BBC Great Comedy Moments Review

Mike Sutton has reviewed the Region 2 release of BBC Great Comedy Moments. A diverting lucky dip but not exactly as packed with comic delights as it should be.

The idea of a compilation of great moments from 40 years of TV Comedy is a good one, but it is also a dangerous pursuit. Everyone watching this DVD will have their own favourite clips and they are all destined to be disappointed when one of them isn’t included. All such a disc can do is act as a representative sample of one of the finest archives on comedy in the world, but even on that level it is somewhat deficient. Although the range of comedy included is reasonably broad, the samples included are often far from the best that could have been included and the balance of old and new is not always satisfactory.

There are a total of 41 clips included, along with highly dispensable bookends by an infuriatingly smug Ronnie Barker. I know that the man who appeared in both Porridge and Open All Hours has some reason to be pleased with himself but that’s hardly grounds for grinning like a cheshire cat every time he reads an unamusing quip from an autocue. The clips themselves can be divided into the classic, the over-exposed, the poorly chosen and the bewilderingly unfunny.

To begin with the dross, we have two contributions from Dick Emery, a comedian whose humour rarely raised itself above the somnolent and for whom caricature was an end in itself, rather than a means to a greater truth (see Alan Partridge for a demonstration that caricature can be lethally accurate). He doesn’t even get to say “Oooh you are awful.. but I like you” for heaven’s sake, and Honky Tonk wasn’t funny in 1975 let alone in 2001. “Allo Allo” appears, as funny as cancer but less memorable, and if I ever see Penelope Keith fall into the mud again I think I will either vomit or kill myself. Possibly both. I will pass over “Last of The Summer Wine” in case one of the cast dies between me writing this and loading it to the server – suffice to say that it will no doubt delight fans of geriatrics behaving like children.

The poorly chosen are equally numerous. “Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads” is one of the two or three finest situation comedies ever produced in Britain, but why choose an obvious and unfunny chat-up scene and part of the “No Hiding Place” episode – one which depends for its comedy on a mounting sense of desperation. Better choices would have included the wonderful scene where Bob brings down his chidhood possessions from the loft – clutching a pile of Lone Ranger annuals he pleads “I need these for reference – or the sublime moment when Terry gives us the lowdown on foreigners to Bob’s despairing derision. Equally, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore were gods pf comedy but you wouldn’t know it from the two minutes of the brilliant art gallery sketch included here and the irritating beyond belief “Goodbye” song. I would also have preferred to see Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder at his most viciously vitriolic than the moments we are offered – hamming from Kenneth Conner, Hugh Paddick and Rik Mayall. And are we really to believe that a mildly funny moment from the first series of “One Foot In The Grave” is the best that Victor Meldrew – the second greatest comic creation of the 1990s – could offer us ?

Under the heading of “over-exposed”, I would place the following, among others: the bar-room and chandelier scenes from “Only Fools And Horses”, Alf Garnett ranting about Christmas, “Four Candles” from “The Two Ronnies”, Frank Spencer going rollerskating, “A pint ? That’s nearly an armful”, Morecambe and Wise doing that bloody Stripper routine for the umpteenth time. All these series had much better moments than are included here and it’s a shame that we have to see the same things time and again. Funny without a doubt, but if you like British comedy, you’ll be more than familiar with all of these.

Luckily, the disc is saved by some truly glorious moments of comic genius. Reggie Perrin and Jimmy debating who will be targeted when “the balloon goes up” is Leonard Rossiter at his very best and that’s saying a lot. Good to see him taking CJ to task as well in a scene from the second series. Fry And Laurie appear with the brilliantly clever Open University skit, the last word on all those appalling Denis Nordern things on ITV. Great to see the equally clever “Mastermind” sketch from The Two Ronnies, a small masterpiece of comic construction by David Renwick, and it’s pleasing to see that Marty Feldman, an often overlooked figure, features here. Frankie Howerd contributes a deliciously convoluted Prologue from “Up Pompeii”, John Inman takes campness into a deliriously abstract alternative universe in two scenes from “Are You Being Served” (Mrs Slocombe’s pussy is, scandalously, absent), and Hancock muses on Bertrand Russell. Best of all, for my money, “Yes Minister” is revealed as the most literate comedy series in living memory with two elegant scenes of duplicity between Sir Humphrey and Jim Hacker.

So there are more than a few good things on this disc, but it’s hard not to wonder what the criteria for inclusion were. Where are “Fawlty Towers” and Monty Python ? “Not The Nine-O-Clock News” or Dave Allen ? Alan Partridge and “Dad’s Army” ? What about the genuine originality of “The League Of Gentlemen” or the prejudice busting of the early Lenny Henry shows ? “The Young Ones” and “Smith and Jones” ? Presumably, the BBC feel some of the above are too valuable an asset to waste on a compilation disc but if that’s so, when can we expect a proper release of Python on R2 ? I also regret the absence of smaller moments from the past – Mike Yarwood’s Ted Heath, “Language Timothy”, Ted Bovis at his slimiest, Windsor Davies shrieking “Shuuuuuuuttt Upppp !!”, the wonderfully awful Jesus musical from “Hippies” – mostly from underachieving shows I wouldn’t want to buy in themselves but which have moments which stay in my memory long after the context has gone. They are, in a sense, the ideal material for this sort of compilation but the BBC have obviously decided to play all too safe.

The main merit of a disc like this is that it will almost certainly include something for everyone even if everyone is equally likely to be disappointed. It will spark some great debates amongst comedy fans though – a viewing with a friend resulted in a nostalgic trawl through our childhood memories – and for that alone, it might be worth a look. My opinions above are, of course, merely opinions but if you’re an outraged Dick Emery fan, feel free to mail me with your own views.

The Disc

There is really very little to say about this disc. It’s competent enough but not what you’d call exciting.

The clips have been presented in the original 4:3 format. There is nothing of a later vintage than 1990 so this is quite correct. The picture quality is somewhat variable. Good on the more recent shows and some of the scenes from the later seventies but generally poor on the black and white clips – this is a problem which dogged the recent Tony Hancock DVD. Restoration of some of these series would be essential if they were to receive a DVD release in their own right. Particularly poor is the Pete and Dud clip in the art gallery.

The soundtrack is English and Mono. Again, this reflects the original recordings and is fine without being inspiring. There are subtitles which appear to have been written without any reference to the script and thus demonsrate a felicitously inventive approach which sometimes bears no relation to what is actually being said.

There are no extras, although you do get the option to either watch the clips in order, watch them in random order, or watch all the clips from one series.

There are 43 chapter stops and the menus are backed by rather annoying music.

This is largely a missed opportunity, but as a random lucky dip it does have some genuine pleasures. The presentation is adequate for the purpose but nothing more.

Mike Sutton

Updated: Nov 24, 2001

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