Owt Good On, Mam? – Forgotten Sketch Shows

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We know through our shared traumatic experience that all sketch shows have the standard set-ups; travel agent, restaurant first date, train carriage. Most prolific of these is the doctor’s surgery. But what if there was a whole show just of doctor gags? Nay, a whole series?! Airing Friday nights on LWT, 1978’s The Pink Medicine Show was devised, written and performed by a pair of practising GPs; the double-act of Beetles and Buckman. Humourist Rob Buckman was a regular scientific voice on radio and TV panel shows through the 70s and 80s, and famous enough to get This Is Your Lifed, and along with Beetles, he was joined on the series by Nickolas Grace, a mere actor who’d be left helplessly reciting Shakespeare into your navel should your spleen rupture on a flight. The world of comedy’s full of ex-doctors — Graham Chapman, Harry Hill, Ken Jeong, Mike Wozniak — but none who ever embraced their backgrounds so fully as here.

Medicine‘s opening credits are a sketch unto themselves, laughter track roaring over animated doctors and diseases singing the names of medical conditions; “urethritis, uveitis, retinitis, salpingitis, dermatitis and mumps!” There’s nothing about well-bad nob-ache, but it’s possibly history’s only theme to tackle inflamed urethras, and animated by Ted Rockley who did the toon on Cannon and Ball’s first series. There’s dread portent from the first sketch, a farce of confusion between a sore-throated patient, hard-of-hearing elderly doctor, junior doctors tasked with repeating everything back to him, and a patient who’s hard of hearing; all with that notion we’ve come across before, that if a character is confused, it’s funny. It’s very much not, with the unedited rhythms of a student comedy team handing out flyers in Edinburgh.

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At least in Chris Beetles they’ve a performer with such a delightfully striking appearance, you genuinely can’t turn away. A Victorian Wolverine, bald on top but long at the back like the Safestyle windows guy, and with huge mutton chops, he’s a man who came out of life’s wig box with the most extreme look possible, and every sketch is utterly dominated by his wildman visual. One where he’s forced to wordlessly mime the cause for his mouth being stuck wide open is otherwise very poor, yet completely hypnotic.

The genesis of many skits is evident, with doctoring clearly a profession to rack up the comical incidents, like treating vicars who accidentally tripped and fell anus-first onto a potato for the third time this week. But things which worked as staff room anecdotes don’t as a televised performance, and numerous, lengthy bits centre around needless confusion; interminable back and forths where a stupid patient can’t grasp the very simple things their learned doctor is saying.

   “How many tablets shall I take?

   “The lot.

   “Is that safe?

   “No, no, I mean take the full course, all the tablets.”

   “Ah yes, that’s bally clear, I take this to the chemist, and he’ll tell me.”

   “Yes.”

   “And how will you know?

   “Know what?

   “Which chemist to ring?

And on and on it goes. In real life, such exasperation might raise a chuckle of recognition between friends, but battered with medical jargon, it belongs at the NHS Christmas party and not TV, everything feeling like a joke that we’re not in on. Some ideas are so ludicrous, they could only have been taken from real-life, as nobody would’ve decided to write them; as with a patient faking a 3am heart attack to con a doctor into looking at what came out when he blew his nose, worrying it was brains — “This is normal. I mean, it’s a bogey.” Disappointingly with the biographical stuff, there’s just one sketch with something jammed up an arse; a man behind a curtain who stuck a pipe up himself for a bet. To nobody’s surprise, here came my one laugh, as a young doc sneaks a guilty glance up the pipe, but it’s ruined with an actual use of “he’ll never play the violin again,” before Vaseline-slathered nurse Linda Bellingham yanks out the pipe offscreen, to a cacophony of farts.

