Alfresco: A 25-year retrospective

Adam Millar looks back at a not-so-great sketch show

Alfresco sucked. There, retrospective over. Except for one extra piece of information- you should watch it. Everyone should watch Alfresco. Its sucking is monumental. Watching it makes me want to chew my tongue off in frustration. It’s as annoying as vaguely middle-class boys like me using words like ‘sucked’.

Alfresco, for all you people with lives outside sketch comedy was the first show to showcase the talents of comedy gods Ben Elton, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson (all right, and a comedy goddess) together in a sketch show, way back in 1983. With the cream of young British comedy starring together, how could Alfresco go wrong?

Well, by sucking. But before I get to that, let’s start with the good: Emma Thompson. I want to sleep with Emma Thompson. Watch Alfresco and you’ll want to sleep with Emma Thompson. Everyone wants to sleep with Emma Thompson. Emma Thompson wants to sleep with Emma Thompson. Let’s all sleep with Emma Thompson. What a cold dark miserable existence this would be without Emma Thompson.

The other players in the show lose points by not being Emma Thompson but gain points for being Fry & Laurie, Robbie Coltrane, Ben Elton (I’m one of those freaks who like Ben Elton. I forgave him for selling out, for his ‘Look at me Mum!’ acting and his ‘Come on, strangle me now’ reactions to camera in Alfresco) and Siobhan Redmond. The performances were great. What really let this sketch show down were the sketches.

Anyone who has even considered in a moment of madness to attempt, maybe, one day, to contemplate the possibility of starting to write a comedy sketch should watch every episode of Alfresco back to back because every sketch is a prime example of everything they should not do.

The sketches are unfunny, there’s no characterization behind the characters, all the sketches have an oh-let’s-go-on-until-hopefully-we-reach-something-resembling-a-punchline… there-it-is!-end-sketch-end-sketch feel to them.

Example: in the first ever Alfresco sketch (which is particularly bad) Hugh Laurie enters a department store to buy perfume and Emma Thompson is the slightly rude sales clerk. Hugh asks for perfume: ‘I’d like some scent.’ Emma replies: ‘Sorry love, we don’t deliver’.

The sketch meanders along. Hugh says the perfume is for his mother. Emma asks what the occasion is. Hugh explains he’s trying to get his mother into bed. He continues: ‘Well, course she’s not my real mother. My real mother died when I was very young so I’ve always lived with my Grandmother. But she used to go out and work during the day so I came to look at Granddad as my real mother. It’s her, or him, I want the scent for.’ And Emma replies: ‘Well I’m not bleeding serving you. You want men’s toiletries. It’s over there.’

Ngggggg! These were the days when Elton couldn’t care less about plot or character. The sketch sounded like him writing whatever popped into his head. If there was a joke, it went in, it didn’t matter whether or not that meant the sketch still held together.

Characters weren’t characters in Alfresco, they were so-so set-up and punchline deliverers. OK, all sketch characters are, but did Alfresco have to be so blatant?

In the second series (thankfully there were only two) things got a little better as Fry and Laurie started writing sketches. But most of them were still Elton’s and the unfunny ‘fake pub’ linking device only worked if its intended purpose was to irritate me profusely.


My main problem with Alfresco is that Ben Elton was the same age as me when he wrote it. Yes, he got to write a whole bloody sketch show to himself which to me is a much better reason to dislike him than Maybe Baby.

Oh, and Emma Thompson, my number is: 555-567123.

Alfresco is available on Region 1 (US) DVD. Click here to order it.

Published: 2 Sep 2008

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