Ruddy Hell! It’s Harry and Paul
Friday, April 13, 2007 by Paul Stump
Do you remember the future? I do. The future was called Harry Enfield, and his stock-in-trade was remembering the past.
Prodigal’s the word for it. Seven years ago Enfield took Sky’s shilling in a deal that produced a rubbish programme, and about which we still hear too little. Here was the liberal media’s populist hero giving suck to the Murdoch junta in the satellite channel’s biggest-ever talent coup, but why the programme was so poor and why its viewing figures so feeble neither Enfield, Sky or his former employers at the Beeb seem willing to even imagine. He effectively wrote himself off – not that he or his bank manager cared – as a relic of the early 1990s, like EMF, the Sunday Sport and Allison Holloway.
Enfield’s pomp coincided with the heyday of Viz, and both brands succeeded because of their ability to satirise that which was considered either taboo or simply humdrum. Viz, in its 1989-92 million-seller days, had unlikely targets such as Morris Day [Sexual Pervert], Biffa Bacon, The Fat Slags, Spawny Get and Spoilt Bastard. These succeeded because they were archetypes that nobody had ever satirised before and effectively played straight. The only weakness of Viz was John Fardell’s The Modern Parents, which failed because other genuinely gifted cartoonists like Harpur and Simmonds had ripped the piss out of the milieu before and done it much better. Perhaps the best Viz strip ever was the 1990 one-off Balsa Boy (“58-year-old social inadequate Arthur Trubshaw had always dreamed of having a son of his own …”), a study in pathetic loneliness so heartbreaking and simultaneously side-splitting it bears comparison with the best of Robert Crumb. It is the relentless everydayness of Viz’s storyboards that makes us laugh, the truffling of humour in the most routine of matters that is at once novel and familiar.
Ditto Enfield, who took his cue from Dick Emery but hard-pedalled the nuances of what made these characters work. The likes of Smashie and Nicey, the Lovely Wobbly Randy Old Ladies, Cholmondeley and Grayson, and the Scousers were funny simply because most people recognised the figures, triggering a mental resolution that underpins all humour, similar to the reaction to meeting an old friend in the street. They are part of our past, of most people’s pasts, private and public – the fact these characters had rarely been portrayed humorously before, if at all, and were written into often very amusing sketches just piled on the laughs. Around 1992 he was the hottest property in British comedy.
Enfield’s newie has him as the old friend – and it’s a pleasure to see him, and even more to see Whitehouse, who took the Enfieldian conceit into much darker and more unsentimental realms in The Fast Show, finally achieving equal billing.
It’s tempting to suggest that he is responsible for the more inspired moments of this – Nelson Mandela flogging alcopops and cheap beer is about 187,000 times funnier than it sounds. Portraying U2 as comedy Irishmen in a pub band is high-flying stuff, the class work of writers who can knock this out in their sleep, but perhaps the best moments don’t go to either Enfield or Whitehouse but the creation of two Polish shopgirls and the innate, imagined intimidation their customers feel upon encountering them. This is fine, strong TV light ent at its very best – taking the quotidian and giving it the tiniest and subtlest of tweaks. Tellingly, there are no catchphrases (although give it time) but the present writer still nearly wet himself with laughter.
Some sketches go all soufflé – Bill Gates and Steve Jobs (one assumes) as Porky’s-esque nerds is bleeding-obvious meaningless (the old Modern Parents syndrome again). The Gates characters smack of plagiarism, so close are they to Rory Bremner’s Dick and Don juxtaposition of Beltway politics and crap youth viewing. I imagine this sounded as good in the pub as did Brokeback Mountain as done by Laurel and Hardy.
But this is what this programme felt like – a bibulous and joyful reunion of witty chums, and more power to its elbow. Mine’s another, if you’re going to the bar.