Dare to Believe

Though this series is more recent than the usual stuff on here, it crops up from time to time, as a query from those still awake after 1am with the telly on at the start of the millennium, existing as fleeting, half-remembered fragments, which linger like a buried trauma. Images of flowers and trees; a repeated assertion to “be the small bookcase” — was this a TV show, or a hallucination from when I was trapped in a neighbour’s shed, staving off thirst with a tin of creosote? If Dare to Believe was even real, what was it? Someone needed to finally try and pin that down, but as it turns out, that’s not easy, even when you’re literally watching it.

To place this in a cultural time, if we measure things in eras of ‘banter’ — with the current period being ironic memes and inferring anyone with bad opinions is a paedo — 2002-2004 was the era of being well-random. The Mighty Boosh were in their ascent, and lads on trains were putting Dairylea triangles on their heads because “oh my God, what am I like?!” To get a laugh back then, one simply needed to drop the name of an animal — “Weasel! Gibbon!” — and everyone kept mentioning badgers, all the time. As these mad lads roamed the earth, wondering aloud how many otters they could fit inside a silken handbag, ITV begun broadcasting the first series of a late-night sketch show entitled Dare to Believe.

It’s always best to start at the beginning, although the only existing copy of episode one is the worst quality rip I’ve seen since the days of RealPlayer, with the footage consisting of about three pixels. We open on an ominous black screen, and words in a white text reading “Seek only truth,” followed by the punchline “but in doing so, avoid the A47.” Treasure this terrible gag; ration the laughs carefully; as it’s the last actual joke you’ll be seeing for a very, very long time. The credits are rock-bottom basic, with silhouettes over primary colours, ending on a man’s forehead tattooed with the legend DARE TO BELIEVE. The opening sketch is another black screen, bearing the following words, spoken with the wise and hushed poise of a Zen master.

Fly like a mouse

Run like a cushion

Be the small bookcase

Dare to believe…” whispers a voice. “Fly like a mouse” is the central motif, repeated throughout each show numerous times, like the Hare Krishna mantra, often over water-ripple reflections on coloured backgrounds, for 40 seconds at a time; sometimes cutting over the top of other sketches. Dare to Believe‘s disjointed nature makes it hard to analyse in the traditional way of looking at comedy, and all we can do is to stand well back, to examine the sketches with the clinical detachment of a bi-monthly phimosis check-up.

A man in a karate gi punches and kicks in an empty white space, with each battle cry transcribed in text alongside; PIKE. COD. CARP. BARBEL. A picture of a loaf of bread, with a female voice asking “what’s this?” A male voice responds “bread.” After five times, the man’s answer then changes, to “ENORMOUS COYPU!” This format will be repeated too, with varying objects; a nail, a lemon, “OSPREY HOUSING!” In another skit, two men sit at a desk, playing the game Recognising Things, with one laying out household items for the other to identify. “Is it a clock, Gavin?” Yes it is. Clock. Stapler. Saucepan. Iron. There’s no subtext here. It’s just a man dryly stating that a hairbrush is a hairbrush.

The entire series has a lower budget than a single TikTok video, with many segments consisting of still pictures with a voiceover, and almost every skit is a single person stood in front of a blank wall. If it’s meant to be a location (restaurant, library, concert hall), shots are kept in tight medium to show as little of the background as possible, presumably to stop a kitchen door or living room radiator leaning into frame. Most notably, the camera never moves; clearly always on a tripod or propped up on a table, after the performer’s pressed record before stepping in front of it. In a first for me, this is a show with literally no camerawork; no pans, no zooms, no cuts to a second angle; everything filmed like a mass shooter down in the basement, making a tape for the police to find after they’ve kicked the doors in.

Many sketches consist of a single line — a vicar saying “actually, there are 20 or 30 ways of skinning a cat” — or a single image; silent footage of flowers and trees; two trumpeters stood up to their waists in a swimming pool. One’s just a close-up of hands completing a Rubix Cube. In another, a narrator informs us “this is a coconut” over a picture of one. There are inserts of objects (book, tennis racquet), with onscreen text denoting what their words are in Czech. In a sketch so funny, it’s done multiple times, a man sticks a pointy sign for sandwiches in the ground before running off, as a voiceover says the word “sandwiches.” I can’t imagine how many train carriages were filled with guffawing re-enactments on the way back from college.

Others bits have the precise energy of when your mate realises you’re filming them and shows off by saying something silly; like a bloke crouched next to a green spiky plant telling us in an Attenborough voice “it’s a green spiky plant.” There are a couple of more traditional set-ups, like a brief coffee ad parody, but at every turn, the thing they’re Daring to Believe is that simply doing or saying a random thing is enough. A businessman pretends a hole punch is biting a laptop. A Spanish chap dubbed in English witters on about “the agua moose.” Why waste time writing material when you could just do Madlibs mashing of unconnected nouns? A French waiter informs us today’s special is “a basket of swan jackets,” punching the air with an excited “yes!” Later, this is replicated, but with “a jar of photocopied haberdashery.”

