Media: If lunch is for wimps, make mine a light one

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The Independent Online
Every now and again word goes round that there's a hip show on television, compulsory viewing, at least for potential cultists. They rarely happen at midday, which is why `Light Lunch' is something special. It's all about Mel and Sue but Monique Roffey wanted to know why.

"They talk like arch pros," says Mark, a thirtysomething house husband and father of two. "Except they have bunches, toothy grins and knowing lopsided smiles. You never know quite what they're going to say next, except that it's funny. I'm completely addicted to watching Light Lunch."

Light Lunch? Yes, we're talking something extremely rare. Cult daytime television. While the show's format, a Big Breakfast-type mix of chat, big celebrity names, and a studio-cooked lunch is not that new, the ratings reached for the last series were extraordinary. By the time it came off air last May, a whopping 18.4 million 16-34 year olds had tuned in at one time or another. It seemed the show did have something very different, something people genuinely liked. Mel and Sue. Fresh, frisky and funny as hell. Watching these two ad-lib girlie quickfire has proved the magic ingredient that's made an otherwise formulaic show compulsive viewing.

With a commission for an initial run of 60 shows, Princess Productions first put out Light Lunch last March, live for Channel Four in a difficult- to-fill 12.30pm slot. Run by Henrietta Conrad and 90s youth telly whizzkid Sebastian Scott, the company are a small band of handpicked ex-youth TV elite. Ivor Baddiel, brother of David is on board as a comedy writer. Other staff have been poached from the likes of TFI Friday, The Big Breakfast and even Blue Peter. Conrad is a veteran youth tv producer who worked on The Last Resort With Jonathan Ross. And then there's youth supremo Scott .Once a presenter himself on one of the first ever `youth' programmes, Network 7, Scott surfed TV's once-in-a-decade wave of change to later become part of the wave itself. One of the initial Planet 24 team (The Word, Hotel Babylon), as executive producer of the first series, he had a large hand in dreaming up The Big Breakfast. It was Scott and Conrad who signed up Mel and Sue.

Their story couldn't be a better example of the fickle nature of the comedy world. This time last year they'd had enough. With five stints in Edinburgh, years of quality venue gigging, media hype, followed by what they thought was a press slump, it looked as if they'd missed their moment. Comedy was never going to pay.

"We were pretty close to giving up," says Mel. "We sat down and said `right, let's start a business'. We were thinking of opening a sandwich shop."

Like French and Saunders, Morecambe and Wise or any other great double act, the pair possess a unique and genuine comic chemistry born out of a tremendous affection for each other. The girls, now in their late twenties, have been best friends since they met as undergraduates at Cambridge. And it's this shared decade as friends (thorny post-feminist post-adolescence), where one senses that a kind of shared yet split idiosyncratic identity has taken hold. As with many women who mature as great friends, a solid and natural girl power double act is deep rooted and long established.

The French and Saunders comparisons have come in thick and fast, which is odd because neither of them remotely resembles Jennifer Saunders. The pair are much more like a French and Thompson. While Mel Giedroyc, all pony tails akimbo and just-put-a-snail-in-the-teacher's-shoe schoolgirl grin could be a baby Dawn French, Sue Perkins has more than a touch of Emma Thompson. She looks, sounds and has all the same lantern-jawed, snooty but funny girl mannerisms as Emma Thompson. Surprisingly, Sue is flattered by this comparison.

"I make no secret of the fact that I think Emma Thompson is brilliant," she gushes. "It's very fashionable to bait her, and I have been guilty of that out of jealousy. But she is such a great role model. She's done comedy, has a good singing voice, writes brilliantly and is so multi-talented - which is why people bait her. So what if she's a bit posh?" The pair nod furiously in agreement.

But while Thompson hasn't played a part in launching their career, French and Saunders have. The girls wrote for their last series and can be caught clowning around in wigs as extras in many of their sketches. "They've been so encouraging and loyal to us," says Sue. "And they're so mellow and truly free of showbiz insecurities and baggage." Yes, French and Saunders are huge comedy heroines too.

And while the success of Light Lunch saved them from taking out a sandwich bar franchise, the pair didn't sit back and rest on their laurels. The summer was spent penning a new Edinburgh show which they performed with two other friends. "Our first warm up show in Brighton was terrifying," says Mel. Like many comics, they have some kind of sadistic loyalty to live work. Not only do they want to avoid the cliche of "selling out" to TV, they feel live work keeps them sharp. "You have to keep doing live shows to see what other people think of you and to prove that you can still do it," says Mel.

Anyone who has seen them live knows that their own material is sharp. "Extreme reality makes me laugh," says Sue. "Our characters are just people that we know times a million." Like the two octogenarian female scientists who'd discovered DNA and climbed Everest yet were excruciatingly naive about men? "Yes," laughs Mel. "They'd had crushes on Wayne Sleep and Quentin Crisp and all these gay men and didn't understand why they'd been single all their lives. It's that extreme intelligence crossed with extreme dim- wittedness which we found funny."

Also, like many other comics, the pair have no real sense of how good they are. There's no media arrogance or thoughts about naming their price for the future. It hasn't clicked yet just how famous they're about to become. "I feel like I could be back working at Waterstone's tomorrow," says Sue.

While Mel confesses to having fame fantasies about playing bass guitar in a band and Sue (more and more like Thompson) always wanted to win an Oscar for a screenplay, neither thought they'd end up being the next big comedy thing. While they have the talent and material to carry their own show, both say their dream is to go on the road - just the two of them, doing their characters as well as their Light Lunch show. "We'd go on and on and on every night, doing masses of live stuff," says Mel, eyes gleaming. "Yeah, that would be great." says Sue.

`Light Lunch' is every weekday from today, 12.30pm-1.30pm, on Channel 4.