Comic gems from you, the readers


FOLLOWING my series of comedy gems, which you can revisit here, herehere and here, it’s time to present a selection of readers’ favourites which escaped my gaze.

The first, the Arthur Haynes Show, was suggested by my good lady wife. She thinks the lugubrious Londoner was one of the funniest comics of all time and on the evidence that remains I have to agree.

Haynes (1914-1966) was an odd-job man until World War II broke out. His ability to amuse his fellow Royal Engineers got him a role as an entertainer and he appeared alongside Charlie Chester in an Army concert troupe, Stars in Battledress. The pair continued to work together after the war.

In late 1956 the new independent channel ATV commissioned the Arthur Haynes Show with Nicholas Parsons as his straight man. Its series of sketches made Haynes the most popular comedian in Britain, often playing a tramp whose lines were supplied by Johnny Speight, later to give us Till Death Us Do PartHere is a complete show from 1960.

Here are some examples of ‘corpsing’ – when the stars were unable to keep a straight face. This was a frequent occurrence and added to the charm.

Finally, here is many people’s favourite sketch, where Haynes plays a nervous barber with shaking hands and a cut-throat razor putting the fear of God up customer Parsons.

The programme continued for ten years until Haynes’s death from a heart attack. Thankfully there are many volumes on DVD although at the time of writing the omnibus is available only second-hand at a handsome price.

Several readers waxed lyrical about the BBC sitcom Early Doors, which lasted for two six-part series in 2003 and 2004. Set in The Grapes, a small pub in Stockport, it is often described as a chronicle of love, loneliness and blocked urinals. It was written by Craig Cash and Phil Mealey, who appear as best mates Joe and Duffy. Cash had already cut his comedy teeth co-writing The Royle Family for Granada, and Early Doors continued its rich vein of northern humour. The title refers to the tradition before all-day pub opening when drinkers would be waiting on the doorstep for the licensee to let them in at teatime. Having been one such customer for several years in my youth, I found its accuracy almost too painful to watch.

Here is the first episode, opening with landlord Ken Dixon, played by John Henshaw, pouring budget brandy into a Courvoisier bottle.

And here is a selection of clips featuring the local bent coppers Phil and Nige, who often drop into the kitchen for a free pint of bitter and a Diet Coke, often with a cigar or a spirit chaser.

Viewing figures were low, hence the programme’s short run, but those who watched it loved it. You can catch up with all 12 episodes on BBC iPlayer.

We remain up north for dinnerladies, a sitcom which Victoria Wood created, wrote and co-produced. This is set in a Manchester factory canteen where Wood’s character Brenda ‘Bren’ Furlong is always at the centre of the action. Supporting actresses include Thelma Barlow, previously Mavis Wilton in Coronation Street; another Street veteran in Anne Reid, who played Valerie Barlow; and Wood’s long-time comic partner Julie Walters, who appears as Bren’s mad mother Petula, who abandoned her as a child and now lives in a caravan behind a petrol station.

Here is the first episode, screened in November 1998. A further 15 programmes went out on BBC 1 between then and early 2000. You can catch them on various streaming services and also on YouTube for nowt.

A commenter called Robert the Engineer introduced me to a Radio 4 sitcom broadcast at the beginning of the 1980s. He wrote: ‘The real classic comedy which has been quietly buried but not forgotten by those of us who heard it was Wrinkles.

‘Starring Tom Menard and Anthea Askey, Wrinkles was set in an old folks’ home with an entertaining cast of characters. There was Arnold, the archetypal pessimist, who could sing “Happy Days Are Here Again” in a minor key. In one episode, he had bought a coffin in a sale and was trying it out – in the grounds by a stream. Retired army man, Winston, launched him into the stream. “Obviously a burial at sea gone wrong.”

‘Winston’s dog arrived with the name “Private” in the first episode. At the end of the series he had the name “General”, after being promoted through the ranks every time he bit matron.

