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