Preview: The street of the stars
Keith Richard and Mick Jagger are back rubbing shoulders for a second series of `Stella Street'
Saturday 17 October 1998
Almost a year after our original visit, we're back for a second series of Stella Street, the endearingly daft comedy boulevard in Surbiton where Hollywood celebs live cheek-by-jowl with dull suburban cleaners and gardeners. The show, broadcast in bite-sized 15-minute segments over the next 10 weeks on BBC2, plays on the absurdity of megastars experiencing the same daily domestic setbacks as mere mortals. Thus Jack Nicholson has problems with the wiring by the local electrician; Joe Pesci tries to set up a new business as a homeopath and psychotherapist; and Mick Jagger worries about his shop being taken over by The Beatles.
It is this incongruity which first appealed to John Sessions. Between them, he and his collaborator Phil Cornwell play 35 characters over the course of the series. "The ghastliness of the normal people in Stella Street helps increase the absurdity of the idea of celebs living next door to them," reckons Sessions during one of the many breaks to change character make-up.
"People like the incongruity of it all. They say, `It's great to see celebs getting it'."
But, he claims, the show does not take the mick out of Mick and company. "It's very affectionate. We love these people. The characters tend to be very sweet. They make themselves Cupasoups and go and get Bird's Custard from the shop. They all stick up for each other. When David Bowie decides to become a stand-up on a `Laughing Man' tour, everybody shows up to support it."
The impersonations are deliberately more caricatures than photocopies. "We're not as methodical as Rory Bremner," Sessions admits. "We're just trying to get the spirit of people like John Hurt. We're trying to reinvent them, like Harry Enfield did with his Douglas Hurd voice on Spitting Image. Phil does Mick Jagger in a very camp, Kenneth Williamsy kind of way. Mick doesn't actually walk around it tights, but it's spiritually true to him. They work like Viz cartoon characters. When Keith, in real-life, fell off the step-ladder in his library and punctured his lung and broke three ribs, that was just like something out of Stella Street. So we do have some basis in reality."
Cornwell chips in. "Some journalists have said, `Isn't it a bit like Mike Yarwood?' No it isn't. We're not doing a Rory Bremner. We're not in the satire business - we're just doing character work. These people become characters, so it doesn't matter that they're not the best impersonations you've ever seen. That's my excuse, anyway."
To some, the series is an extraordinary feat of sustained high-intensity performance, while, to others, it is an example of top-class showing off. Sessions concedes that "we're always scared of boring the audience, so perhaps we over-compensate with the number of characters we do". For all that, he believes that working with Cornwell and the director, Comic Strip founder Peter Richardson, has in fact "toned down my extreme indulgences - which is a good thing. It would be sad if I hadn't developed from Whose Line Is It Anyway? Now I find three heads are better than one, and you don't get speeches about Wittgenstein thrown in half-way through."
Cornwell also rejects charges of self-indulgence. "I said to John the other day, `You don't think it's too much?' But I don't think it is, because it's only on in tiny little chunks. If you sat down and watched the whole thing, you'd think, `aren't these guys showing off?' But it is very different from anything else on TV at the moment."
Sessions reveals that they have already dreamt up new ideas for a third series. "We'll have to have some crucial change of backdrop, like when they go off to Paris in EastEnders. Perhaps the residents of Stella Street should all go on an outing to Southend."
In the meantime, we still have this series to look forward to. When we spoke, the production team was in negotiation with the real Michael Caine to appear in a grand finale as his own dad walking with Cornwell across Lambeth Bridge.
"I don't want to blow my own trumpet," says Cornwell, "but when the BBC asked Michael Caine about impressionists for his 65th-birthday tribute, he said mine was the best he'd ever seen. Apparently, he's a big fan of the show. If he agreed to appear in Stella Street, that would make my life. I needn't work ever again. I could retire and dine out on that, just boring people stupid with the story."
`Stella Street' is on Friday, BBC2 at 11.15pm
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