‘One classic scene was the Secret Service Reunion Dinner. Tom had found Winston in the cellar with a barrel of beer. The scene, with choreography in the style of a Goon Show, features Winston speaking from both sides of the bar. He was both bartender and a customer, trying to get Tom served as his guest. Classic lines include, “It’s so secret that even I don’t know about it – and I’m organising it.” And in the end, after having demanded to see his membership card, he is forced as bartender to throw both himself and Tom out of the Secret Service Reunion because he hasn’t brought his own membership card.’

You can hear Wrinkles at the fabulous website RadioEchoes by following this link. 

A Very Peculiar Practice is a black comedy (by which I mean mordant humour rather than Afro-American) which ran for two series on BBC2 in 1986 and 1988. Set in a university health centre, it was written by Andrew Davies based on his spell as a college lecturer and starred Peter Davison as the naïve, fresh-faced young doctor Stephen Daker faced with a surreal line-up of colleagues including his boss, Jock McCannon, played by Graham Crowden, who is never without a comforting bottle of Scotch. The excellent Barbara Flynn appears as the uber-feminist bisexual Rose Marie while David Troughton is Bob Buzzard, whose get-rich-quick schemes include an arms deal – selling not weapons but human limbs.

So far as I can tell, the only way to watch the show is on DVD but beware, it doesn’t come cheap. Here is a trailer. 

Staying with the BBC, we have Saxondale, with co-writer Steve Coogan as the title character. Tommy Saxondale is a former roadie who now runs a pest-control business in Stevenage, Hertfordshire (rock ’n’ roll!) His Welsh girlfriend Magz, who runs a shop selling disgusting self-designed posters and T-shirts, is played by Ruth Jones, later to appear as the brilliant Nessa in Gavin and Stacey. Coogan is of course better known as Alan Partridge but commenter Hugh Hee opined: ‘Personally I thought Saxondale was infinitely better – thoughtfully amusing, sharply observed, with well-rounded, believable characters.’

Coogan himself described Tommy Saxondale as ‘genuinely witty, while still being a bit of a dick’. He told Empire magazine: ‘What I liked about that character is that in some ways he was the butt of the joke, but he was also funny himself sometimes. Whereas Alan [Partridge] is never funny himself – he’s just unwittingly funny. Alan’s never going to tell you a joke that really mHereakes you laugh. Saxondale might.’

The show lasted for two series in 2006 and 2007. All 13 half-hour episodes are available on DVD for 13 quid or so, which by my sophisticated arithmetical skills I judge to be a pound a pop and probably cheaper than streaming. Here are some highlights from series one and here from series two.

And finally. When I wrote last time about the sitcom Still Game, I shamefully omitted to say that it evolved from another Scottish institution, Chewin’ The Fat. Over four series between 1999 and 2002, Ford Kiernan and Greg Hemphill appeared as a bewildering number of characters including the dodgy decorators Bish and Bosh who steal from their customers; the Lighthouse Keepers Duncan and Malcolm, the former of whom constantly plays cruel jokes on his hapless colleague; the Banter Boys, two old queens who gain sexual satisfaction from eavesdropping on Glaswegian conversations; and Jack and Victor, the impish OAPs who went on to feature in Still Game. Kiernan and Hemphill’s co-star is Karen Dunbar, whose characters include Miss Isabelle Gourlay, a sexually repressed teacher, and Betty the Auld Slapper, a pensioner who gives interviews to a teatime radio show and has to be stopped when she describes her sexual exploits during the war. Herehere are some of the best bits while every series can be watched free on YouTube and a variety of DVDs are available.

Old jokes’ home

I was watching Blue Peter the other day. He’s a neighbour with very poor circulation. I said, ‘Peter, why don’t you get a pacemaker?’ He said, ‘I can’t even run, let alone catch up with someone.’

A PS from PG

‘I would just like to say this. You are without exception the worst tick and bounder that ever got fatty degeneration of the heart through half a century of gorging food and swilling wine wrenched from the lips of a starving proletariat. You make me sick. You poison the air. Goodbye, Uncle Alaric,’ said Ricky, drawing away rather ostentatiously. ‘I think that we had better terminate this interview, or I may become brusque.’

PG Wodehouse: Uncle Fred in the Springtime

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