First published March 2000
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 brief guide.

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!' 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).

The Bodgers
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.

Moray Hunter and Jack (nee John) Docherty
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 additional material.

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, who described the show as a cross between 'Monty Python, Naked Video, and Who Dares Wins'. The 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..."). The minimalist titles, which changed every week and involved a brief musical sting hummed by Baikie, featured a still of a sunbathing banana.

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
zzensible vather
Mr George and Mr Don
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 Absolutely 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 Absolutely 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 sketches). Absolutely 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 re-takes.

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 material'. Talking about a doctor's waiting room, she described how 'your mum does read the mangazines [sic] 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 trailers.)

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, 'Hello'...'

Calum Gilhoolie
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, don't we?' and 'Comedy of observation - that's really the trick, isn't it?'. Other 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 up...').

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:
(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 sir?

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.


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.

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.

(ANXIOUS) Ask 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!


Father - what about Majorca?



We could stay in the Hotel Concrete!



It says here that for lunch, dinner and tea we could eat fish and chips!



We could even book into a dicsiqute!



I believe it's called a package holiday!


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 on.

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!' Hovis explains. 'Because, apparently, he didn't actually have false teeth. (Pause) He does now, obviously...'

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?"

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