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Audio Comedy Review
Gasp at the evil Mr Gently Benevolent, played by Mr Anthony Head! Weep at the trials of our young hero Pip Bin, played by Master Tom Allen! Be moved to joy and sorrow by the peerless narration of Mr Richard Johnson! Swoon at the fragile beauty of Pip’s poor Mama, played by Miss Celia Imrie! Wonder at the thespian prowess of Mr Geoffrey Whitehead as two dozen different siblings! This epic Victorian comedy includes all of Pip Bin’s remarkable adventures so far as he battles his evil ex-guardian Mr Gently Benevolent in four series of tragedies and triumphs in the style of Charles Dickens after too much gin...
This box set contains all four series to date (a fifth is expected in 2012) of the BBC Radio 4 comedy penned (or perhaps that should be quilled) by Mark Evans and produced by Gareth Edwards (whose other collaborations include the radio sketch show That Mitchell and Webb Sound and its television incarnation That Mitchell and Webb Look).
The emphasis is very much on historical / genre comedy, most obviously the Victorian era and the writings of Charles Dickens, complete with suitably ludicrous character names such as Harry Biscuit (James Bachman), the Hardthrasher / Sternbeater / Whackwallop / Grimpunch clan (all played by Geoffrey Whitehead), and of course the deceptively evil Gently Benevolent (Anthony Head). However, there are turns of fate in Bleak Expectations that even Dickens would have dismissed as unlikely, as well as frequent departures into the surreal and references to the world today. For example, in common with the best-known historical sitcom of them all, Blackadder, several episodes feature painters being used in the place of modern cameras.
Each of the four series is presented in its original multi-CD jewel case, the final one of which also includes a bonus disc (which I’ll come to later). The whole lot is contained within a gloss-laminated card box.
Follow the gloriously daft adventures of young Pip Bin as he struggles to rescue himself and his sisters from the schemes of his evil and badly named guardian Mr Gently Benevolent and the blood-curdling Hardthrasher family. Immerse yourself in a timeless epic featuring terrifying schools, even worse prisons, disguises, court cases, shipwrecks, underwater squirrels and swashbuckling long-lost aunts...
Dickensian influences in the first series include Great Expectations (the characters of Pip Bin and Harry Biscuit are based on Pip Pirrip and Herbert Pocket), Nicholas Nickleby (the brutal school at which they meet) and Oliver Twist (the workhouse). James Bachman is a delight throughout all four series as the enthusiastic but rather dim Harry - though it has to be said that Pip (Tom Allen) isn’t much brighter, always failing to see through Gently Benevolent’s not-so-cunning disguises.
There are a few lame gags, such as the sound effect for an endlessly poured brandy, but on the whole this is laugh-out-loud funny. I particularly enjoyed the lines about laughter being heard throughout Pip’s childhood home - “That was marvellous! But enough of this room. Now let us laugh and be happy in a corridor!” - and the tongue-twisting wordplay of the names Pip, Pippa, Poppy and Papa.
There are winks to the modern audience via Sir Philip Bin’s (Richard Johnson) comment that journalists are without a shred of decency, and his misguided belief that: “we have tamed the climate by means of liberal burnings of coal and gas”. Meanwhile, chronicler Jeremy Sourquill (Anthony Head again) tries out a wax cylinder recording device that he calls an iWax.
Episodes 1, 3 and 6 contain a few jokes that would ultimately be reused in the rather disappointing television adaptation The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff, including and not outcluding the line about legal jargon. However, the radio version is a lot funnier, because the surreal humour isn’t limited to what can be realised on screen.
The opening episode, “A Childhood Cruelly Kippered” is packed with incident, the next five less so. Holding back the introduction of St Bastard’s school until the second episode, “An Adolescence Utterly Trashed”, might have helped. Nevertheless, despite our expectations being raised in this way, the first series is far from bleak.
Revel in the many fine quips, characters and scenarios in Volume Two of Bleak Expectations, as Pip Bin ventures through Victorian Britain, in constant battle with his resurrected evil ex-guardian Mr Gently Benevolent. On the way he builds a national railway network, blows up parliament, joins an East End gang, smokes a lot of opium, gets married - twice - and takes on the might of the Martian army...
There’s a less Dickensian and more fantastical flavour to Series 2, which begins and ends with spoofs of two landmark 19th-century science-fiction novels. In the first episode, “A Happy Life, Cruelly Re-Kippered”, Mr Gently Benevolent is brought back to life Frankenstein-style by Frank N Sternbeater. In the final episode, “A Happy Life Broken and Then Mended a Bit”, he collaborates with Martians in a veritable war of the worlds. More modern SF is referenced in a memorable line from Doc Brown in Back to the Future and an Arnie quip from Total Recall.
As ever, there are thinly veiled allusions to the present day. When Pip and Harry inadvertently construct a national rail network, they are inconvenienced by a commuter loudly dictating a telegram, before their train is immobilised by “the wrong kind of beef on the line”. Later, Pip encounters politicians who are all too eager to accept bribery, so long as it’s in the form of expenses claims.
