'I suppose you think it's somehow amusing to go around saying things that are funny...'
1983 - 84
Alfresco was a series so fantastic Granada could only have shown it by accident. And when it was repeated last year on satellite channel Granada Plus, this was arguably still the case.
Alfresco was an early-eighties sketch show starring Ben Elton, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, Siobhan Redmond and Robbie Coltrane. A ridiculous cast for a ridiculous programme. Until recently, finding someone who could remember it was almost as difficult as finding the shows themselves. Those who enjoyed it forgot it very quickly. Those who would have enjoyed it were watching Who Dares Wins on the other side (yes, literally - check your Lewisohn). Anyway...
The Alfresco story can be traced back to The Cellar Tapes, the Cambridge Footlights revue which won the first ever Perrier Award at the 1981 Edinburgh Festival. Directed by Jan Ravens, the show featured Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, Paul Shearer, Tony Slattery and Penny Dwyer. A 50-minute studio version of the revue was made for television, by veteran producer Dennis Main Wilson, and transmitted on BBC2 on 20 May 1982. Although most current TV insiders seem aware of its existence (excuses are often sought to show clips from it - especially Fry & Laurie's RSC-endorsed 'Shakespeare Masterclass' and Emma Thompson's prophetic parody of an Oscar acceptance speech), it has never been repeated or released on video. If it was re-screened, it is likely that Tony Slattery's genuinely unnerving 'I Wanna Shoot Somebody Famous' song would worry some schedulers.
Members of The Cellar Tapes (all except Slattery and Dwyer) were next seen in Granada TV's There's Nothing To Worry About!, which ran for three editions - in the North West only - in June the same year. Siobhan Redmond also starred, as did writer Ben Elton (on the suggestion of Rik Mayall who did not want to take part). Essentially a 'try-out' series - or, if you will, a triple pilot - There's Nothing To Worry About!, which utilised both film and studio material, was performed before a lukewarm audience. Each of the three episodes, however, have a notably different atmosphere, structure and theme.
The first has a League Of Gentlemen-style premise, with all the segueing sketches focusing on residents of the same street. Fry appears as 'Colonel Sodom', a Henry Rawlinson-esque aristocrat who complains about his exploding curry being too mild, Elton and Thompson feature as 'Helen and Nigel', two nauseatingly right-on student types looking after a friend's baby ('Every child should have a memory of the mammary...'), Laurie plays the sad-faced and soon-to-be-sacked Mr Gannet who has trouble buying a celebratory maltloaf for his birthday, and the team appear together as a gang of horrific, blue-cagouled Christians ('I like to think that when we say Amen, we're actually saying A-mazing...').
The show ends with most of the characters colliding on a busy high street, upon which Mr Gannet bursts into tears and is promptly arrested. 'Take a look everybody,' a policewoman (Thompson) shouts. 'A police officer arresting a white man. Let's see what Polly bloody Toynbee's got to say about this one...'
The second episode is linked by Elton's character 'Wally Wally', an early personification of his 'People From The Planet Boring' material, not to mention his hatred of lager ads.
Wally gets arrested after a fight in his local ('The Obvious Studio Set') but wins the respect of a Pot Noodle-chomping police sergeant (Laurie), who drops the charges. (Spotting a Robert Peel-period policeman in a ridiculous Victorian moustache, he remarks 'Ah, that's what I like to see - a good old-fashioned bobby...') Along the way, we also meet 'Miss Fanshawe' (who later re-surfaced, almost word for word, in the 1988 Radio 4 series Saturday Night Fry) and Fry's 'Dr De Quincy' (pre-dating Happy Families), who appears in a sketch about racism in hospitals and the scourge of private health care. 'BUPA - Puts the class prejudice back into being ill' reads a caption.
The final programme is perhaps the oddest. It begins with Fry and Laurie as 'Alan and Bernard', two inoffensive men marvelling at the new video age ('You don't actually have to watch the films at all in order to record over them,' boasts Laurie, showing off his new-fangled VCR. 'That's the great plus with this system.')
