If you don’t already love the comedy that Fry and Laurie have brought to the world, then you should - for no other reason than the incredible ‘non-offensive’ swear words they have created. Who couldn’t find a use for ‘pim-hole’ in everyday conversation? There’s not a person in the world who would mind in the slightest if they were called a ‘cloff prunker’ and you could call your grandma a ‘pempslider’ without any kind of feelings of guilt whatsoever.
Known and adored for the off-beat, nonsensical and downright hilarious comical sketches in their show ‘A Bit of Fry & Laurie’ (and devotees of the two gentlemen won’t be able to say the title out loud without making exaggerated finger gestures for the inverted commas) the list of running jokes, catchphrases and characters involved in all four series is too numerous to mention, but let’s have a go at a few shall we?
The most popular of all the recurring characters has to be John and Peter. Men who worked hard, drank hard and who knew a hundred different ways to shout the word ‘Dammit!’ across an office. For the majority of their screen time the constantly stressed pair ran both a health club in Uttoxeter and a constant battle against their business nemesis Marjorie, who also happens to be John’s ex-wife. After a defeat in the boardroom (although obviously we are never told over what, just as we are never told what either of them, or Marjorie actually does on a day-to-day basis) John and Peter take over a public toilet, or to put their spin on it, they get ‘a chance to build the finest damned personal relief centre Uttoxeter has ever known.’ Further down the line the two progress from urinals to the Diocese of Uttoxeter. That’s a promotion for you.
Tony Inchpractise is a versatile presenter. On occasions he presents improbable talk shows: Introducing My Grandfather To… (he introduced his grandfather to the novelist and corporate accountant Sir Benton Asher), Realising I’ve Given the Wrong Directions To… (yes, the chair opposite him in the studio was empty); on others he learns a new skill: Flying a Light Aeroplane Without Having Had Any Formal Instruction With…There is also the one where he photocopies a rather intimate part of his anatomy whilst conducting an interview with the one-time Labour Employment Secretary Sir Alan Beaverby, but it’s probably best to leave that one to your imagination.
Control and Tony. Awww, did ever a sketch about a couple of government agents tug on your heartstrings as much as the ones about Control and his right-hand man Tony did? Although in charge of the British Secret Service (Control) and Subsection Chief of the East Germany and Related Satellites Desk (Tony) the pair inhabit an overly-simplistic world, and their excessively polite as well as slightly hammily-acted approach to what should be very complicated world situations makes each scene hysterical. In the final sketch Control sadly tells Tony that ‘what with the Russians simply ringing us up and telling us most of their secrets, we don’t need to spend such a lot of money on finding them out,’ and then reluctantly fires him. Tony takes it well, shakes Control’s hand and leaves. Control sits at his desk, blows his nose and rings through to his secretary for a cup of coffee. It ends with him saying ‘How do I like it? I like it the way Tony Murchison used to make it.’ Sniff.
As well as the skits, each show also displayed Laurie’s formidable musical talent, whether that was in the form of a parody (Mystery perfects the delivery of a lounge singer lamenting about the increasingly bizarre reasons why he can’t be with his girl, The Polite Rap sees Laurie aping a hip hop star but extolling the virtue of being nice) or an original comedic song. Where is the Lid? found Hugh at a piano, delivering a ‘savage, angry satire’ (in the form of the song title being sung repeatedly) about a jam jar’s mislaid top. As the music continues we see Stephen in the background finding the missing object and reuniting it with the jar. Laurie ignores this, and continues to sing until Stephen hits him and he collapses. This sketch is then quickly followed by a tribute to the now-deceased Hugh ‘Excellent Sermon Vicar’ Laurie, which includes the wonderful line ‘His first acting job came in 1979, at Hereford Civic Centre, since renamed in Hugh’s honour Hereford Civic and Amenities Centre.’
Ex-Cambridge Footlight alumni Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie brought the first episode of their clever sketch show to the BBC on 13 January 1989. A mix of satire, wordplay and slapstick, the half hour show included studio sketches which allowed the two comedians to break the fourth wall; they’d often stop in the middle of a scene to speak down the camera, or to the audience themselves.
It was also peppered with vox pops, starring a range of eccentric characters spouting nonsense in a sound bite. ‘If things had worked out differently it’s strange to think I would now be Foreign Secretary and Douglas Hurd would be an assistant librarian. Weird, isn’t it?’
The first three series went out on BBC2, which was perhaps the best place for their brand of humour. When the fourth series moved to BBC1 in 1995 it lost something in translation; additional sketches and performances from well-known celebrities were shoe-horned in - which apparently neither Fry nor Laurie welcomed -and had the effect of diluting the humour. Series four did not receive the acclaim that the first three had, which is a shame as there was still some great stuff in there (mainly the bits that involved just Fry and Laurie).
Sad as you were to see each episode end, in series three you were actually happy to come to the last sketch if only to see Stephen dancing. Each time, Fry would announce a cocktail that he was about to make, along with the ingredients (this got more ludicrous with each programme) before imploring ‘Please Mr Music, will you play?’ Laurie then played the theme music on the piano and mimicked a trumpet whilst the credits rolled and Fry got groovy with a cocktail shaker (this had to be seen to be believed). As the credits finished, so did Fry, and the programme ended with the pair uttering the words ‘Soupy Twist’ (no explanation is given for this phrase, but it may be from the vocabulary of Fry’s invented language Strom, which also features in the programme). The same endings were done in series four, but again, with the extra celebrities involved it lost its kick.
Since the programme ended there have been, and still will be, other sketch comedy shows that make you laugh, but for most people, Tony Murchison would probably have put it best. ‘How do I like it? I like it the way Fry & Laurie used to make it…’