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The world of injuries and disease affords plenty of visual gags; men with broken legs trying to ride bikes; a skeleton in a sling waiting for hospital transport; and in a bad Mr. Bean, a doctor attempting to cover a fresh cadaver with a sheet that’s juuust too small. Blood pressure pumps make raspberry sounds; a psychiatrist batters patients over the head with a club; someone does the gag about bowels regularly opening at 8am on the dot, “but I don’t wake up til 9!” A German accented surgeon unveils the first full body transplant, where “we take Patient A out of the bed and put Patient B into the bed.” But when Medicine bogs the viewer down with leaden dialogue it’s at its worst, hitting a terrible trough with a “Who’s on first base” featuring a Dr. Nurse, Sister Nurse, Mr. Doctor, Nurse Doctor, Mr. Patient, and Anthea (A) Porter, which after Mr. Patient collapses, gives endless micro-variations of:

   “Mister Doctor, get A. Doctor!

   “But you’re a doctor, Dr. Nurse!

   “No, not a doctor, A. Doctor!” (note: this is indeed how we humans address each other, using the first initial and surname)

   “Sister Nurse, will you get Nurse Doctor for Dr. Nurse?!

If anyone wants me, I’ll be checking into A&E for suicidal ideation, as minute after turgid minute devolves into misunderstandings about Abraham, Anthea and Anne Porter, and a furious shriek of “It. Is. A. Wonder. Any. Doctor. Ing. Gets. Done?!” leading to the appearance of a Chinese lady in a gown — “I’m Dr. Ing, I just got done!

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It’s not all rock-bottom wretched, and there are some — well, not good but — less-stinky parts. Sketches flow into each other with interesting transitions; a still of the previous sketch being rolled out of the way on a blind; a discarded tissue swept into frame with a broom, straight into the next set-up. There are a number of parody ads which feel pleasantly removed from the rinkydink wobbly sets; artfully shot and genuinely resembling pretentious 70’s commercials. This at least elevates the material, in adverts for medical trusses, pants which leave no visible line under a surgical gowns — “the surgeon’s most loyal support, next to a nurse” — and syrup of figs with actors who take a spoonful then immediately need to do a honking great shite.

Some stuff’s patently culled from the original double act, like a man forced to audition potential sickness onstage while trying to register with a new doctor, or when all three lads come out in white suits to high kick their way through a cheery music hall number about “the night they invented sinusitis,” which has a real League of Gentlemen “Gordon Brown, taxes the poor, Gordon Brown, he’s such a bore” vibe. But the performance is truly deranged, Beetles already with the look of something unfrozen from a glacier, and everyone stomping and kicking so frenetically, they’re almost kneeing themselves in the head. Sinusitis though. At the end of each 22 minutes, the unabated pounding of medical terminology leaves you pig-sick of hospitals and doctors, and vowing to just let your next broken leg fall off.

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Surgery’s presented like Match of the Day with pre-match pep talks — “you come up on the gallbladder” — and a victory interview in the bath, crowing about bile juice, and how they’ll be celebrating by “slipping down to the royal collage of surgeons and flipping though a few back numbers of The Lancet.” There’s a dance routine with the Russian thoracic surgical team, demonstrating a pulmonary left upper lobectomy, and in an arts program with Bellingham as Joan Cheesecake, a cardio-thoracic surgeon in a glue-on beard chats about Rudyard Kipling’s tonsils and adenoids, and God, just stop talking about bodies! While writing this I accidentally impaled myself on an 18 inch Chewbacca — as I said, by accident — but I’m leaving it up there, as if I hear one more thing about subdural haematomas, I’m off marching with Piers Corbyn to get the whole NHS put to the gallows.

Sketch shows work precisely because they flit between sets and costumes, and though one idea might not tickle you, there’s always the next one. Pink Medicine‘s single-minded focus is maddening, with the vibe of a noisy neighbour who owns a single CD. That said, the show’s main problem is it’s fucking appalling. Aired in 2022, it’d be a snarky reviewer’s dream; zingers about being incurably riddled with terminal shit-ness; but bafflingly, a Python-like album of audio from the sketches was released on vinyl the year after transmission. Buckman died suddenly in 2011, while Beetles would retire in 1984 to open an art gallery, and is now considered the world’s leading authority on Louis Wain, sadly having had a haircut and shave in the intervening years.

