Fist Of Fun Series 1

DVD review by Steve Bennett

It’s almost impossible to review the Fist Of Fun DVD properly – after all, to watch all the shows, the extras and the commentaries would take 14 and a half hours. That might seem fine for a series of The Wire, but could be considered overkill for a six-part mid-Nineties BBC Two comedy show.

Clearly distributors Go Faster Stripe believe that the audience for this long-awaited title is largely comedy obsessives who absolutely must have every scrap of footage from Stewart Lee and Richard Herring’s influential series. Because that’s exactly what you get in this four-DVD set – all the surviving studio rushes, so you too, can relive the stop-start tedium of being a real TV recording in the comfort of your own home. Although it does mean a few never-before-seen sketches, too.

Such completism - which also extends to a 60-minute live show previously released on VHS – also allows this set to come with a £25 price tag, far more than could likely be justified from the episodes alone. But then there’s an investment to be made back, since this release has only been possible as Lee, Herring and the independent distributors forked out a reported £15,000 to buy the rights from the BBC, which never believed a DVD release would be commercially viable.

They might have underestimated the esteem in which the show is remembered by comedy fans of a certain age, who will certainly clamour for the show. The fear. of course, is that it could never live up to such fond memories.

Yet it does bear up remarkably well. The studio segments might be a bit rough around the edges, but that only adds to its studenty charm, and some of the sketches are a little slow to modern eyes, but the humour holds out.

The dynamic between the two is particularly effective: Herring impish and enthusiastic, Lee cynical and dry. One of the many running jokes revolves around Herring’s backwards Somerset upbringing, but even when you’ve heard countless gags about inbred rural folk, there’s an inventive spark to the teasing.

Recurring characters include Peter Baynham – now a big-shot Hollywood writer – as a disgusting, slovenly and pitifully lonely man living in Balham squalor, and Kevin Eldon as the weak lemon drink-quaffing king of hobbies, Simon Quinlank. While these are still remembered, it’s surprising quite how many comedy stars pop up in the series: Rebecca Front, Alistair McGowan, Ronni Ancona, Ricky Grover, Al Murray and John Thomson can all be spotted.

In some of their commentary, Lee and Herring consider the fact that The Fast Show started about the same time as them, redefining sketch shows as efficient vehicles for catchphrases, causing them to ponder if they got the balance right. It seems so – they cultivate enough familiarity to establish the show’s ferocious cult status, but also mix in one-off sketches and ideas so as not to be confined to formula. And in its first release on DVD, viewers can actually read some of the written gags which pop up far too quickly to be read properly at 25 frames a second.

In the past 17 years, both comics have evolved as performers, though the personas are already starting to set. One striking example is where Lee does a gag about Christian protesters who complain ‘you wouldn’t say that about the Muslims...’ – a cry that has only becoming increasingly loud over the years. In Fist Of Fun he makes what now seems quite a cheap joke about being scared of Islamic fundamentalists  – whereas in his current live show the same starting point leads to a much more thoughtful, and circuitous, discussion of the subject.

Fist Of Fun is certainly historically significant – if you can say such a thing about a comedy show which only ever captured the imagination of a small but dedicated part of the population. While the amount of material included of this release bears that out, the six episodes are more than an exercise in nostalgia, but a genuinely funny three hours of telly.

Published: 15 Dec 2011

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