Things get a bit more Dickensian with the presence of the ghost of Mr Parsimonious (Laurence Howarth) during Episode 2, “A Re-Kippered Life Smashed Some More”, while Episode 5, “An Already Bad Life Made Worse But Sort of on Purpose”, sees Pip encountering some Oliver Twist-style pickpockets (who cry “Nick it, nick it, nick it!” with delightful enthusiasm as they go about their work).
David Mitchell guest stars as the Reverend Godly Fecund in Episode 3, “A Recovery All Made Miserable”, giving you one more reason to listen to the second series. That and Harry’s newly invented salutation of joy: hurrumble!
Volume Three begins several years after the death, for the second time, of Mr Gently Benevolent. All seems well as Pip Bin enjoys fame and wealth for his hugely popular invention, the bin... but all too soon he battles an evil pigeon, suffers the cruel torture known as cheese boarding, discovers a plot to sell London to the French, and learns the truth behind Mr Benevolent’s nefarious nature...
With Gently Benevolent having been disintegrated and made even deader than before at the end of Series 2, it requires a combination of spiritualism and vampirism to bring him back at the start of Series 3. In common with Series 2, a fantastical opening is mirrored by a far-fetched ending, this time involving an evil undead army.
Several episodes borrow from famous works of 19th-century science fiction, though this time it is the novels of Jules Verne rather than Mary Shelley and H G Wells. When Harry’s attempt to journey to the centre of the earth goes awry, he, Pip and Mr Benevolent end up travelling through space.
Having somewhat lost sight of the show’s Dickensian origins during Series 2, the production team seems keen to compensate with Series 3 by having Pip become a Scrooge-like miser in the second episode, “A Now Grim Life Yet More Grimmified”, in which he is apparently visited by the spirits of Harvest Festival past, present and future. Episode 5, “An Evil Life Sort of Explained”, gives Gently Benevolent a Great Expectations-style back story. During this flashback we encounter Miss Sweetly Delightful (Raquel Cassidy), Gently’s first and only true love; her guardian, Miss Christmasham (Sarah Hadland) (parodying Estella and Miss Havisham respectively); and Gently’s malevolent mother, Lovely Benevolent (Jane Asher). It is a credit to the talent of Anthony Head, who usually plays Gently Benevolent as the archetypal pantomime villain, that we actually feel sorry for the character as his evil fate is sealed.
Once again concepts from the 19th century collide with those of the 21st. In Episode 3, “A Sort of Fine Life De-Niced Completely”, a poorly street urchin spouts a series of unlikely metaphors for his terminal illness, including anachronisms such as “my slinky is nearing the bottom of the stairs” and “my microwave is about to go ping”. The next episode, “A Horrible Life Un-Ruined and Then Re-Ruined a Lot”, refers to the glossy celebrity periodical Good Day Sir magazine.
You’ll certainly have a good day if it is spent listening to the third series.
As Volume Four opens, Pip Bin must enlist the help of his former nemesis, Mr Gently Benevolent, to fight a new evil that is spreading terror and cake crumbs through the streets of London. Then follows a journey to the Underworld, a gunfight at the All Right I Suppose Corral, Harry Biscuit the dinosaur and his many wives, and an epic battle between good and evil on the plains of Russia...
The fourth series takes its inspiration from sources farther and wider than ever before. Episode 1, “A Tolerable Life De-Happified”, spoofs Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde - with just a hint of the Hannibal Lecter stories as Pip seeks advice from the imprisoned Mr Benevolent. The next episode, “A Now Spoiled Life Smashed Some More”, enters a Hell not unlike that of Dante’s Inferno, while Episode 3, “A Wretched Life Made Much, Much Sadder”, takes a trip to America to echo the Gunfight at the OK Corral. The fourth episode, “A Painful Life Further Re-Miserabled”, manages to combine Moby-Dick, The Lost World, and the Bond film You Only Live Twice, as we encounter Captain Beehab Grimpunch (who was his parent’s second child, after Ahab), some dinosaurs, and the villain’s volcano base. Episode 5, “A Now Tricky Life Woefully Miseried Up”, takes place in France and features a man of mystery known as the Scarlet Pimple - now, what could that be lampooning? The final instalment, “A Life Destroyed Then Repaired and Rehappied”, heads to Russia, features a brain in a jar and a time machine, and beat the Doctor Who audio drama Tsar Wars to a particular pun on the title of a famous movie series.
Despite its globetrotting antics, much of the humour remains steadfastly British. Some of the funniest lines revolve around Pip’s wife Ripely (Sarah Hadland again) and her obsession with cutlery: “you haven’t used the soup-spoon fork tongs tongs to pick up the soup-spoon fork tongs... and I don’t suppose you ever even intended to use the soup-spoon fork tongs tongs server, let alone the soup-spoon fork tongs tongs server slice!”
I did not find Series 4 quite as amusing as Series 1 or 3 - though this may simply indicate that, having listened to several episodes in quick succession, I am currently suffering from Bleak Expectations overload.
As though in recompense for my relative lack of appreciation, Series 4 also includes a bonus disc containing a “director’s cut” of the final episode (which is two minutes longer and contains several additional funny lines), as well as a 19-minute interview with Richard Johnson. I expect that lot will keep you busy for quite some time.