Book review: Prime Minister, You Wanted To See Me: A History Of Week Ending

by Ian Greaves and Justin Lewis

This new history of the well-remembered, if not always well-loved Radio 4 topical comedy show Week Ending landed on the doormat with a satisfying thud. More than 700 A4 pages dedicated to the long-running programme that helped incubate some of the best-known writers in comedy promises a substantial read.

But open it up, and you find the authors have employed the sensibilities of a trainspotter, and reduced 28 years of radio comedy to a catalogue of dry, passionless statistics.

The show, which began in 1970, had an unenviable reputation for formulaic, toothless satire. But that it wasn’t funny was ‘almost irrelevant’, as one writer put it; its most vital function was as a breeding ground for new talent.

What was unique about Week Ending was its open-door policy for new writers, giving many of the biggest names in comedy their earliest breaks. While commissioned hands would divvy out the big stories of the week, anyone could wander into the BBC offices for the non-commissioned writers’ meeting, and submit a gag that may make it to air, and earn them some pocket money.

Among those who toiled on the show were Douglas Adams, Richard Herring, Stewart Lee, David Renwick, Peter Baynham, Robert Newman, David Baddiel and Harry Hill – not that their individual talents necessarily shone through the mundane template of the format.

But the work had its value. ‘Even Jimi Hendrix did an apprenticeship in show bands,’ Lee said, ‘and I think that doing two years of writing for Week Ending is like being in the salt mines of comedy. You learn a craft, and then you can choose to reject it. You either stay in that world forever, or you just have to go.’

There was a revolving-door policy for producers, too, with many young BBC bucks being handed the reins for a couple of months, which led to a wildly inconsistent show depending on who was in charge at the time. And the established cast were never going to be happy taking instructions from some fresh-faced graduate who’d be gone in a matter of weeks.

But the role call of producers who cut their teeth on the programme is impressive, too, with the likes of Harry Thompson, David Hatch, John Lloyd, Geoffrey Perkins, Armando Iannucci, Jan Ravens, and even Griff Rhys Jones doing their ‘jury service’ there.

In the introductory pages of their guide, Ian Greaves and Justin Lewis provide a brisk run through the show’s history; and how it eventually came to an end amid competition from more biting shows, not to mention the growth of comedy as a professional industry in which few aspiring comedians would bother going to the writers’ meeting just for the chance of an odd £15.

Like anything that runs for so long, the show had its highs and lows, as well as its infighting, personality clashes and office politics, all briefly covered here. Gobby Fleet Street editor Derek Jameson dedicated two chapters of his self-serving autobiography to the libel suit he won against the programme; here it’s dismissed a couple of efficient chapters.

But the authors’ love of the minutiae of the programme is evident even in this extended essay. Over 25 pages, there are no fewer than 106 footnotes. But that is nothing as compared to the detail that comprises bulk of this weighty tome: a comprehensive episode guide of all 1,132 regular editions plus the compilations and specials.

But it’s a triumph of facts over meaning. If Week Ending is part of the DNA of British comedy, this is like the transcription of human genome.

A sample: ‘14. Holiday Ads Runner 5 (0’47”) Cast: BW, DT. Writer(s): CBS (0’47”) 15. Next Week’s News (1’23”) Cast: DT, BW. Writer(s): GP (2Q) MMy (1Q), AH (1Q), BP (0.5Q), WAMS (1Q) RWd (1Q), MA (4Q).’

And so it goes on for, page after tedious page. That, incidentally, was the description of two ides in episode two of series 20, which went on of January 14 at 11.25pm. The BBC’s internal programme number is HLD020Y918, while its repeat the next day had the number HLD095W879. The number of the audio tape that it was finally recorded on to was BLN02/020Y918. Yes, it really does go into that level of details over hundreds of shows.

In fact, the only thing missing from this list of information, is what the actual content of the shows was. What was the Holiday Ads Runner gag that Colin Bostock-Smith wrote in that episode? We’ll never know.

It must have taken hours upon hours of tedious research to compile this book, but you can’t help but feel it’s time wasted on something that cannot, surely, be of interest to anybody.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

  • Prime Minister, You Wanted To See Me: A History Of Week Ending, by Ian Greaves and Justin Lewis is published by Kaleidoscope Publishing, priced £24.99. Click here to buy it from Amazon

Published: 11 Nov 2008

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