Have they got news for you]: The News Huddlines is an old joke where the punchlines have hardly changed in 18 years. Thank Hudd for that, says Richard North

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
If you did go to see a recording of the show, you'd probably find you were the only person there with their own teeth and hair,' says D A Barham, one of the writers of The News Huddlines.

Barham is 20 and was thus a babe- in-arms when Roy Hudd launched his weekly programme on Radio 2 18 years ago. This week, this aural temple to what another of its writers calls 'good honest vulgarity' starts a new season and celebrates its displacement of the Navy Lark as the longest running comedy series made in front of a live - if elderly - audience.

Deborah (she uses the initials because she thinks comedy writers cut more mustard if people think they're blokes) is a slight, spikey sort of woman. Shy to a degree, she was working in a Sheffield greengrocers' and living with her mum and dad when she first decided that she would send in a few one-liners to the BBC Radio Light Entertainment department. They took, and she soon joined what has been a long roster of people, including Andy Hamilton (Drop the Dead Donkey) and David Renwick (One Foot in the Grave), who cut their teeth on the show. She now has a flat and a mobile phone in London, so the chances are that she will sooner or later transmogrify into a writer for television. That seems to be the standard trajectory.

For now, though, she splits her time between Huddlines and Radio 4's Week Ending, as does the Huddlines' most enduring performer (apart from Hudd himself), the comedy actor Chris Emmett. It seems strange that the shows share talent; they could not be more different. If Week Ending seems to have strong elements of university revue, Huddlines is almost pure end-of- the-pier stuff. Huddlines seems a richly improbable stablemate of upmarket, satirical comedy. It is not in the image of most modern comedy: it is not bitter, right-on, superior or clever-assed. How could it be, on Radio 2?

'I suppose the big difference,' says Hudd, 'is that we play in front of an audience and play for laughs.' This point is reinforced by Andy Hamilton, who says that whereas an earlier generation of comics had to work the room, 'now we have performers who have honed their comedy for the television camera, which is a much cooler exchange. That accounts for their cockiness.' You don't charm a camera, you challenge it.

There is a little more to it than that. A lot of modern comedy depends on a cult of the charmless and the uncharmable. The bright young comedians must at all costs seem hard-bitten, for fear of seeming sentimental or - worse - coddable. Somewhere along the line, comedy's necessary dissidence and anarchism has forgotten that a comic has in some degree to love his targets. The moderns have also been cursed by Political Correctness. This has produced a paradox: the right-on comics have a doctrine of respecting minorities and yet seem mean-spirited; the Huddlines sends everybody up rotten with special attention paid to their race, creed and gender, and yet remains affectionate.

The Huddlines style of comedy is wholly un-PC. Barham had something of a shock when she started writing for the show: 'I set out never to make gags about gays and so on: but you end up doing it.' On the Huddlines, the Japanese and the Germans remain fair game, deliciously perpetuating the ridiculous war-comic images a generation, now middle-aged, so enjoyed at school. All theatrical agents are Jewish ('Well, Jew-ish,' as Hudd has it). Until recently, there was a Huddlines character called Davenport, a West Indian. 'We can't do him now, and that's a great pity,' says Hudd. The new sensitivity came from the management. 'The audience never complained, and the West Indians round here liked him. Still, he became impossible, I'm afraid.' Otherwise, the Huddlines is completely unreconstructed, as likely to upset liberal sensibilities as new comedy is to outrage conservative ones.

The show is thrown together at immense speed. Scripts are written from Monday to Thursday, which is recording day. They are pulled together as a small crew of contracted writers pitch in jokes and sketches, which are augmented by offerings from an army of hopefuls. The actors see the script at 10am, do a run-through, and face the Paris Theatre audience in Lower Regent Street at 1pm. The result is a mixture of high polish and breathless, occasionally hysterical spontaneity.

'We stick to a good old variety and concert-party format,' says Hudd. 'I come on with a bang-bang-bang monologue and then we do sketches and end with a song.' Yet, oddly enough, Huddlines carries strong satire easily. It portrays Michael Portillo as a Rottweiler. It has for years portrayed Prince Edward as a theatrical queen. The show has Neil Kinnock as a nonsensical windbag henpecked by his shrewish wife. (Hudd, a hopeless old Lefty, admires Kinnock tremendously, and has kept him in the show with a perverse indifference to the former Labour leader's present political redundancy.) Kenneth Clarke is a drunken lager lout. And yet Huddlines avoids the snide pitfalls of modern satire by appearing to have only a comic-book grip on reality.

Indeed Huddlines evokes the latter- day rather than the present-day. Its points of reference are not merely older comedy styles, but actual performances and performers that its audience knows and loves. Take the only woman among the trio of performers. June Whitfield has been in the show for 10 years and is the latest in an impressive set of female character actresses, including Alison Steadman at one point, who have had to stand in for the entire female gender on Huddlines. Whitfield not merely re-creates long- gone comic voices, she can do so because hers is one of the originals. An older audience knows exactly how funny it is to hear her play Norma Major as a reincarnation of Whitfield's Eth from the Glum family out of the classic radio comedy, Take It from Here.

June Whitfield remains the very personification of a Radio 2 world in which people are polite, refined and passionless. No smut could conceivably pass Whitfield's lips. Even in real life, Roy Hudd and the team are forever scheming to sneak serious filth past her scrutiny. They often shock her with their enthusiasm for farts, curries and private parts. 'Oh, they will have their vindaloo jokes,' she says. 'I don't find them very exciting, myself.' But the prurience delightfully rocks on, notwithstanding.

'Almost everything we do is projected through the prism of a great tradition,' says Jonathan James-Moore, who runs all the BBC's radio comedy output and is in the curious position of being the guardian of a tradition while having to drive everybody - audiences and performers alike - into comedy realms as yet unexplored.

Those of us who choke on the modern snide-and-bilious joke have to accept that James-Moore would be failing if the comics who are a hit in the clubs and pubs did not find their way on to radio. But comedy's shifts and changes will never be as revolutionary as each new wave thinks. Old hands always see the precursors in what each generation thinks is mould-breaking stuff. I was railing on about Ben Elton's fit-to-bust outrage, when Roy Hudd said how much Elton's style reminded him of Max Miller, who had the same eye-popping, up-and-at-'em approach. Roy Hudd sees Julian Clary carrying on the tradition of the great effeminate, Larry Grayson (though the latter would presumably barely recognise Cleary's notorious fantasy encounter with Norman Lamont as a joke at all).

It comes to this. Radio 4 offers, and the educated classes feel obliged to suffer, a barrage of comedy which is often bad-tempered and designed to offend. The audience takes its discomfort to be the price it pays for being liberal and open-minded. Over on Radio 2, people turn on comedy for an unaffected laugh, so a happy band of Huddlines eccentrics punch out a hilarious, hard-hitting show of outrageous smuttiness and satire and it is lapped up joyfully by an audience which never feels that the show's - or its own - innocence is in question.

It's a case of double-standards of course. Radio 4's dissidents aren't dissident, and Radio 2's innocents aren't innocent. Both brands of comedy are distinctively British, both are rooted in tradition, both can be funny. But I know which I'd rather switch on.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments