Absolutely! Gordon Kennedy interview

Actor, producer and writer Gordon Kennedy talks to us about the influential nineties sketch show...

Gordon Kennedy grilling an interview candidate in Absolutely.

Gordon Kennedy, often on our screens in the past few years as Little John in the BBC’s reboot of Robin Hood built his comedic reputation in the fringe sketch-show The Bodgers, along with Jack Docherty and Moray Hunter, taking the show onto radio and eventually merging it with the combined talents of Pete Baikie, Morwenna Banks and John Sparkes, for Channel Four’s Absolutely, which ran from 1989-93.

This well-respected show is now out on DVD in a fabulous 8-disc box-set, which we have (very favorably) reviewed. Gordon was kind enough to have a chat with us about the method behind the madness of Absolutely

Did fanatical Absolutely fans like the guy who runs absolutelyandy.com have anything to do with the show finally coming onto DVD?

Andy [Savage]certainly was instrumental, because he was the one that alerted us to the fact that there were a lot of people out there who wanted it on DVD, I suppose partly because they were running out of video players. He alerted us about three years ago that he’d sent a petition of over a thousand signatures over to Channel Four demanding the release. When we saw that, we thought maybe we should do something about this, so we got the rights back from Channel Four and starting working towards the release. It took us about three years to get it out there, but now that it is, we’re very happy that it’s gone so well.

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Someone at the IMDB grouped the show in with other hot Scottish comedy of the late 80s and early nineties, such as Naked Video and Rab Nesbitt – but were you not keen on marginalising the show by over-playing the Scottishness of the team?

No, we never described it as a Scottish show, though others have. We’ve always described it as a Celtic show because Morwenna was from Cornwall and John Sparkes was from Wales, so if there was a grouping it was Celtic nations rather than the Scottish. There were four Scottish people, so it definitely had a Scottish flavour. But no, Absolutely was historically always more popular in the regions than it was in London – and it was popular in all regions, not just in Scotland. So it was other people who decided to call it a Scottish show – we never did.

Did one performer tend to originate and write a particular strand of sketches, or was there a lot of Python-style pairing up?

Moray [Hunter] and Jack Docherty had written a lot before together and were already a strong writing partnership; Morwenna wrote a lot on her own, and then there was me and Moray, in the music parts particularly, where we all collaborated; and John Sparkes’ characters tended to be products of his own very particular mind.

Did anyone ever come up with good material that just wasn’t suitable for the show?

Not at all – the style was what we thought was funny. On one of the DVD extras, David Tyler – who produced the fourth series – called our show ‘The Last Of The Amateurs’. He meant that in a complimentary way, in that there was very little outside influence on what we made and what we produced for the television show. Unlike now, there was very little editing done by Channel Four – they just trusted our judgement. Therefore the show is very particular to us. The stuff that we came up with was by definition suitable for Absolutely, because it was us who were making the show.

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Obviously there were times when we came up with stuff that we might not be able to broadcast, but that’s a different thing. We never rejected stuff because it was too much of us – that was just the stuff we wanted!

The final three series have a very cohesive style compared to the end of the first one – was there a post-mortem at the end of season one?

There was a post-mortem at the end of every season! We always looked to improve the show – all on our terms, obviously. The first series gave us an extraordinary amount of control, and therefore it was up to us to look back and see what we thought we’d done right and what we’d done wrong. I think that by series two and three, the thing was absolutely fine, because we knew what we were good at, what we wanted to concentrate on and what worked for us. And then we’d push it with new characters and new ideas.

Was it a good venue to get rid of grudges? I’m thinking of your over-officious security guard.

[laughs] It’s very funny looking back at it, because the themes that are in there…it isn’t so old-fashioned or particularly of its time. I supposed we’re all victims of officiousness at some time. But no, there wasn’t one particular security guard that haunted me and led up to that. I just remember people standing around in London outside office buildings with commissionaire’s uniforms, which you don’t really see now. But you saw it then, and they looked like they owned the place, and I just loved that false air of authority…they looked like they were lord of all and they were actually lord of nothing.

How big an influence was Python on Absolutely?

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Everyone’s influenced by something and we were certainly influenced by Python, but I personally was also influenced by Python and Morecambe and Wise, Stanley Baxter, all that sort of stuff that was around back when I was growing up and helped to develop my sense of humour, I guess. I think people are very quick to draw the line with Python, which I can see because it’s more overt, and it was very much as eclectic and of itself as Absolutely was, but I think we were influenced by things a lot wider than that as well. Quite a few bits from Absolutely seemed to make it into The Fast Show, like ‘Anyone fancy a curry’ becoming ‘Anyone fancy a pint?’, and Bert Bastard being a nastier predecessor of Unlucky Alf – was that something you registered at the time?

