Four legs funny? Now you're squawking

It's the first, animal-based comedy sketch show. And Johnny Morris, no less, has given it his seal of approval. Mark Wareham meets the makers of Squawkietalkie
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The Independent Culture
animals are funny, right? You've seen them on Beadle, doing their Beadley things, falling off their perches with helpless Beadlesque mirth. Well now they're branching out from the tedious, not to say limiting home- video market into showbiz proper... After years of walk-on comic roles and bit-parts (Julian Clary's Fanny the Wonderdog, Rigsby's cat Vienna in Rising Damp, the Jack Russell in Frasier, Lucien's rabbits in The Liver Birds, Spit the Dog, and of course Waldo the mynah bird in Twin Peaks), animals have finally been given their own comedy show proper: Squawkietalkie, a series in which animal laughter moves on from the tame titter of the domestic pet to the wild roar of the beast of the jungle. And it's all down to two comedians from Channel 4's Absolutely (not to mention a smidgeon of inspiration from the living embodiment of Dr Doolittle, Johnny Morris).

The story goes like this. Pete Balkie (composer for Reeves and Mortimer) and John Sparkes (Siadwel in Naked Video and a regular on The All New Alexei Sayle Show) are, somewhat predictably, sitting in a pub. Longtime believers in the comic potential of the animal kingdom, they hit on the idea of a quiz show, featuring such rounds as "What Shat That?", in which contestants would be called upon to identify a jar of turd procured from London Zoo. But then they sobered up, realised it was just a pub idea, and instead came up with a variant on The Staggering Stories of Ferdinand de Bargos, the series that pioneered the use of voiceovers laid on top of original and completely unrelated footage to wonderfully surreal effect (de Bargos, a mysterious, shadowy figure would somehow become the man who taught Adolf Hitler how to dance).

Sparkes and Balkie undertook a safari round all the non-BBC sources of natural history footage, subjecting themselves to 2000 hours of wildlife material, watched through the night on fast-forward and, presumably, any available amphetamines. Gradually, they started identifying possible comic characters for the show, relying heavily on penguins and, in particular, insects. Scripts would be written as and when the creatures performed something witty on screen. The idea was to put together a kind of sketch show in which half-a-dozen regular characters would crop up each week, supported by a cast of comic skits. Something like The Fast Show, only with animals.

Balkie, a self-confessed fishspotter, admits to having picked up Johnny Morris's gauntlet and is still reeling from having just received "his blessing" in the form of a letter of approval. Balkie actually met Morris last year but was upset to find him still bitter at the axing of Animal Magic 15 years on. Legend has it that a bunch of boffins did for Morris's show by deeming it wrong to persuade children that animals spoke, but Balkie throws in the contentious theory that the BBC terminated the programme's account because, after 21 years of climbing into cages with gorillas, it was discovered that Morris was not insured, never had been and that the sum involved would in any case be astronomical and hence cost-prohibitive.

Sparkes, too, considers Morris a profound inspiration. "I remember one time he got in with a family of gorillas and was getting on alright with them as he always did, when suddenly this big male gorilla bounces him from behind and Johnny was squashed double on the floor. You thought, `He must be dead, his back's broken', but no, he was smiling away at the kids outside watching the broadcast. A real trouper."

When pushed on the animals in comedy issue, Sparkes reveals some surprising truths as to which species are the comic master race. The lion may lord it over the rest of the jungle at the dining table, but when it comes to telling a great after-dinner gag, he dies. "The big cats just aren't funny," declares Sparkes. "They're too graceful. In fact you're unlikely to find them doing anything remotely comic... Apart from shagging, obviously."

Insects, on the other hand, are the "masters of slapstick". "They do routines that you see Tom and Jerry doing only they're actually alive, so they're throwing themselves through the air and they're having their limbs torn off and they're being eaten alive, yet they still manage to keep a smile on their faces. It's because they've got very primitive nervous systems, so despite being eaten at one end, they can carry on nonchalantly up the other." Consequently, Squawkietalkie features such delights as the Scottish Country Dancing Highland Housefly Fling, a bagpipe-playing crustacean and Constable Beetle of the Yard ("I was proceeding along some dead leaves...").

Sparkes makes a further claim on behalf of insectkind, professing the ladybird to be the most tooled-up species in the entire planet. Forget whales. "We have the most extraordinary shagging shot featuring these two ladybirds, and let me tell you, size for size, the gentleman ladybird, the gentlemanbird I suppose, has the most enormous penis. It's a whopper."

Elsewhere, Squawkie has taken advantage of some classic archive footage of old African explorers to create the hapless adventures of one Sidney Kidneigh, pioneering natural historian. "He was my grandfather," explains Balkie, "and he cycled across Africa in the Twenties and was bitten by every animal he ever filmed." The jungle's very own Clouseau, he is forever cycling into lionesses and triggering stampedes. At one point he has his laundry hoovered up by an elephant and has to wait patiently for the beast to process it.

In making Squawkietalkie, Balkie has clearly learnt his grandfather's lesson. "I'm an armchair naturalist," he declares. "It's safer that way."

Squawkietalkie: 8pm Tue C4