Those likeable chaps, Alexander Armstrong and Ben Miller return in their second and much-anticipated BBC1 series. Due to the sheer popularity of the stars, it has taken nearly two years for this series to finally reach the screen.
Alexander Armstrong has become a popular guest host on Have I Got News For You (why they don’t make him a permanent fixture is beyond me!). He also narrates (and occasionally stars in) quirky lifestyle documentaries. Ben Miller has been seen in programmes as varied as Echo Beach, Moving Wallpaper and Primeval.
The BBC made a bold move when it brought Armstrong and Miller back to the sketch show format. The two had been a huge hit on Channel Four in the late nineties. Former BBC1 controller Peter Fincham, a man with a strong pedigree in comedy, decided to bolster the Friday night comedy zone with a raft of new shows from favourite double acts (Harry and Paul among them) to complement panel shows such as QI and Have I Got News For You and so the very successful first series of The Armstrong And Miller Show was born.
So how do you follow a hit first series? With more of the same, of course! Series Two is a mixture of old favourites and new ideas. The iconic street-talking pilots return and are given top billing each show. There are several new regular characters, most notably the erudite but accident-prone historian, Dennis Lincoln-Park. You know what’s coming next when he describes a succession of rare artifacts as “absolutely priceless” but the sheer wit of the execution makes these sketches amongst the funniest of the new material.
There is a hilarious time travel sketch in which a modern day man visits the scientist Michael Faraday. Unable to express in his own words exactly what E=MC2 actually means, the time traveller opts to show Faraday the internet, only for the scientist to be intrigued by “Nuts magazine – 100 sexiest bikini babes” and demand to know more about Lily Allen…
For my money, the best sketches are perhaps the most traditional. Blue Peter-style apologies enliven episode one. The female presenter Tina, brilliantly played by Katherine Jakeways (who has clearly studied Konnie Huq’s famous apology about the naming of the Blue Peter cat) is spot on. Armstrong is equally good as the ballsy northern presenter Alistair who keeps biting people on the nose… quite hard.
Ben Miller and Lucy Montgomery feature in a sketch about a man seemingly forever waking from a nightmare, only to lose his grip on reality. There is a series of sketches which begin like taut espionage thrillers and then the situation is abruptly diffused by Alexander Armstrong’s easygoing boss, who cares far too much for his subordinates’ welfare.
The best sketch is saved for last. In the final episode there is a sublime sketch about a pushy bank, railroading customers into a deal they don’t really want or need. An impatient Ben Miller (late for his own wedding) is convinced to sign up for some spurious deal when actually all he wants is to withdraw a small amount of cash as quickly as possible. Suffice to say, the form filling is far from straightforward. Miller eventually discovers it has taken him five years to complete the ‘simple’ paperwork and his wife (believing he’s left her at the alter) has married someone else! We’ve all been there! (Well, sort of!)
Amongst the sketches retained from the first series is the still very amusing “kill them!”, ‘the striding executive trailed by subordinates who spout weird facts’ and the brilliant musical duo Brabbins and Fyffe, an affectionate and clever tribute to the (albeit very clean!) nonsense songs of Michael Flanders and Donald Swann.
Flanders and Swann were a rather whimsical musical duo, popular in the 50s and 60s and most famous for their songs about animals such as the hippopotamus: “mud, mud, glorious mud….” and the Gnu song. Few viewers under 40 would probably appreciate the reference, clearly Armstrong and Miller see this as one for the older generation. Okay, so perhaps not the punchline! The bespectacled Swann played the piano and a wheelchair-bound Flanders would address the audience, delighting them with songs and stories. (Michael Flanders also voiced the very colourful kids cartoon series Barbapapa which was transmitted in the 5.40pm slot before the news on BBC1 in 1976.)
Sketch shows, by definition, are often hit and miss. When one recalls the sheer invention of the Pythons or the Not The Nine O’Clock News team, where sketches were mostly one-offs with few running gags, today’s comics seem decidedly lazy. Since Harry Enfield first used character sketches as the basis of an entire series, British sketch comedy has become increasingly reliant on the formula.
This series has a few misses, to be fair. The tedious sketches about the guy who’s been stood up on his honeymoon, was only mildly amusing first time out. It would perhaps have been better to limit the sketches involving the pilots. Although still amusing, the pilots shouldn’t have been used to underpin every episode.
The Cavemen/Origins sketches, with a couple of exceptions, have been done to better effect by Mitchell and Webb (as the Comic Relief sketches underline, David and Robert are Armstrong and Miller’s rivals for the ‘Fry and Laurie upmarket comedy crown’.)
Unusually for a 2Entertain DVD (not about Doctor Who) there is a surprisingly copious amount of extras. There’s the 2009 Comic Relief pilots sketches with the aforementioned Mitchell and Webb and the ever excellent Geoffrey Palmer. There’s footage from an open-mic style comedy tryout evening and the inevitable out-takes show reel. Best of all, though, is the chance to instantly access all the sketches in an A to Z format (a very nifty idea given it’s not always obvious which episode contained which sketch).
All in all, a very amusing and highly recommended package… now “kill them!”
The Armstrong And Miller Show: Series 2 is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.