Tuesday, 6 May 2014

The Comic Strip Presents - The Complete Collection

There's never really been anything to quite compare to The Comic Strip Presents..., a cross between a TV series and a film franchise. Started off as a vehicle for the titular club's alternative comedy denziens the series rapidly came under the almost-total control of Peter Richardson as the likes of Rik Mayall, Ade Edmondson, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders and Alexei Sayle found fame elsewhere. They would all be back at various points but there was always a sense they were doing their old mate Pete a favour. Richardson himself is the only constant; even the format's all over the place, varying from 25 minute episodes to full-length features.

The episodes are all arranged on the discs in chronological order, which is as good a way as any. The series famously started off on the first night of Channel 4, which remained the Strip's home until the end of the eighties. Broadly speaking, these were the glory days of the quasi-show, though right from the start quality was wildly variable. 

The first series yielded the best-known film, the smart, funny Blyton spoof "Four Go Mad in Dorest" and then a patch of less witty spoofs of French cinema, survivalist projects and Jazz hipsters. Only "Bad News" is of anywhere near the same quality as the opener and even that's blown out of the water by the sequel. The second series is much tighter, containing excellent spaghetti Western tribute "A Fistful of Traveller's Cheques", semi-slapstick weirdness "Dirty Movie", the punchy "Gino - Full Story and Pics" (which contains a rare genuine acting performance from Keith Allen) and "Eddie Monsoon - a Life?", an ersatz biography film of a terrible TV presenter. In the middle is the bland, near-jokeless "Susie" that's largely saved by Dawn French looking remarkably beautiful. And because there are always a couple of clunkers there's disappointing sequel "Five Go Mad on Mescalin" and "Slags", one of several Comic Strip episodes where the conceit is fine (in this case a send-up of overly serious cyberpunk) but stretched beyond breaking point.

The same problem scuppers the following specials "Consuela" (a Rebecca spoof) and "Private Enterprise" (a swipe at the music industry), but these are preceded by a pair of gems. "Bullshitters", a savage mauling of The Professionals in particular and TV cop shows in general, is a riot while feature film The Supergrass is one of Richardson's finest achievements, a twisty, charming and funny tale of a London loud-mouth whose tall tales lead to an attempted drugs bust on the coast - and includes a memorable sequence involving Robbie Coltrane marching along a sea wall in a storm with Frankie Goes To Hollywood's "Two Tribes" blasting out. The team's second feature, the rather less successful Eat the Rich, is not part of the DVD set for rights reasons.

Then there's the final series while the show was on Channel 4, where Richardson and Pete Richens sat back a bit and let the others call the shots. Richardson's own "The Strike" is possibly the best of the whole lot, a spot-on spoof of Hollywood featuring the man himself playing Al Pacino playing Arthur Scargill in a film of the miner's strike, but it's ably supported by Rik 'n' Ade's violent Bottom pilot "Mr. Jolly Lives Next Door" (featuring a couple of losers trying to kill Nicholas Parsons), Alexei Sayle's witty "Didn't You Kill My Brother?" and the splendid "More Bad News", which keeps the idiotic band from the first film and drops them into the mainstream music industry, with hilarious results. As ever there's some dross too - Keith Allen's "The Yob", a Fly spoof about a preening music video director who gets his personality crossed with that of Gary Olsen's brickie thug, isn't as funny as it could be while Nigel Planer's "Funseekers" takes aim at 18-30 holiday goers but is completely bereft of jokes.

Then came the switch to the BBC at the end of the 1980s. By then the big guns were getting harder and harder to get together so the likes of Gary Beadle, Phil Cornwell, Doon Mackichan and Mark Caven start showing up more often while guest appearances from Lenny Henry, Tim McInnery, Peter Capaldi, Ruby Wax and Julie T. Wallace add to the feeling of disconnect. By this stage you wander what the point perhaps was and the series gets low on inspiration, relying more and more on simple spoofs. 

There are some good episodes - "GLC" follows the same conceit as "The Strike", featuring Robbie Coltrane playing Ken Livingstone as Charles Bronson and is funny enough to make up for the lack of originality; "Detectives on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown" brings back the Bullshitters alongside other TV cops for a witty but loving send-up and football drama "The Crying Game" is surprisingly affecting. Other than that it's pretty poor, ranging from overstretched one-joke storylines ("Red Nose of Courage", "South Atlantic Raiders") to mirth-free oddness ("Jealousy, "Demonella", "Spaghetti Hoops") to the downright awful ("Space Virgins from Planet Sex", "Gregory - Diary of a Nutcase", "Wild Turkey"). All in all it's a bit of a relief when this sad little era is over.

The set finishes on a relative high with the two reunion specials, "Four Men in a Car" and "Four Men in a Plane". Reuniting Richardson with Mayall, Edmondson and Planer as stars (with the first also featuring French and Saunders) playing a quartet of repulsive yuppies (Richardson oddly plays different near-identical characters in each) means that while things are far from groundbreaking they're at least funny, and it makes a nice capstone - the set thankfully having come out before the trio of more recent revivals.

To call the set a mixed bag would be an understatement; it's basically impossible to like all of the films as they're so scattershot. The good stuff makes the set worthwhile - "The Strike", "Mr Jolly Lives Next Door" and "More Bad News" are essential viewing. It would just take a hardy person to watch the lot through more than once.