“Never go back, ladies and gentlemen,” Stephen Fry once opined. Saturday Live was an important show for me as a youngster. Each week it left me breathless, and was by some distance the most audacious programme on television. Be it Ben Elton puncturing the boil of Thatcher’s Britain, the Dangerous Brothers self-consciously demonstrating that all TV constraints were off, or the urbane wit of Fry and Laurie, making me that bit wittier and more urbane simply by watching them; Saturday Live was an education.
However, when the series slipped a day to become Friday Night Live, this particular viewer already felt some of the lustre was starting to fade. First of all, the aforementioned Steve and Hugh were no longer regular contributors (apparently Fry was engaged in a theatrical production). In their place came Moray Hunter and Jack Docherty, who although attempting to mine a similar vein of humour, hoisted upon us a pair of businessmen that lacked the wordplay and authenticity of Fry and Laurie’s earlier creations.
Then there was the inclusion of the character, originally billed as “The Plasterer”. Here Harry Enfield lit the blue touch paper of comedy catchphrases and retired to a middle-of-the-road career of BBC sketch shows. Elsewhere though it was kind of business as normal, the usual faces supplemented with the odd wise cracking American comic, all rounded off by an often surprisingly unfashionable music act. Although still watchable, to my eyes back then Friday Night Live just couldn’t compete with its predecessor.
But watching the newly released Very Best of Friday Night Live, as well as old recordings of Saturday Live is a sobering experience. The technical elements of the production still stand up extremely well, with the camera work and set retaining the sense of verve and excitement from all those years ago. Unfortunately though, with such a vital frame from within which to paint their comedic performances, most of the acts come as across as listless, overlong and – worst of all – not very funny. In fact, it’s surprising to observe that in what seemed such an upbeat show at the time, how little the audience actually laugh.
Patrick Marber, here shown making what may be his television debut is particularly notable for the sheer bewilderment his relatively straight, just not that funny, act provokes from those watching in the studio, similarly Josie Lawrence’s affectedly heart warming Brummie viewer can’t stir up much more than the sound of audience members coughing and shuffling their feet. Surely, it wasn’t like that at the time?
Well, it must have been. Back then it did at least feel agenda defining, but shorn of that immediacy, The Best of Friday Night Live leads you to suspect we were all seduced by the controversy and collectivism that the series seemed to offer. Indeed the acts that still hold some power to provoke a smile and those that even at the time were clearly not in thrall to this new comedic movement. The upshot of this, is that the American acts, which then less vital, actually stand up rather well, while Ben Elton’s routine bemoaning the “party farty” comes across as rather coy and not very subversive.
As a piece of entertainment The Best of Friday Night Live doesn’t have a great deal to offer beyond the curiosity of catching very early TV performances from the likes of Sean Hughes and Jo Brand. As a piece of cultural history it is invaluable, reminding us the Cold War and Nuclear paranoia didn’t disappear quite as long ago as we might have thought. However, this release works best as a lesson that one should sometimes leave memories where they lie. I can still just about conjure up the feelings of enjoyment and belonging that Saturday / Friday Night Live once evoked in me, but I fear these would surely dissipate if I watched too many more of these DVD compliations.