The Week in Comedy: Damn the Torpedoes! is a unique kind of war comedy


War? What is it good for? Absolutely nothing. Although I suppose you could say that it has inspired a fine seam of sitcoms down the decades. Some of the finest - from the enduring daftness of Dad’s Army to the wisecracking M*A*S*H, to the best war comedy ever written, the peerless, poignant Blackadder Goes Forth.

Last year BBC launched its comic take on recent conflict with Bluestone 42, a sitcom about a British bomb disposal unit in Afghanistan, described as The Hurt Locker meets Miranda (its shares writers with the latter). It has just been re-commissioned for a third series, which will now presumably run online.

In the meantime, a different kind of war comedy launched this week. Damn the Torpedoes! is unique on various fronts. It’s a sketch show entirely dedicated to life in the military. It’s on the radio, not the BBC, but BFBS, the British Forces Broadcasting Service, which entertains troops on bases around the world from the Brize Norton to Camp Bastion. It is the station’s first sketch show, its first ever comedy commission. And it has been co-written by the people it aims to amuse – the armed forces.

As such the half-hour pilot episode, which aired on Wednesday evening (those who do not live on a military base can listen on DAB Digital Radio, Sky 0211, Freesat 786 or online at featured lots of jokes about helmet hair, field toilets and call signs. There were sketches featuring “holistic combat advisors”, Action Man trying to get leave, answerphone messages from loved ones back home (“Hello darling. Do we have a cat?”) and pastiches of those “Army. Be the Best.” recruitment adverts. Some of the jokes may fly over the head of civvies, but they are not its target audience.

“Military humour is a very specific thing. It can be quite dark, quite self-deprecating. Soldiers like to wind each other up. They use humour to get through their world”, says Nicky Ness, Controller of BFBS. There is a long tradition of stand-ups going to bases to entertain the troops, but this is the first time they have attempted to do it over the airwaves. So far a sketch about tensions between US and UK troops has proved a favourite with listeners.

The show is written by the comedians behind the popular Live from Kirin Island sketch podcast. Its team, all writers for BBC’s Newsjack, are used to working collaboratively; both that show and the podcast invite submissions from new writers as a matter of course. “We wanted to write with the military and make it their show as much as ours”, says Alison Pritchard, who when she isn’t writing sketches, is a civil servant with 20 years’ experience of working at the Ministry of Defence.

Having already put out a call on Facebook and the BFBS website for suggestions for subjects, in time, the hope is that troops will send in their own sketches and even join the team in the writers’ room. For the pilot, the focus was on making the jokes ring with military truth. The sound effects are from the BFBS’ own archive which was rescued from a skip by an employee at the station before Christmas. On the day of the recording, Simon Midgeley, a retired marine officer was on hand to pick up on incorrect vernacular. 

There were “compliance challenges” to overcome, too. “We knew that military had a dark, gallows, sense of humour, but we also needed to be conscious of the fact that the channel is funded by the Ministry of Defence. We had to get rid of one sketch about a suicide bomber’s annual appraisal and another one about the Ryan Air Force, which was potentially litigious”, says Pritchard.  “We’ve stayed on the safe side but we will push the boundaries. We’re trying to find a balance between sophistication and bold and brassy.” There is just one thing that remains rather more Radio 4 than 45 Commando, for now. “There’s no swearing – we don’t want to take it down the explicit route.”

Paxman at Edinburgh

Jeremy Paxman is to have a one-man show at this summer’s Edinburgh Fringe. He is not the first to swap PMQs for punchlines; Independent correspondent Steve Richards has been selling out his Rock N Roll Politics show at the Fringe for a few years now. Paxo will apparently feature the broadcaster’s musings on beards, pants and the human condition and will also offer the audience a chance to grill the griller. Sounds great, but I hope some entrepreneurial promoter also persuades him to front a Fringe version of Newsnight, after hours. His encounter with Russell Brand was memorable, to say the least, and there are all manner of other comedy figures I would pay to see Paxman go a few rounds with in August. Jim Davidson, headliner at the Assembly Hall for the entire month, would be an excellent place to start. 

What I Watched…

Roisin Conaty

I’m a big fan of Conaty’s down-to-earth comedy. This week Channel 4 released a series of shorts (inexplicably named “Blaps”) online in which she plays a chaotic 30-year old trying to get her life back on track. The full pilot, GameFace, screens on TV next week. She was good on Have I Got News For You, too.

The Trip

The new BBC series lacks the brooding Lakes landscape of the first and there’s more showboating from Rob Brydon than before, but Steve Coogan is becoming a deliciously grumpy old man.

Smack the Pony

On London Live. I had almost forgotten how brilliant this 1999 sketch show was. No wonder there hasn’t been a good female sketch show on TV in years; Sally Phillips and co are tough to top.

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