Maybe I’m overreacting to the fact that the new year hasn’t meant a collapse in the quality of comedy around, but I just found last night’s Inside No. 9 such a rich and delightful confection of nostalgia, parody and reflection that I am yet to get over it. So thanks to all those involved, and principally to Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith who wrote and starred in the play, evocatively titled Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room, with Sian Gibson as the only other player. The acting, the direction and script were all astonishingly tight – every shot, every reaction, every detail of prop and script reference all perfectly pitched. Exquisite.
Set within the confines of a church hall, surrounded by the detritus of am-dram productions, we observe a long-defunct Northern double act meeting for the first time since their split decades ago. An uncomfortable reunion, then, for the once-quite-famous double act of Cheese and Crackers. Tommy (Cheese/Shearsmith) walked out on Len (Crackers/Pemberton) in 1993, because of Len’s drinking. Specifically, that is, after Len Crackers disappeared in the middle of an elaborate musical routine, only to be found lying unconscious in a pool of his own vomit, and some empty bottles, in the dressing room at the Glasgow Pavilion allocated to Bernie Clifton (who you may remember had that comedy ostrich routine). “The ostrich had to be destroyed,” reflected Tommy ruefully on the denouement, both of Bernie’s own comedy partner and, metaphorically, of Cheese and Crackers themselves.
Tommy “Cheese” prefers to be known as Thomas Drake these days, you see, and has made his way in business and left the cheesy routines long behind. Crackers, though, had apparently “became a monster after six half-hour shows for Anglia”. So Len “Crackers” went back to being Len Shelby, washed up, alcoholic and homeless, and now virtually begging his old comedy partner to join him on Britain’s Got Talent with “updated” material, and to give him permission to upload old clips to YouTube, all suggestions met with hostility because of the harm they would to do to the image of Thomas’s software firm with major contacts such as the board of HSBC. The tension between the two was intense, and very possibly inspired by the reported animosity between the two former Likely Lads, James Bolam and the recently deceased Rodney Bewes. If not, it ought to have been.
The double act’s heyday was, as Thomas disdained it, “the arse end of variety”, when living fossils such as Cannon and Ball, Little and Large, Paul Daniels, Bernard Manning and Russ Abbott could still command vast television audiences. It was a time when fictional Cheese and Crackers could be “top of the bill with Mick Miller, Bobby Knutt and the Grumbleweeds” (sorry, millennials, but you’ll need to look that lot up). “Who killed variety?” was often a question rhetorically asked by entertainers at the time. We now know: they did, by being not very good.
The twist – which worked surprisingly smoothly – was that the conversations, bitter and recriminatory, between the two were imagined, being played out in Thomas’s mind as he prepared to deliver the address at Len’s funeral. It was poignant, and pointed, to the extent that I did wonder, a couple of times, if this was not some subtle act of heresy against the sainted Morecambe and Wise. At one point Cheese and Crackers recall the line Eric Morecambe used when he was asked what they’d have been if they hadn’t been comedians – “Mike and Bernie Winters”, another double act of the time now forgotten. Yet “we weren’t even Mike and Bernie Winters”, says Tommy. Were Morecambe and Wise in fact as good as their reputation, or just a slightly luckier version of Cheese and Crackers?
House of Saud: A Family at War, the first of three episodes, was the sort of current affairs show that really does need to be seen, where someone has made the effort to actually bother to explain the “how” and the “why” of world affairs, in this case modern terrorism, as well as the horrific events themselves, the car bombs, the vans mown into crowds, the random shootings, the state terror of aerial bombardment, the death tolls, the rubble and the hunt for the perpetrators.
The documentary made a convincing, because it is meticulously argued, case for how and why so much that has gone wrong in the world in recent decades originates in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and its complex and inherently unstable web of religious and courtly politics. Thus were traced the linkages between waves of radical Islamist terror – Afghanistan in the 1980s, Bosnia in the 1990s, the Middle East and the West now – and the past and present actions of a variety of Saudi players: the authorities themselves, Saudi charities, Saudi Wahhabist religious institutions, private Saudi money and some members of the Saudi royal family. We saw how and why Saudi Arabia and Iran prefer to settle their rivalries and religious differences through brutal sectarian proxy wars fought mainly by the populations of their dirt-poor neighbours, such as Syria and Yemen, and perhaps soon Lebanon too. It explained, too, why the Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has been taking such drastic, and for him risky, action to clamp down on these elements in his kingdom and “return” it to moderate Islam. It is not so much about the millions of dead, maimed, poisoned and homeless Iraqis, Syrians, Yemenis and Afghanis they’ve left behind, (all fellow Muslims by the way, if of different persuasions sometimes), but rather because of the lethal threat that Isis and Wahhabism now pose to the Saudi regime itself. Proof that understanding world events a little better isn’t always a reassuring process.
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