Signs frequently come into use, with footage of blackboards in public places, scrawled with stuff like “SORRY, THIS BUILDING IS WRONG, PLEASE LOOK THE OTHER WAY.” On paper, it sounds like an attempt at Trigger Happy TV street-pranking, but they chose not to use any film where passers-by were actually looking at or reacting to them. There are also road signs, in the form of clipart pictures, occasionally altered with comic bon mots like EXCLAMATION MARK AHEAD. Extremely low resolution and poorly cut, they’re like something a well-meaning, chuckling teacher puts on the overhead projector, during the last lesson of summer term. Is this bad aesthetic a conscious artistic decision, or just cheap and lazy? The show constantly forces its audience to ask these questions of it, number one being, is this subversive, dada-ist weirdness, or unbelievably awful rag week shit?

If they can be said to be trying at all, with the minimalist dialogue and sleepy visuals, they’re clearly going for the dreamy, hypnotic sense of a self-help video, but the arbitrary and simplistic nature brings more to mind the videos you can stick on a tablet for your cat to look at when you’ve gone to work. For all the adult stimulation one gets from Dare to Believe, you might as well hang it above a baby’s crib. Everything’s so inhuman, with the rhythm of adults performing nonsensical jokes written by five year olds; a script by AI. Was this generated using the algorithm behind all those YouTube accounts for toddlers, where Spider-Man gives birth to Elsa from Frozen? It’s so glaringly, overwhelmingly wretched that it seems like a test. If I laugh, will a team of psychologists run into the room, congratulating each other for proving that if anything’s presented as a comedy, some idiot will laugh at it? Or if I hate it, will I be denounced as an artless oaf who deserves nothing better than Mrs Brown’s Boys? The boorish man at the Tate Modern, shaking his head because “it’s just a bleedin’ unmade bed; load of rubbish!” But of all the things Dare to Believe could be interpreted as, the one thing it never comes close to being is funny.

I jump forwards to an episode from the second series, which is much better (visual) quality, as it’s taken from an inexplicable DVD release, which featured just 3 episodes, all from the second series. As before, it opens with “fly like a mouse,” but immediately raises the stakes, with the added gravitas of bringing Patrick Allen into the cast, to deliver their voiceovers of absolute bollocks. It’s important to note that between the first episode and this one sat at least 12 more, showcasing top-drawer laziness by continuing to reuse huge amounts of material from that initial half hour. They’ve taken the Little Britain model of weekly catchphrases a step further, by changing nothing but the nouns. “What’s this?” is back, along with the agua moose, the sandwiches sign, karate man, and office man making brum-brum noises while pushing a lamp across the desk. By my reckoning, roughly 10% of its 23 minute runtime is chewed up by the whispered “dare to believe” over a yellow background. Another 10% for agua moose. 5% for “What’s this?” 10% for Recognising Things. Stick some footage of road signs in and you’ve basically hit the credits. Some cash please, ITV!

Series two is marginally more conventional, in that they’ve been given slightly more money for old rope, allowing for outdoor shoots (gardens instead of kitchens), and for more than one person to appear onscreen at once. There are new recurring characters; a roving news reporter who collapses before he speaks; a football coach who tells his players “try being better at playing football.” There’s even a skit with a headmistress presenting an assembly, and warning of punishment in the badger pit (it’s no Ripping Yarns), where four teachers are sat behind her. After the first series, this sudden population explosion feels like fucking Gandhi, and it’s here we’re treated — for the first time — to an exhilarating second camera angle! The framing here is genuinely astonishing.

     “Shall we get that woman’s whole head in?”

     “Nah, it’s fine”

     “Do you not want to pan down a bit, so we’re not cutting people off at the chin? Also, the middle one’s looking into the lens, we should prob–”

     “ACTION!”

If you got your wedding video back looking like that, you’d be in the local paper doing a face. The most sketch-like sketch yet — DIY with David I. Young — even has its own theme song, as he builds… oh, a badger hod for carrying badgers, with a “detachable goose tidy!” Yes, I remember being at school and seeing Vic and Bob for the first time too. Haha, badgers and otters and cheese! The same actor does a bit about mending the boiler where he’s clearly just put the camera they were all given onto his own kitchen counter. Another character wanders across sand dunes with a surfboard saying he’s “stoked” in a bad Australian accent, like a 12th rate Paul Whitehouse doing his “brilliant!” while the boom mic’s visible in the corner.

