Absolutely: Absolutely Everything! Review
I've been thinking about Absolutely quite a bit recently. Partly, I'm always thinking about it, Absolutely being one of those shows that, no matter that I'm eating peas, on my way to get a haircut or simply sitting on the toilet, seems to come to mind. It's also one of those television shows that I always do a search for online just in case it should happen to sneak out on DVD. I had long come to the conclusion that it never would but rather like those who persist in the notion that aliens will soon be arriving within meteors, I kept hoping. And then there was the release of Joking Apart, thinking that if that show made it into the shops then so too would Absolutely...one day.
Mike Read prompted thoughts of it too. Ex-Radio 1 DJ Mike Read, that is, who explained to the Radio Times how one of his hobbies is to read the football results aloud and, by the tone of his voice, ask others if they can guess the away team's score. "Arsenal 4 Chelsea...?" I'm thinking, as I read this, that a character in Absolutely used to do just that. Not Calum Gilhooley, the world's most boring and most be-anoraked man but certainly a close relative of his. If Mike Read, who one would have thought might once have lived a relatively exciting life, can succumb to the habits of Absolutely, then so too can others. If television documentaries spent a little more time treading the villages and lanes of Britain in search of the very odd they might also find a Mr Don and Mr George living in Much Hadham, a Frank Hovis eking out an existence in the toilets of a near-condemned pub or a McGlashen still cycling to the border between Scotland and England to shout, "POOFS!" in a southerly direction.
This has been a long time coming. In the press release that accompanies this DVD, Gordon Kennedy makes the point that he and the others felt that Absolutely was, "being air-brushed from sketch comedy history." No matter that Channel 4, the home of the show, seemed to have forgotten it sufficiently so as not to include Absolutely in its shortlist for the Top Fifty Comedy Sketches, there were enough fans out there to vote the Stoneybridge Olympic Bid in at #30. Absolutely Andy, almost doing for this show what Craig Robins did for Joking Apart, petitioned Channel 4 for the release of this DVD and even went so far as to contact Kennedy, as well as Moray Hunter, Jack Docherty, Morwenna Banks, Pete Baikie and John Sparkes, to cajole them into releasing Absolutely on DVD.
Absolutely was a sketch show commissioned by Channel 4 in 1989 and continued to be shown through the early-nineties. It begins with the cast challenging notions of comedy and how radical one could be on Channel 4 and drew to a close in 1993 with, in its final fifteen minutes, a sketch in which Frank Hovis sat on an already-heavily-soiled public lavatory and farted for five minutes. Far from that being a criticism of the show, it was actually one of its better moments, proving once and for all that farting is funny. In fact, it's a very refreshing end to the show, demonstrating that its cast of performers and writers had grown out of the alternative but not always funny comedy of the early sketches into letting their more scatological notions be freely expressed. There is social criticism, directed most scathingly at the liberal Guardian-readers who were then Channel 4's core audience, out and out comedy and a willingness to pick on the likes of children, the handicapped and old people. There is also the feeling that, as with a lot of what was then described as alternative comedy, that the Absolutely team were making all of this up as they went along, always without any sense of direction but proving that a strong stomach and little regard for social norms can produce great comedy.
A sketch show like Absolutely thrives on its characters and even by the end of its first few episodes, it had a group of memorable misfits. The Stoneybridge Town Council are probably the best-remembered, most often for their hopeless videos, or vidos or perhaps vidayos, that attempt to bring inward investment, tourists and even the Olympics to the town. Every effort they make is a lamentable one, even to the hat swapping that accompanies one of their videos while a rundown hotel is their Olympic village. Tabby gets in on almost every promotional film they make. Their town motto, delivered in a manner that is rather more hopeful than practical, is the straightforward, "Stoneybridge...the town with the stony bridge!" That stony bridge would sustain Bruce, Maigret, Wully and the rest over the next four years, which would become increasingly surreal, but which would always come back to six councillors trying to make the best of things. Unfortunately, it is at the Stoneybridge Annual Dinner Dance that they come up against their polar opposite. As disgusting as the Stonybridge councillors are prim, Frank Hovis (John Sparkes) is a singer/host who makes regular appearances from a public lavatory. Be it his first appearance, wherein he tells a story about losing a monumental struggle against a giant pooh that's fighting to come out while in the back of a taxi - "...and there was this monster! It lay there, coiled up and hissing slightly! I thought it was going to rise up and attack me!" - or later descriptions of the misfortune of using a toilet in which the seat doesn't falls down midstream (a Penis Fly Trap!), of running for the bus while masturbating ("The bus was coming...and so was I!") and of throwing up on a tramp. "It was a warm meal for him, I suppose!"
