Bellamy's People - The celebrity road trip gets skewered

Paul Whitehouse and Charlie Higson have adapted their hugely popular radio satire about a spoof phone-in for the small screen. The character-comedy masters tell James Rampton how they did it

Down the Line was such a brilliantly executed spoof rent-a-rant phone-in that, when it began on Radio 4 in 2006, many dyed-in-the-wool listeners mistook it for the real thing. They phoned in themselves – oh, the bitter irony – to complain about the BBC network plunging headlong down-market.

They were fuming that the irredeemably naff talk-show host Gary Bellamy (played with uncanny accuracy by Rhys Thomas, in real life a former DJ on XFM) had been allowed through the hallowed portals of Radio 4 and onto their beloved airwaves.

Bellamy, who constantly harped on about being an "award-winning presenter", was just the right side of implausibly crass, as he spouted such cringe-making lines as: "I was reading today that that we don't hate the French as much as we used to. What's happening to this country?".

The 31-year-old Thomas looks back in amusement at how many Radio 4 listeners got the wrong end of the stick about Down the Line, which was created by Paul Whitehouse and Charlie Higson, and featured improvised calls from them and a gallery of first-rate character actors, including Amelia Bullmore, Simon Day, Felix Dexter and Lucy Montgomery. "It was a send-up of that black-cabbie mentality that dominates radio phone-ins – 'what is it with traffic wardens?'," says Thomas. "When it started, we set up a voicemail where people could complain, and it was soon full of people up in arms about the show: 'How dare Radio 4 make a talk show? It's a disgrace that this is on Radio 4'. It's a tribute to the show that so many people thought it was real and were shocked by it."

Down the Line's place in radio folklore is assured. It won the Broadcasting Press Guild Radio Programme of the Year gong in 2007, and the following year it picked up a Sony Gold Award for Best Radio Comedy. Now it is – almost inevitably – following such hits as Little Britain, The League of Gentlemen, Goodness Gracious Me, On the Hour and Knowing Me, Knowing You along the well-trodden path from radio to television. Radio 4's Down the Line has been transformed into BBC2's Bellamy's People.

But, in transposing their comedy from one medium to another, the makers of Down the Line were faced with a challenge: how could they make what was quintessentially a radio show into a TV programme?

Higson and Whitehouse met at the University of East Anglia more than 30 years ago. They make for an engaging, contrasting double act: Higson's sense of humour is dry and slow-burning, while Whitehouse's is fizzing and incendiary.

Higson, who, in partnership with Whitehouse, has also been responsible for one of the finest BBC2 sketch-programmes of recent years, The Fast Show, admits that much of Down the Line's comic charm could have been lost in translation. "Obviously doing a radio phone-in on TV would have been daft. So we had to think, 'Down the Line has been perfectly designed for radio – what's the TV equivalent?'"

And then Higson and Whitehouse – with the rapidity of a "Suits You" tailor whipping out an innuendo – had a "eureka" moment. "We realised that all these programmes with celebrities driving round the country meeting people and saying 'isn't Britain brilliant?' would be ideal for us to parody," continues the 51-year-old Higson, who has carved out a very successful second career as the writer of novels about young James Bond.

"We've had Alan Titchmarsh on natural history, David Dimbleby on architecture, Martin Clunes on islands, Griff Rhys Jones on mountains and rivers, Robbie Coltrane on B-roads, James May and Oz Clark on drink. Andrew Marr's even done Britain From Above. They haven't done Britain From Below yet – I suppose it might be a bit gloomy!

"The idea is simple: put a personality wearing a pink shirt in a 'personality vehicle', chuck in a couple of helicopter shots of the White Cliffs of Dover, the Giants' Causeway, Stonehenge and the Angel of the North, play some rousing Elgar, and everybody's happy."

Higson, who has also started writing zombie novels for youngsters, adds that, "commissioners have realised you don't need to send presenters around the world to please audiences. British viewers are more than happy to watch someone drive around Britain in a quirky car saying, 'isn't this amazing?'".