But the inescapable spectre of randomness haunts the show. A child hangs bicycle parts off a man dressed as a scarecrow; a man in a nappy stands ankle-deep in a river; a man pretends his hand is a duck’s beak; people disappear in puffs of smoke when found to have no otters during the “otter count.” At the point someone starts playing a piano with a pineapple, while I’m in the middle of another 70-hour working week trying to grow my Patreon, I become very angry at the knowledge people were given airtime and paid money for this. I’ve accused shows of being low/no effort before, but all the terrible things I’ve covered have at least had some ideas in them. Even the most half-arsed shite still began with someone sitting down to write a script, and didn’t just say the word bread over a picture of some bread. If your teenage nephew banged out these sketches on his phone, they’d have a single figure viewcount, and he’d get a well-deserved cyberbullying. ITV let this happen 26 times.

The notion that this is surrealist performance art and not just people who are very shit at comedy is disproved when they try actual gags, like a sportscaster whose co-host won’t speak; “ah come on, Joe, I bet they got the test results wrong…” Or when a cyclist is given a jar of pills and professes “I don’t believe in drugs” before honking on a foot-long spliff. This is by far the least comic aptitude I’ve ever seen in anything, and I’ve sat through fucking Big Top. I’ve a strong and formative memory of being about 14 and answering the register in a silly voice, and the girl I most fancied in the world saying in a withering stage whisper to her mate “he thinks he’s funny.” The cast of Dare to Believe; they think they’re funny.

The DVD quality of series 2 reveals the guilty parties in the credits. Along with additional material from the performers, Dare to Believe‘s entire run was written and directed by one man. The Devil? Your divorced neighbour, who showed you a “wicked” Harlem Shake video just last week? No, a man called Tim de Jongh, who also appeared in the show, with the cast seeming to be a mix of bit-part actors and his theatre mates from uni. Also among them is wine writer Susie Barrie, novelist Michael Marshall Smith, and as a weird outlier, Amanda Abbington, who’s been in proper telly. Perhaps the most damning credit is reserved for Chris England and Paul Simpkin, which reads “performed their own characters.” Yeah, make sure you get credited for those memorable inventions; right up there with Partridge and Ron Bergandy. Which ones were they; the bloke pushing a stapler round a desk while making motorbike noises? The man in a hat holding up a sign with bison on it before an old lady in a wheelchair shouted BANG?

When I say the next episode in series two is more of the same, I mean it is literally exactly the same. More bicycle parts on a scarecrow. More sandwich signs. More agua moose. More Recognising Things. More “what’s this?” but without even the subversion of eventually yelling “STOAT!” and straight-up just stating that something is a knife or hammer or cucumber, over and over again. More badger hods, but with additional “weasel storage.” More “be better at football,” but with an extra variation, telling an offscreen chef to “be better” at presenting the garnish on his sandwich, which the actor clearly thought of while eating a sandwich in his own back garden, hurriedly resting a DV cam on the patio table, to ensure such a worthwhile comic vignette could eventually be beamed into people’s homes. More karate. More “fly like a mouse.”

There’s no point in watching any more of its 26 episodes, as they’re all the same. I kept trying to imagine the filming sessions. The old lady in a wheelchair going mad having to do 50 identical sketches in a row, pausing only to wait for a different word to be written on the sign. Watching these, I genuinely didn’t smile once, and this had the least laughs, effort, invention, and content of anything I’ve ever seen. And I literally watch the shittest possible old TV for a living. There are no sketch shows these days, and after this, maybe we don’t deserve them. The official line for Dare to Believe is that it was inspired by the avant-garde Dadaism art movement, but it’s more inspired by me and my mates saying “fishcakes!” in a loud voice in the library and laughing until a teacher told us to stop. There’s really nothing else to compare this to. Simon Munnery’s League Against Tedium was successfully blending comedy with capital-s Surrealism before this hit our screens, but a fairer comparison would be with a bucket of shit. Normally I’d applaud anyone who’d tried doing something different, but the people behind Dare to Believe didn’t bother trying at all. Er… ferret!

This piece first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could read it a month before it landed here. If you’d like to support me for as little as £1 a month, then click here to help provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, early access to my podcast, and all kinds of other stuff.

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~ by Stuart on June 8, 2021.

3 Responses to “Dare to Believe”

  1. I thought I recognised the name Tim de Jongh – he was partly responsible for a Radio 4 sketch show called And Now In Colour which got some critical acclaim and a BBC2 pilot called (oh god) It’s A Mad World, World, World, World, which offset the title by having Caroline Aherne and Alistair McGowan in the cast. Further investigation reveals Tim Firth also wrote for this and And Now In Colour before writing Calendar Girls, Kinky Boots, All Quiet On The Preston Front and Cruise Of The Gods (and some musicals with Gary Barlow)

  2. “And Now In Colour” was also written / performed by William Vandyck, who was the original host of “The 99p Challenge” when it was still known as “King Stupid”. So, you can get from “Dare To Believe” to Tom Cruise in two steps, should you want further reason to doubt your own life choices.

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