COMMENT: Martin Comes A Cropper
First published July 31 2008
Martin Comes A Cropper
Reading out and ridiculing a bad review is a dangerous path - get the tone wrong, and you just end up sounding like a bitter drama queen aghast at the idea of people disliking you.

If you're The Mary Whitehouse Experience in 1990, however, you end up with a pretty funny bit of radio.
To refresh your memories, here's an audio:

...and for our deaf readers, here's a transcript:

Now we'd just like to take a moment to say a word or two about the continuing saga of Salman Rushdie. This is an affair that has somewhat vanished from the public agenda in recent months, but we - as scriptwriters - would like to say that we can never let ourselves forget that freedom of speech and the opportunity to express one's personal opinions should never be subject to violence and intimidation.

Having said that, there is a review of The Mary Whitehouse Experience in Saturday's Times, written by a critic called Martin Cropper, which reads like this:

'Quite honestly, the stuff that gets broadcast is, to borrow Bill Bryson's judicious simile, as thick as pig dribble. A farrago of brain-dead prattle, the opening programme artlessly insulted the likes of Linda McCartney!...and Leon Brittan!...and purported to involve Ian Paisley and Jimmy Savile in some kind of... (SPLUTTERS) sexual lottery! There were contraceptive jokes and cocaine jokes, and queasy injections of social comment à la Ben Elton.'

Quite simply, we would like this man to be shot dead! (BIG AUDIENCE LAUGH, THEN APPLAUSE) Interestingly, the last person to criticise us was Frank Warren1. And perhaps, for those who don't feel that strongly about The Mary Whitehouse Experience, we should read out the next paragraph of Martin Cropper's - that's Martin Cropper's - review.

'...and I'd also like to say that Iran is a shithole... Mohammed is bent... and President Rafsanjani2's mother, to borrow Bill Bryson's judicious phrase... does it for money.'

The Mary Whitehouse Experience
Series 3, Show 3, 20/01/90, BBC Radio 1

1. Boxing promoter, victim of a near-fatal shooting in November 1989.
2. Iranian president, 1989-97

Later in the show, during a fake live phone-in segment, Cropper makes another appearance:

And now, to finish the show, we throw the phone lines open. The number to ring is 014287746 and you can phone in on any subject raised by the week's news or the show so far.

Hello, Mary Whitehouse Experience?


Hello... (SMARMY) this is Martin Cropper speaking! I'd just like to say the sketch about me was absolutely brilliant! I feel such an idiot having criticised you in the past. Keep up the good work - ha ha ha! P.S. Would you mind terribly much calling off the Mujahideen?

The Mary Whitehouse Experience
Series 3, Show 3, 20/01/90, BBC Radio 1

'Martin Comes a Cropper' (its official sketch title in the original script) was included in the third show of Series 3, recorded at The Paris Studios, London, on 16 January 1990 and broadcast the following Saturday. The programme Cropper reviewed was the series-opener on 6 January, and it had been a particularly controversial edition. The 'sexual lottery' he refers to was in fact a spoof quiz entitled 'Shag Or Die', hosted by Baddiel and Alison Goldie (of comedy duo The Weird Sisters - a last-minute stand-in for Jo Brand, the script reveals) in which members of the audience were, on pain of death, forced to declare a sexual preference for various gruesome celebrities. In other words, the team took a childish game hitherto only played in schoolyards and pubs and presented it as an actual gameshow, complete with cheesy quiz music and the gruesome celebrities themselves supposedly participating. Not MWE at its best, and possibly a misjudged item in many ways, but still an enjoyably stupid sequence to end the episode. Listen to it below:

However, it received several complaints. No doubt most of them from listeners who had tuned into the Alan Freeman show three minutes early, but it didn't matter - the sketch quickly became notorious within the BBC. So much so that the matter was 'referred upwards', to none other than BBC Radio's then-current managing director (and one-time member of the I'm Sorry I'll Read that Again team) David Hatch.

Hatch was disgusted by the sketch. With surprising prudishness, considering the innuendo-happy anarchy of ISIRTA (ironically a show which had influenced the MWE ensemble-sketches like 'Murder Weekend', 'All Cosy at Home In The Family House', and, arguably, 'Shag Or Die'), he ordered producer Bill Dare to physically remove the offending section from the quarter-inch mastertape and have it destroyed. 'He didn't want it on BBC premises any more,' recalled Dare on an edition of Radio 4's Feedback many years later. Listeners to the Friday-night repeat therefore heard a far shorter version of the episode, as indeed did BBC7 listeners when the station re-ran the series in 2003. The sketch now only survives courtesy of an off-air (but thankfully high-quality) cassette recording.

