Kevin Eldon and Tony Roche's unheard bit of whimsy for BBC Radio 4
Radio comedy should be our saviour. In a comedy world where TV is increasingly letting us down, either through budget constraints, egotistical performers/producers and a general lack of talent from all concerned, and live comedy is being pissed up against a wall by men in leather jackets and those bloody mobile phone headsets which allow the wearer to wank all over us while keeping in touch with head office, the humble wireless should be providing the meat of comedy.
Sadly, it would appear that those in charge of preparing radio light entertainment simply want a quiet life and pepper our schedules with easily-digestable tedium these days. This means that neat little curios like The Twelve Ronnies don't get any further than the pilot stage.
These days comedy seems to be heading in a rather awkward direction. Too many performers seem embarrassed by the idea of doing stuff under a comedy banner and all too often mold their output to look hazy and meandering, taking a cue from The Day Today's naturalistic approach but forgetting to do so with any kind of verve or enthusiasm, or a good script. You're left with the feeling that they're attempting to paper over the cracks in a weak script by affecting an air of 'I'm being interesting...'. Spirited, enthusiastic delivery is sytematically replaced by joyless, dull 'dark' meandering devoid of soul or indeed comedy. There's very little of the densely-written jovial 'Ta da da da da COMEDY!!!' spirit of the eighties left.
Kevin Eldon sits neatly between the two extremes. He has often proven that he can handle (and make gold of) a bad 'naturalistic' comedy script but luckily isn't afraid to get off the party-line high horse and play screaming babbling madmen if he's in the mood to do so. It's impossible to put into words what Eldon is capable of doing with a comedy line. He claims not to be a collector of comedy shows, idly dismissing the activities of those who do, yet his mind is ticking over with every comedy voice uttered in jest over the past forty years. When he's given free reign to inflict this soupy historical mess of voices on others there's no stopping him. Think of Packing Them In's 'Kevin Boyle', Fist
Of Fun's 'Simon Quinlank' (or 'Rod Hull') or The Sunday Show's jaw-dropping astrologer character. Manic Eldon is always best, spitting comedy at the audience with vigour.
Put this vigour into a no nonsense, traditional, 'this is a comedy show and here are our sketches' format, and you're halfway back to the good old days of radio. The Twelve Ronnies
could have achieved this. The pilot was written by and starred Kevin Eldon and backroom boy Tony Roche. The other actors were Sally Phillips, Peter Serafinawicz and Bill Cashmore. The show was recorded at the BBC Radio Theatre on the 16 May 1997 to an audience which featured several News Huddlines aficionados and Frank Skinner.
Eldon and Roche are our main hosts, Roche, an ineffectual sub-Henry Normal drip, bullied and brow-beaten by Eldon's persona who takes total dictatorial charge of the situation. Eldon introduces the actors, whom he despises ('the affected imbeciles') and
takes perverse delight in making them say nasty things about
themselves. This is a genuine personal bugbear of Eldon who, having
spent more time than he cares to remember in casting sessions with
uppity actors who genuinely believe the world owes them a living,
relished the change for revenge. Eldon urges his slower
protégé Roche to hurl abuse at the actors too, resulting in a faintly Cook & Moorish double-act situation. Roche's meek character keen to impress his unhinged mentor but only highlighting his meekitude.
The pair have an odd conversational chemistry - otherwise banal exchanges are stretched into quick-fire silly-season blethers ('I don't really care, do you?'/'No I don't really care'/'I don't'/'Don''t you?'/'No I don't really care') and this lunacy punctuates the show.
Highlighting the worries of writing 'proper punchlines', Eldon informs the audience that when a sketch has run its natural course they will hear a sound effect. This turns out to be a horn followed by the ensemble laughing weakly. Okay, so the mere mention of punchline-avoidance brings out the yawning Python fan in all of us, but when you actually hear the sound effect it ceases to matter as it's hilarious.