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In that same year aired a Thames sketch show most notable for the inclusion in its cast of a mister J. Davidson ESQ. What’s On Next was one of the series produced to pad out The Benny Hill Show in American syndication, under the banner “After Benny, Thames Presents.” Jimbo was hot off a win on New Faces, and would land his solo show right after, with top billing here, slim and red headed, all teeth and cheekbones, looking like a talking Nik Nak. Through the opening credits, there’s a one-liner for each of the cast; human Minnie Mouse Sandra Dickinson, Pam Ayres, Anna Dawson, Barry Cryer — the spoonful of sugar to Jim’s televisual rat poison — and Bob Todd; “I had an accident this morning while trying out my new cut-throat razor. It bounced off the wife’s neck and hit me straight in the face!

The show’s anchored by Bill Franklin, with a very Kenneth ‘Round The’ Horne feel, in both delivery and lacklustre presence of authority, self-effacing about the quality of what we’re watching. But with Cryer, John Junkin, and Andrew Marshall among the writers, it’s a proper gag-fest. Franklin opens with “good evening, but don’t bet on it” before running through the newspapers, giving us a Cowes Weekly News editor in a big cow head, and an image which inadvertently sums up everything about modern-day Britain.

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Jim’s first sketch is exquisitely on-brand, as the Irish Mr. O’Hooligan, neckerchief and begorrah accent, confused by the optician’s request to put his right hand over his left eye. It’s strange to witness him doing other people’s material, and indeed, doing comedy altogether, rather than a YouTube video on a yacht, crying angry tears over the success of Lenny Henry. The real highlight, other than some always-welcome front-of-camera Cryer, is surprisingly Bob Todd. With the gait and physicality of a giant baby, Todd will be the man of 1000 costumes in this, and as it turns out, Bob Todd in any outfit is inherently funny. This may be the kick I need to finally get into my dissection of Benny Hill.

Shirtless Bob Todd’s Tarzan, taught English by Cryer in a rip-off of Carry On up the Jungle; he’s got a bandana and ring though his nose as a Gypsy fortune teller; but the finest hour is a Mr. Magoo type, clumsily destroying an office like Eric Andre — “Bird Up, it’s the Bob Todd Show!” There’s a charming ineptness to his physical comedy, almost falling over for real when just pretending to, or supposedly fainting sideways out of frame, but clearly just leaning and stepping out. With Sandra Dickinson’s beauty queen Miss Plastic Cruets 1977, Thelma Digger — “whose hobbies are breathing and sandpapering pygmies” — her parents a lumbering Bob Todd in a pink dress and Barry Cryer in boiler suit and tam o’shanter, all the miseries of the world just fade away.

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They use the yukster’s version of the old impressionist system, going round a party filled with celebrities, but with the camera mingling through everyone’s jokes, from guests to bow-tied barman Jim, shaking a cocktail. Bob Todd asks Cryer if he’s a regular — Cryer (exiting to the toilet): “yes, I think it’s something in the bitter!” — and Todd’s elbow slips off the bar as he leans on it. It’s all good gags and good fun… [singing] but then Jim goes and spoils it all by doing something stupid like his Chalkyyyy! So, Jim met a man who told him (in his ‘black voice’) “I work for Jesus!” What, lord Jesus? “No, craft Jesus (cheeses).” We get the same deal with a medieval ball; Bob Todd as a hooded executioner, Dawson with big cleavage, jester Jim peering right down it.

   Cryer: “Truly, madam, this is an evening of bunting and frolic.”

   Dickinson: “You can say that again.”

   Cryer: “No, I can’t.”

Lovely stuff. Plus there’s the classic execution gag “stop, I have a letter for him!” “drop it in the basket, he can read it in a minute.” For something with so much Jim, What’s On Next is shockingly watchable, an odd mix of Barry Cryer’s expertly crafted silliness, plus the era-standard jokes about big tits, and I could definitely take a full series. We end on Barry and Jim together on a bench (there are two wolves inside you), writing a love song together — “the days go by so quick, so quick,” “oh kiss me darling, kiss me quick!” — overheard by passing policeman Bob Todd, who promptly arrests them for being gay.

