It’s coming up to 10 years since the Blankety Blank Comic Relief sketch, starring Peter Serafinowicz, Matt Lucas, David Williams, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Sarah Alexander, and Martin Freeman.….
That’s quite a lineup. Me and Kevin Cecil were slightly involved in it – it was very much Peter’s baby, but we were asked to spend a couple of hours throwing in a few extra ideas. Hard to be precise which ones 10 years on, but I’m pretty certain we wrote a lot of the bad tempered exchanges between Martin Freeman’s Johnny Rotten and Simon Pegg’s Freddie Starr.
It feels like a long time ago now for a couple of reasons. Firstly, this cast wasn’t all that famous when this was broadcast. Little Britain wouldn’t appear on the TV until later in 2003. Shaun of the Dead premiered in 2004. That’s why this stellar lineup was tucked away quite late in the evening of Red Nose Day. And because it was quite late, it was allowed to be quite weird. The words “yellow reggae” cracked me up at the time, and still make me laugh now.
But looking at this footage a few days ago, it doesn’t seem nearly as weird as it used to. This brings me to the second reason why it feels like a long time ago: the presence of Johnny Rotten. For the benefit of those too young to remember, Blankety Blank was one of the lightest of light entertainment shows which dominated the early evening schedules in the 1980s. It was built on a fairly flimsy premise– a simple word association game – but that didn’t matter, because it was just an excuse for Terry Wogan to engage in genial chats with half a dozen celebrities at once. The personalities on the show were for the most part well-known faces from other comedy and entertainment shows. With the exception of Kenny Everett they were a safe and cosy bunch. When Peter wrote this Blankety Blank parody in 2003, the mere idea of having the fearless and dangerous Johnny Rotten on a mainstream light entertainment show like Blankety Blank was a preposterous joke.
In 2013, it’s no longer incredible, because it’s already happened. Under his more grown-up real name of John Lydon, the formerly unusable punk god did a whole series of I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here. That culture clash between him and the stars of panto was mined to the full, but this time for real instead of in an unhinged Peter Serafinowicz sketch.
This is just one example of what you might call The March of Absurdity. It’s a real problem for comedy writers. Comedy thrives off barriers and taboos. Then you’ve got an expectation to subvert, and you’re in business. Less barriers means less unwritten codes for comedy to scrape up against. When I was a kid, the Morecambe and Wise show once featured Angela Rippon, a newsreader whose name and face were known to everyone in the country, as one of a line of dancing girls. At the time this was considered utterly mind blowing. A BBC newsreader! Dancing! With just tights on her legs! These days, Children In Need love to get newsreaders dancing. We now expect our newsreaders to fool around in funny costumes. What was once a bold comic idea gradually became the norm. So – it’s a lot less funny.
There’s another one which sticks out in my memory. Me and Kevin wrote a lot of The Armando Iannucci Shows, a Channel 4 series which though it didn’t make a big splash when it aired in 2001 has since become obscure cult viewing. One of the programs follows Armando as he goes to see “Ibiza Uncovered – the Opera.” Ibiza Uncovered was a very trashy late night show, really just an excuse to show lots of flesh. Unthinkable that it could be turned into an opera, so we had great fun writing the lyrics. “The club is charging £20 admission/do they still have the sex show at Manumission?/no, but Paul Oakenfold is on the decks./Oakie, Oakie, Oakie, Oakie, Oakie’s on the decks.” Just a couple of years later, Jerry Springer the Opera was a massive stage hit. Without it, it seems unlikely that the Royal Opera house would have been able to put on an opera about Anna Nicole Smith. Opera about low culture subjects? People are fine with that now. So that sketch couldn’t work if we wrote it today.
When mainstream culture delights in playing the comedy writer’s game of juxtaposing things to get amusing results, it makes it a whole lot harder for people in my profession. What looks crazy and impossible now might just be commonplace in a few years. So, here’s my plea to society and the media: put up more barriers. Be more sober, more serious. Create more taboos. Make more lines which can’t be crossed. The comedy writers will thank you for it.
Every now and again somebody encountering my full name says, “Andy Riley! Like in Father Ted. Father Andy Riley, Father Desmond Coyne….”
They’re referring to a scene in the Father Ted Christmas special where a priest claiming to be an old friend of Ted visits the parochial house. Ted doesn’t know who he is, but pretends he does; the problem is he doesn’t know this priest’s name. Ted encourages Mrs Doyle to guess what it might be. She launches into a long list of names of mounting absurdity. Father Chewie Louis, Father Stig Bubblecard, Father Peewee Stairmaster, and lots more until she finally hits the correct name of Todd Unctuous. It’s very funny.
