A shooting star in the comedy firmament
True or false: the one-off Christmas special of Vic and Bob’s cult quiz show proved it still has comedy cache?
While people in television-land were speculating over Christmas as to who would become the new Dr Who (as it transpired, the answer proved to be: ‘Dr who?’), I was more interested in who would replace Will Self as team captain in the 1990s cult comedy quiz show Shooting Stars.
In the latter case, the BBC didn’t opt for someone who looks about 12, but went for a rather better-known name: Jack Dee, a man who has as lugubrious a visage and demeanour as Mr Self. It was a bit of a safe choice. Personally, I would have gone for one of the most brilliant eccentrics of our time: Ricky Gervais’ sidekick/radio producer, Karl Pilkington. But it was still great to see the return of Shooting Stars for a one-off special over Christmas.
Shooting Stars, as presented by Jim Moir (aka Vic Reeves) and Bob Mortimer (aka Bob Mortimer), was a bizarre parody of the traditional panel quiz show and old Saturday night variety-style programmes. It was one of the most surreal and anarchic quiz shows ever. It’s actually quite hard to explain to those who never watched it just what Shooting Stars was about (here’s a primer for the uninitiated). Suffice to say that a bewildered one-time guest, Larry Hagman, of Dallas fame, remarked on air in February 2002 that ‘I’ve been on some loony shows in my time, but this takes the cake’ and then vowed to fire his agent for putting him on the show.
Shooting Stars was also, inadvertently, one of the most influential programmes of the 1990s, in that British quiz shows became a lot more fun in its wake: Question of Sport became far less austere, and I can’t help thinking that the likes of Never Mind the Buzzcocks, Mock the Week and 8 out of 10 Cats owe much of their deliberately chaotic, adolescent-style humour to the creators of Shooting Stars.
Last week’s Shooting Stars Christmas special featured all the usual nonsensical questions and answers: ‘True or False: Bill Cosby was the first ever black man? False, it was actually Sidney Poitier’; ‘Name a type of bee that produces milk. The correct answer was “boobies”’; ‘True or False: Jeremy Irons?’
The show featured all the predictable slights against Ulrika Jonsson on account of her famous sex life, as well as nonsensical songs by George Dawes (Matt Lucas), Vic Reeves being a sexual pervert towards the most attractive female guest, and the customary catchwords: ‘We really want to see those fingers’, ‘IRANU’ and ‘UVAVU’.
So I guess there was an element of nostalgic familiarity to the Christmas special, but in truth, it was a fine return – and on its own merits. And I’m glad Vic and Bob had the courage to return to the programme which made them into household names. Because too many comedians are afraid to do just that, for fear of posterity judging them harshly.
There is a great dread among artists of different hues of having their reputation besmirched by carrying on too long, of being remembered not for their work at their prime, but for their often substandard later work. There is an old quip among Beatles fans that it was a good thing that Yoko Ono helped to break up the band in 1970, otherwise the Fab Four might have suffered the same fate as the Rolling Stones and The Who, who really should have called it a day at around the same time. The Clash, who released their much-panned last album Cut The Crap in 1985 should have really cut the crap after London Calling in 1979.
In the literary world, Kurt Vonnegut could never lived up to the success of Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), PG Wodehouse’s later Jeeves and Wooster stories were senile and derivative, while after Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), Philip K Dick’s novels proved to be insane nonsense. Monty Python should never have done their last series without John Cleese, Woody Allen has become a derivative parody of himself, and some say Mel Brooks should have given up after Blazing Saddles (1974). (I personally reckon he should never have gotten into filmmaking in the first place.)
The fear of carrying on too long and becoming repetitive probably led John Cleese and Connie Booth only to make two series of Fawlty Towers in the 1970s. This fear is certainly why Steve Merchant and Ricky Gervais halted after two series of The Office. Likewise, there were only ever two series of The Young Ones. But while I appreciate comedians wanting their creations to live on favourably in hindsight, sometimes you get the feeling they are just being a bit too timid.
Some of the best comedies are those that have dared to venture beyond the forbidden two series boundary. Cheers for example, which ran from 1982 to 1993, never lost any of its zest or appeal. Dad’s Army (which, trust me, as you hit your mid-thirties, despite all your previous misgivings, you will start to find funny), ran for nine years – from 1968 to 1977 – before the cast all started to die. Then there’s the long-running Friends (1994-2004) and Frasier (1993-2004). M*A*S*H (1972-1983) does nothing for me, and I have mixed feelings about ‘Allo ‘Allo (1982-1992), but their endurance suggest there were at least some people out there who actually did find them amusing.
Frasier is a perfect example of producers showing tenacity and perseverance. Its second last season in 2002-2003 was a drab affair, but Paramount had faith in the show and its very last series is considered a triumph by many. This is a salutary lesson. Imagine if the BBC had given up after the first, awful Blackadder series. No, Richard Curtis and Ben Elton were determined to ensure Edmund Blackadder, Baldrick and Percy would return. The result was Blackadder II, perhaps the finest comedy programme of the 1980s.
Maybe a third series of Fawlty Towers, The Young Ones or The Office would have been equally memorable. We will never know. But at least we got to find out this Christmas that Vic and Bob haven’t lost their touch. I sincerely hope they will take the gamble and give us another series of Shooting Stars – and that the BBC will accept it.
Patrick West is spiked‘s TV columnist.
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