It's a blustery autumn day and in an otherwise tranquil Middlesex suburb three giggling women dressed in full Musketeer regalia – complete with swords, towering wigs, facial hair and ostrich feathers in their caps – are piling into a silver people carrier.
The Perrier-nominated stand-up Sarah Kendall has added a pair of Ray-Ban Wayfarers to her ensemble and is fiddling with her stick-on beard. On the way to the shoot in a park, where they'll attract more than a few bemused glances from the dog walkers and pensioners, Clare Thomson and Barunka O'Shaughnessy are taking photographs of themselves and roaring with laughter at the results. Later this afternoon, Alice Lowe, the fourth member of the gang, will don a blond wig to play Marilyn Monroe attending a staff training session at McDonald's, while Kendall will transform herself into the boyish Hollywood star Ashton Kutcher for a fake YouTube video.
Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of Beehive, E4's first sketch show featuring an all-female quartet of comedy talent. It is the channel's first foray into straight comedy, following its first home-grown sitcom The Inbetweeners (like Skins, but with more laughs) which launched earlier this year. A Tiger Aspect production (like The Catherine Tate Show, The Vicar of Dibley and Harry and Paul), it features much of the same team who were behind cult success The Mighty Boosh.
Like the Boosh's antics, Beehive takes place in a particularly surreal and silly comedy universe – with a wardrobe full of outlandish costumes. One recurring sketch sees all four girls dressing up as the same celebrity and doing something weirdly out of character. It's a comedy double whammy of seeing quadruple and having your expectations of a well-known face subverted. Alongside the "Georges Michael", the "Russells Brand" and the "rural Madonnas", the four Amy Winehouses are shown defusing a bomb. "It was initially meant to be Amy playing mah jong or backing up a truck, but then it sort of got bigger," explains Kendall. "We do that a lot," adds O'Shaughnessy. "Take an ordinary situation and spiral it until it becomes more and more absurd, taking it to its extreme conclusion."
In a similar vein are YouTube clips that feature the girls dressing up as anyone from Prince (explaining the birds and bees) to the Elephant Man (complaining that his housemate has wiped Top Gear from his Sky Plus list). Elsewhere, there are xenophobic "evil air hostesses" from the 1960s, flatulent geisha girls and Marge and Zelda, two back-to-the-future schoolgirl geeks doing experiments in their bedroom.
All in all, it's a lot of dressing up. There were some 54 wigs and 15 beards (not including the George Michael stubble) used in the filming of the five episodes. For one 90-second sketch, Thomson spent three and a half hours in make-up to become the Dalai Lama. "It's like playing every day," admits O'Shaughnessy. "The outfits, the make-up, doing silly voices...."
As well as the two-minute quickfire sketches, each episode is centred around several visits to the four girls apparently hanging out at home in their flat, Young Ones or Goodies-style. Like French and Saunders' "white room" sketches, these episodes have a hyper-real atmosphere where anything can happen. "We've got ongoing narratives for the characters," says Lowe. "There's something to invest in, they have their little stories within the show. And because we're playing ourselves as well, you get to know our characters."
But is there still an audience for sketch shows, a hit and miss medium? Not long ago, Little Britain and Catherine Tate were at their height, but there have been far more high-profile flops, including the BBC's Tittybangbang, Man Stroke Woman and Scallywagger, than successes in the past few years. "A lot of sketch shows are written by a team and then cast, so it depends on the material," says O'Shaughnessy. "The material has to be good in this, but you've got the bonus of us doing it how we imagined doing it. We're writing for ourselves and the performances are always going to be stronger that way. It's got more soul. We've also tried to avoid having the same characters always doing the same things." No catchphrases then? "I'm hoping most of my dialogue will become a ringtone," says Kendall. "Hi, I'm Sarah Kendall. Answer your bloody phone."
The quartet were put together, girl-band style, by the producer Siobhan Rhodes who has previously worked in casting for the Boosh and Little Britain and discovering new talent, including The Daily Show's British export John Oliver. But there's nothing manufactured about the Beehive group: all four have been hard at work earning their comedy spurs for the last decade. Lowe's career took off when she starred in the Perrier-winning Garth Marenghi shows at the Edinburgh Fringe. Since then she has "popped up" in The Mighty Boosh, Little Britain, Rob Brydon's Annually Retentive and Hot Fuzz, and is currently touring with Steve Coogan. Kendall's career was also launched at Edinburgh when, in 2004, the Sydney-born stand-up was the first woman to be nominated for the Perrier for a decade. O'Shaughnessy's big break was doing live sketch comedy in Ealing Live!, which led to roles in Bo' Selecta!. She also writes for School of Comedy, an adult sketch show performed by adolescents, which has just been commissioned for a full series. Finally, Thomson, the "bona fide actress" of the group who trained at L'Ecole Philippe Gaulier (where Sacha Baron Cohen, Sally Phillips and Helena Bonham Carter were also pupils) was spotted by Rhodes while performing her Edinburgh show Hello Dalai!, "a culturally sensitive portrait of Shangri-La..." – and asked to complete the foursome.
Beehive's clearest precedent is Smack the Pony, the all-female sketch show, starring Sally Phillips, Fiona Allen and Doon Mackichan, which ran on Channel 4 in the early Noughties. Beehive's YouTube screen-grabs owe much to that show's online dating profiles and both have the same surreal undercurrents. But where much of Smack the Pony's humour focused on female stereotypes, Beehive seeks a more general, clownish, appeal.
"There are hardly any roles that couldn't be played by men," says Rhodes. "The characters are non-gender-specific in terms of idiocy." The humour is silly, juvenile, "like kids playing", offers Thomson, and has more in common with the warm, playful and affectionate comedy of French and Saunders than much of the darker, clever clever comedy of recent years.
"We all want to avoid the female comedy clichés," says Lowe. Such as? "Well, not being funny, mainly. Or jokes about Tampax. We're not interested in writing comedy from the perspective of being women, we just want to have the freedom to write whatever we want to write."
That said, they all admit that four women starring in their comedy show, dressing up and goofing around is a televisual rarity. "Male writers don't acknowledge that women can be silly," observes O'Shaughnessy. "Sometimes that's fear as well," adds Lowe. "Men think they can't write a woman being stupid or bigoted because it will be politically incorrect. But actually that means you're automatically not funny as well."
"A male friend of mine said: 'You know, watching this I can almost forget you're all women. I just watch it as a sketch show.' That was nice. We're almost just like normal comedians," says O'Shaughnessy. "Wow, imagine that."
'Beehive' starts on E4 tomorrow at 10.30pm. "Beehive is released by 4DVD on 9th February 2009 priced £19.99 "