Radio comedy spotlight: John Finnemore

This is the first in a series highlighting (British) radio comedy I particularly enjoy and recommend.  Since I listed John Finnemore as one of my current favorites, I figured I should start with him. (Note that I’m writing this from the perspective of a US fan, so comments about availability of material and other appearances of actors will come from that angle.)

John Finnemore

Credits: The Now Show, That Mitchell and Webb Sound/Look, Dead Ringers, The Unbelievable Truth
Blog: “Forget What Did”

If you’re American, the work of John Finnemore’s you’re most likely to have encountered is the sketch comedy of Mitchell and Webb, and that will give you some idea of what to expect: a clever look at the absurdities of a situation through examining its assumptions head-on. (I can’t find a list of what he wrote for Mitchell and Webb, and it’s not unreasonable to assume that some of it was partially rewritten by others, but here’s one example on a fan Tumblr.  Note that the Tumblr’s title is somewhat NSFW.) He’s worked in both sketch comedy and sitcom, and done a masterful job at both.

I’m going to focus on the two series that JF is the primary/only writer for, Cabin Pressure and John Finnemore’s Souvenir Programme.

Cabin Pressure

Dates: July 2008-the near future
Episodes:  4 series of 6, a Christmas special, and an upcoming finale special
Accessibility to non-Brits: High
Availability: BBC iPlayer, iTunes, CD

Cabin Pressure is a workplace comedy centered around a small cast, the workplace being a very small charter airline, MJN Air.  There are four recurring cast members:

  • Carolyn Knapp-Shappey: Stephanie Cole (Waiting for God). The acerbic, hard-driving head of MJN Air.
  • Martin Crieff: Benedict Cumberbatch (in a role that will come as a surprise to those who know him from Sherlock or the voice of Smaug).  The airline’s hapless captain.  Martin is dedicated to being an airline captain to the point of absurdity, but has a tendency to fumble his way into trouble.
  • Douglas Richardson: Robert Allam (V for Vendetta, Speed Racer, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, The Iron Lady, lots of stage roles).  The airline’s first officer.  Douglas is firmly convinced of his own cleverness, and is usually correct.  He is constantly looking for ways to gain an advantage, either over Martin or by finding a way to turn a profit on their travels.
  • Arthur Shappey: John Finnemore (see above).  Carolyn’s son and the airline’s notional flight attendant.  Arthur lives in his own little world, which sometimes bears only a tangential relation to this one.  He’s constantly cheerful and upbeat, and tends to see the best in everyone.

The plots are generally driven by the personalities of the characters bouncing off a situation, which may come from an airline passenger, cargo, or airport crew.  The characters are well-drawn for this sort of show, showing occasional depths and the ability to surprise in a consistent manner.  The plots aren’t formulaic: it’s not a matter of Martin and Arthur always messing up and Carolyn and Douglas always bailing them out (although Douglas’s ability to find solutions to problems, albeit not always strictly ethical ones, is one of his major traits).  Despite having a couple of characters who could easily be the butt of all the jokes, the humor isn’t mean-spirited, and there’s a clear affection for all the characters.

Here are a few clips from the show on YouTube:

Martin in rare form at first officer training.

The flight crew engages in one of the many games they use to pass the time.

Arthur explains the rules of “Yellow Car”.

A bit of banter between Arthur and Martin I particularly enjoyed. (Note that the animation is a lot longer than the actual spoken bit.)

There have been 25 episodes of the show to date, each with a title beginning with successive letters of the alphabet (although the BBC broadcast them out of order).  The third and fourth series both have final episodes that could have worked as the show’s finale, but Finnemore has confirmed that there will be one final special wrapping it up.

John Finnemore’s Souvenir Programme

Airdates: 2011-present
Episodes: 1 series of 4, 2 series of 6, and an Edinburgh special. (Also, the special “John Finnemore, Apparently” from 2008 is very much a forerunner to this show.)
Accessibility to non-Brits: Reasonably high
Availability: BBC iPlayer, iTunes, CD

Perhaps the most intelligent sketch comedy series I’ve ever heard.  A number of the best sketches involve taking a look at a familiar story or premise in such a way as to cast a light on its hidden absurdities.  Past targets have included logic puzzles, the Emperor’s New Clothes, Winnie-the-Pooh, and the Three Little Pigs.

The last of these is a good example: An interviewer speaks with each of the pigs in turn.  The first pig feels that his house of straw will be successful, because the foolish youngest of three brothers always comes out on top in fairy tales.  The second pig feels that his house of sticks will be successful, because in fairy tales, the middle ground between two extremes is always successful (although he has a hard time explaining how bricks are too extreme).  The third pig feels that his house of bricks will be successful because…it’s made of bricks. (The interviewer decides to shelter with the third pig.) Apart from being funny in its own right, it’s also a positively Pratchettesque look at dueling narrative assumptions.

Unlike some sketch shows, there’s no overreliance on catchphrases.  There’s only one recurring character: Finnemore himself (or a strange, upper-class Edwardian version thereof), who usually has the last sketch in an episode, beginning with “So! You ask me for a tale of…” and generally failing utterly at his chosen topic.  I also appreciate the fact that there are female cast members; while there is good single-gender sketch comedy out there, having a mixed-gender cast allows for a wider variety of characters and situations.

The “reasonably high” description under “Accessibility” is because a few of the sketches involve bits of popular culture that are primarily British, such as the Famous Five.  Most of the cultural references are more universal, though, and the British ones aren’t too obscure–Wikipedia or just listening to a lot of the BBC will be all you need.

It’s hard to pick among the sketches, but here are three representative examples:

The Man Who Makes the Noise of the TARDIS

Pooh’s Interdivention

The Best Ghost Story Ever (an example of Finnemore the storyteller)

Until next time, the Woggle-Bug says “Ha-ha! The Emperor has no basis for his belief system!  And he has a tiny winkie!”

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