Television: Heroes of comedy from the golden age of the Nineties

Funny comedy series are like buses. You wait ages, then two turn up at once. Ben Thompson hails the arrival on TV of Harry Hill and John Shuttleworth
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The Independent Culture
In years to come, the old folk will gather at the seaside. As the coastal waters lap at the Thames Barrier, the veined and the venerable will potter up and down the prom asking each other if they remember the golden age of British TV comedy. "Ah yes", they will say, sucking meditatively on an Olde English Alcopop drink. "The early to mid-Nineties: The Day Today, Alan Partridge, Shooting Stars, Paul Calf, The Fast Show, Father Ted. Never again was it so good: the attention to detail, the mordant wit

With no new Father Teds or Fast Shows till the autumn, Steve Coogan licking his wounds after the Tony Ferrino debacle, Vic and Bob at home on their farms wondering whether Shooting Stars might have completed its trajectory, and Chris Morris having unexpectedly accepted a position in the new Labour administration as minister of public decency, the time for living in the past could almost be upon us. But just as the most resolute anti-satellite diehards are getting ready to squander the Christmas Club money on a Sky subscription so they can watch Seinfeld and Dr Katz, the terrestrial empire has struck back with two addictive new comedy series. Channel 4's The Harry Hill Show and BBC2's 500 Bus Stops have both been adapted for TV from prize-winning Radio 4 programmes. Both have been a long time coming and both are well worth the wait.

To those who have never seen him live or heard him on the radio, the first couple of episodes of The Harry Hill Show must have taken a bit of getting used to. This gentle, absurdist whirlwind of fantasy shoe-shop advertisements, non-celebrity walk-ons from unlikely-sounding members of the Hill family, and Keith Harris and Orville singing The Fugees, moves at a fearsome pace. And yet the whole show is bound up into a pleasing if enigmatic whole by a series of complex running gags, such as the one about the right kind of container in which to carry various species of birdlife - from a toilet-roll tube for a budgie to a Gap bag for a wading bird - so that they might best "enjoy the journey".

Hill's reference points are the classic building blocks of English TV lunacy - from Spike Milligan to Vic Reeves' Big Night Out via the best of Russ Abbott - but he is taking this tradition somewhere new rather than simply echoing its past glories. His opening show's climactic "war in the woodland" sequence - wherein Harry strives in vain to stop the badgers getting involved in a vicious armed conflict between the barn owls and the tawny owls - will live long in the memory. And the six programmes that remain in the series promise to take the viewer even deeper into a comic world of exhilarating philosophical clarity, as well as delighting us with "Camilla Parker Bowles: The Musical".

It was by no means certain that Harry Hill would take so smoothly to the small screen. His stand-up career progressed evenly from the poky London clubs - where he first developed the cut-up style that enables him to keep myriad jokes on the go simultaneously like some dextrous plate-spinner - to a nationwide live following that cuts healthily across boundaries of age and class. But his early television history was rather chequered. An early series of black-and-white short films for BBC2 didn't quite do him justice. And from the Channel 4 executive who considered him "too minority interest", to a disastrous pilot variety show for the BBC (Hill says "It must have been the only pilot ever made that no one who was involved with it wanted to get a series"), his early brushes with the medium did not paint a promising picture.

Talking to him a year or so ago, before the appearance on the David Letterman Show that was the turning point in his televisual fortunes, the usually jovial Hill seemed disillusioned with the whole idea. "TV producers sit in a comedy club and hear everybody laughing and they think `we must get this'," he observed with uncharacteristic sourness, "but they don't know what `this' is". His subsequent travails as a badly needed star turn on ITV's abysmal Saturday Live provided further supporting evidence for this jaundiced opinion, but the experience of making his own show has been a good deal happier.

Hill has benefited greatly from the input of battle-hardened television professionals like his director, Robin Nash, veteran of The Two Ronnies and The Generation Game. "He was very good at asking questions like `Did you see them as real guinea pigs or men dressed in guinea-pig suits?'" Harry beams. Since the Radio 4 template, Harry Hill's Fruit Corner, was "basically a TV show on the radio with original visual ideas translated into sound effects anyway", transferring to the small screen was always going to be an opportunity rather than a problem. But the real success of The Harry Hill Show has been to establish its star's very offbeat talent so firmly in a mainstream light-entertainment setting. "Because it's a very cosy, familiar format," Harry explains, "that makes it all the stranger when you see Matt [his diminutive sidekick Matt Bradstock] in his best friend's mother's bra". This achievement bodes well for the Hill future, which should be far from the Friday night ghetto between Frasier and Eurotrash, on the high plains of BBC1 at Saturday teatime.

Graham Fellows's John Shuttleworth - the Sheffield-based ex-security guard turned all-round entertainer at the centre of BBC2's forthcoming 500 Bus Stops - can only dream about such bounty. His long-awaited TV break will not get such a big push from BBC2 as Channel 4 (rightly sensing a badly needed comedy hit) has given Harry Hill's, but it is equally deserving of attention. All lonely moments and small silences after Hill's uproarious showbiz cavalcade, 500 Bus Stops captures a mood of suburban solitude that is almost too intense for comfort, but somehow manages to be funny with it.

Nominally a "rockumentary", but with none of the self-satisfaction and poverty of ambition which the word spoof would imply, 500 Bus Stops follows John Shuttleworth on a doomed tour of the garden centres and freezer shops of the East Midlands/South Yorks badlands. At the moments when his interior world is forced into the open - by, say, a chance sighting of a bird of prey - something quite magical happens.

Fellows has no particular designs on a higher profile for his character. It wouldn't really be appropriate for a persona whose life has always taken the shape of a noble struggle against the odds. In any case, Fellows has already had a taste of the limelight - way back at the dawn of his career he had a novelty hit single as lovelorn loser Jilted John - and is probably happier lurking just out of the spotlight.

Fellows's love affair with sound began in his early teens, when he would retire to his room with a quarter of Nuttall's Mintoes and spend hours perfecting his impression of a baby by recording his voice at half speed on quarter inch tape and then playing it back at the normal rate. The success of The Shuttleworths on Radio 4 was built on a similarly painstaking methodology. In his home studio, Fellows would use a multi-track tape recorder to build up organic conversations between John, his heroically unsupportive wife Mary and depressive agent Ken Worthington, allotting one track to each character.

You couldn't make a TV programme that way, which is one reason why Shuttleworth (who has been in existence in one form or another for over a decade) has taken so long to become one. Another is that Fellows is famously protective of him. " `Protective' would be a charitable way of putting it," he smiles. Over the years, he has honed his creation to such a point of perfection that it comes as something of a shock to encounter Fellows out of character.

How does he feel about John Shuttleworth now he's finally on TV? "I like him more than me sometimes," Fellows smiles winsomely. "I resent him a bit as well."

! `The Harry Hill Show' is on Fri on C4. `500 Bus Stops' begins on 24 Jun on BBC2.