Pete and Dud – The Lost Tapes

Monday, December 26, 2005 by

Sometimes, giving a little context to repeats of old television shows can be a very useful thing. Whether it comes in the form of an accompanying documentary, a recorded introduction by the writer or an acknowledged expert in the genre, or even just a couple of comments by the continuity announcer to explain the contemporaneous references in an old episode of Drop the Dead Donkey, this practice has the dual benefit of providing the casual viewer with a conceptual backdrop for the programme, and more interested parties with a handful of little-known facts and a couple of opinions they can agree or disagree with at their leisure.

More recently, however, the trend has been towards giving old shows “context” in the sense of hamfistedly remolding them into something that modern audiences will be more used to. Dubious references and lines of dialogue are excised, ugly new animated titles and equally ugly new dance music stings are pasted on at the slightest hint of an opportunity, celebrity talking heads are shoehorned in wherever possible, key events are “recreated” using slightly-out-of-focus lookalikes, and – worst of all – old videotaped material is often now put through a modern day “film look” visual filter, giving it a distractingly unnatural sheen. The irony of all this is that it is highly unlikely many more viewers would watch any such shows in their “improved” modified state than before. No matter what has been done to it, in the eyes of the average viewer it remains an archive repeat, and they’re either going to be interested in it or they aren’t.

Although their material is surprisingly rarely seen for such major figures in small screen comedy, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s old shows have been subjected to both extremes of the experience. The BBC’s 1990 compilation series The Best of What’s Left of Not Only … But Also … did an impressive job with a patchy archive of varied remnants from what were often sprawling original sketch shows, bringing in the duo themselves to assist with the selection of material and also record a couple of new context-setting comic dialogues. ITV’s more recent South Bank Show special on their short lived ITV series Goodbye Again (billed as a “lost” and “recently rediscovered” show, despite the fact they had always been present and correct in the archives and in fact had often been plundered for clips), on the other hand, presented a scattered handful of extracts in a frustratingly segmented fashion, interspersed with hefty chunks of interviews with the likes of Rob Brydon and Billy Connolly. The conversations, which seemed perfectly reasonable and watchable in their own right, simply came across as an unwelcome irritation in this format, whereas the actual footage from the shows was too sparse and disjointed to give any real flavour of what they were like.

Even less frequently glimpsed than their work for ITV and the BBC are a series of specials Cook and Moore made for Australian television in 1971. Two of these, essentially continuations of Not Only … But Also … in all but name, were aired by the BBC in the early 1970s. The third – a two-part television presentation of their experimental and darkly-themed stage show “Behind the Fridge” shot in November – was never picked up for broadcast in Britain, presumably partly because it was made in black and white, although the BBC would go on to mount their own presentation of the show in 1974. All but forgotten by most of the duo’s fans, and warranting little more than a footnote even in Mark Lewisohn’s exhaustive Radio Times Guide to TV Comedy, the resultant tapes had languished in some rarely-consulted corner of an Australian television archive until now.

The fact that Pete and Dud – The Lost Tapes was not only a cut-down collection of highlights from the original television presentation (which effectively ran to twice the length of this new special) but also produced by More4, whose parent channel is arguably the worst offender in terms of the pointless butchery of archive material, is enough to set alarm bells ringing in most minds. For once, though, such suspicion proved to be utterly groundless; the footage itself appeared in its original monochrome videotaped form, and the contextualising was limited to a simple explanatory caption card at the start and a couple of equally effective extracts from an Australian television news report covering their contemporaneous tour of the country. Most viewers could probably have happily gone without the gimmicky computer-animated title sequence, which inevitably came with its own characterless techno backdrop (musically about as far removed from The Dudley Moore Trio as it’s possible to get), but as this only lasted for a couple of seconds it was hardly much of an intrusion, and in all fairness probably represents the acceptable face of reconfiguration for modern audiences.

Despite having been edited down from a much longer recording, Pete and Dud – The Lost Tapes was no “greatest hits” package and managed to live up to the implications of its title in impressive style. Most fans have never really known the majority of the featured sketches in anything other than prĂ©cis form on the printed page. There are of course the expected Pete and Dud dialogues and closing performance of “Goodbyee”, but the other sketches are often infused with a sense of downright strangeness. An item on “speech impediments” sees Dudley indulge in rambling free-form mispronunciations that far exceed any of Ronnie Barker’s language-twisting, and the familiar “it’s not a baby, it’s a balloon” quickie is performed entirely in cod French and period costume. Even the more traditional sketches flirt with some very downbeat themes, especially in an extended encounter between a pompous barrister and a gay male cleaner sent in place of regular home help Mrs Higgins (“Would you mind not sitting on my briefs?”), but these are invariably played in a strongly comic manner and it is interesting to compare this with more contemporary equivalents who revel in underplayed naturalism and all too often wear their “darkness” like some sort of comic badge of honour in its own right. Sadly, the notoriously sinister “Taxi Driver” sketch was not included (although this was featured in the BBC version of Behind the Fridge), but there is more than enough in these little-known sketches to give some flavour of what a heady mix of broad comedy and unsettling subject matter the original stage show must have been.

Pete and Dud – The Lost Tapes, aside from being a hugely enjoyable collection of what was to all intents and purposes “new” material from a couple of comedy legends, was a perfect example of how this sort of broadcasting venture should be approached: vintage television given a slight presentational tweak for the benefit of modern audiences, as opposed to vintage television dressed up to superficially resemble modern television. It’s also significant to see black and white material broadcast at a peak hour, even on a minority channel like More4. There are of course countless more “lost tapes” out there in various television archives, not just comedy shows but news, drama, documentary, children’s programming and everything else besides, and much of it is doubtless equally worth dusting down and sprucing up with the odd introductory caption or accompanying interview footage. There’s so much more behind the fridge than just Behind the Fridge.


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