Lenny Henry in Pieces/French & Saunders

Friday, March 29, 2002 by

It’s Friday night. It’s Good Friday. Common sense would dictate that BBC1 would be pulling out (almost) all the stops to satisfy a larger audience than usual. Yet mere words cannot adequately convey just how truly bad Lenny Henry in Pieces and French & Saunders were; this combination plumbed the depths of mediocrity to a degree never before witnessed on peak time television. This was a savage indictment of the BBC. In the company of three friends I sat mesmerised for just over an hour not laughing once. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, it did. Again and again and again.

Evidently, quality control is beyond the Beeb. Or is it a case of keeping the talent happy. I refuse to believe that no one, prior to the Lenny Henry show going out, actually had the courage to voice his or her concerns and say, “Lenny – this sucks.” Not only does it suck, but it sucks majorly. A procession of deeply unfunny sketches with no single redeeming factor whatsoever; one has to seriously ask what kind of a hold Lenny has over the Corporation. It is a frankly staggering thought to imagine a roomful of executives, high on champagne and whatever, slapping each others’ backs excitedly after previewing this, imagining the viewing public loving it. This was not merely spectacularly unfunny, it was monumentally embarrassing. Once upon a long ago, Master Henry had potential and not a little talent. Like the condensed milk he was last genuinely funny with, both have long since evaporated.

It’s hard to pin down a single sketch that was the worst. The loud doctor from Leicester bordered on the criminally unfunny as did the hairdresser fondly playing the race card. Also, the tramp in a doorway deserved (figuratively speaking) to be set alight. But if there was one overlong sketch that neatly encapsulated this dog’s dinner of a show, it was the silent sketch featuring the two bellhops and their misadventures with a guest’s cat. On and on it ran, one predictable and gut wrenchingly unfunny scene after another. This was the stuff of sixth form revues the land over but without the juvenile laughs or cheeky chutzpah.

Not only were the sketches unfunny but the characters were too. There was not one single character here that would have made it onto The Fast Show. Perhaps given the unadulterated awfulness of Smack the Pony and Big Train, Lenny’s show deserves to be damned with faint praise but, if the truth be told, this was just another anodyne collection of self-indulgently witless observations from yet another comic who isn’t half as funny as he’d like to think he is. Going back to the issue of quality control I’ve noticed that various television critics have, when trying to justify this putrid, rotting mass of corpsing, added the caveat of “he’s much better on his current stand up tour.” Jesus, he couldn’t possibly be any worse. If he maintained this standard live on stage then he’d be run out of every town with an angry mob chasing him. For a man allegedly rooted in the club circuit he shows no outward sign of arresting this sad and seemingly terminal decline. Forget the seaside theatres, Lenworth, and reassess your entire act while there is still time.

Mind you, he can hardly look to the wife for advice. The French & Saunders effort was as uninspiring and unfunny as that which preceded it. There is a classic difference between thinking that you’re funny and actually being funny. It is plainly clear on which side of that particular dichotomy Jennifer and Dawn lie. The whole Lord of the Rings thing was, like before, redolent of sixth form humour – blatantly unfunny. What might have worked as a two minute, one-off sketch was stretched to last two thirds of the show and – well – it showed. Sandwiched between the various Ring skits were some of the worst examples of sketches seen in recent years. Once again, the words “quality control” kept springing to mind.

Lazy writers will make much of the relative success of French and Saunders in recent years and claim that there’s, perhaps, a lack of status – “starwise” – between them. Well, you won’t get that charge from me – I thought that both Absolutely Fabulous and The Vicar of Dibley were utter mince, so as far as I’m concerned they’re both as bad as each other. This was another slice of self indulgent TV that would appeal only to the most die-hard of fans.

I’m not expecting incisive social comment or witty, urbane satire. When I see a comedy programme advertised I expect to laugh at the very least but this was utterly execrable. The only thing that could be said was for the sterling consistency twixt both shows – they were equally appalling. There was an incestuous, smug air that permeated both programmes (and, if truth be told, everything that these three come up with) and I truly hope that some semblance of reality check can be input to the comedic processes, so that we never have to sit through crap like this again.


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