The actual sketch material is pleasant and dry; highlights being 'The Indignant Minstrel' (who loses it with the object of his humorous ditty: 'You could be the last Panda/Or living in Rwanda...so for god's sake, try and get things into some sort of perspective, will you?') and a great piece about how fantastically sensitive the radio mics are, picking up flies buzzing, death-watch beetles 'tap
tappity tapping' and, finally, Prince Phillip farting ('Fantastically sensitive!' / 'Loudmouthed Greek more like' / 'No ha ha ha, I meant the mics...').
Eldon's monologues are hilarious, in particular 'Banato – Island Man' which we'll reproduce here since the BBC didn't want it:
FX DESERT ISLAND HAWAIIAN MUSIC FADES IN AND OUT/BACKGROUND WASH OF HEAVY SURF AND EXOTIC BIRD CALLS (UNDER)
Greetings. I am Banato, Island
Man. My habitation is this beautiful island. My home is a fabulous
dung bivouac, moulded by my own strong hands out of my own strong
dung. My friends are the moustache whale and the sea sheep, the
dwarf elk and the Kenneth monkey. Oh, I am never lonely. And of
course, I always have crabs. My mother is the sea and my father is
the sky, my sisters are the grains of sand upon the golden beach and
although they are manifold I have a name for each and every one of
them: Laura. I came to this bejewelled haven ten years ago, dizzy
from the helter skelter of city life.
GRAMS FLASHBACK MUSIC
FX ONE VERY SLOW MANUAL TYPEWRITER TYPING
No more, I reject it all. I am
leaving this soulless cacophony forever to go to a world beyond your
FX SLOW RATCH OF TYPEWRITER CARRIAGE BEING DRAGGED BACK AT THE END OF A LINE OF TYPING
(DISINTERESTED) Bye then, Derek.
FX SLOW TYPING RE-COMMENCES
GRAMS FLASH-FORWARD MUSIC
FX DESERT ISLAND ATMOS (HEAVY SURF/EXOTIC BIRD CALLS)
I was free, and selling all my
possessions, I came to seek paradise. Many are the strange and
beautiful tales I have to tell of my life here. Only last week, a
gull lay injured upon the beach. It had broken its wing. I applied
the resin of the Patasatta tree and bound the shattered wing with
the pungent orgy leaf dampened by fine spray from the gushing hill
stream. I watched over the bird unceasingly keeping it warm and fed
and watered. Three days later it sicked up its guts. There are a
million tales to tell. For I am Banato, island man. Till next
The Twelve Ronnies
Unaired pilot show for Radio 4
It's not all perfection obviously - a convoluted sketch about a new invention which allows one to imitate the voices of famous singers comes across as just a convenient way of shoehorning in some quick impressions (Bowie doing 'Grand Old Duke Of York' sounds class though), while a fake book discussion show ('Literally Literary') falls down by being an unintentionally rewritten Python sketch. It does however save itself at the end by flying sideways up its own arse at the end, prompting producer Jane Berthoud to make a voice-from-the-box cameo to complain that it doesn't make sense.
With Eldon and Roche in the box sorting things out, the actors attempt a mutiny of the show, insisting that they can continue without the writers. Their attempts are monosyllabic and fruitless but the actors assume they've done well, backslapping like fools.
A few sketches attempt to turn the whole sketch-writing premise on its head.
'That was great, that last sketch', bleats Eldon with the enthusiasm of a teenager, 'That had everything a radio sketch should have - a door, two slightly posh men and then another door...'
The following is probably as post-modern as The Twelve Ronnies gets.
What I like, Tone, is when comedy sort of refers to itself.
How do you mean, Kev?
You know, when the subjects of
structure and content become the focus of what an item of comedy is
Oh, you mean when it disappears up
its own arse?
Yes! I like that.
I do. I really do.
I don't. Do you really?
Yes I do. Listen.
FX SHOP DOOR OPENS AND BELL RINGS
Good morning, Sir. Can I help you?
Well, I hope so. I'm looking for a sketch.
Any particular kind of sketch, Sir?
Well, I'd like it to be in a shop. With one of those bells...
Like this, Sir?
FX SHOP DOOR OPENS AND BELL RINGS
Yes, that's it. That's great. And ideally it should have two men talking...
