Absolutely, which - at its height - was
described by Vox magazine as one of Channel 4's best-kept
secrets, ran from 1989 to 1993, and remains one of the most
under-appreciated sketch shows in history. This belief is
further endorsed by the modesty of its creators, who are also
equally unwilling to dwell for too long on its legacy or appeal.
For those who missed out (bastards, the lot of you), here's a
Comedy in the late 1980s was at a crossroads. The Mayalls,
Sayles and Eltons who had hitherto been tarred with the
'alternative comedy' brush were people who had attracted
interest because they had not followed the traditional route to a
career in comedy - they had not been in Footlights, they had not
written for Week Ending, and their apprenticeship had
been gleaned largely from late-night, bearpit stand-up shows. In
1989, however, these people were starting to make proper money at
last, and their television work became increasingly less
experimental and more viewer-friendly as a result. Meanwhile, those
of the same age who had been to Oxbridge and done their
National Service writing for Alas Smith and Jones
suddenly became the new media darlings. Andy Hamilton came up with
Drop The Dead Donkey, Angus Deayton hosted Have
I Got News For You, and Clive Anderson got his own chat
show. In the midst of all this was Absolutely, which
remains an unparalleled and under-rated gem.
The show was the work of Absolutely Productions from day one.
Fellow, non-alternative scene contemporaries Rory McGrath and Jimmy
Mulville (with whom some members of Absolutely had
worked with on Radio Active) set up Hat Trick
Productions in 1986, and the idea of setting up an independent
production company suddenly became an attractive and fashionable
prospect for those who had spent their twenties writing for
badly-paid Radio 4 quiz shows. With television stations at this
time being obliged to take a proportion of their output from
independent companies, it meant a form of creative control that
dreams are made of. Not to mention a nice logo.
The Absolutely team consisted of four Scottish
performers who had all attended the same school and had worked
together on radio and at the Edinburgh Fringe as 'The
Bodgers' - John Docherty, Moray Hunter, Gordon Kennedy and
Peter Baikie. Docherty (who consequently changed his name to Jack)
and Hunter were the most well-established writers, and their names
were familiar to viewers of many mid-80s comedy programmes. They
wrote the Spitting Image sketch about the Queen
forgetting to troop the colour, and the sketch where Smith and
Jones try to explain to a sales conference what the buttons on a
stereo do ("The Dolby button allows you to listen to your
cassette with the little green light on or off..."). They
were joined by former Footlights president Morwenna Banks, who had
also made sporadic appearances on Radio Active
(including the Australian stage version), together with brief
bit-parts in other shows - 'Third Whore' in a banned
Dangerous Brothers sketch from Saturday Live, for
example. Partnering Amanda Swift, with whom she had worked on Radio
2's Gorham & Swift, she wrote a book
(The Joke's On Us, 1987) about women in comedy.
She also produced a documentary about the burgeoning 'Comedy Of
Hate' non-phenomena, which was promptly banned by Channel 4.
John Sparkes was familiar to viewers of Naked Video
as 'Siadwel', an earnest anorak-clad poet who would sit on
a bed and happily tell people about his week ('People say to
me, 'Siadwel - go for it!'...so I went for it. It had
gone.'), but he left after the third series to work on
Absolutely. Both had joined The Bodgers for their
second Radio 4 series, resulting in a swift name-change from
In Other Words The Bodgers (1985) to Bodgers, Banks
& Sparkes (1986).
In Other Words... The Bodgers (four episodes
produced by Alan Nixon, recorded at the BBC's Paris Studios),
proudly wore its postmodernism on its sleeve, and the programmes
were full of self-referential 'anti-jokes' (as was
relatively common for Radio 4 comedy shows of the period, although
perhaps not to the same degree), the team often adding routines in
post-production, commenting on the audience's behaviour, and
offering a choice of punchlines. Continuity announcer Susan Reay
also provided the intro and outro to each show, clearly displeased
by the quality of the humour - particularly the signature tune,
which was a sustain-free plonk of a single piano key. It was a
superb series, with a witty script that seemed always to be one
step ahead of the listener. Docherty and Hunter wrote the shows,
whilst Baikie provided the music.