We’re ending with a jump forwards ten years to TVS’s 1988 series, Five Alive, which I’ve a recollection of watching at the time. Like What’s On Next, its main point of interest today is a cast member who’d go onto massive solo fame. Our five living human beings are Brian Conley, Peter Piper, Doon Mackichan, Joanna Brookes, and Phil Nice — a man who possibly has a no-good brother named Phil Cunt. There’s a strict one-in, one-out policy, with no more and no less than five, and other players over its 2-year, 14 episode run include Harry Secombe’s son, Andrew, and Eve Ferret.

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This is real bottom barrel late 80’s comedy, and a damning showcase of the era’s style, with its nerd voices in coke-bottle glasses and “I’m a black belt in origami! Keep taking the tablets!” energy. Regard, a wedding sketch where the groom’s been left at the altar, pretending she’s stood at the back of the church cos of hayfever, and saying “I do” from the side of his mouth in a high voice.

   Vicar: “She’s jilted you, hasn’t she, Mr. Kelly?

   Mr. Kelly: (aghast) “Jilted me? No! Absolutely not. Not on your life, no way, no chance!

   Vicar: “Mr. Kelly…

   Mr. Kelly: (crying hysterically) “YES, YES, SHE’S JILTED ME!

He shoots down the inflatable doll he’d tried to pass off as the bride, with a “you’ve not got a puncture repair kit you can lend me have yer?” It’s at least a fast moving show, burning through set-ups and outfits at a dizzying rate, which if it’s attempting to distract from the very poor quality of the material, fails massively. In a Western saloon, a cowboy orders a barman to go for his gun — “where you goin’?” “I’m going for my gun!”; Conley wins a salesman of the year award, immediately flogging the trophy to its presenter; Conley and Brookes are in a pram, doing disturbing baby voices. It’s pure stinking turd, through and through.

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The lone saving grace is Doon’s newsreader, with a couple of decent Two Ronnie lines; one about a family that didn’t pay the priest who exorcised their home, which was repossessed, and another about a legalised brothel — “building will go ahead once they get the red light.” Not so much, a joke about Neil Kinnock having a talk with his back bench, “tomorrow he plans to have an informal chat with his sofa.” Every sketch is in a pitched, brutal battle for the worst joke, with a new contender every twenty seconds. Is it this: “last time I was in hospital, I fancied the sister,” “you’re not supposed to do that, are you? It’s incest!” or in a travel agents, asking how long it takes Concorde to get from London to NY? “Just a minute,” he replies, turning to a reference book. “It’s even quicker than I thought!” exclaims the customer.

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There are 21 credited writers, averaging almost one for every wretched minute of screentime, and each with CVs of the damned — “additional material for The News Huddlines and Little and Large.” Most confusing is when all five comics come out in garish Hawaiian shirts as a doo wop band, for a slightly tuneless, acapella Under The Boardwalk. It goes on for a while before you realise; it is, it’s a Yarwood, intended as sincere. There’s no audience laughter, even over brief inserts of Brookes pulling faces or Conley getting fish chucked at him, and it feels weird them spending 24 minutes taking the piss out of stuff only to go so unapologetically Butlins, complete with disconcertingly earnest round of applause at the end. Truly baffling, the whole thing was choreographed by Ken Warwick of Miss Great Britain fame.

With Conley, there’s no particular sense you’re watching a star on the rise, as he runs through a parade of gormless thickos; a biker who went to the doctor with blurred vision (“he cleaned my goggles”); a bovver boy taking a frozen chicken to the vet; one of two German geeks named Heinz and Beans (“What do you call Jack the Ripper’s doggy? Jack the Russell!”); and most Conley of all, doing an ‘accent’ as a Ninja who requires dynamite to karate chop through a piece of wood, leaving him in the standard shredded clothes and black face. It really takes something to be the worst out of one show that’s all about peritonitis and respiratory distress, and another involving a near-lethal dose of Jim Davidson, and yet, here we are.

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~ by Stuart on October 8, 2022.

One Response to “Owt Good On, Mam? – Forgotten Sketch Shows”

  1. The now defunct LWT and their sketch comedy/sitcoms; why was it that the sound mixers on such shows always had to work overtime with canned laughter more than any other TV channel? Maybe because they knew their shows were mostly unfunny, perhaps, and needed such artificial giggly enhancement?

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