A bit like we are now, Sir?
Yes, yes, I suppose so. Only a bit more interesting, you know, it would need a bit of drama or conflict
to liven it up.
(ANGRY) Oh, I see, it's like that is it?
(ANGRY) Come into my shop and tell me I'm boring you.
Ow! What the...
(BACK TO NORMAL) Something like that, Sir?
Oh...yes, just the ticket.
Any other requirements, Sir?
Well, it's for the radio so I suppose it should have some sound effects.
Hmmm. Think I've got the very thing. Starts with a couple of standards, shop door bell, punch
then an explosion as one of the characters heads blows up.
That'll do nicel...
FX EXPLOSION FOLLOWED BY LOUD HORN
The Twelve Ronnies
Unaired pilot show for Radio 4
Later in the show they do another sketch in the same vein, this time in the style of Python's 'Cheese Shop'. This borders on cynicism but has some great takes on the holes in the traditional sketch format being parodied ('Odd that your wife vaccuums shelves, but I digress...'). Cashmore's way-over-the-top Cleese is also a nice contrast to Eldon's whimpering Palin.
Eldon had nothing to prove with this radio show. He wasn't trying to break into TV or acquire an extra 'thing' on his CV to fool producers with. He just did it for a laugh, and it shows. It's funny. It's well-intentioned and fab.
The Twelve Ronnies is
enthusiastically written and excellently performed. The BBC
obviously disagreed and turned it down - a decision which caused
producer Jane Berthoud to fly into an uncontrollable rage at those
responsible. (Good for her. Not many producers left who'd care
enough to do that. More rage please, everyone...). Radio 4
hasn't produced anything 'new' to match it in the
three years since it was recorded. If it had been allowed a full
series, the show would have papered effortlessly over its less
successful strands and acquired a regular devoted audience (both in
the listenership and in the Radio Theatre sessions). Instead, we got
a load of shit from Dan & Nick, two dickbrained sub-comedians
who pun their way through naff half hours of nothing in search of a
TV contract. Thank you, the BBC.
After the show was rejected, Kevin Eldon pondered on rewriting it 'with a bit less blah' and perhaps doing it again through an independent company. Nothing came of this. Talkback apparently offered him the chance to do his own sitcom pilot: ('If I did, I'd accept nothing less than Ted', he announced at the
time.) Eldon contributed several sketches to BBC2's Comedy Nation (his segments produced by Jane Berthoud and featuring him and Sally Phillips). He also contributed sketches to Smack The Pony and appeared in
his own 15-minute outing for Channel 4 as poet 'Paul Hamilton' (originally part of 'Cluub Z'). He cameoed once again with Lee & Herring in This Morning With Richard Not Judy; in Chris Morris' Radio One show Blue Jam, and the well-intentioned-but-generally-not-very-good-when-it-all-comes-down-to-it Linehan & Matthews vehicle Big Train. There was also the walk-on; walk-off in Hippies, and the only funny line in I'm Alan Partridge ('Bang and Olufson'/'Oh! Ha ha ha ha...')
At the time of writing he is as manic as ever in Radio 4's Yes Sir I Can Boogie (Does He Take Sugar with laffs) and somewhat wasted in the disappointing Blue Jam TV transfer Jam which is about as far away from the eyebrow-raising enthusiasm of The Twelve Ronnies as you can get. All very 'dark' but not nearly as scary, sexy or breathtakingly funny as the sight of him dressed in pink, sporting a ridiculous west-country accent and dancing provocatively to 'Judy In Disguise (With Glasses)' on The Sunday Show. Look to the skies, Kev...
THE TWELVE RONNIES
Written By and Starring
Produced by Jane Berthoud
REH/RECORD Friday 16 May 1997, 1430/1930
STUDIO: Radio Theatre, Broadcasting House, London
TAPE/PROG NO: SLN719/96LG2148 (LFO)
SMs: Alick Hale-Monro, Keith Graham, Jill Abram.
BA: Liz Trott, Room 1009, BH 0171 765 5047