Comic Strip: Make 'em laugh again

The team are back after a six-year hiatus with their 38th television film - and some new faces among the infamous original stars
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The Independent Online

Things did not begin auspiciously for the Comic Strip troupe. They started life a quarter of a century ago in a club above a strip joint in Soho and attracted a suspiciously high proportion of punters in dirty macs. Now, though, the Comic Strip performers are more likely to play in front of audiences in fur coats.

Once in the "punk rock" vanguard of alternative comedy, the team have been embraced by the Establishment. The Comic Strip gang have become a well-loved British institution, and their names read like a compendium of contemporary comedy: Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Robbie Coltrane, Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmondson, Alexei Sayle, Keith Allen, Nigel Planer and Lenny Henry. They are comedy royalty.

"They're national treasures now," says Peter Richardson, who founded the Comic Strip Club in that room above the Raymond Revue Bar. "I keep calling Dawn French 'Dame Dawn'. I'm sure she'll become Queen one day!"

The team graduated from stage to screen in 1982 with Five Go Mad in Dorset, broadcast on the opening night of Channel 4. An Enid Blyton spoof starring French, Saunders, Edmondson and Richardson, it was described by one critic as "one of the most significant half-hours in the history of television comedy".

The troupe went on to produce 37 films under the "Comic Strip Presents..." banner. This oeuvre, recently released in a DVD box set, includes such memorable episodes as The Strike, a Golden Rose of Montreux-winning send-up of a Hollywood version of the miners' strike, with Richardson as Al Pacino as Arthur Scargill, and Saunders as Meryl Streep as Mrs Scargill. Bad News Tour was a delicious pastiche of heavy-metal self-indulgence, and A Fistful of Travellers' Cheques an exquisite parody of the excesses of spaghetti westerns. Their last offering, Four Men in a Plane, was made in 1999.

Now the team have reunited to make another episode of C4's "Comic Strip Presents ...", entitled Sex Actually. Co-written and directed by Richardson, it stars Sheridan Smith and Tamer Hassan as an innocent couple who move into a suburban close. They soon discover that something nasty lurks behind the twitching net curtains: the principal hobby of the residents involves chucking their car keys into a bowl at parties...

As well as Comic Strip regulars such as Planer (as a dodgy single bloke called Graham) and Mayall (as Bilbo, a fantastically vain conceptual artist), the film features such well established comic talents as Robert Bathurst (Cold Feet), Doon Mackichan (The Day Today), Rebecca Front (Nighty Night) and Phil Cornwell (Dead Ringers).

Richardson, who has helmed several series of BBC2's Stella Street, calls Sex Actually "Russ Meyer meets Agatha Christie meets Mike Leigh meets Richard Curtis - because you've got to have a sentimental ending that makes your skin crawl!"

It's all good, (un)clean fun. But why have the team chosen this moment to make their comeback? "Because in true Comic Strip style, we've just brought out the definitive box set, which says it has all the films in it," laughs Planer. "Sex Actually messes that up. Now they'll have to sell the box-set as 'all 37 films, apart from the one they've just made!'"

"But that's the great thing about the Comic Strip - it has always been impossible to market. Every film is different. TV is usually sold by the yard. But in the Comic Strip, you never get the same story, or cast.

"It's the TV equivalent of weekly rep. We've always had that slightly shambolic feel. That's our unique selling point - we're unsellable."

The 54-year-old Richardson, who has also directed feature films such as Winston Churchill: The Hollywood Years and The Pope Must Die, would be the first to admit that not every episode of Comic Strip Presents ... has worked. "There were two or three I didn't pull off.South Atlantic Raiders [about the Falklands War], took itself too seriously."

Nevertheless the team have enjoyed a pretty high hit rate. A Comic Strip house style has also emerged: wild, satirical, anarchic. According to Coltrane, the Comic Strip is "halfway between a Carry On film and a Joe Orton play". Perhaps the format has been so successful because the team have always tried to produce comedy that operates on different levels. "I like to depict a catastrophe where something understated is going," comments Richardson who, as writer, director, producer and actor, has played a part in every episode.

"I love those scenes in the Naked Gun movies where in the foreground a policeman is saying 'there's nothing to look at here,' while a fireworks factory is exploding in the background.

"In Sex Actually, an estate agent is showing a couple round a house. He says, 'this would make a nice kiddies' playroom stroke bedroom', before opening the door to reveal an S & M dungeon with whips and chains."

Planer, who has also starred in The Young Ones, The Magic Roundabout, The Grimleys and Nicholas Craig, The Naked Actor, first started working in a double act with Richardson three decades ago after bumping into him at the Glastonbury Festival.

The performer, 53, reckons that Richardson's work has maintained a subversive tenor because he has always been something of an outsider. "People talk about alternative comedy, but how it started was simple. We were bored and knew we would never be part of the mainstream, so we thought, 'why don't we just do what we like?' What Peter wants to do has always been outside the loop."

It was that outsider status that first marked out the team. Soon after the Comic Strip Club opened in 1980, the word spread about this radical, edgy new venue. It started to draw major-league names - both on and off stage.

Richardson, who has just been invited to direct the return of another durable comic institution, the revue show Carry On London, recalls the first high-profile act to appear at the club. "Robin Williams used to turn up and sweet-talk his way on stage. The only problem was that we could never get him off. Paul Raymond's security men would tell me 'we're shutting down now,' and I would go to the side of the stage and hiss 'off!', but he would just carry on regardless!"

The Comic Strip began to magnetise equally serious punters. "You'd look out at the audience and see Jack Nicholson and George Harrison," recollects Richardson, who has in recent times worked with Eddie Izzard on the film of his stage-show, Glorious.

"I had one routine about how if I were piloting a plane I would never allow Dustin Hoffman's film, Kramer Versus Kramer, to be the in-flight movie because it was such feelgood crap. One night, just before I said 'Kramer Versus Kramer,' I looked out and saw Hoffman in the front row. I thought, 'I can't change the gag now, it's too late.' So I just said it. Hoffman didn't seem to mind - he was laughing."

Now the Comic Strip team are talking about making another series of Comic Strip Presents... Richardson attempts to explain the show's longevity. "I think we've endured for so long because we have a very English sense of irreverence. We have an ability to laugh at ourselves. And as long as enough of us keep coming up with good ideas, we could go on for a long time yet."

Planer agrees. "There are still many places we can take the Comic Strip. We'd like to do a series of films embracing younger talent. We can't just make films about old geezers like me. We've got to get in younger, sexier people. Yes, Keith Allen is still sexy, but in an Oliver Reed kind of way!"

So what about recruiting Eddie Izzard? After all, Richardson has already collaborated with him, and he is one of the hottest comics around. "We might not let Eddie in," Planer deadpans. "We might turn him down for having too much talent!"

'The Comic Strip Presents... Sex Actually', Channel 4, 28 December