"I suppose you think
it's somehow amusing
to go around saying things that are
Alfresco was a series so
fantastic Granada could only have shown it by accident. And
when it was repeated a few years back 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
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 (hitherto only viewable in the form of short clips on comedy documentaries - Fry & Laurie's RSC-endorsed
'Shakespeare Masterclass' and Emma Thompson's prophetic parody of an Oscar acceptance speech being obvious examples - or to collectors as a rather wobbly off-air, The Cellar Tapes was finally released on DVD in June 2006 as an extra on the A Bit of Fry & Laurie Series 2 DVD).
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, just after News At Ten. 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' (in a sequence which 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
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 execution (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-familiarBeethoven.
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 (''Dirty people, the Arabs. Your wife'll probably come back with one hand and clap." / "That'd be a good trick." / "What would?" / "Juggling.")
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. With a good wind behind us, we'll get an article about this on SOTCAA soon. Anyway...
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 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
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.