Bodgers Banks & Sparkes (six episodes,
again produced by Nixon and recorded at the Gate Theatre in
Battersea) provided something altogether more obvious, and Hunter
and Docherty's surreal wanderings were now performed in
character as 'Don & George', who would link the
material and muse on what they'd been 'written into this
week'. Baikie also provided a proper theme tune - a jaunty
melody later used in Absolutely as the song
'Life Ain't Nothing Compared To Death'. Each show
had a loose theme (apart from the final show, which had the theme
of having no theme), while Sparkes provided a weekly
'Siadwel' monologue and Banks commented on being the token
'girl one'. Again, the script was written by Docherty (now
referred to as 'Johnny No-Name') and Hunter, with music by
Baikie, although Banks and Sparkes were credited as writing
|Moray Hunter and Jack (nee John) Docherty|
The first Absolutely
series, produced by Nixon, began on 23 May 1989 (Tuesday nights at 11pm), and each of
the six shows had a luxurious running time of 45 minutes. The press
release was largely ignored, although an early group photo
bizarrely ended up in the Leicester Mercury
described the show as a cross between 'Monty Python,
Naked Video, and Who Dares Wins'
first episode opened with a pre-titles sequence parodying the
current vogue for unconventional camera angles on youth television,
with members introducing the new 'radical' show either in
extreme close-up or completely out of shot ("I'm so
radical, I'm still in the dressing-room..."
minimalist titles, which changed every week and involved a brief
musical sting hummed by Baikie, featured a still of a sunbathing
The content of the first show was interesting - some
sketches were very traditional, observational pieces concerning job
interviews and people phoning for pizza, while other items took
conventional situations and filled them with slightly sinister
characters. The most impressive of these was The Nice Family, who
became regular characters in the series. It was essentially a
monologue for Docherty, as a pillar-of-the-community father with an
odd, anachronistic hold on his four teenage children.
|The Nice Family's|
What was so exciting about this performance was that there
was no heavy-handed intention to satirise such a character -
instead, he was there simply to be as funny as possible, either
with unconventional speech (generally pronouncing an 'f' as
a 'v') or with a strange line in tautologies which his
family seemed to adopt ('Ah, breakfast - the most important
breakfast of the day...'). However, this was no messy,
anything-goes twaddle: it was, like all their sketches, impeccably
script-edited and rehearsed. The essence of
seemed to be that there is no point in being
anarchic and post-modern if you don't possess the talent to
write a disciplined sketch to build upon in the first place. The
team could write Proper Comedy Sketches like no
one else, and this faith in their ability meant the viewer welcomed
the occasional post-modernism more warmly. One very traditional
sketch involved a suspicious bank clerk (Sparkes) who refused to
believe that a customer (Baikie) wasn't about to rob him. This
was a very well-written piece, and funny in itself, but the item
ended with Baikie delivering a corny punchline and the two
performers bursting out laughing (a gimmick they used on many later
was very sparing with its
cynicism, and this became one of its many strengths: the
Beckett-influenced world of Don and George, for example, was always
reliably joke-heavy, and Sparkes' character Denzil (a rare
example of genuine television surrealism) was initially performed
as a conventional monologue.
In spite of this, the experimentation in the first series
was extraordinary. One sequence involved Sparkes, against a plain
background, simply humming 'Greensleeves' for NO REASON
WHATSOEVER. There was also a deliberate decision not to include any
television parodies (unless they involved the
Absolutely team addressing the viewer as themselves), and
to exploit the three 12-minute sections of each programme to create
a real shape for the show. This involved impressive use of long,
Pythonesque linking devices, which allowed the comedy time to (for
want of a better word) breathe. There was also an edge to
the shows due to there being no time for studio
The second series, which ran for eight 45-minute shows
from 22 August 1990 (at a Wednesday 10pm time-slot) marked the
team's zenith. Most characters from the first series were
re-introduced, but with better and punchier material. Most notable
was Banks' 'Little Girl' character, who - in spite of
being a very traditional role for comedians (Beryl Reid, Terry
Scott) - demonstrated Banks' extraordinary talent for
scriptwriting. Banks, rather than going for cute chuckles, managed
to parody the stream-of-consciousness speech patterns of a small
child perfectly without ever deviating from the need for regular
laugh-lines. Describing the Queen's crown, for example, she
announced that it was made of 'diamonds and gold and
. Talking about a doctor's waiting room, she
described how 'your mum does read the mangazines
with pages dropping out and cooking in it'
The character was initially performed at quite a slow
pace, but - by the second series - she was a mewling, spitting,
cackling creature who couldn't get her words out quick enough.