Whenever this comes up, I’m always quick to point out that it’s not a coincidence. Father Andy Riley is me. Me and my writing partner Kevin Cecil worked with Graham and Arthur, the writers of Ted, a year or two before. While they were writing the later series of Ted, we were in the habit of dropping by their office at Talkback productions whenever we were in the building, to drink their tea and talk about comics and stuff. We probably did it on the day they were writing that scene, which is why we got on Mrs Doyle’s list. Kevin was the third name on the list but sadly got chopped out in the edit. He’s there in the Father Ted script book though.
So, naturally, this is my favourite bit of Father Ted.
It draws from a very deep well in Irish humour. I’m not the only person who’s noticed the similarity between this and a scene in Flann O’Brien’s “The Third Policeman”. This is O’Brien’s masterpiece – written in about 1940, rejected by his publisher, hidden away for decades, only being published in 1967 after his death. It’s a hilarious, disturbing, genre defying novel set in a nightmarish roral Irish district. It features some brilliantly weird theorising about bicycles. Incongruously, it was a major influence on the second series of the TV show “Lost.”
While walking by himself, the unnamed protagonist hears a small voice inside his head, which he deduces to be the voice of his soul. He wonders who his soul might have occupied before he had it.
I sensed a solemn question on the subject from within, one similar to many that had been asked the night before. It was a mocking enquiry. I lightheartedly gave a list of names which, for all I knew, I might hear:
Signor Beniamino Bari
The honourable Alex O’ Brannigan, Bart.
Mr John P. De Salis, M. A.
Dr Solway Garr.
His soul then interrupts to say that Signor Beniamino Bari is the right one. I’m pretty certain this passage is a big influence on Mrs Doyle’s speech. The “long list of funny Irish names which may or may not apply to an individual” has a great pedigree.
More recently, I discovered that it goes back a whole lot further than I suspected. When reading a book of Irish myths and Legends, I found what I believe to be the ancient ancestor of the Mrs Doyle/Todd Unctuous scene. It’s a passage in “The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel,” a tale found in one of the earliest cycles of the Irish myths. Conair, the hero of the tale, is waiting to besiege a building full of fearsome warriors. A woman comes up to him and prophesy is that he will not survive. Conare asks for her name.
“Cailb,” she replied.
“A name with nothing to spare, that,” said Conare.
“Indeed, I have many other names,” she said.
“What are they?” Asked Conare.
“Not a difficult that,” she replied. “Samuin, Sinand, Sesclend, Sodb, Saiglend, Samlocht, Caill, Coll, Dichoem, Dichuill, Dichim, Dichuimne, Dichuinne, Darne, Darine, Der Uane Egem, Agam, Ethamne, Gnim, Cluche, Cethardam, Nith, Nemuin, Noenden, Badb, Blosic, Bloar, Uaret, Mede, Mod.” And she recited these in one breath,, and standing on one foot, at the entrance to the house.
Irish myths aren’t like the Bible. They’re more like the Greek myths: the gods are fallible and they mingle with men. They certainly don’t display superior morality to the mortals. And, I’d argue, the legends have an innate sense of humour about them; this bit is an example. You could claim that the speaking in one breath and standing on one leg refers to an important ritual whose meaning is now lost.. But I think the humour is intentional. And just look at it – not precisely the same formula as in The Third Policeman and Father Ted, but still a long list of possible names, all referring to one person.
Flann O’Brien knew a lot about the Irish sagas. his first book (At Swim Two Birds) one of the main characters is Finn Mac Cool, a hero from the old stories. He would have known The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel. So I’m going to stick my neck out here. I contend that Mrs Doyle is a bit in A Christmassy Ted has a comic lineage stretching back more than 1000 years into the misty beginnings of Irish history. If anyone knows a comic riff which has been around longer, I’d love to know.
PS – I think I’d better mention that I haven’t tried this theory out on Graham or Arthur yet. Let’s see if they disagree.
My friends at the Cartoon Museum in London have a new summer exhibition on – and I’ve got a few things in it.
It’s called “animal crackers”, and as the name suggests it’s a big collection of animal-based cartoons.I’ve got two Bunny suicides cartoons and two Selfish Pigs pages in it. this polar bear and Penguin cartoon isn’t one of mine… It’s by Royston Robertson, and I’ve taken the liberty of using it here because I like it. And it’s in the exhibition.
animal crackers runs until 21st of October 2012, and all the details can be found here.
I thought I’d better mention the place where theress usually a nice pile of signed copies of my various books. It’s the Cartoon Museum, Little Russell Street, right near the British Museum in London.
I call in every now and then to say hello to the great Alison Brown, who runs the shop at the entrance most days. When I do, I’m always sure to sign whatever they have that’s got my name on it.
As well as their permanent exhibition, they’re currently showing cartoons by HM Bateman. He was one of the very best cartoonists operating in Britain between the wars, and was a very powerful inspiration for me at the age of 13. It was when I encountered his work that I became absolutely certain I wanted to be a cartoonist. I can’t recommend HM Bateman highly enough for anyone who’s remotely interested in cartoons (which I hope includes you).
