This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
The Royal Institution Lectures are a grand Christmas tradition, having been on our screens for the last eight decades of their nearly two hundred-year history (The first of this year’s lectures, about Michael Faraday, will already be available on iPlayer by the time you read this). Designed to bring science to a general audience, the lectures feature scientific concepts delivered in an entertaining fashion.
However, for all of their fun tricks and experiments, the RI lectures are ostensibly still that – lectures – and as such they are often lacking in such key areas as comedy sketches, full-blown musical numbers and Warwick Davis. Step forward Eric Idle and Brian Cox, then, and The Entire Universe: a comedic-but-factual attempt to cover the complete history of the universe in just under an hour; think of it as a really brief history of time.
The plot, such as it is, is that Eric Idle’s Rutland Weekend Television has been asked to present the history of the universe, “…within one hour, as a musical.” However, Professor Cox hasn’t been informed of the more showbiz elements of the programme, and as such must react to everything that’s thrown at him along the way.
Rutland Weekend Television was a BBC Two sketch show fronted by Idle which ran for two series during the 1970s. And in case you’re wondering whether you need any knowledge of the series to understand or enjoy the special, you don’t. In fact, outside of the opening few minutes, in which Idle sets up the premise and introduces the Muriel Tritt School of Music and Dance (the show’s song-and-dance troupe, choreographed by Arlene Philips), the Rutland aspect has no bearing on what follows, and Idle is the only member of that show’s cast to be involved in the production.
For the most part, the premise is an excuse to pair Brian Cox up with a series of potential double act partners, from the aforementioned Warwick Davis to Hannah Waddingham, who throw in unhelpful interjections as he attempts to deliver real science to the audience. Cox may be many things, but he isn’t an actor, and where you’d expect him to be playing grumpy he often ends up laughing along with the hindrances. However, being Brian Cox, this is largely charming and only adds to the endearing chaos of the hour.
Among the contributors is Robin Ince, Cox’s regular co-host on Radio 4’s The Infinite Monkey Cage. And as much as we love Cox’s usual TV partner Dara O Briain here at Den of Geek, it’s wonderful to see his radio partner get a look-in for a change. Whilst they don’t get as much time together as we’d like, Ince’s cutting swipes at his friend are, as ever, worth the price of admission alone. The theme song Idle created in 2014 for Monkey Cage seems rather shoehorned in here, mind.
The undoubted – and somewhat unexpected – highlight of the hour, however, is the partnership between Cox and Noel Fielding, whose whimsical ignorance proves the ideal counter-weight to Cox’s casual genius. It’s the stuff classic double acts are made of, and if someone at the BBC isn’t watching and contemplating a six-part series in which Cox explains scientific ideas to Fielding they’re missing a trick.
The special was introduced as a musical, and the other half of the running time is given over to songs written by Idle and his long-time collaborator John Du Prez. There are some fun numbers in here – Warwick Davis lamenting Pluto’s planet status is a highlight – but a lot of the time they suffer from the same complaint as the new songs in the 2014 Monty Python reunion, in that they often come across as more self-indulgent than funny. However, all are performed with tireless enthusiasm by the chorus – congratulations to whichever runner kept the cast so well-hydrated through what must have been an exhausting recording…
Whatever you think of individual skits or songs, The Entire Universe moves along at such a dizzying pace that if you don’t like something there’ll be something different coming along in a moment. And there’s such a random barrage of silliness, from a Bee Gees parody about gravity to the double act Eric and Little Ern (who now appear to have taken Morecambe and Wise’s actual place without anyone batting an eyelid), that there’s likely to be something in there to tickle your funnybone.
It may be a bit of a hodge podge, but it’s a highly educational hodge podge; as you’d expect from Brian Cox, there’s an awful lot of facts about the universe imparted over the hour. The BBC’s public service mission statement is to ‘inform, educate and entertain,’ and though it’s far from perfect, The Entire Universe may be one of those rare programmes that manages to do all three.