The decision to place the camera slightly above her head was also
inspired, making Banks squint upwards as she spoke her lines.
Denzil returned, this time in two-handed sketches with his wife
Gwynedd, always accompanied by subtitles in Welsh. (This was
clearly Sparkes' dig at the pedantry of those who obsessively
promote the Welsh language, although S4C clearly missed the joke
and insisted on correcting some of the spelling on one of the
Other ideas continued: in the first series, we had
experienced a slide-show about the town of Stoneybridge,
accompanied by a gormless narration ('Come to
Stoneybridge...with its stony bridge!'), but series two and
three saw this idea develop, and we got to experience the actual
councillors behind the film, headed by Gordon Kennedy. The idea got
sillier as it went on, with Stoneybridge bidding to host the
Olympics and coming up with more and more elaborate promotions.
'What would you say to someone interested in investing in
Stoneybridge?' asks Sparkes. 'Well,' says
Baikie, 'First of all,
Hunter appeared as Calum Gilhooley, again a very
traditional sketch-role performed to perfection: his basic
characteristic was that he was dim and boring but always seemed
very contented. In the first episode of series one, Docherty
(appearing as himself) sold Calum his house rather than spend an
evening with him. What saved this from being a run-of-the-mill
character was the quality of the lines themselves ('I never
ever use a stapler...unless I do')
and the assuredness with
which he said them.
|"The problem I find with comedy is I never know when to laugh..."|
The team showed their awareness of the derivative nature
of such a figure by ending one sketch with Michael Grade (then
controller of Channel 4) and some grey-suited colleagues walking in
and being shown around the set. Hunter comes out of character,
explains to them what the Calum character is about, and Grade's
chums respond with comments like 'We all know one of those,
and 'Comedy of observation -
that's really the trick, isn't it?'
comedians would have looked sneery and over-clever with such a
vignette, but - due to the quality of the sketch that preceded it -
it made them all the more fantastic.
Baikie's musical contributions were also at their
height in the second series, usually accompanied by animated
sequences (made by Triffic Films, who created the Have I Got
News For You opening titles). One song advocated that the
world's ills would be solved if everyone wore a suit
('Have you ever seen a chartered accountant/Involved in a
potato blight?'), while another parodied
environment-friendly protest songs.
|"Cle-ver, I'm frightfully|
The theme music was also more sumptuously instrumentated
in this series. Baikie himself appeared as 'Mr Muzak', an
ersatz Noël Cowerd figure (who had more in common with Richard
Stilgoe), who would sit at a piano and sing about how clever he
was. Baikie subsequently performed a lot of these songs live
alongside Kennedy in his band The Hairstyles, although they sadly
never made it onto CD.
Sparkes developed his old man character 'Bert
Bastard' from series one, where the character was essentially
Sparkes shivering in a filthy kitchen going 'Oh, bloody
hell'. In series two, he had great monologues with
terrific, pathos-ridden one-liners ('If there's one
thing I can't stand, I can't stand
The 'Nice Family' sketches (and arguably the
entire series) reached their peak when the family visited a travel
agent. It's worth printing this sketch in full, because it
remains Jack Docherty's finest ten minutes:
TRAVEL AGENT (KENNEDY)
(TO A CUSTOMER) And if you buy the timeshare for a hundred years, you
get this plastic spade absolutely free. Okay? Bye just now then.
