Sunday, 27 June 2010

Discount Bin Film Club: Alfresco!

Welcome to the show folks...

I think this is the first time I've discussed a TV show here at the Discount Bin Film Club, but it's my blog, my rules. Now if you're a regular reader of this blog, as I'm sure you are, I posted a video on June 19th of a sketch from the show Alfresco, and asked you to spot the Oscar winner.

Today I'm going to talk about how I stumbled onto that sketch.

I like to drop in on one of the local discount stores because they have a wildly varied discount video rack. It carries everything from the expected direct to DVD flicks, surplus copies of big studio films, and the occasional foreign chestnut. One such chestnut was a box set of the complete series of Alfresco for $9.99 Canadian.

Alfresco the series marked some of the earliest TV work of head writer/co-star Ben Elton (co-writer Blackadder/Mr. Bean), Hugh Laurie (A Bit of Fry & Laurie/House), Stephen Fry (A Bit of Fry & Laurie/Kingdom), Oscar winner Emma Thompson (Howard's End/ Sense & Sensibility), Robbie Coltrane (Cracker), Siobhan Redmond (Between The Lines) and in the pilot Paul Shearer (The Fast Show).

But first a little history...

In the beginning, it started with the explosion of Britain's Alternative Comedy scene in the early 1980s. These comedians broke away from the set-up/punchline formula that dominated British comedy of the post Python era and tried to recapture the absurdity of Monty Python with a new, more "rattle the cages" almost punk do it yourself sensibility.

This explosion lead to comedian Rik Mayall being offered a sketch show by Britain's ITV. He brought on his university friend Ben Elton as head writer, then he dropped out for another job.

With commitments made ITV then recruited a replacement cast literally straight from Footlights Club of Cambridge who were hot from an award winning run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and a hit comedy recording called The Cellar Tapes. They were former Footlights president Hugh Laurie, his then girlfriend & Footlights co-star Emma Thompson, his writing partner Stephen Fry, actress Siobhan Redmond, and comedian Paul Shearer.

Now the commitment wasn't for much, chiefly 3 pilot episodes to be only aired in Britain's northwest under the title There's Nothing To Worry About. The show performed well enough for ITV to commission a 7 episode series to be named Alfresco.

The series was called Alfresco because it was shot mostly on location, instead of a stage in a TV studio, and Shearer was replaced by Robbie Coltrane. Shearer wasn't completely gone though, because ITV recycled much of the material from the 3 pilot episodes in the first season of the show.

Now let's get on to the review. The box contains 2 discs, #1 has the first "series" and Disc #2 has the second series as well as the three pilot episodes.

The first series is a little rough. The performances are good, and the scripts clever, but the directing is a tad all over the place, lacking the sharp creative focus that filming sketch comedy needs. Some of the sketches don't work at all, more concerned with making some sort of then relevant point rather than making a laugh. Other sketches run well, but don't end, they just sort of stop. However that doesn't mean that the show is bad. Some of the material is hilarious, and some pieces like the recurring "Mr. Baker & Mr. Butcher" conversations are near masterpieces of nonsensical wordplay.

The second series is much tighter. The sketches are shorter, the "look at me being dark and rebellious" factor is downplayed in favor of delivering the funny. However, one new factor are bits between the sketches set at the blatantly fake "Pretend Pub," where the cast play various British stereotypes from the foppish egocentric aristocrat, the Thatcherite "barrow boy," to lowly, occasionally Marxist lower classes. They serve more to make a statement on the inanity of most sitcoms than as stand alone comedy material. In fact, they struck me as being a reaction to some notes from a network executive to make the show more "sitcom-like." A sort of "we'll give you a sitcom that you can stick in your pipe and smoke it" kind of reaction. Still, the sketches are solid, fast paced, and most important, mostly still funny.

They aren't as many recurring bits or characters in the second series. One of the few though are these skits where Emma Thompson is on the phone, and we only hear her side of the conversation. They cover everything from bad jobs, infidelity, to finding out your mother is a serial killer. Now she plays different characters each time, but they all carry the same basic attitude and dry nasal voice.

This box set is definitely for people, who:
  1. Love sketch comedy.
  2. Love British sketch comedy.
  3. Study how sketch comedy is made.
  4. Remember the early 1980s as sort of a sketch golden age. (Especially if you're Canadian & getting a steady diet of Canadian, British, and American sketch material warping your child-like mind.)
  5. Like seeing just how young some of their favorite performers once were.
I have to say that despite the rough patches, the series was definitely worth my $9.99.

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