Geoffrey Perkins, RIP

Saturday, August 30, 2008 by

Geoffrey Perkins (centre) with Simon Jones and Geoffrey McGivern in 2005

Geoffrey Perkins (centre) with Simon Jones and Geoffrey McGivern in 2005

A car accident has robbed British television of one of its most ubiquitous masterminds of comedy.

Geoffrey Perkins had been busy pulling strings and smoothing feathers right up to his death, helping nurse shows such as Harry and Paul, Benidorm and Lenny Henry In Pieces onto screen. He had worked at Tiger Aspect Productions since 2001, helping to sustain that company’s profile as dependable and slick suppliers of bankable entertainment.

But it was his earlier, long association with the BBC that made his reputation.

Viewers with a keen eye came to expect his name to adorn the credits of shows that won the Corporation both commercial acclaim and critical regard – a rare double achievement, and one compounded by Perkins’s earlier forays in front of the camera as comic performer.

His nearest equivalent, in terms of career trajectory, was David Hatch. Both were Oxbridge students who dabbled in undergraduate revue that caught the eye of BBC scouts and ended up on national radio, in the process turning both protagonists into Beeb management material.

Their paths crossed when Hatch, in his guise as head of BBC Radio Light Entertainment, headhunted Perkins to work in his department, assigning him I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue (Perkins dreaming up the game Mornington Crescent) and The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, perhaps the two most influential radio comedy series of the last 40 years.

Perkins initially seemed reluctant to abandon his roots as a performer. Hatch generously commissioned Radio Active, a version of the revue which Perkins had helped devise. It ran for seven series, later mutating into KYTV on BBC2. Perkins wrote and performed throughout, his character – the knowingly appallingly-named Mike Flex – lampooning clueless anchormen through tactless links, amateurish presentation and embarrassing encounters with the public.

A move into television production, though, eventually consigned Perkins more or less permanently to the office; but Mike Flex fans’ loss was undoubtedly the wider world’s gain.

During the 1980s he oversaw a roster of shows that defined that decade’s alternative comedy: Spitting Image, Saturday Live, Friday Night Live, Ben Elton: The Man From Auntie and various Harry Enfield series, along the way writing material for people as diverse as impressionist Karen Kay, Smith and Jones, and Maureen Lipman.

He became a director of Hat Trick Productions, the company that appeared almost single-handedly responsible for every cutting edge comedy show that emerged in the late ’80s/early ’90s. For every Father Ted, however, there was a Game On: evidence that Perkins seemed content to nurture the enchantingly bizarre and the thunderously predictable.

In 1995 Perkins was appointed the Beeb’s head of comedy, one of the more well-judged decisions of the John Birt era. He presided over a rum era in terms of established hits – The Fast Show, The Thin Blue Line, One Foot in the Grave – but his track record in terms of new mainstream shows was more inconsistent.

Misfires included Bloomin’ Marvellous, starring Clive Mantle and Sarah Lancashire as unlikable thirtysomethings trying for a child; A Perfect State, charting the attempt of fictional coastal town Flatby-On-The Bog (a more avowedly sitcom-tinged name you’d be hard to muster) to declare independence and featuring a deeply irksome turn from Gwen Taylor; Keeping Mum, an adaptation of Australian sitcom Mother and Son, with Stephanie Cole demanding her son remain at home to look after her (though it won Perkins brownie points from Birt for being the first ever digital and widescreen studio comedy); and the horrendous Operation Good Guys, which Perkins even deigned to grace with a cameo.

Better were his more quirky, BBC2 efforts, such as Big Train, How Do You Want Me?, Happiness and World of Pub. Coupling and Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps turned into long-running, if joyless, hits; as did BBC1 offerings My Family (now almost 10 years old) and My Hero. An adaptation of Adrian Mole: The Cappucino Years failed to live up to the hype; ditto Johnny Vaughan’s aptly-named ‘Orrible.

When he left the BBC in 2001, Perkins indulged in the obligatory side-swipe at the Corporation’s fondness for red tape over raw talent. “Unfortunately, the term sitcom implies a great disdain,” he insisted, with reference to the culture of Television Centre. “People say it with a curl of their lips.”

His move to Tiger Aspect was intended, as he saw it, to renew his acquaintance with the shopfloor and dodge bureaucracy. It kept his name attached to a number of BBC series, most pertinently The Vicar of Dibley and The Catherine Tate Show, while allowing him – with mixed results – to push for the return of comedy to ITV.

Death at the cruelly early age of 55 has denied Geoffrey Perkins the chance to breed another next generation of comedy hits, and denied us all the opportunity to benefit from his astonishing breadth of wit and experience.

His legacy, though, will live on as long as people are able to laugh, which will be forever.


3 Responses to “Geoffrey Perkins, RIP”

  1. Jeff Atkinson on August 31st, 2008 12:00 am

    I’ve been reading along for a while now. I just wanted to drop you a comment to say keep up the good work.

  2. Simon Underwood on August 31st, 2008 1:46 pm

    This is tragic. Whilst I didn’t enjoy every show he commissioned or had a hand in (though I disagree with one comment in your article – I derived great joy from Coupling right to the end of the series) I was a huge fan of KYTV when it was first broadcast – I must have been around 11 or 12. I loved the character of Mike Flex – I even quote him to this day – and also Geoffrey’s Swedish character Ivan Vondstrum (?!?) who popped up from time to time. From then on I always recognised his name on the credits of shows, and one of my favourite Father Ted scenes to this day is his voiceover for the Cuban Father Hernandez “No?” (“No.”)

    This is very sad news.

  3. Clinton Morgan on September 1st, 2008 4:07 pm

    Very sad news indeed. What a waste of a decent life. My first exposure to him that I was aware of was on Radio Active. If I was a person branching out into comedy television programming and I found out that Geoffrey Perkins was on board I would indeed consider that a great honour. Although not all of the programmes associated with him were of the quality of Father Ted and One Foot In The Grave. It is interesting to see him at work on the DVD extras for The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy.