Last Night's TV: Fry and Laurie Reunited/Gold
Thursday 25 November 2010
A rare and sumptuous treat," promised the makers of Fry and Laurie Reunited at the beginning of Gold's celebration of a comedy double act that (unusually as these things generally go) gave rise to two very successful solo careers. And they were right, really, though you had to scrape off an astounding amount of adulatory Dream Topping and sprinkles before you got at the good stuff. Some of the gush was knowingly over the top (Emma Thompson talking of a "colossus" bestriding "this business we call show"). Some of it unnervingly seemed to be in earnest ("They're so brilliant... they're so untouchably amazing," Ben Miller). And none of it was exactly being underplayed by anyone – except for Paul Whitehouse and Charlie Higson – one-time painters and decorators to Fry and Laurie and, apparently, eventual purchasers of their first house in Dalton. "They didn't inspire us at all!" grumbled Whitehouse, mercifully giving us a break from saccharine and whipped-cream substitute.
I imagine Fry and Laurie would have been grateful too, if they ever bothered watching the finished programme. Because, as the subsequent conversation made clear, a contempt for clichés and bombast is a central part of the comedy they spark out of each other. They quite often dropped into pastiche themselves here, guying the manners of television interviews and the practised anecdotage of theatrical celebrities so that the recording shimmered between real conversation and a kind of riffed sketch. The format was relatively simple – separate interviews first, and then a double act, staged in the art deco interior of Eltham Palace. And although the two are still friends, and presumably see each other as regularly as Hollywood shooting schedules and workaholicism permit, their meeting was framed as a genuine reunion.
They couldn't quite agree on how they'd first met – Stephen Fry opting for a creation myth that involved Emma Thompson and a cheap guitar, while Hugh Laurie thought it had been in Fry's college rooms. However, it happened they were quickly fixtures at Footlights, taking a review called The Cellar Tapes to Edinburgh, where it won the first ever Perrier award. Their rise wasn't effortless, though. An early show for Granada fizzled, a BBC pilot belly-landed and they found themselves on the outside looking in at the alternative comedy boom, playing a cameo on The Young Ones as the Footlights College University Challenge team. Then successful spots on Saturday Live raised their profile as a partnership. "The nice BBC people gave us another chance," Fry recalled. "It's what they're there for isn't it," replied Laurie, a quip with a solid centre. The resulting show, A Bit of Fry & Laurie, was described here, apparently straightfacedly, as "one of the most influential comedy series of recent times". Eh? It was certainly one of the funniest, in my view, but, as Fry went on to point out, the team's insistence that every sketch should be a one-off meant it bore very little resemblance to The Fast Show styles, which immediately followed it. You could even argue that the sketches were simply too literary to be influential. Whoever heard a playground alive to the sound of Fry and Laurie catchphrases?
In between the mutual teasing and the banter there were hints at the private friendship, most notably when Fry revealed that their only serious row had occurred after he'd snuck off to make a documentary on days when they were supposed to be writing. When he returned he found that Laurie had written him a reproachful letter including the words "I don't think you know how much I love you". The fact that Laurie didn't offer a reciprocal comment on this incident perhaps tells you something about their discrepant attitude to emotional exposure, though one of the reasons the programme worked was that the pleasure they take in each other's company was so obvious on screen. And then, finally, it was time for valedictory remarks and a chance for Ben Miller to go wildly over the top again: "They are the alpha and omega of the whole thing," he said. Fortunately, Paul Whitehouse was on hand – like a nettle next to a dock leaf – to add a refreshing sting: "Look," he said in an exasperated tone, "They were on telly once... they were funny, right? That's it." That's enough, surely.
I bet Fry and Laurie could have fun with The Apprentice, which is now as formalised in its rituals as a Tridentine mass. Every week someone will intone the words "stepping up to the plate" as they pitch for the job of project manager and every week Lord Sugar will detail the shortcomings of the three candidates for excommunication with a sacramental even-handedness, in an attempt to persuade us that he's finding it really difficult to make up his mind. The only thing that changes is the task, which this week was to sell crisps to the Germans. Dispatched to Hamburg on a one-day selling blitz the teams were essentially saying, "We bombed your city flat in the last war. Will you help us to destroy your taste buds too?"
It wasn't a vintage episode to be honest, with even Baggs the Brand failing to deliver anything really memorable, despite his cheerful assaults on the German language. "I must sound so stupid to them," he said, "but it's slightly endearing that I try." And the awful thing was that he was right. This won't do at all. Baggs isn't there to be endearing. Time for the The Apprentice Commission for Doctrinal Purity to investigate these dangerously unorthodox developments, I think.
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