Review: That Mitchell & Webb Sound, R4

Mitcheell & Webb

"You play Radio 4 twice. Once on the way up. Once on the way down. It's good to be back." As far as I know, David Mitchell and Robert Webb did not come out with this version of the old showbiz chestnut in the run-up to their return to R4. Which was fair enough, because if one thing is certain it is that they are not on the way down. They've both got hectic TV and stage careers, most recently receiving positive notices for Ambassadors on BBC2. So why, when they are so busy, take on what some might say is a backwards step with the all new That Mitchell & Webb Sound?

Well, for starters one answer is contained within the question. They are probably too busy to do another TV sketch series with all the rehearsals and line-learning that it involves. I'm listening to the show as I write – a lovely opening sketch about pubs being turned into free schools just flew past without ever outstaying its welcome – and I presume they recorded it old-stylee, standing onstage with scripts in their hands. And, of course, the quick turnaround nature of radio probably helped to enable the equally in-demand Olivia Colman to make a welcome return to the fold too. 

Mitchell and Webb clearly love radio, so this return is not really such a surprise. Their last R4 series, in 2009, also followed on from their BBC2 sketch show. And there are other reasons why radio may be so attractive to them. If you want to nurture new ideas and get creative without too much pressure there is surely no better place. They are not stand-up comedians so can't really do warm-ups in clubs. Which is not to say that the ideas here are half-arsed at all.

The first programme was certainly up to scratch, mixing borderline Python sketches - trying to pay for a cash register in a cash register shop – with media in-jokes, such as their C4 meeting in which executives talk about making Alan Carr's The Story of the Gays following the success of Simon Schama's The Story of the Jews. I rather liked the update of Thomas Hardy wanting to put a 'sad face' emoticon into his novel so that people know what to feel. There was a nice self-reflexive callback gag in which Mitchell meets a fan who tells him to do more cash register sketches. And I also enjoyed the bit where they take a swipe at tedious TV programme recaps for people who have only just tuned in.

Radio is all about creating the pictures yourself and the fact that we can imagine what M&W look like having seen them on television so often is not really a problem. It might even make us warm to their audio performances more easily. What comes across most strongly, however, is that, as I said earlier - in case you have only just joined this review - Mitchell and Webb clearly love what they are doing. "Food is better than comedy," says Mitchell at one point. But he was in character at the time. I wonder if he really thinks that. 

That Mitchell & Webb Sound is on R4 on Tuesdays at 6.30pm. The first episode is on iPlayer here.

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