The 'Shag Or Die' episode was Dare's penultimate show as producer - Armando Iannucci took over from Show 3 (the Martin Cropper edition). However, Dare's departure was not connected to the incident - Iannucci had already been lined up as the show's new producer, and had in fact shadowed Dare for the opening two episodes.

What's curious about Martin Cropper's review, however, is that - despite being played by Nick Hancock as a Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells type - he doesn't seem particularly revolted by 'Shag Or Die' itself. Unamused, yes, but not offended. Here, published for the first time in 18 years, is that review in full:

There seems little point tuning into a radio show with the rib-nudging title of The Mary Whitehouse Experience (Radio 1) unless one can count on being at least mildly provoked at least once.

This third series has been frenetically puffed as the ne plus ultra of bad taste, the show that would turn your average vicar green, and so on. Recorded in the presence of a sycophantic and 'live' audience, it goes out fairly late on Saturday evenings, cut in the light of listeners' complaints.

The material that never make the airwaves may well, for all I know, live up to its billing; the stuff that gets broadcast is, to borrow Bill Bryson's judicious simile, as thick as pig dribble - a farrago of brain-dead prattle. The opening programme artlessly insulted the likes of Linda McCartney and Leon Brittan, and purported to involve Ian Paisley and Jimmy Savile in a kind of sexual lottery; there were contraceptive jokes and cocaine jokes; there were lists of useless Christmas presents (daring!) and queasy injections of social comment à la Ben Elton.

This last element gave the game away: the show's feebleness has less to do with auntie's blue pencil than with the irredeemable derivativeness of the performers' take and hence ambitions. Marinaded in a decade's worth of 'alternative' comedy - which has now, pace the limitations of obscenity - become mainstream, they are blinkered by the possibilities of disappointing their audience by doing something intelligent, which would at least be something different. One was forcibly reminded of sitting granite-faced over the unlamented television show O.T.T. and talking bets on exactly when the Tupperware was going to be produced.

After this, the funereal whimsy of King Cutler (Radio 3, Thursdays) in which Ivor Cutler and Phyllis King stretch minimalism beyond its breaking point, is refreshing to a degree.

The Times
'Review' supplement, p43, 13/01/90

It's interesting that Cropper refers to the show being 'cut in the light of listeners' complaints' as if this occurred every week. Cropper would, in fact, have submitted his review before the edited repeat was broadcast, suggesting perhaps that the story about Hatch ordering Dare to splice out the tape must have, by that point, spread far beyond the Yorkshire Grey. It's also interesting that Cropper talks about the show being 'frenetically puffed' - since promotion for MWE was practically non-existent at that time, it's likely he's referring here to hype within the industry.

Before he began reviewing radio and TV, Cropper had been a fairly notorious theatre critic for The Times, and he no doubt saw himself as an iconoclast rather than a prude. He certainly had no time for hype (he dismissed Hardwicke House as pseudo-shocking along the same lines as he dismissed MWE) or nostalgia (he talked of sitting 'stony-faced' through the 1987 repeats of Monty Python's Flying Circus). He also didn't suffer the older generation gladly - only a week before his MWE review, he had winced at the David Frost vehicle Pull the Other One! then-currently being broadcast on Radio 2. In 1991, he became one of the contributors to Julie Burchill and Toby Young's anti-old-fart magazine The Modern Review. He was also, as we learn from the MWE review, a fan of Ivor Cutler. So how accurately did Nick Hancock's frothing-at-the-mouth impression reflect the real Cropper? The team pour scorn on his pomposity (casting him as a male Mary Whitehouse figure, in fact), and yet it's clear from the full review that Cropper is affecting a 'Go on, shock me' stance; complaining not that the show was offensive, but that it wasn't nearly offensive enough.

