'You can abuse disabled people now, it's fine' | The Fast Show cast on their comeback © Matt Crossick/PA

'You can abuse disabled people now, it's fine'

The Fast Show cast on their comeback

‘In a time of recession people look back to the good old days,’ muses comic John Thomson. ‘Hence the nostalgia for groups re-forming. So you’ve got the choice of either us or Steps.’

‘Us’ is The Fast Show, with the entire team (sans Mark Williams) back together after a 12-year absence for a batch of new material from the old characters. And like Alan Partridge and Vic and Bob before them, their comeback is not on TV, but as an online series, funded by Foster’s lager – a formula that co-creator Charlie Higson thinks will become increasingly important.

‘I think what Foster’s is doing will happen more and more, where the people with the money will think, "Why do I have to go through all these channels, when we can do it ourselves, on our own comedy channel?"’ he said. ‘Foster’s approached us out of the blue. We weren’t touting it around TV stations.’

But having said that, the small screen could well be an option if the 12 new seven-minute episodes prove a hit when they go online from next week.

Fast Show

‘We all really enjoyed doing it,’ Higson said. ‘But the proof of the pudding is how it goes down. If it’s well-received, that gives you the optimism and energy to do more.

‘I think they’ve managed to sell Alan Partridge on to TV. So if TV companies now want to approach as and say "Can we do something more?" then we probably will.’

Although Higson says, ‘we were excited about being an online thing, we thought that was something new,’ he was keen to ensure the new sketches felt as good as the old ones.

‘I don’t think I know of anything that’s been made direct for online that’s going to look as good and as big-budget as this,’ he said. ‘Alan Partridge cleverly shot theirs to look like something you would see on the internet, as a webcam, whereas Vic and Bob shot all theirs in their back garden. The last thing we wanted to do was bring out a cheap version. It was very important to us to look as good as it used to.’

‘We also managed to get everyone back together, else we wouldn’t have done it. Unfortunately, Mark Williams had to pull out because the filming dates slightly changed at the last minute, but we even got Caroline Aherne who didn’t even do the last TV thing we did. It was lovely to have Caroline back.’

Adhering to the old cast and style would certainly help if the show was returned to the small screen, though whether a broadcaster, rather than a sponsor, would have commissioned a revival of the show is a moot point with the team. ‘They’d have said it was too expensive,’ Paul Whitehouse muses.

Higson agrees: ‘Part of the problem at the moment is lack of money, especially at the BBC. It’s much cheaper to do panel shows. ‘

‘But it’s at the exclusion of all else,’ says Whitehouse. ‘Because they are funny, they’re popular, they’re cheap to make so there’s not the desire to make sketch shows.’

And back to Higson: ‘I think it’s a shame there hasn’t been a really good sketch show around for a while, although a couple have been made by BBC Scotland, like Burnistoun, but why show that at 11.30 at night?’

While sketch shows might be out of favour with TV commissioners, the Fast Show team felt now was the right time for them to make a comeback.

‘Had we been asked to do it four years after we’d stopped, that would have been too soon,’ says Whitehouse, ‘but now seems safe.’

‘We were conscious of not just churning it out endlessly,’ he adds of their decision to make just three series. ‘Twelve years ago we were more bored than anyone.

‘No we weren’t!’ Weir interjects, prompting Whitehouse to reconsider: ‘We all felt we ended too soon.’

The show ran from 1994 to 1997, with a now inaccurately titled Last Fast Show Ever special in 2000 ‘Rowley Birkin died in that,’ Higson recalls, of Paul Whitehouse’s elderly drunk QC. ‘We’re treating that like the series of Dallas when he comes out the shower and it was all a dream.’

Fast Show

The new episodes might bring some old characters back from the dead, but they don’t attempt to introduce any new Fast Show characters. ‘It is mainly greatest hits,’ Higson explains. ‘We don’t want to be rock dinosaurs from the Sixties and Seventies – like Led Zeppelin coming out and going, "Now we’re going to do songs off our new disco album."

‘We’re all still rocking,’ Thomson insists, adding that getting back together with the team was ‘just like stepping into a comfortable pair of slippers’.

‘But also dangerous, edgy and relevant slippers!’ Whitehouse hastily adds.

Whitehouse admits it was a challenge to think of new situations for some of the characters. ‘Suits You was the most difficult for me to do because it’s very one dimensional,’ he said. ‘That’s the most difficult character to do. It had so much impact, but it’s not the most interesting to revisit.’

‘Similarly with Rowley Birkin – I mean he mumbles a bit and says he was drunk at the end. He’s been happy, he’s been sad, he’s been trapped under the ice for all eternity. Where do you go with it?’

But Higson says that when they came to write the new scenes, it turned out that they had ‘tonnes’ of ideas.

Did any planned scenes get abandoned? ‘We were going to do a Channel Nine version of The Trip,’ Whitehouse says. ‘But we didn’t, we did Bob Fleming instead. That was a very difficult sketch to film, we laughed too much.’

There have been a few small changes with the web series, as Higson explains: ‘In the old days we used to divide filming between going on location, doing it in the studio with multi-camera, then the main recording with a studio audience, so things like Suits You were always done in front of an audience - so it’s been quite interesting doing it this way on location, with no laughter.

‘We filmed for eight days and managed to get extraordinary amount done. It was originally supposed to go out as 12 five-minute episodes, but because we managed to film a lot more than we were expecting, the episodes are a bit longer.’

Fast Show

Some things have changed in the world of comedy in the years since they’ve been away – not least standards of taste and decency.

Weir said: ‘I liked doing my No Offence character again because I can do things I wouldn’t have done before. I mean, she abuses a disabled person. We just couldn’t have done it before because tastes have changed.

‘Obviously she’s in the wrong, she’s clearly not the hero, but the moment you have a woman in a wheelchair, people would have gone "woooah!" before. And she racially abuses a Lithuanian woman in these new sketches. You can do that now, it’s all fine, thanks to Little Britain.’

So now they have reunited, are there plans to do anything more together?

One idea in the new series – a parody of Downton Abbey – seems to spark an idea in Whitehouse: ‘We’d quite like to do an hour-long Downton using all Fast Show characters,’ he says.

It seemed like a tongue-in-cheek, spur-of-the-moment idea, but Higson – who admits ‘we’ve tried writing a film, but we’re not very good at it’ – goes with it: ‘Paul was joking, but we might do that.’

But Thomson has another, even more intriguing, idea: ‘Myself and Simon [Day] are working on a project at the moment, and I’ve mentioned it to Paul and Charlie, and that’s the possibility of doing a Fast Show panto. A Fast Show panto would be great - though we wouldn’t do it twice daily, I’ve been through that.

‘Ooh, that’s a brilliant idea,’ Weir trills.

Watch this space...

By Steve Bennett

Published: 3 Nov 2011

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