On August 26, Acorn Media will release Alfresco, a sketch comedy show that ran for two series on Britain’s ITV during 1983-1984. Drawing talent from the alternative comedy scene with Ben Elton, Robbie Coltrane, and Siobhan Redmond, and The Cambridge Footlights with Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, and Emma Thompson, the program is a bit hit-and-miss with its sketches, but the young performers stretching their comedic wings are always watchable.
Britain in the early 1980s was in the midst of a wave of alternative comedy. The economic times were tough and rebellion against the status quo was in the air, both in music and comedy. The alternative scene placed much less value on punch lines and more on character-based sketches, often incorporating a Pythonesque surrealism as the performers skewered racism, sexism, classism, and whatever other “isms” caught their attention. Ben Elton (Blackadder), with his ear for dialogue and interest in characters, thrived in this atmosphere, and through fellow comedian Rik Mayall, he was asked to help create a sketch comedy series in tune with the times. Mayall having dropped out of the project, the producer then found The Cambridge Footlights comedy troupe at the Edinborough Festival, as well as Siobhan Redmond.
The group was asked to produce a three episode pilot called There’s Nothing to Worry About!, with everyone sharing writing credit. The response to the program was enough to commission Alfresco, so called because many of its skits were filmed outside. Alfresco’s first episode drew heavily on scenes taken from the pilot programs, with some new material added in. Paul Shearer was part of the Footlights group for There’s Nothing To Worry About!, but was replaced by Robbie Coltrane (Cracker, Hagrid in the Harry Potter films) for Alfresco, for which Ben Elton was credited as head writer with additional material from David McNiven and Andy de la Tour. Fry (Jeeves and Wooster, QI, Kingdom) and Laurie (Jeeves and Wooster, House) quickly began adding their own material and by series two were credited as co-writers. Emma Thompson (Brideshead Revisited, Professor Trelawny in the Harry Potter films) also began adding some of her own stuff by the second series.
There’s Nothing To Worry About! had the alternative comedy emphasis on characters rather than punch lines, as well as a rather dark surrealistic streak, so it’s no surprise that series one of Alfresco shares the same characteristics. The ambitious sketches with an anarchic edge turn convention upside down. With comedy like this, having actors who are able to fully inhabit their roles is essential, and that’s where Alfresco shines. All of these performers went on to show biz success and their gifts at creating solid characters, no matter how ridiculous or surreal the scenario, are on full display here. Series one feels a little raw around the edges as the young writers and cast are still finding their own style, but there’s no doubting the talent.
Series two brought Fry and Laurie fully on board as co-writers with Elton, and these shows shift a bit in tone from series one. The sketches are a little more conventional in structure, and The Pretend Pub is very successfully brought in as a linking device in the episodes. Elton’s crisp dialogue and everyone’s skill with creating specific characters makes the Pretend Pub a highlight. Some of the most hilarious lines of the season come within its hallowed and clearly fake walls, and we see Fry and Laurie’s signature style begin to emerge, with Fry’s love of word play and Laurie beautifully delivering a caustic one liner like: "I suppose you think it's somehow amusing to go around saying things that are funny." Much of the material involving Fry and Laurie in series two can be seen as the genesis for their style in A Bit Of Fry and Laurie, from the word play to skewering upper and middle class convention to the self-reflexive mentions of the set and themselves as actors.
All of these comedians are full of promise of great things to come. It’s no surprise that Emma Thompson nails a series of monologues by a young club kid and is always a solid performer; Robbie Coltrane lends a serious yet sly presence to his sketches and Siobhan Redmond’s feisty left wing waitress in the Pretend Pub is a delight. Ben Elton is more effective as a writer than performer, but he has some funny dialogues. Hugh Laurie shows his ability to bring a variety of characters to life, and Stephen Fry’s love of language and poking fun at convention animate even those sketches that don’t quite make it.
And not all the sketches do make it. The nature of sketch comedy is that it’s always hit-and-miss to some extent, and as these performers are still developing their styles, they have their fair share of misses. However, Alfresco offers enough laughs and sharp commentary to be more than a snapshot of the alternative comedy scene in Britain in the eighties, though it is also that. I recommend this DVD set to anyone interested in watching a talented bunch of comedians coming into their own and to anyone interested in social satire.
The DVD is sold as a box set, containing two discs in their own covers. Series one has seven half-hour episodes, while series two has six. There’s a good selection of extras, including a nice history of alternative comedy in Britain, cast biographies and filmographies, and the three episodes of There’s Nothing To Worry About! The set sells for $39.99.
Photo credit: Acorn Media