(CUSTOMER LEAVES; HE TURNS TO MR NICE). Yes, can I help you
MR NICE (DOCHERTY)
Well, I was wondering when you'd have the common dezenzy to enquire
after me. I've been stood here, as they say, for over a quarter
of a minute, without so much as a 'How do you do, you
look like a particularly vine vather and member of the
community'. Yes you can help me. I am a vather, and this
is my vamily, who are a vamily.
HE REVEALS HIS FOUR CHILDREN; HIS WIFE IS SEEN CLEANING THE BROCHURES WITH HER BACK TO EVERYONE
We were interested in booking a vacazion.
I see. And er, what did you have in mind?
(SCOFFS ELABORATELY) Well, if you'll
just give me a minute I'll come to that! Our ideal holiday is
as follows: we would like to be located within easy walking
distance of Somewhere Normal.
ELDEST SON (SPARKES)
Yes. We would like to
rise at five-thirty am, ablute, and then report for an interesting
lecture on the river trade of the Danube.
Next, we would like a
bracing walk, followed by a short film on pottery.
We would not like any food, as my wife is not
only an handzome woman, but is also a vine cook.
FIRST TWIN (HUNTER)
about the books!
(IRRITATED) Yes yes yes! And whichever
country you choose for us, it must be ensured that 'The Big
Boy's Book Of Interesting Things' is available in the local
newzagent's. (SEVERELY) In English, I hazen to
arrd! Finally, it must be ensured that we are surrounded by
people exactly the same as us. So, where are we going?
What about your house?
(SCOFFS AGAIN) Well, as president of the
People Who Are Exactly Like Me Club, I do not expect to receive any
lip from the lower orders. I consider the matter closed - vamily,
you may browzze! (THE FAMILY CONSULT THE BROCHURES)
Correct me. Correct me if I'm incorrect, but
I understand that Albania is populated solely by heathens, horses
and lesbians. Next suggestion please!
TRAVEL AGENT LAUNCHES A V-SIGN IN MR NICE'S DIRECTION
Father - what about Majorca?
MR NICE DOES A DOUBLE-TAKE
We could stay in the Hotel Concrete!
MR NICE DOES ANOTHER DOUBLE-TAKE, FALLING AGAINST THE FURNITURE
FIRST TWIN (BAIKIE)
It says here that for
lunch, dinner and tea we could eat fish and chips!
MR NICE DOES AN EXTREME DOUBLE-TAKE, FALLING TO THE FLOOR
We could even book into a dicsiqute!
MR NICE DOES ANOTHER EXTREME DOUBLE-TAKE, DESTROYING THE SET EVEN MORE
I believe it's called a package
MR NICE THROWS HIMSELF BACKWARDS THROUGH A WALL
Series 2, Show 1, 22/08/90, Channel 4
|John Sparkes' 'Gwyn': "I'm very unpredictable..."|
Few people have matched the team's performance on this
occasion. It is a tightly-packed series of stupid one-liners, all
connected by Docherty's extraordinary delivery and unsettling
appearance. (The comparison with John Cleese's 'Mr
Praline' character is a fair one, and Mr Nice even sports a
similar pac-a-mac.) This sketch is, without fear of hyperbole, one
of the finest pieces of television comedy ever broadcast, and
demonstrates Docherty's genius not simply as a comic actor, but
as a big-ballsed, paid-up, thrusting, demonic comedy performer in a
league of most comedians aren't even aware. Of course, there
were about six such sketches in every episode...
