Television: Funny in retrospect

Two men, one box of props and the entire history of the 20th century: the National Theatre of Brent is back

In Channel 4's new series, Massive Landmarks of the 20th Century, the First World War is re-enacted by, er, two men in military helmets. Welcome to the latest production from the National Theatre of Brent, a two-man troupe that started by performing a two-handed reconstruction of the Charge of the Light Brigade in 1980, and has been thriving on absurdly grandiose projects ever since.

It was the sheer lunacy of two men attempting to act out these "massive landmarks" that first appealed to Patrick Barlow, who plays Desmond Olivier Dingle, the ultra-hammy artistic director of the NToB. With the help of the odd prop, the besuited duo of Dingle and his dimwitted colleague, Raymond Box (John Ramm), play more than 150 characters, in 200 locations, over a six-part series that takes in the death of Queen Victoria, the Russian Revolution, the story of Edward and Mrs Simpson, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the first moon landing, and the Monica Lewinsky affair. Talk about a whistlestop tour.

"It's a good subject for us because we're at out best when we're dealing with events of enormous breadth that are just impossible for two men to cover," says Barlow. "It plays to Desmond's vanity. He's a terrible old ex-entertainer from a Cunard liner who has this vein of pretentiousness that says he can do anything. He's just dying to play all these great characters - Rasputin, Lenin, Kennedy."

In the past, the NToB have tackled such major events as the Zulu Wars, the Indian Mutiny and the French Revolution. Barlow's interest in these epic events stems from his childhood. "I was brought up reciting Tennyson's Charge of the Light Brigade and drawing pictures of battles. I saw Charlton Heston's The Ten Commandments 15 times and became obsessed with wearing togas. My mother had to run up endless Roman outfits. I had a great interest in stories I could never raise the money to perform. So this is my way of doing it."

What the NToB do best is to undermine the cliches that infect so much of history. "We reduce the epic to the level of the mundane," Barlow explains. In the first episode, when Queen Victoria says, "The next century coming up will be a treat," a newspaper vendor immediately cries out: "Read all about it. Absolutely nothing to worry about. Victorian epoch here to stay. Everyone knows their place." But the Queen suddenly dies, and a wind of change howls in through her bedroom window, blowing her wig clean off. So then the vendor pipes up: "Extra, extra, world in turmoil. No one knows where they are any more."

Rick Stroud, the director of the programme, reckons that there is a serious point behind the buffoonery. "There's one moment in the episode about the Cuban Missile Crisis where Patrick is playing a guard at the Kremlin. The world is teetering on the brink of destruction, and Patrick's character asks John (as Khruschev) if he can go home. Suddenly they have achieved a sense of ordinary life going on against the background of great events. In all this surreal comedy, you see how self-absorbed powerful people can become and how they don't give a damn about the man in the street."

Barlow chips in. "History is a succession of people fighting personal dramas. Leaders are always doing things to save their own skins or get rid of internal demons. Look at Episode One, where, after Queen Victoria's death, the bickering of her family leads to a massive war. The madness of monarchs can cause immense global suffering."

Stroud continues: "One of the clear themes of the series is the arrogance of power. But," he adds hastily, "treated in a light way."

It is certainly a relief to watch a comic review of the last 100 years, after the slew of ponderously earnest ones viewers have had to wade through recently. "I'm already sickof all the round-ups of the century in the papers and on television," sighs Jane Fallon, the producer of Massive Landmarks of the 20th Century. "This is an antidote to their pomposity, a break from all that navel-gazing."

And, amid the encircling Millennial hype, how welcome that is.

`Massive Landmarks', Tue-Sun at 7.30pm on Channel 4

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