TV Review: Frost on Sketch Shows, BBC4/David Frost Obituary

Frost on Sketch shows

Sunday Sept 1, 2013. I just heard on the radio that Sir David Frost had died so googled myself to see if I'd ever interviewed him – it's easier than using one's memory these days. I hadn't but I had written about him recently when he presented this TV documentary reviewed below on the history of the sketch show.

As the tributes to Frost – who suffered a fatal heart attack on the Queen Elizabeth cruise ship last night – pour in, there will also be those who are more critical of him. While Frost was undoubtedly crucial in the history of British satire, there was always a feeling in certain quarters that he somehow unjustly overtook Peter Cook to become known as Britain's pre-eminent satirist in the early sixties. Frost was below Cook at Cambridge and when he was a member of the Footlights it was noted that Frost aped Cook's laconic, sardonic comedy style. While Cook had success with Beyond The Fringe and The Establishment Club, Frost somewhat stole his thunder by having greater mainstream success with That Was The Week That Was, which helped to make Frost a star in America and enabled him to move beyond comedy into political journalism. Somehow I can't imagine Peter Cook interviewing Richard Nixon. Instead Cook went on to star in the film, The Rise And Rise of Michael Rimmer, a prescient movie about politics being run by focus groups and shallow personalities. Some said the lead character, a ruthless ex-advertising man-turned-politician, had more than a little of Frost about him.

There always seemed to be a rivalry between these two important figures (and let's make no mistake, Frost was definitely important as well as more ambitious). I couldn't help feeling, as I mentioned below, that Cook wasn't given enough credit by Frost in this documentary on the history of the sketch show. I wonder how many obituaries will mention that Peter Cook once reputedly remarked that his only regret was saving David Frost from drowning when he got into difficulties while swimming in Connecticut in 1963. Or that when Frost once telephoned Cook to invite him to a dinner party with Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson, Cook paused before replying that he was sadly unable to come. Because, he said: "Oh dear. I find I'm watching television that night."


Well, what do you expect me to say about Frost on Sketch Shows? Of course it was hit and miss. This it the phrase that is trotted out whenever a sketch show is launched and never was that phrase more appropriate than when watching this gentle, occasionally insightful, frequently annoying one-hour gambol through the history of the format.

"Miss" is the key word here. The programme appeared to have selected its clips and its topics on the basis of who was available for interview. Michael "a showbiz doc? I'm in" Grade set the scene explaining how sketch shows originated in music hall where the likes of Rob Wilton and Old Mother Riley (an early character comic) could take the same skit round the theatres for years in the pre-TV age. From there there was a quick cut to wartime radio hit ITMA, ITV's lost star Arthur Haynes and then it was time for Frost to chip in with a look at his own breakthrough series That Was The Week That Was.

This was where the programme started to get a little muddy and really needed more than an hour to fit everything in and clarify various issues. Was it talking about sketches or satire? Why was there such an emphasis on the show's female star Millicent Martin (maybe Frost thought she was going to pop in for tea and an interview) but no namecheck for Willie Rushton, who was featured prominently in the sketch they aired?

Frost's sixties work was, however, undeniably pivotal for the sketch show's development. The likes of the Pythons and the Two Ronnies had their roots in The Frost Report. The famous "class" sketch featuring John Cleese and the Ronnies is still as funny, cutting and relevant today as it was back then.

But there was still something of a hole in the programme. Well, a few actually – if there was a mention of Peter Cook or Beyond The Fringe I missed it. Same for Benny Hill. Morecambe and Wise got a nod, but then did they do a sketch show or just sketches in a variety show? It didn't really seem to matter as, unlike Ronnie Corbett, who was able to sit with Frost and pull some genuine old scripts out of a briefcase, Eric and Ernie were unavailable for interview due to being dead.

In essence this doc was just another way of telling the history of light entertainment, another way of slicing the comedy salami but still basically showing how one generation reacted against the previous one. Python's surrealism was a response to TW3's satire, Not The Nine O'Clock News was an irrevent punky response to the Python hippies.

When we hit the the eighties French and Saunders barely got a mention (and the Jimmy Mulville/Rory McGrath series Who Dares Wins was completely passed by) but Stephen Fry was around to say that he and Hugh Laurie just "lucked into TV". Funny how you don't seem to get sons of miners and dockers who grew up on council estates and went to the local comprehensives lucking into TV these days. But Fry also had some interesting insights about how sketch shows needed an "anchor". Not, in this case, rhyming slang, he meant a reassuring, familiar sofa or someone behind a desk, even if that desk was on a beach as in the case of Python.

And there was no dispute that Fry and Laurie did deliver some brilliantly funny moments, such as the skit screened in which Fry's barman (see below) interrupts Laurie's conversation to offer inappropriate snacks such as "nice juicy tongue in the back passage." This brilliant twisting of language was clearly a direct descendent of the Two Ronnies' "Fork Handles" and "Mastermind" sketches, both of which were also shown.

As we came up to the present day via catchphrases (A tiny bit about Harry Enfield and The Fast Show, nothing about Vic and Bob) with Little Britain and Catherine Tate and a passing aside about the League of Gentlemen, the programme came out with its obligatory thesis. That sketch shows might be out of fashion now that everyone wants to be a stand-up comedian.

There might be a little but of truth in this, but the programme rather over-egged the theory by totally failing to mention The Mitchell & Webb Show, Armstrong & Miller, Cowards (with Tim Key), The Sketch Show (with Lee Mack), It's Kevin, Katy Brand, Cardinal Burns (which is being promoted from E4 to C4 next time round), Anna & Katy, Watson & Oliver. Apologies if I've overlooked any other sketch shows in the last few years. And you can hardly say that those people were not around to be interviewed, so this was a gaping gap in a show jam-packed with gaping gaps. Great clips, highly selective interviews in between. All in all a bit hit and miss.



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