They switch on the television, only to see their doppelgängers sitting in a Ford Granada en route to a tennis match. Said doppelgängers are much more unpleasant than they are, and seem to resemble the duo's equally appalling 'Gordon and Stewart' characters from A Bit Of Fry & Laurie. Thompson and Shearer are their long-suffering friends, gritting their teeth in the back seat and requesting that they keep their eyes on the road. After a selection of sketches - including Thompson daubed in silver paint as 'Sister Resistor', a documentary about the 'Strömm Theatre Company', and a televised electrocution (which pre-dates On The Hour, including the use of the phrase 'Freed or fried') - we catch up with Alan and Bernard at the tennis court. They bicker and shout for a while, before playing a disastrous set to the strains of Clockwork Orange-familiar Beethoven.
They later declare their game to be a great success, only to crash their Ford Granada and have it towed home. We then return to the original Alan and Bernard, who are amused by what they have seen. 'I know some people just like that!' cries Fry. 'That's the great thing about satire - it can expose people like that!' replies Laurie. Doppelgängers of Shearer and Thompson then enter and reprimand them for leaving them stranded at the tennis court.
Viewed now, There's Nothing To Worry About! has a marked creepiness about it, making it somewhat difficult to categorise. Fry & Laurie's sketch style had not yet developed, and there is a half-finished look to much of the material...but it is perhaps this which makes the shows interesting. It is worth remembering that we are watching what was essentially an above-average Footlights revue (with all cast members under the age of 25), diminished slightly by over-ambitious production values. But what remains eerie is the absence of any obvious (or, at any rate, over-obvious) laugh lines; there is a nebulous surrealism to the way sketches segue back and forth, and we are given the impression that there is something even weirder and darker lurking within the material.
Alfresco itself premiered in May 1983, in ITV's traditional Sunday-night comedy slot of 10pm. Paul Shearer was not present, but Robbie Coltrane (who had become associated with the 'alternative comedy' label following his appearance in The Comic Strip Presents...Five Go Mad In Dorset) took his place. Elton now became the chief writer, with additional material by David McNiven and Andy de la Tour. The seven half-hour episodes were less overtly dream-like than There's Nothing To Worry About!, and the premise of each sketch was generally more clear-cut, but there was still an unsettling quality to much of the material.
Lewisohn notes that the title Alfresco came from the show's use of state-of-the-art 'Electronic News Gathering' equipment, enabling sketches to be shot on location (i.e., in real offices, real shops, etc) rather than on expensive studio sets. This had always been an option in the past, of course, but - until this time - such a practice had only been possible using film (as in There's Nothing To Worry About!). The ability to shoot on video was much cheaper (since videotape could be re-used in a way that film could not), and much lighter for the crew to carry, meaning there was no end to the number of locations the team could set sketches. The disadvantage was the lack of interplay with the studio audience, who would be watching the footage on monitors at a later date; the material also tends too look a little over cheap, the lighting and sound-mixing appearing quite crude. (The producers, perhaps recognising this, decided that they would still record some items conventionally in the studio.) The opening titles were quite elaborate, and involved animation of a busking saxophonist playing 'I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles' beside a grim urban landscape.
The sketches in the first series were generally of a very high standard, and notably ambitious both in location and in subject matter. A Mr Gannet-type (Laurie) attempts to buy some scent from a curmudgeonly shop assistant (Thompson); however, what begins as a traditional 'rude shop assistant' skit quickly becomes darker, with the man confessing that he wants the perfume so he can get off with his mother.
There is a strange, Little Shop Of Horrors-style song about an alien being in possession of a fridge (further evidence of Elton's ability to channel his stand-up material visually and imaginatively) and an excellent sketch playing on the idea of children making their own entertainment ('You two will have making-your-own-entertainment-shaped eyes before you're through,' Fry's Victorian father warns).
