On Harry and Paul’s Story of the Twos (BBC 2, Sunday), there was a particularly cruel sketch in which Paul Whitehouse gave Harry Enfield a Paxman-style grilling as to whether he felt bitter that his comedy series had never won a Bafta award whereas its big rival The Fast Show (featuring, inter alia, one Paul Whitehouse) had won lots and lots and lots. The more Enfield tried to deny that it had bothered him, the more Whitehouse pressed him to admit that it had.
But the real victim of the joke, as it would turn out this week, was not Enfield but The Fast Show. Its first episode in years — revived as part of BBC2’s 50th anniversary celebrations — was so embarrassingly bad that it made you wonder why any awards committee might ever have considered it worthy of notice. Riding a bicycle is like making love to a beautiful woman? Nope. Monkfish? Never was funny, I remember that. Ted and Ralph? Really could have been a hell of a lot better.
Then we got to the sketch featuring the rude, suntanned South African cosmetics saleswoman played by Arabella Weir. A woman in a wheelchair tried to buy some scent. Rude South African woman explained, in so many words, that the disabled were non-people for whom attempts at self-enhancement were a complete waste of time. The woman in the wheelchair took umbrage and called her out on her vile bigotry...
And at that point, I’m afraid, I simply couldn’t bear to watch any longer. What deep and telling observational truth, exactly, was this sketch trying to impart? That white South Africans are rude and hateful? That disabled people are horribly discriminated against? That our attitudes to disability, these days, are so thoroughly enlightened and marvellous that we should all give ourselves a big congratulatory group hug?
The Story of the Twos, on the other hand, was pure comedy genius throughout. It was so good, in fact, that it threatened to undermine its own satirical thesis, viz: BBC2 is a pseudo-intellectual ghetto run by a bunch of pretentious Oxbridge tossers who’ve spent the past five decades being wildly overpraised for dreary tosh like I, Claudius and The Old Grey Whistle Test and for desperately unfunny comedy such as Monty Python and Harry and Paul. After all, if the tossers were that useless, how come one of them had the nous and courage to commission something as fearlessly iconoclastic and un-PC as this?
I remember as a child being awestruck by The Old Grey Whistle Test. Could the world of adults really be that tedious? Apparently yes, according to Harry and Paul’s delicious spoof, quoting talking head Johnny Cambridge-Oxford. ‘When they came up to me and said, “Can we have a happening music show for BBC Two,” I said, “No. I want something dull.”’ The result? The Old Grey Wrinkled Testicle, whose series highlight was the memorable episode when a prog-rock guitarist actually died of boredom in the middle of a lengthy solo.
As for I, Claudius — or ‘One Clavdivs’, as they renamed it, in honour of the title sequence with the snake and the mosaic — it was just a bunch of actorly luvvies spouting off in self-consciously theatrical style about incest, murder and revenge while at any moment you expected to see Frankie Howerd wander on from the Up Pompeii set next door.
Its boldest move, though, was its version of The Great War (‘Episode 46: A Christmas Truce’). Harry and Paul appeared as a range of eyewitness characters: Private Harry Tibbs, 1st Battalion, Devonshires, with his incomprehensible rustic accent; pukka, moustachioed Lieutenant Rajiv Shrandi of the 2nd Rajput Cavalry (‘We were chatting away to these German scallywags and one of them is touching me on the face and hands. I don’t think he’d ever seen a dusky fellow before...’); Lieutenant Hans Schulman, 6th Bavarian Reserve Division (‘We vere so starved of ze fairer sex. And because zeese Highlanders vore skirts I observed some of my men acquiring ze trouser tents. Zis I vished to discourage so I improvised a game of fussball...’).
Like so many of the best Harry and Paul sketches, it combined superb acting, a take-it-or-leave-it understatedness (respectful of the viewer’s intelligence) and a shrewd eye for detail. Everything about this spoof was exactly right and perfectly judged: the accents, the cut of the veterans’ ill-fitting suits, the antimacassars on their armchairs... It sent up the programme and the period, yet simultaneously cherished it. No wonder Bafta has never given their series an award: these are the kind of subtleties that resonate with middle-aged, middle-class viewers out here in real Britain but which go whoosh over the bien-pensant metropolitan chattering classes’ heads.