The week on radio: Truly, madly, derivative

Click to follow
The Independent Online
John Stuart Mill said, "All good things which exist are the fruits of originality," and he wasn't the first to think so. It's a rather weaselly line of argument: show him something you consider good but derivative, and Mill would always be able to find some trace of originality in it that would answer his requirements. But Truly, Madly, Bletchley (Radio 4, Wed) still strikes me as a solid counter-example, being a comedy show that is quite good but almost completely unoriginal.

Not that there is any one element you could point to and shout "Rip off!" (though I'd certainly heard the gag involving a man announcing that he is an alcoholic because he's got his meetings mixed up). It's more a sense, not easy to pin down, that these are not new jokes so much as old jokes converted - tasteful conversions, mind you, with many of the original features preserved.

In particular, it all sounds terribly like an old episode of The Burkiss Way, a brilliantly surreal, straight-faced Radio 4 comedy series of the late Seventies, written by David Renwick and Andrew Marshall. The Burkiss Way seems to have been consigned to oblivion while an entire nostalgia industry has been constructed around the generation of comedians that created Python, The Goons and I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again. Perhaps the reason is that none of the performers (Nigel Rees, Chris Emmett, Fred Harris and Jo Kendall) was an obvious comic personality; they were just good at performing other people's scripts - something that also goes for Truly, Madly, Bletchley, although Julian Dutton, who wrote the whole thing, also plays Mr Dutton, the chairman of Bletchley District Council's Ways and Means Committee (the show's conceit is that it is a cabaret performed by local government officials).

At any rate, Dutton's rhetoric - "Let's unbutton our blouses, release our two giant twin orbs of laughter" - is hugely reminiscent of the Burkiss style; and so are the sharp intercuts between sketches, and the attention paid not simply to sound effects, but to fundamental acoustic quality. The sketches are very uneven, many of them starting well but tailing off very badly - Mr Batley's involuntary metamorphosis into Enrico Valdez, the Chilean Charmer, was a nice piece of cod-Hammer horror, but the Latin American love-song that followed was simply boring.

A nice idea about a man consulting a doctor (an old Burkiss format) because he lapses into a coma for eight hours every night was extended into a poorly thought-out series of gags about meaningless diseases. So what makes the show likeable is not what's original to Dutton's writing; it's the reminder of forgotten greatness.

And originality doesn't always get you very far, either. Fictuality (Radio 3, Mon-Fri) was an original idea, from producer Paul Dodgson: writers were commissioned to produce short stories based around news events, and the readings were intercut with archive recordings of the news. I caught two of the stories: Julie Myerson's Weekend Break, about a couple's relationship deteriorating over a weekend in Jerusalem when an Israeli soldier has just been kidnapped by Palestinians, and Mark Lawson's Death Comes for the Pope, about the conspiracy theories that exercise boys at an international school in Rome in the days following the death of John Paul I.

As far as Lawson's story was concerned, the news bulletins were just ineffectual punctuation; Myerson used them more effectively, providing fuel for her characters' dialogue. But even here, the novelty of the format didn't add much to the stories, and you didn't feel that fact and fiction were being woven together in any but the most superficial sense. Give me a decent plagiarist any time.