Yes, that’s right, “DVD Review”. Not had one of those on here before, but its a special one. The BBC decided against releasing Stewart Lee and Richard Herring’s 1990s cult comedy Fist of Fun on DVD, saying that it does not have “much sales potential in the current market”. So, Lee and Herring stumped up the money to buy the rights themselves, along with Go Faster Stripe, a great little independent producer who make DVDs for comedians who aren’t mainstream enough to appear on supermarket shelves and who apparently invested everything they have earned in the Fist of Fun DVD. A bit of a risky investment, then, but one that reaps rewards for comedy fans wanting to see the early work of two of the best stand-ups currently performing in the country.
As Stewart Lee notes in one of the episode commentaries, Fist of Fun was one of the last series to be made before The Fast Show came along and formed the template of sketch comedy for the following decade. It’s a mix of studio segments, filmed sketches and regular magazine-style features set, in series one, in what was supposed to be the basement of the BBC. It’s genesis was on Radio One, where Lee & Herring were given free rein to come up with vaguely youth-oriented sketches and routines, following their more tightly formatted and hugely underrated Radio Four series, Lionel Nimrod’s Inexplicable World and their involvement in On The Hour, the radio series that moved to television without them as The Day Today. Pitched as a sort of Why Don’t You for twentysomethings, or a topical show for people too lazy to watch the news, it in fact was simply a vehicle for Stew and Rich’s great writing. It was as unfocused as it was funny, veering from poking fun at dating agencies to Aesop’s Fables.
There were few constants in this first series from 1995 – Peter Baynham’s wonderfully pathetic lifestyle tips, the peerless Kevin Eldon as hobby king Simon Quinlank and the weekly visit to see what viewers (including Matthew “Harry Hill” Hall, Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews) have sent in to the Gallery. Of course, at it’s centre was the wonderful chemistry between Stewart Lee and Richard Herring, a comedy double act of the classic type – one cool, aloof and curmudgeonly, the other immature, crude and cheerful. This was an era when BBC comedy budgets were bit more generous than today, meaning that the sketches often took in many different locations and featured a wide range of then little-known comic actors, including Rebecca Front, Sally Phillips, John Thomson, Ronni Ancona and Al Murray.
Like any comedy of this kind, the quality can vary significantly from one sketch or set-piece to the next, but there are some fantastic sketches here which really deserve much greater recognition – Herring’s pedantic driving instructor, Lee’s reenactment of being pulled over by the police, Alistair McGowan’s great turn as an incredibly annoying Jesus, and the legendary Girl who smelt of Spam. Yes, it could be described as student humour – at once intellectual and adolescent – but if so, it’s student humour at it’s very best.
The DVD set is bursting with features. Entertaining commentaries for each episode were done by Lee and Herring, with the actor Kevin Eldon and Ben Moor doing a couple of commentaries too. There’s also a rather nice feature where Rich is joined in his back garden by Stew to go through scrapbooks of memorabilia from their early career while children play football next door. There’s the unbroadcast pilot and an entire made-for-VHS live show made not long after this first series aired, where at one point Richard talks to those of us watching in the future, telling us “This is what people of the past were laughing at”.
The most extraordinary thing about this set is that it contains three full studio recordings – the complete rushes including bloopers, deleted sketches and the banter between takes. Sleeve notes written by the SOTCAA website are there to guide you through these rushes, which contain everything that took place on the night of the recording, giving you an insight into what it was like to be a member of the studio audience, even featuring bits of Kevin Eldon and Paul Tonkinson’s warm-up routines. It’s not for everyone, because as anyone who’s sat in a TV audience would know, it involves a lot of having to repeat the same bits again and waiting around while things are set up, but I found it to be a fascinating glimpse into the making of the programme that you simply do not get on most comedy DVDs. I’d have loved to see this done, for example, on I’m Alan Partidge, where Steve Coogan stayed in character throughout the recording, explaining to the audience that they were about to watch a detailed reconstruction of his life. Or, if they still exist, the studio rushes of classics like Fawlty Towers would be incredible to watch, I’m sure.
And it still doesn’t end there. There’s a DVD-Rom you can put into your computer, featuring images, posters, scripts, tickets, notepads with various sketch ideas scribbled in, bootlegged MP3s from another live show and various Word documents from the period. Basically, more stuff than even the most die-hard fan would ever wish to see from the making of the series.
It’s a fantastic package, clearly put together with a great deal of love and well worth the £25, especially in the knowledge that the money goes to a small company that has more or less staked it’s future on the idea that there are enough people who want to see this series again. Series two, featuring Kevin Eldon’s incredible Rod Hull character and Rich’s unlikely catchphrase “moon on a stick”, should be out next year. Already looking forward to it.