That Mitchell and Webb Sound
The Complete Radio Series 1-3

Starring: David Mitchell and Robert Webb
BBC Audio
RRP: £50.00
ISBN: 978 1 405 67790 5
Available 01 October 2007

Meet soporific late-night DJ Adrian Locket; seedy snooker commentators Peter and Ted; crime fighter Angel Summoner and his redundant sidekick, the BMX Bandit; a Stone Age flint-chipper who reckons bronze is just a fad; a very unpleasant man who wants to take you out on a little date; Zombie Poppins, the undead nanny; and Asbo, the naughty baby seal who offers dubious advice on text messaging. In Mitchell and Webb’s peculiar world you can also hear the
Alpine Archers on Radio Switzerland and Numberwang!, the incomprehensible maths quiz. In addition, there’s Rabbit Newsnight or you can tune in to daytime TV presenter Jason broadcasting live from Makeover City, where you can get a complete sock or handbag makeover. And, for some reason, a milk helpline...

The three series contained within this box set are quite possibly the best material David Mitchell and Robert Webb have done to date. Though their Channel 4 sitcom Peep Show comes in a close second, its third series was a disappointingly uneven affair. And amusing though it was, the television version of this show, That Mitchell and Webb Look wasn’t quite up to the standards of the Sony Award-winning radio version. Throughout all 18 episodes of the radio series, the next laugh-out-loud moment is never far away.

My personal favourites include Rabbit Newsnight, Fox and Badger, the irate man who calls a milk helpline, the Nazis who realise that they are the bad guys (well, they do have skulls on their uniforms), the campaign to save the mad bears, a newly single man who’s so helpless he can’t even hang a painting, and Asbo Zaprudder, the talking baby seal who offers extremely dodgy texting advice.

As with their UK Play series, The Mitchell and Webb Situation, many of the sketches here are one-offs, though some, such as Mad Bears, Angel Summoner and the BMX Bandit, Daytime Coverage of Things and Over to You, are reprised during the course of a particular episode. Very few characters or situations are carried across an entire series, apart from the snooker commentators Peter and Ted, who exhibit a different obsession in each episode of the first two series and who, notably, do get a little tiresome by the end. Unlike Little Britain, you don’t need to be familiar with the likes of Peter, Ted, Sir Digby Chicken-Caesar or Raymond Terrific, the over-excitable presenter of Big Talk, in order to fully appreciate the humour.

With the exception of Peter and Ted, the performers tend not to go in for impersonations or anything much in the way of vocal diversification, instead sticking to their own recognisable voice patterns and personality traits, applying them to characters as diverse as the Devil and anthropomorphised animals. The latter include a couple of luckless pit ponies, a hopeless flock of flightless birds, Mowgli’s parents and another fox, who, since the hunting ban came into effect, cunningly sells his services like a prostitute (“Of course I’m cunning - I’m a fox”).

I can’t imagine these zoological sketches working nearly as well on television with the actors in animal costumes (though perhaps the panel on Imagine That can). It’s refreshing to hear a radio comedy that is not merely a testing ground for potential television material (though viewers of That Mitchell and Webb Look will recognise several sketches and characters, including Now We Know, Touching Cloth, Numberwang!, the lazy writers of a hospital drama, Friends of Moneypenny, Peter, Ted and Sir Digby). Many of the more surreal ideas are defiantly unfilmable, including the reality TV spoof Celebrity Fame Zeppelin and the mordant Zombie Poppins.

There are more recurrences of theme than of character. For example, much time is spent spoofing television programmes, particularly discussion shows and daytime TV. The comedians pour scorn on pointless news coverage, as presenters urge viewers and listeners to email in their ill-informed opinions (during the three-part Over to You skit); we realise how it’s always either too early or too late to speculate on facts (in Speculate to Accumulate); and there’s an interviewer who is anything but hard-hitting. They also ridicule football supporters for their inability to separate their team’s accomplishments from their own (in We) and football managers for their inability to see anything beyond the score (in The Main Thing is the Three Points).

Charity advertising campaigns also come in for some stick, in sketches such as Just £3 a Month and Mad Bears, as do telephone call centres, in Milk Helpline and Child Call Centre. However, our sympathies are switched from the caller to the call-centre staff in the Understanding Man sketches, which challenge the logic of choosing to speak to a real person rather than an efficient automated service.

The pair also seem to hold a fascination for tour guides, with no fewer than five sketches in Series 3 dealing with embittered and lonely or mischievous guides, the former type played by Mitchell, the latter played by Webb.

Anger, phoney coolness and sadness are recurring personality traits in the comedians’ work. As in Peep Show, Mitchell all but corners the market in being irate, usually with a generous side order of snobbery. However, Webb also gets in on the act with the overwrought Raymond Terrific, while both performers are equally bitter in the sketch Unity of Purpose, as two people who don’t see why mobile phones should have cameras in them, why microwave ovens should have clocks on them, or why cars should contain heaters.

Webb’s characters tend to be laidback, or rather they pretend to be laidback, though Mitchell also has a go with his depressing late-night DJ Adrian Locket (shades of Alan Partridge here).

Which brings us to sadness, which both comedians do equally well, whether in the guise of Webb’s Solo Man or shopper tormented by a caricaturist (Mitchell), or Mitchell’s man with a pathological aversion to other people’s children. In Series 3, it’s co-star Olivia Colman’s turn to feel upset, as an insulting Robert Webb repeatedly reduces her to tears as a way of encouraging her to go out with him on “a little date”.

David Mitchell’s rapid-fire and/or verbose delivery is particularly impressive during Series 3, in enthusiastic routines such as Celebrity Fame Zeppelin and spoof adverts for useless periodicals and partworks such as Buy Me!, Car-Hate Cheese-Love magazine, Chicken-Ambivalence Tap-Ambivalence (“You don’t actually need to buy it”) and the complete works of Charles Dickens, at a rate of one page per week (“Heritage Masterpieces - helping you to make us richer”). At times, he reminds me of the great Robbie Barker.

Science fiction/fantasy fans will particularly appreciate the numerous genre-based gags, including Friends of Darth Vader; Friends of Freddy, Daphne and Velma; a Middle Earth Dinner Party; numerous sketches on the theme of secret agents; a challenging look at the dubious selection process employed at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry; and a skit involving He-Man’s bad back. The sketch Lazy Writers - Space, in many respects an embryonic version of Daydream Believers, depicts a space opera by numbers featuring such edifying lines as: “Put on the special motorcycle helmets for breathing with. We’re humans - we breathe air, not space!” There are also references to invading aliens in Over to You - Part 3 and to Raiders of the Lost Ark in We.

The box set also includes a 50-minute bonus disc containing eight previously unheard sketches and a very laidback interview with Mitchell and Webb, conducted by their co-star James Bachman. The sound quality of the interview is rather poor, and the interviewees are all apparently hung-over, so this doesn't get very in-depth. It was obviously recorded before the transmission of That Mitchell and Webb Look, because the comedians discuss what will be in the TV show as though the listener won't have seen it yet - a bit late for that really. The sketches are definitely the highlight of the bonus disc, including a further edition of Imagine That; a routine involving Batman, whose sulky protégé Robin won't fly the nest; biscuit insurance; the invention of the world wide web; and a sci-fi spin on 10 Years Younger.

Love Mitchell and love Webb? Then you need That Mitchell and Webb Sound: The Complete Radio Series 1-3! Buy it!

(That’s Numberwang!)

Richard McGinlay

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