The creators have applied exactly the same principles to Bellamy's People as they did to Down the Line: take a well-loved genre and lightly exaggerate it for comic effect. "This is the perfect vehicle of us," smiles Higson. "It's a genre that's ripe for sending up. I'm surprised no one has done it before." So in Bellamy's People, Gary drives around Britain in a "personality vehicle" (a Triumph Stag with a Union Jack on the bonnet) chatting to the various eccentrics he meets along the way.

The 51-year-old Whitehouse, who co-directs and co-produces Bellamy's People with Higson, agrees with his partner that, "we had to forget about the radio show. This is a different entity. It sticks in my craw, but I have to give Charlie some credit. He said, 'we can't take the show to TV, but we can take the ethos,' and he was right.

"We wanted to reflect what we think about this country through a range of humorous characters. But obviously we're now very old men, so we had to get in young people like Rhys to find out what young people think. Not that I really care – I hate young people!"

Whitehouse goes on to attempt a definition of Bellamy's People. "The term 'spoof documentary' doesn't sit very well with me – it sounds a bit lame. But that's what Bellamy's People is. We're not brilliant exponents of political satire, and nor do we want to be." Adopting a hilariously pretentious, pseudo-academic voice, he carries on that, "we're not trying to overthrow the bourgeoisie or form the workers into collectives."

He goes on: "On some levels, we hope this is a very sharp comedy. But on a lot of other levels, it consists of us poking our tongue out at other people doing their job! PJ O'Rourke defined satire as sticking your tongue at everyone else in the room. That's exactly what we're doing here!"

Whitehouse, whose BBC1 sketch show with Harry Enfield, Harry and Paul, won a British Comedy Award in December, emphasises that, in Bellamy's People, "we're not setting out to parody any presenters in particular – it's more about a mindset. Gary is someone who sees himself as a serious journalist and clearly isn't one. There is a great element of self-delusion there."

Like The Fast Show, Harry and Paul, or Help, Bellamy's People affords the company the chance to display their wares as character actors. Whitehouse, in particular, has an astonishing facility for conjuring up different characters before your very eyes. You can see why Johnny Depp, with only a hint of hyperbole, described him as "the greatest actor of all time".

In Bellamy's People, Whitehouse dazzles as everyone from Martin Hole, an unreconstructed painter and decorator in an England football shirt who believes women's rights have, "gone too far – they want to get back in the kitchen, don't they?", to Graham Downes, a morbidly obese man who never leaves his bedroom, but keeps in touch with the world through "the information superhighway – that's a lot more fun than the shopping precinct in Harlow town centre on a Saturday afternoon".

Bellamy's People, like Outnumbered or The Thick of It, features performances that are largely improvised. "It's very loose and unstructured," says Whitehouse. "I don't want to hit Pseuds' Corner in Private Eye – oh go on then! It's deliciously liberating, darling, a wonderful leap into the unknown. That's got to be in Private Eye! Every time Charlie says 'action!', I don't know where I'm going to go. I'll probably end up saying something about poo and willies! But it does give the performances a freshness."

After the furore that greeted Down the Line, the makers of Bellamy's People are wary about how viewers will receive the TV show. "People will say it's not as good as the radio show," Thomas reckons. "They say that about everything. They always say that The Day Today is not as good as On the Hour. You learn not to go on the websites because they hate everything. They'll say, 'it was better on the radio,' because that's their default setting. But it's not better – it's just different."

So how do the makers of Bellamy's People see the show developing? "I'm just dusting off some more Elgar CDs," Higson jokes. "Let me count the ways we can get around Britain in a 'personality vehicle'," Whitehouse chips in. "You couldn't get David Dimbleby on a stallion – there'd be uproar! But if we do another series, I'm desperate to get Gary Bellamy on a variety of 'personality horses'!"

'Bellamy's People' starts on BBC2 on 21 January at 10pm

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished

TV reviewGrace Dent: Jimmy McGovern's new drama sheds light on sex slavery in the colonies

Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable