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HomeThat Reminds MeThat Reminds Me: Some comic gems you might have missed

That Reminds Me: Some comic gems you might have missed

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I HAVE already waxed lyrical here about Brass, Peter Kay and Father Ted, and think enough has probably been said on the subject of Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, Only Fools and Horses, Dad’s Army, Rising Damp and Porridge.

So I’d like to mention some lesser-known British comedy series in the hope of jogging your memories or even introducing you to something new.

First up is Campus, which emerged as a Channel 4 pilot programme in 2009, followed by a six-part series two years later. It concerns events at the fictitious Kirke University, one of the ‘plate glass’ universities opened in the 1960s.

The central character is the appalling vice-chancellor Jonty de Wolfe, played by Andy Nyman, notable for his strange quiff and bigoted, cruel, offensive remarks to all and sundry. 

 He is a surreal figure who on occasion rises up through his desk wearing an opera gown. He also speaks in tongues and has a habit of addressing staff in the open air via a megaphone, making them run around between differently coloured circles and sacking those who get it wrong. Filming took place at the University of Bath.

De Wolfe has three assistants, all named Grace and addressed either as Grace 1, 2 and 3, or Big Grace, Pretty Grace and Was Once a Man Grace. His obsession is with making money and he is constantly on at his staff to follow the example of mousy maths lecturer Imogen Moffat, played by Lisa Jackson, who has written a best-seller titled The Joy of Zero. She is pestered by English lecturer Matt Beer (Joseph Millson), who never does any work and devotes all his energies to having sex.

The stand-up comedienne Sara Pascoe plays Nicole Huggins, an accommodations officer who, while the university’s accounting system is being explained to her, playfully presses the wrong computer key causing all the staff to be paid twice for the same month and creating a huge shortfall in funds.

Here is a scene where de Wolfe calls in an Indian student with a rich father to tap him up for cash. Toe-curling doesn’t begin to describe it.

Campus was created by the same team which gave us the hospital comedy Green Wing, more of which later. Sadly, viewing figures were unacceptably low for Channel 4 and the first series was also the last. Thankfully the DVD is available for peanuts.

My next selection was also on C4 and enjoyed more success, lasting for three seasons between 2018 and 2022. Derry Girls is set against the backdrop of the Troubles in the 1990s and features teenagers Erin Quinn, played by Saoise-Monica Jackson, her cousin Orla (Louisa Harland), their friends Clare (Nicola Coughlan) and the hellraising Michelle (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell), and her English cousin James, played by Dylan Llewellyn. All of them, improbably including James, are pupils at the Catholic girls’ school Our Lady Immaculate College.

One of my favourite episodes came in the first series, which involved the friends following an animal they think is Erin’s dog Toto, which is alleged to have recently died. They chase it into a church where it flees into the roof and has a pee. The urine drips down on to a statue of the Virgin Mary, causing it to appear to be weeping. The gang pretend it is a miracle, the witnessing of which will cause great admiration and allow them to get out of an imminent history exam. Of course they are found out and condemned as liars on the front page of the Derry Journal. And they have to take the exam.

I felt that the one weak link in the show was James. By far the strongest character was the brilliant Sister George Michael, headmistress of the college, played by Siobhan McSweeney. She views her position as a chore rather than a vocation and treats everyone, girls and priests alike, with contempt. Here’s a selection of memorable moments.

Derry Girls is still available on E4 and Netflix. If you’ve never seen it, you’re in for a treat.

Next up we have 15 Storeys High, a bleak saga of life in a South London tower block. It stars Sean Lock as Vince Clark, a seedy, misanthropic swimming pool attendant with a phobia of being touched by other people, and Benedict Wong as Errol Spears, his naïve lodger.

In an interview, Lock said: ‘There’s a lot of people in London who kind of get washed up in a place, and they don’t really necessarily take part in normal life. They don’t have families, they don’t interact socially, they lose touch with their friends, people move on in life . . . they kind of get left somewhere on a shelf. That’s what Vince was like. He continually was finding new ways to isolate himself – protect himself from actually recognising what his life was like.’

If this sounds terribly downbeat, it is. Yet Lock and his co-writer Martin Treneman manage to mine comedy gold from the pits of despair.

Perhaps my favourite episode concerns Vince giving a swimming lesson to an attractive young lady whom he recognises from a pornographic magazine photo session shot in her house. She is horrified to learn that he has used her kitchen as an inspiration for his own home – ‘I get most of my decorating ideas from Readers’ Wives.’ The programme concludes with Errol looking at one of Vince’s magazines and discovering to his horror that his Nanna is featured in the nude.

Two series, each of six half-hour episodes, were shown between 2002 and 2004 on the BBC. Each season took six to seven months to write. Lock said: ‘The hardest thing to write is sitcom. 15 Storeys High is the hardest thing I’ve worked on. Twelve hours a day, seven days a week to do a decent sitcom. To do a shit sitcom, you can do that without much effort, and there are plenty of those around.’

Lock, a successful stand-up comic and prolific panel-show participant with the rare modern propensity to be funny, died of lung cancer in 2021 aged only 58.

You can see the whole of 15 Storeys on YouTube, or get both series on DVD for a fiver.

More comedy picks in a fortnight.

Old jokes’ home

A couple are riding a tandem down the street when an Alsatian comes out and throws a bucket of water over them.

A PS from PG

He’s engaged to be married to Stiffy Byng, and his long years of football should prove an excellent preparation for setting up house with her. The way I look at it is that when a fellow has had plug-uglies in cleated boots doing a Shuffle-off-to-Buffalo on his face Saturday after Saturday since he was a slip of a boy, he must get to fear nothing, not even marriage with a girl like Stiffy, who from early childhood has seldom let the sun go down without starting some loony enterprise calculated to bleach the hair of one and all.

PG Wodehouse: Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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