Not really – on one of the DVD extras we interviewed Paul Whitehouse, who’s very complimentary about Absolutely and said it was an influence for people going round at the time. It’s very nice to feel that you’ve influenced something, but it’s not something that we tried or set out to do, and it’s for others to say whether we influenced them or not. The Fast Show was a hugely original show in all sorts of different ways, and Paul certainly said that he felt that the eclectic sense of Absolutely was something that they took on. I think they also realised that linking was a complete pain in the arse – that’s why they didn’t do it! [laughs] Maybe they learnt from us, watching it – ‘That looks really awful, we won’t do that!’ [laughs]

That was perhaps the most Pythonesque thing about early Absolutely, the way that you transitioned from one sketch to the next.

It’s funny, because actually the reason that we did that came out of our stage shows and the fringe, and it was nothing to do with Python, although it was probably for similar reasons – we were tired of rather endless, contrived punch lines. And the way it was on the fringe, if you got a bad punch line it tends to get written about in the review, and you find people will recite things before you’ve bloody said it [laughs].

So with experience of that we said ‘Why do you need a punch line?’. Do it for as long as it’s funny and let’s try and find an interesting way of getting out of it, which is what we tried to do with the lining, so our stage shows did that, and we naturally took that in – for exactly the same reasons – into the TV shows.

Actually, [doing that] turned out to be a complete pain in the arse, because you were completely tied into a running order, even if sometimes sketches didn’t work for whatever reason. Especially ones as eclectic as ours. On a stage show it was very different, because it’s all in one piece, but if you’re doing eight shows a series, it’s very difficult to make sure that all the sketches are linking.

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It’s quite interesting watching over the first two series – it’s still there but it gets less and less, and eventually we tended to just go away and come back to another idea. Or we would find ways of linking, like Pete [Baikie] and his piano.

With ‘ruder’ turns liker Bert Bastard and Frank Hovis being so popular, and such funny characters and performances too, was there a temptation to take the show a bit down-market?

Not really – it was just part of the mix. There was always going to be that mix. Although Frank and Bert were pretty rude, they also had a lot of depth to the characters, certainly the way that John Sparkes performed them, and the issues that he started dealing with. It’s very interesting looking at Bert, because there’s a bit of satire on how we look at the young and how we look at the old. I know he certainly used the word ‘quim’ quite a lot [laughs], but there was a marvellous pathos and relevance in his material that transcended all of that. And that’s why, in a sense, he probably got away with a lot that he wouldn’t have if it had just been gratuitous. The context he was in was very good, very real and honest.

I’m guessing that the Stoneybridge video might be Absolutely’s ‘parrot sketch’ – is there any other sketch or character that made so deep an impression?

[laughs] The little girl definitely did. And Bert. And with a more particular audience, Don and George – they infuriated as many people as they entertained, but that was the joy of them. They were just hilarious. What’s wonderful is talking to people about the show – no two people have the same favourite characters, and then, when they start talking about the show, the way they remember other characters, which is lovely. So hopefully the DVD’ll help jog a few memories as well.

We were watching the DVDs for the commentaries, and also we did a thing for The Times last week, watching the show at random. There was a sketch that came on and we all just looked at each other blankly – including the person who wrote and performed it! [laughs] We didn’t remember it at all. And then it went on and we went ‘Oh, yeah, I kind of remember…’. This journalist thought he was dealing with Alzheimer’s victims. But it is very weird, because there are so many sketches, and you watch yourself doing something you have no recollection of doing…it’s slightly disorientating.

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In a group interview at the time, you all agreed that your level of fame didn’t match the merit of the show – do you feel, looking back, that it was under-marketed?

Well I think it was a different time. Things changed rapidly once we stopped doing the show. [laughs] Not because we stopped doing the show, but television just changed. When you think that Baddiel and Newman did their first series as we were doing our third series, and already there was a huge change in the way that comedy was perceived. They were pop-stars of comedy, whereas when we were doing it we were just comedians and actors and producers doing their stuff. It changed very rapidly, in a very short space of time. That was the difference.

I certainly don’t regret the time that we went out or the time that we did things, because we were able to do what we wanted to do in the way that we wanted to do it. That time has long passed. I think the downside [in that situation] is that you don’t get the same kind of financial remuneration as people who are more influenced and more controlled by marketing and channels and branding, as they are now. That’s fair enough. We didn’t do anything wrong, we were just playing the pitch that was in front of us, as Paul Whitehouse and David Baddiel did two or three years later. [laughs] Just with a very different effect! To their bank-balance, I guess. But certainly…no regrets. Was the nineties the golden age of comedy, with Baddiel and Newman playing stadiums, etc, a particular era of great output?

