I will never forget the time I went to see Frank Sidebottom at Bradford University. He was to be supported by Phil Cornwell, known at the time for being the voice of Mick Jagger on Steve Wright’s terrible Radio 1 show. Anyway, after around half an hour or so waiting for the support act to bother to turn up, Frank obviously thought “bugger this”, and went on to do his act anyway, and very amusing he was too.
That would have been the end of it, a simple story of the support act not turning up; except halfway through Frank’s act, Cornwell (as he shall now be known) bundled himself onto the stage and proceeded to try to do his act, thinking I guess that Frank would vacate the stage. Frank, presumably under the correct impression that he was the headline act, declined to leave the stage, and carried on with his set. Cornwell was not put off however, and tried to carry on despite the booing that was beginning to emanate from the crowd. He then tried to interrupt Frank and acted as if he was part of a double act; if he was, then there was no doubt who was the straight man. The abuse from the audience grew in volume, and finally culminated in someone shouting “Hit him Frank” about 5 seconds before I was about to; the crowd then erupted in cheers. I think Cornwell finally got the message. We hear sometimes of speakers trying to incite crowds in acts of violence, but I suspect this was the first time it has happened the other way round, especially when the person being incited is wearing a papier mache head.
I mention this because it appears that Cornwell is still being gainfully employed, and at licence-fee payers expense no less, on the TV show “Dead Ringers”. Tragically, I was freezing my bollocks off on Monday watching a dire attempt at Premiership football, and as a result I missed the “Dead Ringers US Election Special” on BBC2. I believe this is the first of a new series, and so I will have to come up with a different excuse not to watch it next week. Perhaps I will just go back to the City of Manchester stadium; match or no match it would be preferable to watching “Dead Ringers”.
Now I know we are in deeply subjective territory when we walk about sense of humour, but for me the failure of “Dead Ringers” shows a problem with impressionist shows in general; “Bremner, Bird and Fortune” is similarly weak. The problem I think is that so much effort goes into getting the impressions right that often the jokes simply get forgotten; it often seems as if the writers think it is enough just to refer to something that has happened in the news to show that they are being topical. With that they think the job has been done.
What is more surprising is the acclaim both programmes receive; it is very rare you ever read a bad word about “Bremner…” Or “Dead Ringers”, and I just can’t fathom it. Perhaps it shows the lack of satirical programmes on the television; in the absence of good satire, bad satire will just have to do. Or maybe there is some conspiracy in favour of impressionists; “Stella Street”, another show “starring” Cornwell, also got rave reviews, despite the fact that not only were the jokes appalling, but so were the impressions themselves.
Alistair MacGowan’s “Big Impression” illustrates perfectly the problem with impression shows; it can be genuinely funny, such as in a sketch where Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn are running a mobile cafe; it is directed in the Hitchcock style, complete with a Bernard Herrman-like score to emphasise the drama of running out of Kit Kats. But this is an example of where the comic scenario comes first. In contrast, when he does David Beckham or Sven Goran Erickson, the result is usually poor; he does it because he feels he has to do it, because they are people in the news, and then the joke has to follow on from that need to be topical, rather than coming from true inspiration.
Contrast this with Harry Hill, whose “TV Burp” has recently returned to ITV1, and is almost the only watchable programme on the channel (other than repeats of “Inspector Morse”). He may not be to everyone’s taste but at least for him the joke comes first. He does impressions, and they are generally terrible, but it doesn’t matter because the jokes are funny anyway.
I will continue to watch Harry Hill because he has me in stitches; “Bremner…” And “Dead Ringers” drive me up the wall, so I will leave them to the TV reviewers. Phil Cornwell at least is able to say that he makes me laugh; but only when I recall that day supporting Frank Sidebottom, 14 years or so ago.