On Tuesday night I lined up with Toakase and Emily outside the BBC TV Centre in White City for a recording of the BBC comedy panel show Mock The Week, which is one of the most popular shows on the BBC. I was lucky enough to score the free tickets in a ballot a month or two ago, having missed getting into recordings in previous series.
After the warm-up comedian, who joked that Keith was an incongruous name for a baby, the series producer Dan Patterson appeared to answer questions and introduce the comedians on the show that evening. One pertinent question from the audience was ‘when’s Frankie Boyle coming back?’
For those not in the know, Boyle was the undoubted star of Mock The Week’s first seven series, and the acerbic controversy-courting Scottish comedian became a star on the UK gig circuit as a result of his TV appearances. But Boyle recently quit Mock The Week after a tabloid frenzy of hypocritical indignation against some of his more close-to-the-bone quips. Tired of the pointless flak, he left the show to focus on his stand-up career and to develop a new comedy show for Channel 4. Patterson was diplomatic and sympathetic, pointing out that Boyle had a long history on the show and that he would be welcome back in the future if he decided he wanted to appear: ‘never say never’ was mentioned. Hopefully Boyle will take up the offer one day soon.
It was the last show in the series, and the producers had organised a strong line-up – the only possible downside being the lack of female comedians despite a recent attempt to dilute the sometimes uniform blokey-ness of the show. Host Dara O’Briain coped well with a strong headcold that failed to dull his obvious sense of enjoyment in the proceedings. Sprightly Chris Addison, fresh from his hilarious role in the triumphant In The Loop and his own successful national stand-up tours, proved particularly versatile, running the gamut from middle-of-the-road Michael McIntyre-style observational humour to political satire to Pythonesque whimsy. Unofficial team captain Hugh Dennis, of Now Show and Punt & Dennis fame, impressed with his regular voice-over slot, proving that his Queen voice was just as entertaining as his justly-famed Prince Phillip voice. The neophyte Scottish comedian Kevin Bridges betrayed a few nerves here and there but emerged with some strong material that had the audience roaring its approval. Potential Bond villain lookalike Andy Parsons secured his status as a cleverer version of Al Murray the Pub Landlord and deployed the strongest topical gags in large numbers. Louche Irish comedian Ed Byrne, who I saw perform in Wellington last year, excelled in wry asides and got to deploy his wedding planning material from his stand-up show. Lastly, the youthful exuberance of Russell Howard provided energy and plenty of absurdist childhood reminisces.
I was particularly impressed with the calibre of the performances. Bear in mind that Mock The Week is a half hour non-commercial broadcast. Once you include opening and closing credits and introductions you’re getting close to a mere 25 minutes of air time for comedy purposes. But they recorded for at least two and a half hours, and to the performers’ credit nearly all of the material they offered was of the highest quality that could have appeared on a conventional stand-up comedy billing.
Andy Parsons impressed me in person because on TV his mannerisms seem rather smug: sidling up to the microphone with a sly grin to milk audience laughter. But in the unedited recording you can see the work he puts into it – he offers probably the largest number of jokes of any of the performers, and strings them together artfully so that by the end of the recording there’s some continuity in his material and he’s established a rapport with the audience. In person he deserves that rapport – it’s just that 80 percent of all the material on offer will end up on the cutting room floor. Parsons also wins my vote for being the only comedian to actively encourage new boy Kevin Bridges to take the mic in the quick-fire rounds, which is a first-come first-served situation often dominated by the pushiest comedians.
Seeing the show broadcast in its final, 30 minute version two days later was a reminder of how dense Mock The Week is: they really scramble to shoehorn the largest possible number of jokes into the airtime and the show proceeds at a frantic pace. It’s also pleasing to see one minor mystery confirmed: despite what the TV trainspotters might say, the points that O’Briain awards to each team are completely imaginary and the scoring system has no bearing on the ‘winners’ declared at the end of the programme. O’Briain said as much when he was introduced at the beginning of the programme, joking that people really should stop emailing to ask him about it. To prove his point, at the end of each round each of the teams recorded a ‘happy points’ reaction shot of them being told they’d won the round, and at the end of the show each team recorded victory celebrations and defeated commiserations, so presumably the ‘winners’ were selected by the producers in the editing suite. Because after all it’s not a race, it’s comedy!