Ben Miller and Alexander Armstrong first met 17 years ago at a party on a barge in Chiswick. They have come a long way since then, doing their first show in the 1994 Edinburgh Fringe and returning in 1996 to be nominated for a Perrier award. Apparently the 24th October is the anniversary of their first gig in Notting Hill, celebrated last night by the showering of their most loyal and obsessive fan who ‘happened’ to be in the audience with merchandise!
They had a Radio 4 series in 1998 (an episode played on Radio 7 just this week!) from which their spoof folk song about hat makers, that any folk singer would be proud of, was performed with gusto and irony and without a checked shirt and jeans in sight. After a series of shows on Channel 4 in 2000, Ben Miller and Alexander Armstrong started up together again in 2006 for a BBC 1 pilot sketch show and the rest is history. This Saturday 30 October sees the start of their third series on BBC 1and their live show introduced the theatre full of fans to some of their new characters as well as old favourites.
So how did Armstrong and Miller translate their diverse comic sketches to the stage?
With tons of imagination and months of hard work, this was done with aplomb. The show was performed with relaxed professionalism and clever use of multi media to accommodate the quick changes required, so enormous credit to designer Alice Power and director Sean Foley as well of course to the cast.
There was a feel of an old Morecambe and Wise show with the two comics joshing in front of the lush curtains that hid spectacular sets behind. The use of video was incredibly effective, giving on one hand a modern twist to old theatre back drops and also giving depth and continuity to stage action, particularly to the character Dennis Lincoln-Park in the Bargello. Top notch!
Anyone who has seen the TV series knows that the sketches are short and snappy but always with that disconcerting or just surprising twist that gives them their depth. The variety of accents they can carry off sits better on them than their wigs sometimes do but that aside these two are never anything but funny, daring and imaginative.
Everyone has their favourites but money could be laid that the WW2 pilots who talk 21st century street language are top of the list. Armstrong and Miller know that as they featured four times in this fantastic show, even tipping a nod to Blackadder’s final episode at the end.
Other favourites like Roger, Peter and Holly in their eternal cuckolding triangle; Brabbins and Fyffe, an eye wateringly filthy but hilarious take-off of Flanders and Swann (who incredibly had the audience singing about body parts they may not have wanted to think about!); Pru and Miranda the passive aggressive caterers in Dandylions Café; Jilted Jim, the man on his honeymoon sans bride, Blue Peter presenters and their naughty weekend japes and SO many more delights. Let’s hope we see the virtual characters Benthor and Xannontron in the new series or maybe in their new book.
While Armstrong and Miller are the main men, there is a third person without whom the show would not be the same. Katherine Jakeways is versatile and talented in her own right as she shows by playing every female part except, of course, from those played in drag by Armstrong and Miller.
Her French Resistance/German Commandant character was ‘Allo, ‘Allo and Monty Python rolled in one. The cast seem to get along well and this came across on stage in the easy atmosphere, despite the demand of incredibly quick costume changes and fast pace dialogue.
I can only guess that each show is tweaked to give it a local flavour. This is easy in a place like Edinburgh, but they managed to widen the target by making Broxburn jokes that went down well and nobody took the huff! The show was punctuated by a ‘50s style educational film giving the Theatre Code for newcomers, another entertaining ploy to make this show unique. A great night out was rounded off by the audience standing and singing about everyone getting together ‘in a non-sexual way’. Unbeatable.
Show time was Sunday 24 October