I don’t think there ever is a particular era for comedy. I think every era has its triumphs and its abject failures. I’m sure there were a lot of completely crap shows around at the time – in fact I know there were, though I’m certainly not going to mention them now. And then there are fantastic shows. History always concertinas the space between these things, but there are always great shows, The golden age of sitcoms is talked about, and the same with sketch shows, but look at stuff like Mighty Boosh right now, and other shows, and it’s fantastic. It’s clever and it’s inventive, and they’re doing that in the modern world, where they’re sat upon by a whole number of marketing people, branding people, channel people, executives…and they’re still able to come out with that amount of originality, which is extraordinary in a way. So I think every age will have its peculiarities and its triumphs and its failures…

If you wanted to hook a potential viewer who knew nothing about the show, which sketch or character would you personally point them towards?

That’s a very good question. I think I would cheat. I would point them towards the ‘nice family’, and then I would very rapidly turn them towards Stoneybridge.

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Good choice!

[laughs]. That’s only ‘cos I’m in them both. Though that’ll be only my back in the nice family.

If you could go back and change how things went with the show, what would you change about it? In particular, you’ve often said that maybe some of the sketches were too long?

It’s very funny. We look at it now – I was talking to Moray about it this morning – the stuff we really liked then, we really like now, and the stuff we didn’t like much then, we don’t like much now. It’s interesting to read the reviews, because none of the reviewers picked up on that. It’s such an eclectic mix of eccentric stuff that people seem to not mind it as much as we do. I think we were always aware of it. Maybe other people don’t mind.

Yes, I think if were to do it again, we’d probably be slightly more judicious with the red pen. But then maybe the show would suffer overall. I happen to think not, but it might do.

We’d also have to write and direct more sketches, which would be a huge pain in the arse [laughs].

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I’m nearly at the end of disc seven now, and still enjoying it – why did it end at series four?

I just think that most of these shows – especially sketch shows, but maybe not so much sitcoms – have a time, both on the part of the audience and the part of the people that create them, and I think we had done enough of the stuff that we were doing, and it was still good fun to do by the time we left it. We’re all still very good friends with each other, so my feeling is we left it just about right. There is more of a pressure on people nowadays, financial pressure, to keep things on a bit longer. What’s good about Absolutely is that we did it as long as we wanted to do it, and then we wanted to move on and do other things, which we all did.

I think it shows – it’s there, four series; all quite different series, but they’re all good. I think it’d be terrible if were putting out a box-set and trying to ‘hide’ a few more [laughs]. ‘What you don’t wanna do is watch series 6, mate’. It’s a big body of work, but I don’t think it outstayed its welcome. You’re well known for drama now – how involved are you in comedy production now?

Absolutely. The production company, we’re still making comedies, working on a couple of things for BBC Scotland, and hopefully making something for ITV later in the year, and developing dramas. I’ve never seen the difference between performing and producing. It’s all about the script and development and in terms of acting, it’s trying to convince somebody you’re a commissionaire, convince somebody you’re a grieving father…the processes are exactly the same. You’ve got to convince people that you’re someone that you’re not. I’ve never seen the difference, and I never will, I’m afraid.

Did you enjoy working on The Russ Abbott Show?

[laughs] I loved working on The Russ Abbott Show! It was a very steep learning curve, and I used to keep bumping into the sets. I was far too big for the show. When it came to Absolutely, I made sure they made an extra six-inch gap to get my shoulders through the doorway.

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I loved it. It was great fun, and a fantastic first experience. To work with somebody like him, who these days is not as active in the comedy acting stakes as he was then, was hugely beneficial to me, because he was very very very good at what he did. And much under-rated, I think. Had he been American, I think he would have been much more of a Steve Martin at the height of his powers, rather than an end-of-pier show. I don’t think he regrets anything, and he’s a nice man.

Can you give us your own Brit-comedy pick for this particular period?

I’m sorry to be pretty conventional about it, but for me The Mighty Boosh is fantastic. My fifteen year-old son discovered it, and the language they use in laughing about it reminds me of when I was discovering comedy when I was fifteen years old. I think they will inspire a whole new generation of people that hopefully we inspired when we did Absolutely. The cycle continues, and that’s brilliant.

Gordon Kennedy, thank you very much!

See our review of the new Absolutely DVD box-set here.

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