Some might argue that such weariness is disingenuous - a classic case of the puritan who unconvincingly claims to find pornography 'boring'. But note the way the MWE team edit the review - the comment about the Christmas presents sketch is dropped, as indeed are all references to the show being childish, derivative, safe or unfunny, and the words 'Quite honestly...' have been erroneously put in Cropper's mouth. So could it be that the team's real anger here was - whether they consciously realised it or not - directed less at Cropper, but at the attitude of David Hatch? Or at least at the listeners who had made the original complaints?

Cropper's inability to differentiate between MWE and Ben Elton must also have hit a raw nerve. Baddiel and Newman often spoke of their distaste for the piety of the 'alternative comedy' movement, insisting - as Baddiel did during a Radio Nottingham interview in 1992 - that it was full of 'straight-men putting the world to rights'. Elton had also been directly mocked on MWE several times c/o Newman's brilliant impersonation, the main charge being that his interest in politics was merely a penis substitute.

Cropper's review is pompous, of course, and his dismissal of MWE, arguably one of the most ground-breaking, refreshing and original radio shows ever broadcast, is as misplaced in hindsight as it was at the time. Any show which gleefully uses the phrase 'Mohammed is bent' (a joke about controversy, sure, but an extraordinary line to survive the edit all the same, and - given the humourlessness exhibited by extremist fundamentalists - a genuinely dangerous one) cannot be accused of skimping on the bad taste. However, in 2008, where anything vaguely successful gets automatically cheered along and critics obediently sing from the same one-million-listeners-can't-be-wrong hymnsheet, it's hard not to grant Cropper a small amount of respect all the same. How many critics today would write a similarly vicious review about a hotly-tipped bunch of comedians? How many of them would openly shudder at a gushing press release and decide not to play along?

Naturally, the MWE team (and their audience) get the last laugh. But listening to the Martin Cropper sequence - and, to a lesser extent, the 'Shag Or Die' sketch - is like visiting another comedy planet entirely. It's a reminder of a time when radio comedy could genuinely feel spiky and renegade; when there was still a countercultural Sex-Pistols-vs-Bill-Grundy-style 'us and them' tension between the old guard and the new; when radio comedy actually felt exciting. These days, 'a farrago of brain-dead prattle' is a fitting description of almost everything on the airwaves.

UPDATE: The Cut Cropper Gags

The following should ideally go in the Edit News entry, but probably reads better here. A squiz through the original recording script for The Mary Whitehouse Experience Series 3, Show 3 reveals that, in addition to the two extracts highlighted in the main article above, there were originally several more damning references to Martin Cropper in the phone-in sequence.

a) Cropper's grovelling 'the sketch about me was absolutely brilliant' line continued thus:

I particularly liked the bit about colostomy bags - it made me, and my supplier, hoot. Could I have a copy, as I'd like to print it in full in tomorrow's Times.

The Mary Whitehouse Experience
Series 3, Show 3, 20/01/90, original script extract

One must assume that basic libel worries made them drop the above.

b) The phonecall from 'Woody Allen' continued beyond what was actually broadcast:

Hello, this is Woody Allen. I'm just phoning to complain about people who say that all my films are completely autobiographical, to the extent that I merely record on film what happens to me every day.

Oh, I see.

Cut! Right, that's a rap everybody. By the way, Baddiel and Newman - thanks for the jokes, but I'm afraid I couldn't get Mia to do the one about going to the toilet with cancer. And I'm afraid I've had to change the title of my new film Crimes and Misdemeanors from your original title 'Martin Cropper Is A Total Wanker'.

OK, cheerio.

The Mary Whitehouse Experience
Series 3, Show 3, 20/01/90, original script extract

c) After the Johnny Morris phone call about the hippo - "...cos I'd just run her over, see..." (which ends the show as transmitted) we get the following:

That's a news story the audience clearly have not read. * And lastly, on line four...

Hello? David? Some children talk to their mothers. I wish you'd told me - I haven't got a lot in. There's a Victor Mature film on tonight.

Yes, what do you want to say?

I'm converting to Islam. Martin Cropper, watch out.

The Mary Whitehouse Experience
Series 3, Show 3, 20/01/90, original script extract

* Yes, that line's in the script - very odd.
** 'Beattie' was a stereotypical 'Jewish mother' character, portrayed by Maureen Lipman in a series of annoying TV commercials for British Telecom ('Beattie' = 'BT' - get it?)

 Edit News: The Mary Whitehouse Experience
 Edit News: Newman and Baddiel In Pieces
 Comment: Get Funny Fanny