You can find out more, and order books directly from their shop, here.
Very big news of the gnome front – we are finally able to reveal what we have already been working on for a couple of months now. There is going to be a sequel to last year’s movie Gnomeo and Juliet, called “Gnomeo and Juliet: Sherlock Gnomes”. There’s going to be a major new character. Guess what he’s called.
Me and my writing partner Kevin Cecil are writing the script.
My son, Bill, is nearly 7. And he’s figured out that I have a website. Instead of starting up one of his own, the lazy tyke, he wants me to post up some of his artwork. After a week of badgering – here it is.
Bill is very proud of the superhero he has invented here, named “Good Bad”. You may notice a similarity to Capt underpants here… A key source of inspiration to Bill at the moment. However – unlike Capt underpants, Good Bad has a spaceship and a gun. So he would probably win in a fight.
he hasn’t yet drawn many adventures for this hero. If you have any suggestions for Bill, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org .
And next time, I will get him to draw in black rather than pencil for better contrast.
The competition is now closed:thanks to everybody who entered, 65 in all, from lots of different countries. Using the magic of a random number generator website, I can announce the results…
Winner: Sam Heijens
Runners up: Simon Bensley, Fiona Fisher
Sam will receive the bunny notebook, a signed copy of Dawn of the Bunny Suicides, and a signed copy of Selfish Pigs. Simon and Fiona will each receive a signed copy of Selfish Pigs.
Thanks again everybody! If you’re looking at this and you didn’t win – sorry that you didn’t win.
Right, let’s have a competition!
I’m giving away a notebook. Not in the spam competition sense, but an actual notebook: a little green thing that I scribbled in when I was coming up with the ideas for my third bunny suicides book, “Dawn of the Bunny Suicides.” It’s got lots of the ideas that made it into the book, captured in their nascent stages (like the picture here) and a few more ideas that didn’t make the final cut. I’ve never given away one of these books before so this is, if nothing else, a unique little piece of bunny suicides memorabilia.
All you have to do to enter is send an e-mail to email@example.com containing a mailing address, with the words “Bunny competition” in the log line. That’s all. I will post to any address in the world, so you can enter wherever you are.
Closing date for entries is 20 October 2011.
Our sitcom The Great Outdoors is now available to buy. It was on BBC four and BBC2 last year, starring Ruth Jones (of Gavin and Stacey) and Mark Heap (of Spaced, Green Wing and much else besides). Not to mention Katherine Parkinson from the IT crowd, Steve Pdge from Phoenix Nights, Stephen Wight, Joe tracini and Gwyneth Keyworth. It’s one of my favourite thing we’ve ever done. it’s about a rambling club, but not a normal functional one. A really funny, demented one. go on, you know you want to buy it. Get it for somebody for Christmas. Go on!
Here’s where to buy it:
Walking through Bloomsbury in central London last week, I realised I was just round the corner from Black Books. Me and Kevin wrote eight episodes of the sitcom over 2002 and 2003. Although the interior of the Bernard’s shop was a purpose built set in a studio in Teddington, with a studio audience sat on one side (a detail often missing from real bookshops), the exterior was that of a real bookshop: Collinge and Clark, 13 Leigh Street, London, WC 1. I hadn’t walked down that street in years. Time to pay a visit.
I recently read a terrifying fact in the Daily Telegraph: the number of bookshops in the UK has halved since 2006. Halved. As someone who has written sitcom set in a bookshop, and who makes a lot of his living from things sold in bookshops, I’m very attached to the places. Not just little musty ones, but great big ones too. In 2003 we wrote an episode guest starring Simon Pegg as the manager of a super–efficient book retailer, clearly modelled on Borders, which opened right next door to Black Books. Back then, that’s what the future looked like. In 2011 Borders is no more. Was it realistic to hope that Collinge and Clark would survive?
There it was. Still, an’ antiquarian’ bookseller. One glance at the window display reassured me that yes, that just meant second hand. Behind a desk, underneath wood covered walls remarkably similar to the ones we had on the set, a man sat doing nothing in particular except wearing glasses. I tried to enter the shop: the door was locked. Oh well, I thought, and carried on down the road.
Seconds later the man peeped out of the door.
– Oh, you are open then? I said.
– Well, yes…
It was like I had just asked him an open-ended philosophical question.
– You sound unsure, I said.
He pondered for a couple of seconds, then decided.
– Okay, yeah. We are open.
Suspecting by this time that he really didn’t want me there, I went round the corner to Judd Books where the door was definitively 100% open. However, I left Leigh Street greatly heartened. Not only had Collinge and Clark made it into 2011, but they were still carrying on in a highly Black Books way, locking customers out in the middle of a working Monday. Maybe that’s the way bookshops will survive. How can you close down what does not open?
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If you want to visit this great little bookshop, hopefully when it’s open, here’s a link for more information: