Ben Elton

Ben Elton

Date of birth: 03-05-1959

Friday Night Live

Review of the return of Ben Elton and Co

What a week to bring back a partially topical comedy show! But it wasn’t the raw material of Westminster chaos that made the one-off revival of Friday Night Live after more than 30 years such a triumph, but the smart combination of blast-from-the-past acts from the original and the very best of the current circuit. The mix meant that the wallow in nostalgia caught the current zeitgeist, too.

Ben Elton dusted down the sparkly suit to offer us the customary ‘little bit of politics’, lamenting the fact at the Liz Truss clusterfuck left him pining for the days of his old nemesis ‘Lady Thatch’ because when he mocked her ‘at least you know she’d still be in power at the end of the programme’.

We currently have a self-parodying government, and Elton’s take was no better or worse that the jokey narrative on Twitter or any number of topical comedy shows. And his closing monologue about cancel culture not existing while also fearing the backlash of a  Twitter mob was an example of having his cake and eating it that would shame a Brexiteer.

But the live broadcast gives the performance a frisson, and in any case Elton is at least as much about the energy as the material, and his forceful rhythms and sharp enthusiasm drove the 90-minute show with purpose.

Old hands like Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Ade Edmondson and Stephen Fry gave him encouragement, of a fashion, on video while others of Elton's generation bothered to show up. Julian Clary also dusted down his spangly old outfit, and although slight rusty in delivery, took the bold step of instigating some  audience banter on live TV, setting up his witheringly arch putdowns about people in the room and celebrities in the world, with a hefty side order of his trademark camp filth.

Clary on Friday Night Live

Jo Brand - simultaneously on this and the pre-recorded Have I Got News For You on the other side – enjoyably opened with gags she did on this show first time around, before widening her scope.

And Harry Enfield’s memorable characters stood the test of time, updated - or not - for the 21st Century. Stavros hasn’t lost his Greek accent – though the East London kebab shop is now a vegan cafe to cater for the area’s increasingly gentrified population. And Loadsamoney speaks to a wealth divide even wider than the 1990s. ‘Look at that you fuel poverty wankers,’ he taunts as he flashes his wad of fifties. He’s the sort of person who wants Boris back because he’s a kindred spirit.

Loadsamoney on Friday Night Live

But for all the old glories, the show belonged to the newer comics, with astute producers choosing those whose time seems to have come, such as Sam Campbell, that cheeky peddler of playful and original baloney and Leo Reich - who was also on Dave’s Late Night Mash this week. He is the perfect, affectionate parody of Gen Z, shallow and self-absorbed - but with brilliantly sharp punchlines.

Jordan Gray stole the show, though, with her electrifying, joyous celebration of being transgender, ending by creating a genuine TV moment as she stripped naked. At least one woman in the audience looked overcome with the power of the performance, and Gray’s dynamism and delight seeped through the screen. Call the Webb Space Telescope people, for a star was born tonight – if her amazing Edinburgh run hadn’t already established that fact.

Elsewhere, Thanyia Moore and Michael Odewale offered some one-liner headlines – similar to the long-running Weekend Update segment on America’s Saturday Night Live; Rosie Jones took full advantage the licence her cerebral palsy affords her to be a dick and Mawaan Rizwan entertained with his musical number Are You Checking Me Out Or Are You Just A Racist? Later, Self Esteem was the ‘proper’ musical act,  but Rizwan’s musicality is up there.

The only place the show fell short is on sketch acts, Enfield notwithstanding. Ronni Ancona as Dame Olivia Coleman was a fine impression with an unmemorable script, and the  fake charity appeal is one of the oldest sketch formats in existence, deployed here in aid of poor old Rebekah Vardy. Meanwhile, Kayvan Novak reviving Fonejacker seemed a waste of the format. If you’re a live show, why play in a prerecorded video?

But overall this proved a marvellously successful comeback, with a format that feels more urgent and relevant than most topical showcases. Now Mock The Week has come to an end, would it be too much to ask that Friday Night Live become a permanent fixture in the schedules, giving a platform for exciting new comedians whether they can work within the constricting limits of a panel show or not?

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Published: 22 Oct 2022

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