❉ Paul Holmes on the legacy of the series.
“And then, the BBC2 sketch series The Fast Show turned 25, giving a whole generation of comedy lovers a chance to reflect on the enormous impact the series, and its cast, have had on British culture ever since. Which was nice.”
It began, confusingly, with an American newsreader telling the audience his name, before immediately jump cutting to a rapid montage of unfamiliar characters, before Harry Enfield’s mate Paul Whitehouse appeared on screen in a bright yellow suit, florid purple shirt and terrible toupee, crooning Englebert Humperdink’s gawd-awful chart topper Release Me. Moments later, two chubby guys in preposterous amounts of padding are playing out a parody of The Bill in which every copper on the beat is enormously overweight and constantly looking for food.
Not the most auspicious of starts, it has to be said, but nevertheless, this is how The Fast Show burst onto our screens on 27th September 1994. And it’s hard to explain, 25 years later, how different this show felt at the time. Sketches could last as little as ten seconds, getting straight to the point that most other shows took minutes to reach – the all-important catch-phrase. This was a show that broke down what was expected of sketch comedy, truly living up to its title by rarely letting a skit outstay its welcome.
And perhaps the cleverest part of this philosophy was that it allowed the sketches that did warrant extra time the chance to breathe, and still keep the hit-rate sky high. If something didn’t work for you, there was almost certainly something else coming along in under a minute that’d make you chuckle.
From “Unlucky” Alf, Paul Whitehouse’s lonely old pensioner with terrible bad luck, to Swiss Toni, Charlie Higson’s acutely observed car salesman who can make anything a simile for making love to a beautiful woman, the series knew how to harness a trope to create recurring comedy gold. The punchlines may often be the same, but the glory of The Fast Show was often how cleverly they got there. Watch any Roy and Renee sketch, in which John Thomson and Caroline Aherne play a henpecked husband and an overbearing wife, and tell me honestly it’s not a joy to discover how Renee is going to be offended by her husband’s casual honesty this week.
It didn’t even matter that some of these characters don’t even have names – Arabella Weir made the catchphrase “Does my bum look big in this?” into such an oft-repeated phrase that it’s now entered the everyday lexicon and a lot of people probably have no idea where it came from anymore, like some mythical comedic folklore. Similarly, Mark Williams’ humble cry of “I’ll get me coat” has become the go-to phrase to get out of an awkward situation, and his beautifully downplayed “Which was nice” has probably invaded middle class life in ways the show could never have perceived when it mocked them so beautifully.
And sometimes, it’s those perfect observations that work best. A criminally underrated character is Simon Day’s Competitive Dad – a man with two children who likes nothing more than to prove to them, above all else, that he’s a winner. If that character had come along in the days of Vine, Simon would probably be a millionaire by default, because it so brilliantly summarises toxic masculinity before the phrase toxic masculinity was on anyone’s lips. So too, did Simon and Lindsey – two laddish losers who keep failing spectacularly in their off-road adventures, and Arabella Weir’s recurring sketch as the woman who men can’t hear, repeatedly pointing out the right answer and being ignored only for a man to come along and tell everyone the exact same thing.
Also of note, are Higson’s office clown Colin Hunt (we’ve all known a Colin at some point in our lives), Caroline Aherne knocking it out the park as Rochdale teenage mum Janine Carr, Weir’s pushy cosmetics saleswoman with a bright orange face and a penchant for insulting people needlessly, and the frankly sublime series of Mediterranean TV inserts from the bonkers Channel 9.
Then, of course, there’s Ted and Ralph – which almost feels like it’s being beamed in from another show altogether. Written by the team behind Father Ted, the recurring sketch is, unusually for The Fast Show, a continuing narrative, telling the story of a seemingly unrequited love story between a rich landowner and his farmhand, both beautifully underplayed by Higson & Whitehouse to such great effect, that they even wound up with a spin-off special, and their will they/won’t they love affair was miles ahead of its time in that it was never, ever mocked by the show in an era where homosexuality was still not accepted in the mainstream.
At the other end of the scale, when The Fast Show got silly, it got really, really silly. Whitehouse’s ramblings as Rowley Birkin QC, Higson’s delightful mania as painter Johnny Nice, and any time Mark Williams ever brings out his confused country bumpkin – I don’t think I’ve ever laughed as hard in my life as I did at the unexpected cry of “What about centipedes, from an angry place?”
Yes, some of The Fast Show has dated badly. Yet alongside The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer, which began the previous year, and The Day Today which had aired back in January of 1994, the series demonstrated that this new breed of comedic talent was taking the template laid out by their predecessors, pulling it apart and sticking it back together again in new, innovative ways.
25 years later the team are household names, with an enormous legacy of work behind them. The series also gave a platform to other comic talents, like Rhys Thomas (later to create Bellamy’s People and Brian Pern), Tony Way (who is rivalling Paul Putner & Kevin Eldon for the title of ‘Most Comedy Shows Cast In’), and the brilliant and sorely missed Felix Dexter.
Not only that, but the show inspired the next generation of talent too. Would we have had the likes of Big Train, and then, by proxy, Spaced (which recently turned 20, no less), without these shows five years earlier? Or the much loved Goodness Gracious Me? The divisive Little Britain? The cult favourites Cardinal Burns, Smack the Pony, or That Mitchell and Webb Look? Quite probably – The Fast Show didn’t invent madcap sketch shows after all – but it’s fair to say that the shows would be rather different because by the time the show ceased regular production in 1999, The Fast Show was fused into alternative comedy’s DNA.
To see it turn 25 is a frightening thought. What once was new and innovative is now celebrating its silver anniversary. That feeling won’t be going away any time soon, either… Fist of Fun, The High Life and Father Ted turn 25 next year, and both Jam and Black Books will be 20, while the mighty Vic Reeves Big Night Out turns 30, for good measure. That we’re still returning to these shows all these years later is a testament to the impact they had on our lives, and that they still (mostly) feel fresh is a solid indicator of just how much what they gave us has resonated through everything we’ve had since.
Now then… does anyone fancy a pint?
❉ An occasional contributor to We Are Cult, Paul Holmes ran alternative comedy site The Velvet Onion for eight years, and has written for Arts Council England, Music News, various theatres and the rock band Queen. Follow him on Twitter: @didymusbrush