Review: The Comedy Vaults: BBC Two’s Hidden Treasure

Kevin Turvey

Now here’s one for the geeks. As part of BBC2’s 50th birthday celebrations the channel dusted off its archive to reveal some rarely seen – or in some cases never publicly seen at all – comedy gems. This has got to be good I thought. And in some cases it was. In a lot of cases though I thought I’d accidentally tuned in to an episode of Before They Were Famous that was never aired because it wasn’t interesting enough.

Let’s start with the good bits. It was great to see a clip from the mythical 1984 Madness sitcom written by Richard Curtis and Ben Elton. It was a perfect example of why pop stars make bad actors. The band didn’t seem very sure of their lines, their timing was all over the place and Curtis/Elton appeared to have been saving the best gags for Blackadder. This was about as funny as The Wright Way. No wonder it was never shown, though it did prompt me to wonder why Comedy Vaults didn't choose to show the original Blackadder pilot, with a slightly different cast to the first Rowan Atkinson series.

It was also interesting to hear from John Lloyd that he wanted Michael Palin to host QI – though a shame we didn’t get to see the Have I Got News For You try-out fronted by John Lloyd before Angus Deayton stepped up to the plate. There were other gems too. I don’t remember ever seeing the 2008 TV version of Radio 2’s Miranda Hart’s Joke Shop, which basically looked the same as Miranda a few years later except that in this Stevie (Sarah Hadland) was more of a fascist. There was also a bizarre Spike Milligan oddity called Oh In Colour from the early 1970s. I’d have liked some context in relation to his Q series, but instead it was quickly on to the next clip.

The oddest oddity of all, however, was something from 1972 called Black Safari, which I’d never heard of and featured nobody I recognised. This was basically an ahead-of-its-time mockumentary in which, subverting BBC anthropology docs, an African tribe sailed through north-west England: “Four Africans alone in savage Lancashire.” This was so weird, so obscure, I wondered if it was actually a spoof lobbed in to trick smug telly experts who would claim to remember it going out as if it was yesterday.

Some other curios included A Life In Pieces in which Peter Cook's Arthur Streeb Greebling was interviewed by Ludovic Kennedy. I recall the Chris Morris Radio 3 interviews entitled Why Bother? around the same time, but not this. And there was an old sketch show called Beyond A Joke with John Bird and Eleanor Bron which predated my book of the same name. And just to confirm that nothing is original in comedy there was a clip from the classic Steve Coogan one-off, Dearth of a Salesman – an old Peter Sellers short film which coincidentally shared the same name from the 1950s was recently found in a skip.

Those were the highlights. A lot of the rest was made up of great clips basically saying “did you know that some famous people did things when they were less well-known”. David Mitchell, Robert Webb, Sacha Baron Cohen and Martin Freeman cropped up in Comedy Nation and Bruiser. Rik Mayall appeared as Kevin Turvey (pictured). Ricky Gervais appeared as a pompous guest on an unseen episode of a show fronted by Anne Robinson and veteran producer Jon Plowman made an ungallant remark about Jennifer Saunders being fatter than Dawn French in their first-ever TV appearance. Human Remains with Rob Brydon and Julia Davis is well worth another watch, but hardly a hidden treasure.

The result was certainly a treat for comedy geeks in parts, but there was also a fair bit of padding, pulling in bits from sketch shows that many will remember. Although interestingly nothing from Fist of Fun with Stewart Lee and Richard Herring. You could probably compile your own version by trawling YouTube. Perhaps unsurprisingly, like those sketch shows the hour did revisit, it was pretty hit and miss. The trouble was that the rubbish wasn't worth watching, the best bits, like a lost 1974 Dudley Moore/Peter Cook show, you wanted (no pun intended) more of. Some treasure then, but some stuff that would be laughed at on the Antiques Roadshow. Or rather not laughed at. 

Watch on iPlayer here.

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