Elton and Laurie appear as 'Mr Butcher and Mr Baker', two mismatched individuals who wander by a canal, talking in a succession of punning non-sequiturs ('Have you ever fallen in love?'; 'Yes, by that bridge...and don't call me love').
Similar lines appeared in The Young Ones, notably in Arden & Frost's 'Policemen' dialogue and the 'Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse' sequence. Influenced by Peter Cook's similarly opaque semantic wanderings (and perhaps with a nod towards the Airplane films)
Favourites from There's Nothing To Worry About! return, including Alan and Bernard who are appalled that an art-house cinema serves coleslaw instead of ice-cream; we also see Alan at home with his wife, incredulous that she has thrown out a letter from the Readers' Digest. One particularly Pythonesque sketch involves Elton as a schoolboy who is a football genius but whose only dream is to advertise the cosmetics industry.
After the first series, most of the Alfresco team (all except Elton and Redmond) appeared in a BBC2 special on 7 July called The Crystal Cube. Written entirely by Fry and Laurie, it appeared in the shadow of The Cellar Tapes but sadly did not result in a full series. Precise information on the content of this show is not yet known to us.
Alfresco returned the following year. The second run of six episodes (beginning in April 1984) went out on Saturdays at 11pm, and was up against the first series of Who Dares Wins on Channel 4. There was a distinctly more confident feel to the second series, as a result of its cast getting regular work elsewhere. The second series of The Young Ones, co-written by Elton, was running concurrently on Tuesday nights (Redmond aside, the Alfresco team all had cameos up in 'Bambi', the opening episode), and it is possible to detect a more viewer-friendly atmosphere to the shows. The second series also saw Thompson join the writing team.
The most obvious change for the second series, however, was the linking device of the 'Pretend Pub'. The cast appeared on a studio 'bar set' (complete with joke-shop beer glasses and a clock which always showed the same time) as six distinct characters: Bezza (Elton) was a diminutive, working-class revolutionary, Shizza (Redmond) a militant barmaid, Ezza (Thompson), a pretty vacant dancing girl, and Huzza (Laurie) an irritable, not-in-my-back-yard Conservative bully. Mediating was kindly aristocrat Lord Stezza (Fry), who had a ridiculous kiss-curl drawn on his forehead in marker pen, and Pretend Landlord Bob (Coltrane), their amiable publican. These characters also appeared in the new opening titles, which showed the team as part of a comic called Alfresco Weekly.
These linking scenes were actually much stronger than most of the sketch material, and showcased Elton's ear for dialogue and character-interaction. However, it's also interesting to see Fry & Laurie's recognisable sketch style emerging - great lost Laurie lines ('I suppose you think it's somehow amusing to go around saying things that are funny...' and 'Oh yes, it's very easy to use facts to support an argument') arrive on a regular basis, while Fry's presence is now not necessarily a fey one. The best line, however, went to Coltrane: 'Quiet in here tonight, isn't it?,' said Pretend Landlord Bob at the start of one show. 'That'll be the script...'
Each episode saw the residents of the Pretend Pub involved in a different scrape (a motorway is due to be built through the pub in one episode; in another, they contend with a bag of nuclear waste), and we return to these plots periodically throughout the show. The sketches were very well-written, but somehow didn't seem quite as adventurous as before. However, there were some exceptions - a sketch about a librarian who gives away the endings to whodunits was particularly good, as was an ahead-of-its-time satire on insensitive fly-on-the-wall documentary crews. Further Pythonesque humour surfaced in a piece about young people obsessed with Madrigals, while another piece had a terrorist interrogating a couple in their bed as to why they read The Guardian. Thompson also performed a number of monologues in this series, including a thinly-veiled topical piece concerning under-age schoolgirls being given The Pill.