The third series arrived on 17 May 1991, and was
transmitted at 10:30pm on Friday nights - a slot traditionally
reserved for Channel 4's most popular comedy series. This
series, which again ran for eight shows, only had a running time of
35 minutes (effectively 30 minutes of material), something which
the cast had insisted upon. Although the elongated linking material
had shaped the show in interesting ways, Docherty felt that it was
often self-indulgent. (Indeed, Absolutely Productions edited the
second series down to six 35-minute episodes for the 'Very
Bits Of Absolutely' compilations in spring 1991.) The third
series was certainly up to the same standard as series two,
although it was clear that the team had now found a formula and
there was generally less surprise and experimentation going
The spirit and verve was the same, however - usually with
sketches examining middle-class angst. In one episode, there is a
running joke about a bride preparing for a wedding, culminating in
a home video directed by her film-school-educated brother-in-law
(Docherty), who edits the footage like a rock video. The family are
embarrassed, to which Docherty jumps up and showers everyone with
insults like 'How can you be bothered to be bothered
about that?' and 'Here's to you, you collective
waste of blood'. Pausing for a second, Docherty then comes
out of character and addresses the viewer: 'God, I'd
love to do that. Still, I can't really - I'm a little
bit too sensible for that sort of thing...'. It echoed
previous Docherty rants where an eponymous character had rallied
against the world ('Why not be nasty to people - it
works!'), and was genuinely moving. When Docherty and
Hunter performed in a sketch about businessmen speaking gibberish
(referring to everything as 'Perkins') or a perfectly-timed
sketch about solicitors having long names, it was a convincing
revenge-fantasy for ex-lawyer Hunter, and one with which the viewer
had complete sympathy.
|'On The Lavatory'|
with Frank Hovis
Sparkes also introduced the 'Frank Hovis'
character into series three. This was basically a series of
scatological anecdotes from 'the world's most disgusting
man', but Sparkes rose above the shock value to create a
genuinely repulsive, sub-Rigsby/Derek & Clive figure whose
appeal once again rested on the quality of the lines. He spoke for
example about his friend becoming drunk, and the fact that he had
to remove his false teeth. 'He was furious!'
explains. 'Because, apparently, he didn't actually
have false teeth. (Pause) He does now,
By this point, Absolutely was certainly
popular, although the press-release mentality of the media at the
time meant that people like Reeves and Mortimer were easier to
market. However, a fan did apparently go up to Vic Reeves and tell
him they were 'a big fan of his characters, especially the ones
who all dress in beige' (a mistaken allusion to The Nice Family
which Banks was mischievously pleased with).
The fourth series (again consisting of 35-minute episodes)
began on 22 January 1993, and marked Alan Nixon's departure as
producer. His replacement, David Tyler, further restricted the
sprawling nature of the format, with an emphasis on sketches which,
in Docherty's words, 'cut to the joke'. Series four
was, for the most, part, disappointing and many of the characters
lost their focus. The Nice Family, in particular, became less
sinister and indulged in more obvious gimmicks (a photo of John
Major on the wall, for example), and Docherty seemed to have
trouble doing the voice. The Calum Gilhooley sketches were weaker,
as were the Little Girl routines. Many sketches were dumbed down
quite substantially, with their characteristics simplified and
their surprise-value non-existent. There were a couple of enjoyable
items - a splendidly-choreographed song about bank holidays, and
Baikie's amazing 'Laughing Man' (a Pavarotti/Topol
figure who sings about pleb-tickling T-shirts and pub notices
before pissing himself laughing) being two examples - but series
four didn't really make for exciting or provocative viewing.
Sadly, because the show once again occupied the Friday 10:30pm
slot, most viewers' casual dismissal of Absolutely as a whole is based on these final six episodes.
Despite this final series, Absolutely
remains unequalled in television comedy. Quite simply, if you
don't like Absolutely you don't like comedy.
An average episode of Absolutely is like a good
episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus, Not The
Nine O'Clock News and Harry Enfield's
Television Programme rolled into one. No, really. The
paler, trendier Fast Show owes Absolutely a monstrous debt.
To this day, the Absolutely team damn the
original series with faint praise, bemoaning the success-rate of
the sketches and cringing at their young performances. This
attitude is baffling, as Absolutely (for its first
three series at least) was nothing short of a weekly masterpiece.
But that's comedians for you. We can only hope that enough
people rediscover its brilliance to persuade them otherwise, and
that more writers will cite it as an influence. Absolutely, to use the worst analogy in the world, could become the Nick Drake of sketch comedy.
And that is why Absolutely was fantastic. It was, it's TRUE!
"Didn't expect that, did you?"