This article was originally published in The Courier on 31st May 2014.
Harry & Paul's History of the 2's: Sunday, BBC Two
50 Years of BBC2 Comedy: Saturday, BBC Two
Ever since it first popped into being, BBC Two has enjoyed a deserved reputation as a champion of edgy, innovative, subversive comedy. So it was only fitting that last weekend, in honour of its 50th anniversary, it aired a standalone comedy which, quite without mercy, directly undermined the channel itself.
It probably wasn’t deliberate, but Harry & Paul’s History of the 2’s felt like a scathing lampoon of the celebratory clip show which aired just the night before. Not only that, it openly criticised Two’s decline from “highbrow” bastion of the arts to the confused, identity-free mess that it is today. It was alternative comedy in the truest sense.
Devised by Harry Enfield, Paul Whitehouse and Charlie Higson – who themselves owe Two an enormous debt – it was an irreverent spoof of every predictably compiled arts documentary you’ve ever rolled your eyes at. Linked by a gloriously unhinged performance from Enfield as Simon Schama – the deserted TV Centre backdrop added an unexpected note of poignancy – it attacked practically every sacred cow in Two’s illustrious history.
While some of the sketches felt undercooked and obvious, the unflinching highlights made up for the duds. As they grow older and grumpier, Enfield and Whitehouse have developed an admirable tendency to criticise their comedy peers. Targets included the sainted Pythons’ shameless milking of their own legacy, and the tired, formulaic ubiquity of comedy panel shows. This last sketch was a master-class in savage satire, as it laid waste to the phoned-in shtick of Paul Merton, Alan Davies, Russell Howard et al.
Lest they be accused of high-minded bitterness, they also included digs at their own shortcomings. A Boys from the Blackstuff spoof morphed into a self-deprecating critique of the duo’s reliance on crowd-pleasing catchphrases, while they openly acknowledged that – far from being the work of ground-breaking alternative comedians – Enfield’s sketch shows were essentially as traditional as Dick Emery.
Enfield and Whitehouse have form in this genre. Smashie & Nicey: End of an Era is one of the greatest, yet curiously underrated, spoof documentaries ever made. And sure enough, their careful attention to detail was in abundant evidence throughout. Parodies of everything from The Ascent of Man to The Young Ones used the correct film and video stock: the very best parodies always take time to accurately mimic their source material.
Indeed, this was a programme aimed at an audience steeped in TV history, and as such it was heroically refreshing. Even when the jokes fell flat, I never lost the sense that this was something created by people with huge respect for the medium, and a healthy disrespect for its failings. That deft combination of wry affection and outright mockery is a hallmark of Enfield, Whitehouse and Higson’s work.
This may not rank among their finest work, but it was still a bold, delightful, gag-packed assault on the very art of TV itself.
The real, straight-faced deal, 50 Years of BBC2 Comedy was the usual confection of over-familiar clips and platitudinous talking heads. But it did serve as a reminder that, despite Harry and Paul’s irreverence, Two has produced some of the best comedy ever made.
A welcoming playpen for uncompromising oddballs such as Spike Milligan, The League of Gentlemen and Chris Morris, it’s made an invaluable contribution to popular culture. These days it broadcasts The Great British Bake-Off. What price progress?