Sparkes is also there with Bert Bastard, an old man living alone who one probably shouldn't laugh at but whose hopeless attempts at eating peas, making a pot of tea or shaving disguise his unpleasantness. His geriatric sports day is a triumph with starting pistols, shotguns and cannons having no effect on the deaf pensioners. Sparkes also provides us with Denzil and Gwynedd, a pair of Welsh DIY enthusiasts who, in their best sketches in series two and three, had Welsh subtitles and such insults as 'Aberystwyth features'. Now, they were probably as Welsh as a Lamborghini but that didn't stop Denzil falling victim to what Dr Willseeyounow describes as Llandudno Neck, of Gwynedd wearing Chicken Skin Slippers on her feet and of Denzil saying, "I look like someone from Llanelli!" when Gwynedd sews the arms from his suit onto the front and back of his trousers. There's even a touch of marital strife as Denzil's brother Illtyd romances Gwynedd, bringing her Brussels sprouts and a carburetor from a Ford Escort as a gift. Denzil and Illtyd fight it out with Welsh Unarmed Hitting!
With Sparkes having some success with the Welsh, it's the Scottish Hunter and Docherty who came up with Scottish Nationalist MacGlashan and the world's dullest man, Calum Gilhooley. Whether it's Gilhooley spelling out his name over the phone - "Aye...G for gnome!" - his welcoming in a couple of Jehovah's Witnesses and taking their copy of The Watchtower only to sell them the operating manual for the Suzuki 350 for £1 or having an out-of-anorak experience on the operating table, he's completely oblivious to how unutterably, mind-alteringly dull he is. It's no wonder that Calum Gilhooley lasts for all four series. After those of John Sparkes, he's the best thing in the series, able to ramble on for hours without ever actually making a point. MacGlashan, meanwhile, is all bluster about the English. He describes John Major and his thoughts on democracy with a, "Would you like to be run by a pasty-faced tit who tucks his vest into his underpants?", offers the prize of a weekend with MacGlashan to whoever can, "...track down Jimmy Hill and hit him full in the face with an Arbroath smokie?" and submits his plays The Hurly Burly Bag and Nip Nap Shite to his long-suffering agent MacMinn. "You certainly have an eye for a title!"
There are others. There's Morwenna Banks' Little Girl's explanations of life, death and everything in between - "If your mum did forget to collect you [from school], you must run all da way home in case a man did ask you to see his puppies!" - the Nice Family and their reliance on the authorities to inform them if that evening's viewing is suitable for all the family and the curious pairing of Mr Don and Mr George, who would go on to their own spinoff. Some are very much of their time, such as Jennifer and Peter Welles, who are members of Amnesty and Oxfam and who hide their Queen album under the sofa on account of them playing Sun City but who are wary of writing a letter to Mambaso Macphuto when the subject of his ANC membership comes up or of adopting Brazilian street kid Jeffrey on account of him not being black enough. And all that goes without even mentioning the pub band in jumpers who ought to shame almost every amateur rock group into putting down their guitars. "I'm a systems analyst by day! Gonna become a star! We can burn with the best or we can play guitar!"
I mention all these moments simply because they had me crying with laughter in the late-eighties and did so again now. Every episode had one sketch in which tears rolled down my face at the silliness of it all, at how cruel it can be and how impressively accurate it is in its cast of characters, its situations and its Stoneybridge promotional videos. If there's a problem with Absolutely, it's that certain writers are better than others. Pete Baikie, for example, will usually contribute one song per episode, which will often be accompanied by a piece of very-much-of-its-time animation while Jack Docherty's characters often break the fourth wall in a sketch and will talk directly to the audience. Some of Morwenna Banks' characters simply aren't very good at all. Her Little Girl is often brilliant but the less said about the Tour Guide or the Old Artist the better. But it's John Sparkes who's the star of this show, just as he was on Naked Video. Whether it's just the sight of Bert Bastard putting up a deck chair, Denzil looking into the Hoover where Gwynned is trapped or Frank Hovis reaching out to the audience a minute or two into his farting, he's the outstanding contributor to the show. It's the shame of his work these days that you can't see very much of it unless you live in Wales.
Others might prefer the Pythons, some Morcambe And Wise or The Two Ronnies and there will be those who grew up with The Goodies. While, for this viewer, it was The Young Ones and Absolutely, one a sitcom and the other the greatest sketch show that television has ever shown. However, I'm probably writing to the converted here, those who already have this box set on order and are eagerly awaiting its delivery this weekend. For those who have not yet fallen for the Absolutely charms, The Associates have prepared a ten-minute promotional film, which is available here. If you're not laughing by, "Denzil, you have sausage on yours!" then perhaps this isn't for you. Otherwise, there are very much worse ways that you could spend £25 online for some of the best comedy of the last twenty years.
I didn't expect very much from this. Perhaps it was simply a feeling that while the show was coming out on DVD and would find an audience who, like this viewer, would pick it up no matter, I felt that minimal effort would be made in transferring this onto disc. I'm happy to say that I was mistaken...most of the time. The early episodes are those that have aged poorly. The Pilot episode has clearly come directly from videotape but while Series 1 Episode 1 (S1E1) looks fine, if a little fuzzy, the only real problem comes with S2E2. This doesn't look so much as though it's come out of the archives as straight off a fan's videotape. Fortunately, that's one low point out of a much better story.
