“Oh Christ, I’ve Left the Iron on!”

Ian Jones on A Bit of Fry and Laurie

First published February 2000

The most innovative and consistently funny British sketch-based comedy series of the last 15 years is also one that is inexplicably only ever repeated at late nights on cable channels: BBC’s A Bit of Fry and Laurie (1986 – 1995).

After a one off Boxing Day night special in 1986, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie secured their first, self-penned, self-performed series on BBC2 three years later and right from the start this was highly distinctive TV: astute, intelligent and cerebral sketches forwarding a delightful preponderance for cunning wordplay, linguistic acrobatics and fooling around with syntax and sentence construction (“Tonight I’m going to be talking about the beauty of ideas, and the idea of beauty …”) But crucially these ventures into dense, literary dialogue were never clever-clever or highbrow just for the sake of it as any hint of self-indulgence was always countered with physical buffoonery, exaggerated mannerisms and jokes made at the expense of how words sounded (“Pimhole!”).

The first series introduced several recurring characters, such as the ultra-bland fool of a MI5 agent Tony Mercheson and his equally bland, facile and fervently patriotic boss Control; and the exploits of two clichéd 1980s yuppie types, John and Peter, who had an propensity for mild swearwords (conversing mostly in strangled yelps of “dammit!”), a fear of business rival Marjorie and a love of making money, even out of cleaning service station toilets. These exercises in protracted character studies contrasted with one-off sketches centred mostly on rather conventional styled confrontations between two people in opposing positions of power and authority: in offices, between shop salesman and customer, schoolboy and teacher, and so on.

There was never a large budget to work with, but this was used to the duo’s advantage, giving rise to stunts like Hugh’s interview with “Michael Jackson” (who turned out to be Stephen, dressed normally, insisting he was Jacko by doing the moonwalk pacing on a treadmill).

One feature common to all series was the spoof vox pop, used to link between sketches and set-pieces. Done on film, usually recorded in a typically anonymous provincial high street, the pair fired off often meaningless and arch responses to unheard questions, parodying the kind of inane banter and stupidity of man-in-the-street statements typical to news and current affairs reportage: “They’ll be saying Hitler’s a racist next” … “What do I think of John Major’s leadership? I’d welcome it!” … “Bring back hanging I say – these tumble-dryers are useless” … “Sorry I can’t stop – my wife’s just been towed away” … “No, you can’t lick the system; but you can give it a damn good fondling” … and so on. These continued right through the series, were always memorably amusing and predated the similar spoof-style vox pops of programmes like The Day Today by half a decade.

The second series (1990) was more consistent, fully-rounded and in my opinion the best collection. Each episode began with Stephen and Hugh “arriving” at the BBC and marching into their studio set, a mock-up living room surrounded by kitsch artefacts and bizarre suburban utilities, to address the audience directly. Every week this entrance was exploited for comic value the duo arriving with a large roll of carpet (when the show was sponsored by “Tidyman’s Carpets”), or wearing gags (in protest at the Beeb banning their use of swearwords – “the bastards!”), or for Stephen to lecture the audience on the ills of Thatcher and, as a rejoinder to those who complained of alternative comedians knocking the PM without any constructive ideas of what to put in her place, producing a wire coathanger.

>Other regular features included musical numbers (usually solo Hugh); effective spoofs of existing TV shows such as Countdown and A Question of Sport; the occasional special guest – Paul Eddington in series two, demonstrating his “immaculate timing”; and extended mini-horror stories or pastiche dramas, such as The Red Hat Of Patferrick, hosted by Gelliant Guttfripe.

The TV chat show format was also mocked, foreshadowing the Alan Partridge/Mrs Merton genre by several years: ridiculous premises for interviews ranged from “Trying To Borrow A Fiver Off …”, “Realizing I’ve Given The Wrong Directions To …”, “Photocopying My Genitals With …” and, most memorably, “Flying A Light Aeroplane Without Having Had Any Formal Instruction With …” Viewers ostensible complaints were tackled in “We’ve Had Lots Of Letters”. There were also short monologue inserts done out of character, though some (Stephen’s “I’ll never forget the time when I lost my legs”) more successful than others (Hugh’s overlong one-joke narratives on past girlfriends, and angling).

The third series (1992) jettisoned all the recurring characters, had a larger budget, and though often incredibly funny would sometime seem a little forced, contrived, and rely more on spoofs of other genres rather than wholly original material. The number of special guests increased, but often to appear just to ridicule themselves (Gary Davies introducing faux-heavy metal combo The Bishop And The Warlord in a mock TOTP studio, “… now it’s time to crank it up and really boogie to some back to back beats, let’s have ourselves a rockin’ good time – give me at least five!”)

But the dialogue based material continued to be just as good, Hugh’s encounter with seedy, over-the-top camp debonair Simbold Cleobury (played, of course, by Stephen) one classic example (“It’s called a Moroccan sunrise, and believe me, it has caused many a son of Morocco to rise!”)

An enduring characteristic of such two-handed sketches was the way the punchline or final twist would be subverted by further twists and multiple dénouements. One case is a sketch set at an AA meeting, which begins with Hugh asking various people to share recent admissions of confessions on drinking – all very normal, and straight-faced. Then he turns to Stephen’s character, who suddenly announces blithely he’s having major problems with the starter motor on his car. This AA/AA pun is amusing in itself, but the humour is compounded by Hugh’s casual acceptance of the mix-up (“Well – have you tried putting it into first gear and rocking it backwards and forwards?”), reassurance (“Well, we’ll get someone sent out to you as soon as possible”) and finally, the last, best, twist in the tail, Hugh’s payoff line (“Fancy a drink while you’re waiting?”)

Both series three and four ended with Stephen demonstrating a cocktail recipe while Hugh, on the order “Please Mr Music, will you play,” weaved “a dizzying jazz pattern of sound” on the piano. Series four (1995) was screened a couple of weeks after Stephen’s much-publicised disappearance after walking out of the West End play Cell Mates, only to ultimately surface in Belgium. You couldn’t help watch this series without looking for clues and evidence to Fry’s behaviour and alleged depression. It did seem a more downbeat, cynical run of episodes and though the same style of humour and sketches persisted, something wasn’t working. Additionally, Hugh was increasingly relegated to straight man, Stephen upstaging him with the lion’s share of the jokes.

It was unfortunate that this last series was also premiered on BBC1 – the programme somehow didn’t feel right on a mainstream channel. To date there have been no series, and only brief reunions for Comic Relief and the millennium one-off Blackadder: Back and Forth. It’s a big shame, but even more pitiful is that the BBC have not bothered to repeat any of the series at all since 1995. This comedy is still endearing and gave rise to a level of quoting in school classrooms and conversation long before the tranche of Fast Show/The Day Today-esque catchphrases took hold.

And if you’ve enjoyed this review, you might like to know the BBC are bringing out some special commemorative oven gloves, in the shape of special commemorative oven gloves.