half-hour comedies than chucking everything into a 90-minute feature. We’re currently making six half-hour films for £600,000 – less than it would cost to make one feature. And with no hassle from the backers.’
Nigel reckons a big movie could also provoke problems within the group, yoking them together for a year. ‘When the Pythons make a feature they expend so much time and energy collating ideas and often end up with a fragmented, patchy film like The Meaning of Life, whereas working on their own they produce coherent, engrossing films like The Missionary. In The Comic Strip we work collectively on short films that come from various people in the group writing independently.’
So does everyone get a crack of the whip? Nigel grimaces like his Neil character: ‘Well, I’m pissed off because the group didn’t want to do my script, which was about a rock festival with hippies and all that. We don’t have anything in this series that covers the rock scene the way that Bad News Tour did last time and I think it’s a shame.’
The previous week Nigel had done a solo gig at Glastonbury Festival as Neil. In the context of hippies, ageing acid rockers, flat-earthers and ley-line followers, Neil is an ironic comic mirror for the audience, but there’s something in his personality that retains links with the hippie ethos: the long hair, wholefood diet and his enthusiasm to keep Comic Strip on the road. ‘I keep trying to get us gigs around the country, but the others aren’t so keen.’
Two weeks later with three scripts shot and four to go, the location and story have changed beyond recognition from Ewell ABC to rural Norfolk for Susie, a tale of sexual betrayal among the inhabitants of a quiet village. Leaving the train at Norwich, I cycle 15 miles in the punishing heat to find The Comic Strip shooting in Heydon, a picture postcard English village almost hidden behind fields of high-stacked corn.
Outside the impossibly quaint village pub is Peter Richardson, savouring the surroundings: ‘This location is perfect. Very English, Thomas Hardy and HE Bates – they filmed some of The Go Between across the green here – and yet our film should have a slight French feel to it too. A touch of Chabrol maybe amid the Mills and Boon. Passion and murder, it’s going to be very funny.’
Susie, played by Dawn French, is a country schoolmistress who lays all the local lads before finally scoring with an eccentric rock star who’s recently purchased the manor house and village. ‘She’s not really a slag,’ explains French. ‘She’s just after a good time.’
Dawn French is the other half of French and Saunders, the third double act in The Comic Strip. She met Jennifer Saunders at the Central School of Drama where they were both studying to be teachers.
Jennifer came from a quiet, nonshowbiz background in Cheshire and had flatshared with a bunch of Sloane Rangers during her London student days (‘The worst year of my life’). Dawn, the more ebullient of the two, was chafing at the bit during her spell as a drama teacher, working nights in cabaret, anxious to break through and turn pro. Eventually she quit teaching in September 1981, by which time the Comic Strip was a major hit on the cabaret scene and French and Saunders were well established as a double act. They weren’t the only female comedy duo by any means – Wood and Walters had already made it big enough to have a TV show – but they were the loudest, lewdest and best-loved. On the group’s only foreign tour to date (two months in Australia in 1982) it was French and Saunders who drew the longest applause from Fosters-soaked crowds in Adelaide and Sydney.
French and Saunders continue to work as a cabaret duo, and have just finished a week on the Edinburgh Fringe. ‘It’s a whole different way of working on the films,’ says Dawn, ‘with a tight eight-day shooting schedule, you can’t go mucking around with the scripts or changing bits of business. So from time to time Jennifer and I like to get back to the flexibility of live cabaret.’ During the daytime when they’re not shooting or rehearsing, Dawn and Jennifer are working up a new sit-com in which they’ll be joined by Ruby Wax and Tracey Ullman in a. female answer to The Young Ones.
On The Comic Strip set they’re often referred to as ‘the girls’, but they invariably get the upper hand in the banter:
‘Fetch me a tea please, Dawn.’
‘Is it because I’m a woman you’re asking me to get your tea, Nigel?’
‘Yes. I don’t even want it. I just want to abuse you.’
(She returns and holds a scalding mug over his head.)
‘Repeat after me, “Give it to me, Sex Goddess”.’
In Slags, written by Jennifer, ‘the girls’, laced into bondage gear and girdled with weapons, really crack the whip: it’s an end-of-civilisation scenario out of West Side Story and Clockwork Orange and comes across as the most excoriating script of the series, conjuring a spectacular vision of gang warfare between vicious, vengeful girls just out of jail and smirking softie boys in Hawaiian shirts who’ve taken over their patch. On the fringes of this sex-rift live several of the most bizarre characters Comic Strip has invented to date: a filthy flasher on an obscene ‘sex bike’ called Arch Crippledick, and the crazed scientist Boy Madness.
Voice Over: Boy Madness. The scientist, the engineer. He was totally unsafe. He was a quiet boy who loved his mother. Few knew him well… (BOY MADNESS points flamethrower at victim with quiet fascination. We see a flash of fire.)
…Not many knew him long.
‘We never claimed The Comic Strip wouldn’t be a sex and violence show,’ shrugs Dawn happily.
Unlike Beyond the Fringe and Python, when The Comic Strip enlarges its cast for a show they’re not finding odd jobs for old college chums from Oxbridge. Because, thank God, none of them ever went there. Backer Michael White rates that a major plus. He believes The Comic Strip is definitely coming up Big, but doesn’t intend to drive them. ‘I take a backseat role. Everything will happen in its own time: there will be more shows, books, records and so on. I think they’re ready to have a crack at America, but I’ll wait till they come with a proposal. Likewise with the West End show we’re discussing, it’s for them to decide when they’re ready.’
White doesn’t believe in shaping careers. Except his own. From his office in St James’s, surrounded by Richard Hamilton prints and snapshots of himself with Bowie, White has phone-wrangled and financed a string of stage hits and, more recently, an impressive roster of films (plus, it must be said, a clutch of turkeys). So what’s distinctive about The Comic Strip?
‘Their humour is primarily to do with people and social types. I’m bored with class jokes and clever political skits. Comic Strip are tough – some of the jokes hurt. And if you read the scripts of the new series you’ll find them not only more matured but darker and sometimes more tragic. Wait until you see Gino and Eddie Monsoon.’
White says he hasn’t made any money out of The Comic Strip yet, so it’s in his (business) interest to see them stay together. But it’s in theirs too, for although each has a separate career of their own and three of them are in The Young Ones, the cult is collecting around Comic Strip. My own explanation is that these films are more permanent than TV sit-com; they target the whole of British society, getting laughs at the expense of the young, the middle-aged and the elderly, sparing no stereotypes but also creating original comic characters of literary stature; they take humour into increasingly dangerous areas.
This bunch will outlive The Young Ones and Alfresco, not because they’re intrinsically funnier, but because they control their own destiny and retain a strong emotional attachment to the group they formed three years ago. Ever since TV executives discovered ‘alternative comedy’ (as recently as last year), The Comic Strip have been working to make their material distinctive enough to survive the flavour-of-the-month attitude of TV light entertainment bosses. They know that if the wind changes direction they’ll have to change tack too: go back to live theatre, make a feature movie, come up with something else. Comic Strip are nothing if not adaptable; they’ve been sniffing the wind and taking chances from the start.
Now that television is finally loosening up and opening its doors to independent companies who want to mount and run their own shows, fronted by new faces instead of the dreary roster of middle-aged timeservers, we can expect to see performers like The Comic Strip popping up all over the box. So far, only Rik Mayall and Nigel Planer have experienced fame on the streets. I for one will be very surprised if, by the end of this series, the rest of The Comic Strip haven’t joined them.
A short film, The Comic Strip directed by Julien Temple, is currently on release with Porkys II. See Film listings for details. The Comic Strip returns to Channel 4 in November.