So that's Alfresco. Granada Plus showed eleven editions recently, including (perhaps by accident again) the complete There's Nothing To Worry About! Information about the shows is scarce - some cast members spoke about the series in a recent Ben Elton documentary, Hugh Laurie admitting that he was flabbergasted at the sheer volume of scripts Elton would produce from his briefcase on any given theme. A clip of Wally sauntering up the high street ('This man is a prat...') was then shown, erroneously captioned as an Alfresco sketch. Speaking in Wilmut's Didn't You Kill My Mother In Law? (Methuen, 1989), Elton voices a curious non-sequitur: 'I learned an enormous amount,' he admits. 'I was paid very well by Granada to learn not to be cocksure and think I was always right. [But I learned] how much I needed help and criticism and guidance, which wasn't available at Granada'.
The story behind Alfresco is likely to remain equally muddled.
NOTE: Elton claims that 'poor script-editing' led to him writing most of the scripts. The episodes reveal that he contributed to There's Nothing To Worry About! alongside Laurie, Thompson, Shearer and Nick Symons (with a young Jon Plowman credited as 'Researcher'), but he became the main writer for Alfresco Series 1, going on to share equal billing with Fry and Laurie in Series 2.
Included: Chariots Of Fire title sequence; Radio Three; 'Are you dancing?'; Shakespeare masterclass; Vampire story; 'I Wanna Shoot Somebody Famous' (Song); Awards ceremony; Dinner party (Gay son); Fascist chorus
Nothing To Worry About!"
Show 1 (10 June 1982)
Show 2 (17 June 1982)
Show 3 (24 June 1982)
The following three episodes were broadcast on Granada Plus:
1. Perfume counter; Punk arsonist/Groovy therapist; 'There's An Alien In Possession Of The Fridge' (Song); Casting agent (Cuban terrorist); Mr Butcher & Mr Baker; Prisoners Of War
2. Search Out (Consumer programme); Bernard & Alan - Woods; Salt of the earth landlord; Children making their own entertainment; Alan & Sue - Round Robin; 'My House Is Haunted' (Song); Nazi code/Painting bridge
3. American bus (Lawsuits); Mr Butcher & Mr Baker; Alan & Bernard - Trendy cinema (Coleslaw); Robin Hood; American bus (Pretending to have known Elvis); Schoolboy obsessed with the cosmetics industry
The following five episodes were broadcast on Granada Plus:
1. Pretend pub - Crossword clue/Let's put on the show right here; Liverpool group; Rude Harrods receptionist; Pretend pub - Ironic Monty; Dormitory; How To Sell Things Workshop; DHSS Fraud squad; Fishermen's pub (Sexual politics); Mystery tour quickie; Quiz show (Avoiding saying bottom); Pretend pub - 'Three of A Vaguely Similar'/Ezza's Song ('Showbiz')
2. Pretend pub - Bezza's news; Car washing; Girl on phone in nightclub; Pretend pub - Complaining about Bezza; Joining the Army (Pushy father); Library (Revealing endings to whodunits); Pretend pub - Bezza's acting lessons; Businessman fluffing his lines; Reading The Guardian Isn't A Crime; Pretend pub - Sugar glass/Bezza's entrance
3. Pretend pub - Shizza's strike; French policemen; Ex girlfriend in phone box; Pretend pub - Discussing Shizza's strike; South Pole expedition; Peace camp women; Pretend pub - Blackleg; Dr De Quincy (Hospital rounds); Stonehenge; Pretend pub - Courtroom
4. Pretend pub - Building a motorway; Noel Edmonds; Ex Girlfriend (Confessing to killing cat); Pretend pub - Motorway update (Maggie Is Magic); Parents choosing Eton; Godfather parody; Pretend pub - Shizza in concrete; Restaurant dress code; Fly on the wall documentary crews; Pretend pub - Bulldozer in retreat
5. Pretend pub - Huzza brings in nuclear waste; Revolutionaries; Schoolgirl on phone (The Pill); Pretend pub - Frightened of nuclear waste; Headmaster (Pupil in love); Consumer programme - Japanese; Pretend pub - Sick of nuclear waste; Old people's home; Husband walks in on adulterous wife quickie; Young people obsessed with madrigals/Police uniform; Pretend pub - Nuclear waste didn't happen
© 2000 - 2001 some of the corpses are amusing