Elsewhere, things are as you would expect them. The picture doesn't compare to more recent television shows. It's always a touch soft for a start, colours can either be too intense or looking a little washed out and there's some obvious noise from the video recordings from the time but I expected Absolutely to look very much worse than it did here. Most of these episodes were watched on a plasma screen, which was considerably bigger than the 21" televisions of 1989, but the DVD didn't look at all bad. While one doesn't doubt that with a little more expense spared Absolutely could look better, Fremantle have done much better by Absolutely than this viewer had expected.
The soundtrack is DD2.0 and while there's some background noise, which isn't unexpected given the original production, and some breaking up of the audio during the audience's laughing, it's not bad. Again, it could have been better but it could have been very much worse. The only problems really come with the bonus material, which appear to have been recorded with the built-in microphone on a camcorder, which leaves these with a lot of background hiss and every ambient sound, such as a chair scraping on floor tiles, drowning out the dialogue. Finally, there are no subtitles on any episode.
Commentaries: There are two commentaries per series, the first and last of the first, second and fourth series and episodes one and two of the third. As well as an audio commentary, these episodes also offer a video commentary, which doesn't sound quite as exciting as it could be. Rather than Pete Baikie and Jack Docherty leaping all over the screen, what we have is a webcam-styled shot of the six members of the cast sitting in a recording studio watching the episodes on monitors. There's precious little movement and it's hard to tell who's who given how tiny this picture-in-picture video commentary is so my advice is to stick to the audio commentaries, which simply lose the pictures. Indeed, the video commentary on S3E2 disappears altogether halfway through but one never feels like anything has been lost. As to the actual tracks, Gordon Kennedy, Moray Hunter and Jack Docherty lead proceedings noticeably. Pete Baikie is somewhat quieter but Morwenna Banks and John Sparkes do have to be prompted for contributions. However, as a group, they do seem to remember the making of these episodes well, talking about location, the inspirations for characters and settings and giving space to some of the best sketches, most notably remaining silent throughout Frank Hovis' epic farting.
Pilot Episode (38m03s): This isn't so very different from the actual first ever episode of Absolutely as it was later broadcast. It still features the, "Now this is radical television!" beginning, the job interview, the Little Girl talking about death, Calum calling round to see John, who then sells him his flat for £10 just to be rid of him, and the Nice Family worrying about that evening's viewing. There are slight differences, which were obviously discarded once production began and which would not make it into any later episodes, but, overall, not so dissimilar to what would come later on.
Absolutely Beginnings (19m02s): Made in the style of the actual show, this presents the story of how Absolutely came to be made, from Pete and Moray meeting at school to the making of the Pilot episode. Using archive footage and a Pete Baikie narration, this mixes what might be fact with some obvious fiction, such as Moray, Gordon and Pete meeting Jack while in the Junior Black And White Minstrel show raising funds for racial awareness. There's footage of the pre-Absolutely Bodgers, including their onstage version of a shortened version of Macbeth, and of John Sparkes solo. Which, given some of the things Sparkes has written for Absolutely, does not feature him masturbating.
Absolutely Remembered (16m35s): With Gordon Kennedy behind the camera, fans and friends, including David Baddiel, Jo Brand, Ian Hislop, Sanjeev Kohli and Hardeep Singh remember Absolutely. To begin with, they don't remember it particularly fondly. That may be an Absolutely way of doing things, see their habit of leaving out a punchline from their sketches, but it's hard to see this ending well when everyone criticises the show for being too odd, for being too Scottish and for not making enough concessions to gain a wider audience. This does get better, probably much to Gordon Kennedy's pleasure, as the interviewees describe what they remember most fondly about the show, even if it does end with everyone wondering what its legacy was. Or if it even had one.
Character Guides (50m10s): This is a terrific pair extra. Featuring the cast talking about their characters - Sparkes on Frank Hovis and Denzil, Pete Baikie on the Laughing Man, Jack Docherty on MacGlashan and so on - it's simple but illuminated by some very choice selections. What is best about this is hearing John Sparkes and Morwenna Banks, who often struggle to be heard on the commentaries, talking about their own characters, explaining their origins and how easily they came to the screen. And this is never better than Sparkes explaining where the character of Denzil came from.
Absolutely Songs And Animation (7m01s): This opens with Pete Baikie talking about his songwriting with the cast and producer paying due credit but also being honest about the problems with these songs, such as the expense of making the videos for songs that, with a few exceptions, weren't as funny as the spoken material and which would invariably take up the lion's share of the budget.
Absolutely Other Things (22m56s): This is a catch-all for all the other bits and pieces that were recorded in the making of this DVD, including Pete Baikie accusing John Sparkes of scene-stealing, of Jack Docherty's habit of spoiling the recording of his scenes and of who hit on Morwenna Banks first. It all ends quite badly...being drunken, with Moray rambling on about his box set and Pete wandering off to light a fag.
Finally, there is a Photo Gallery.