Radio 4 Comedy Review: Mark Watson Talks a Bit About Life / Small Scenes

BBC Radio 4, Available on iPlayer until November

Comedians may be the new rock stars, but comedy on the radio still has a certain ‘old fogie’ stigma attached to it. TV is where the money and fame lies, so is there any life left in the ageing wireless?

I should preface this piece by stating I am something of a radio-phobe when it comes to comedy. Apart from the odd show recommended by friends, I’ve mostly stuck to podcasts over the years. From Russell Brand’s excellent former Radio 2 show to the current crop of weekend comedic DJs like Josh Widdicombe, Frank Skinner and Rhod Gilbert, they are all easy listening, zoo-format riffing rather than laugh-out-loud programming.

But structured comedy is a different thing, and is something I’ve always associated more with the small screen. It’s the same for drama too; I’m an avid fan of TV dramas, whether serious, eccentric or crime-solving, but would never consider listening to one on the radio.

Of course, many successful TV comedies started life on the radio; Little Britain, Goodness Gracious Me, The Mighty Boosh and The League of Gentlemen all began as Radio 4 shows, so there is certainly a strong link between the two.

This week, by pure coincidence two separate shows on Radio 4 came onto my radar so I thought I’d try the audio format again.

(As a side note – the new iPlayer Radio app makes this really simple, although would be so much better if you could download actual radio shows rather than just podcasts.)

Mark Watson Talks a Bit About Life

I first came across Mark Watson’s stand-up years ago, but only really took notice of him after We Need Answers on BBC Four – a fantastic off-the-wall mock celebrity quiz starring himself, Tim Key and Alex Horne. The combination of these three different comic styles worked perfectly (Watson the straight stand-up, Horne the techie and musical man, and Key the irreverent poetic one), having been throughly tested in the live environment in Edinburgh before emerging on TV.

In this new radio series the musical role is filled by Tom Basden (as per previous incarnations of the series), but the chemistry is pretty much the same. You could describe the show as a mix of the three comedians, but that would be underselling it greatly. Each does have his place: Watson leads with humourous observational stand-up based around a theme (this week ‘Success’), Key chips in in his usual blunt way with poems and quirky interruptions and Basden provides some funny songs – but it’s happily more than the sum of its parts.

It helps that the three stars are all old chums and indeed were all part of the infamous Footlights at Cambridge together. While the show has a very deliberate lo-fi and haphazard feel, it is anything but underneath.

There is a certain essence to radio that TV can’t provide. What would be a funny, but very linear show on television, actually has carefully crafted layers of humour built throughout the half hour that work with the subtly of radio.

A clever mix of topical stand-up and irreverent interruptions

Taking a very modern stance, the whole show is pretty much a meta joke of itself, almost a sketch within a programme. The simple gags are at the forefront – Key pretending to not know Basden, confusion between ‘Sussex’ and ‘Success’, hierarchical digs at Watson (it’s his name on the title) – and these are genuinely laugh out loud.

But what makes the show tick is a clever mix of topical stand-up and irreverent interruptions that all smartly interlink and back-reference far more than you would appreciate on first listen.

In truth, it’s a delight and so far ahead of the crass panel shows of its televisual cousin, where comedians literally fight each other to deliver obviously pre-prepared lines. This is far more like a well-honed play, with each character dovetailing into the others, and all the better for it.

Small Scenes

With my cap firmly doffed to radio comedy, it was onto this sketch show, now starting its second series.

Written by and starring some of Britain’s best young comics (Daniel Rigby, Henry Paker, Mike Wozniak, Sara Pascoe) it pitches itself as ‘Scenes from Odd Stories’, but by today’s standards isn’t especially groundbreaking or different.

That’s not to say it isn’t good though. What does work beautifully is the underlying musical score throughout the episode, giving an extra dimension and a real cinematic feel to the narrative of the sketches.

In an era when TV sketch shows are few and far between – this stands amongst the best

This is particularly where Small Scenes succeeds where some of its TV counterparts have failed – radio allows a degree of imagination to fill holes that would otherwise be glaring in a visual medium. Partially, dodgy acting and accents that could fall flat don’t really matter as much as, say, bad make-up or costumes would on screen, and the gags can shine through unaffected.

All this makes for a very decent half hour with good running jokes as well as snappy one-offs. The notion of Australia being a made-up country, for example, could easily be a throw-away gag, but is turned into a really clever four-part sketch with a smart narrative.

Being Radio 4, most of the sketches are unabashedly quite high brow – including jokes about a chartered financial advisor, the BBC News team, and a British independent cinema theme park. It’s certainly no ‘Yeah but, no but…’ or Miranda falling over.

But it’s fair to say – in an era when TV sketch shows are few and far between – this stands amongst the best.

Maybe I’ve turned a corner, or perhaps it’s just a genuine rise in quality at a time when TV is being dumbed down to lowest common denominator sitcoms and panel shows, but radio seems to be a genuine hotbed for comedy again. Just try telling that to the kids.