Comedy: Live Recording Of The Now Show

When talking about podcasts recently, I didn’t really talk about the radio shows that I listened to as podcasts, perhaps because they’re cheating a little, what with their professional recording apparatus and editing facilities. The Now Show, becoming something of an institution on Radio 4 after broadcasting for over 10 years, is a weekly satirical show hosted by Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis, with a varying roster of supporting players, which is recorded in front of a live audience. I’ve been listening to the show, either on radio or on podcast, for a long time but had never been to a live recording. Until now.

I have my lovely girlfriend to thank for getting tickets to the show – they are free, available from the BBC website, but there’s a long wait because it’s a popular show. The show starts recording at 8pm, with entry into Broadcasting House starting at 6.30pm, but we arrived about 15 minutes before that and there were already people queueing. After the security measures to enter the building, including X-rays of our bags and metal detectors, we still had to wait until 7.30ish before they let us into BBC Radio Theatre for the actual recording; there is a lot of organising involved in just getting people inside.

When things finally started happening, Punt and Dennis came on first to warm up the audience – I can only assume that they do the same thing for each show, with Dennis doing his silly mimes, including the classic velociraptor walk he did on Outnumbered, while Punt did a background narration. This got the packed audience laughing along, before the rest of the cast were introduced and brought onto the stage – regulars Laura Shavin (doing all the female voices), Jon Holmes and Mitch Benn (provider of the musical pieces), along with the guest comedian who has been taking over from Marcus Brigstocke; this week it was Mark Watson. They all had seats for when they weren’t at a microphone – Punt and Dennis have the biggest share of the talking – and it did seem like an old-fashioned representation of how radio shows are recorded.

After testing the microphones, the show was recorded as if we were at home listening to it – it was an odd sensation, with the different acoustics of being in a theatre compared with the experience of hearing it in digitally broadcast high-quality sound. Some of the cast have different vocal performances as they appear on the show. It was made even more bizarre when the producer came onto the stage floor to do pick-ups where some people had missed a cue or slightly fluffed a delivery or, in the case of Jon Holmes, gave a more grammatically correct reading of his punchline (changing from ‘less presents’ to ‘fewer presents’; one of the cast said they would have got more letters about that than the stuff about Prince Phillip shooting Camilla …). I quite liked this look behind the scenes, seeing how the show is a job, rather than just some people making it up as they go along.

The show was great fun, the only weak section being Mark Watson – I was going to be slightly disappointed by the absence of Marcus Brigstocke, who is perhaps the comedian best suited to the satirical stand-up slot in the programme, with his intelligence and strong political viewpoint, but Watson was a rather poor fill-in. His delivery is supposed to be a little halting and ramshackle, but it seemed particularly raw and poorly prepared.

To make up for the slightly weak guest, we were given extra material – we were allowed to stay for the recording of recorded pieces for The Vote Now Show, the extra shows they are doing for the run-up to the election. In the end, we didn’t get out of Broadcasting House until after 10pm, but it was worth it – a very enjoyable night’s entertainment.

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Live Comedy: French and Saunders – Still Alive

I’ve seen most of the comedians who had an impact on my burgeoning enjoyment of comedy in a live setting – I saw Ben Elton while he was still funny, I saw Rik & Ade doing Bottom on stage, I saw Newman & Baddiel (although not in the notorious Wembley gigs), I saw Steve Coogan doing Alan Partridge live (hearing him ad lib in character is a delight), to name a few. Yet I hadn’t seen Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders doing a live show.

French and Saunders, dubbed the godmothers of alternative comedy, were the first female comedians to impact on my consciousness. Part of The Comic Strip Presents, appearing in The Young Ones, and doing their much-loved sketch show, French & Saunders. They might have become more populist than their alternative roots would dictate, Jennifer with Absolutely Fabulous and Dawn with The Vicar of Dibley (can’t say I was a big fan of the latter), but the important thing was they were funny – the spoofs on film/television/popular music may have become an albatross around their necks, but only because they were funny in the first place. Therefore, when they brought their ‘not a farewell tour’ show to the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, it was time to cross them off my list.

Firstly, I would recommend the Theatre Royal – it is a very large and very nice theatre, spacious and comfortable. Also, the box we had was almost as big as our bedroom – the room outside it had more space and chairs for relaxing in the interval. And, because there are hardly any other people going to boxes, the pre-show ambiance is quiet and pleasant. I don’t think we could go back to sitting in the stalls …

Jennifer and Dawn came on to huge applause – their populist status was in no doubt – and the show was a mix of pre-filmed pieces, old sketches and new pieces. For performers used to the luxury of television to get it right, they were very well-oiled in their routines, which involve a lot of talking over each other, their faux-bickering and monologues. They also made plenty of jokes at each other’s expense – boasting about whose show was more impressive or more popular, at one stage bringing on a giant vicar of Dibley to demonstrate the point.

They did one of their classic routines about contraception, as well as some of their popular characters. Jennifer did her Madonna bit (Jennifer and Dawn are the same age as Madonna) and Dawn did an hilarious pre-taped Catherine Zeta Jones piece. They also did a version of the original sketch that was the inspiration for Ab Fab. They even did a song and dance bit at the end. The biggest laughs were for the ‘encore’ routine of the two old men, who urinate on a wall and then both turn around with their trousers still undone, with fake yet realistic-looking genitals flapping about. The audience, who consisted mostly of older women (including Alison Moyet and Ruby Wax), were screaming with laughter.

Was the show ground-breaking? No. Was it alternative comedy? No. But was it funny? Yes. Nearly two hours of funny sketches performed by funny people, it was a delight to be entertained by two women who knew what they were doing and doing it well. It was great to see the bickering in the flesh, especially as we were so close to the action in the box (the one we were in isn’t usually open for shows because they are covered with lighting, but they were available for use for this show), with Dawn doing her over the top thing and Jennifer being more controlled. Entertaining and celebratory, it was a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

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