The Week in Radio: Comedy and radio do not mix - in fact they are sworn enemies


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The Independent Culture

“And here on 4 we have a comedy coming up,” said the BBC continuity announcer. Oh God, I thought. Really? Must you? Must we? Isn’t it time to give it up? To admit defeat? To say to your listeners “Look, guys, we’ve given comedy our best shot, we’ve brought in the big guns, we’ve maxed out the budget, but it’s just not working.”

And, let’s be honest, it rarely has. The glory days of Steve Coogan and Chris Morris are long gone. With the exceptions of Just a Minute and anything involving David Sedaris, comedy and radio simply do not mix. In fact, they are sworn enemies.  Radio is where comedy goes to die.

And yet commissioning editors soldier on, determined that some day their listeners will not flinch at the words “comedy drama” or, even worse, “sketch show” and reach for the off button. They hope they may eventually crack a smile.

But in the meantime we are stuck with half-hearted bilge such as Radio 4’s HR in which two well-known figures of the screen and stage, Jonathan Pryce and Nicholas Le Provost, flounder on a sea of scripted mediocrity like student performers at the Fringe.

HR used to be about an idle employee and his equally feckless human resources officer facing an appraisal from the jobsworths upstairs. I heard it briefly in this early incarnation and, even then, it reeked of actors killing time between jobs.  I missed the middle series but now,  at the start of the third, the original set-up seems to have been abandoned, presumably because the barrel of office-related gags has been well and truly scraped.

Now the same two colleagues appear to be retired and living together in a suburban semi (I’m still none the wiser as to whether they’re in a relationship) though the title of the show, which points to an office setting, has curiously been retained. Nobody seems to care about this.

The plot, such as it was, concerned a lottery win, with Sam (Le Provost) refusing to tell Peter (Pryce) how much they had won lest it puncture their happiness and corrupt their souls. A man from the lottery (Tim McInnerny) appeared in the hope of filming the pair popping champagne corks and discussing their holiday plans but Sam wasn’t playing ball. Thus, the rest of the episode was spent with Peter and the lottery man both trying to get their way. In between contrived setpieces you could just make out Pryce muttering “I have Tony Awards. I was in James bloody Bond” while Le Provost fired off furious letters to his agent. Someone put them out of their misery.

In an attempt to lift my spirits, and convince myself that our comedians haven’t all fled the country in protest at the BBC’s commissioning policy, I turned to the latest podcast, “Talking Cock”, by the comedian and panel-show stalwart Richard Herring, which promised “Everything you ever wanted to know about the penis but were afraid to ask.” What could be better?

Now, I’ve seen Herring’s stand-up. I know he can be funny. Here, however, he passed an excruciating half-hour whining about the much delayed release of said podcast due to concerns over its title, namely his use of the word “cock”. Instead of light-hearted tomfoolery about male genitalia we got an ultra-serious reflection on the nature of censorship (is it all right, he wondered, to say “Joe Cocker went off half-cocked at Cockermouth”?) and the enforced use of asterisks in the Edinburgh Fringe programme.

There were no funnies here, it was a joke-free zone. So that’s it. It’s all over for radio comedy. I may never laugh again.