John Phipps

Why do I find sketch shows – even the better ones – so embarrassing and charmless?

John Finnemore's Souvenir Programme was at its best when not trying to be funny

Why do I find sketch shows – even the better ones – so embarrassing and charmless?
The prevailing tone of the show is bouncy, humdrum and quirky
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John Finnemore’s Souvenir Programme

BBC Radio 4

On sketch shows, the wisdom once was that you needed a punchline. That is, a slightly hammy, summative sign-off to let people know that they had come to the end of any given bit, to help the audience keep its bearings. The rules changed when the team behind Monty Python, who hated writing that mugging final joke, discovered that you could simply cut to Graham Chapman wearing a dress in a field and saying in a stern voice: ‘And now for something completely different’ — and it turned out that this was not only just as good, it was actually quite a lot better.

This is the problem with sketch shows: you can hear the aching labour of the actors and the writers trying to be funny (and when they’re particularly bad, you can hear them praying for it too). Humour thrives on the effortless, the rapid, the improvised elements of speech and gesture. Really funny people can’t help provoking laughter; there’s an element of it that is beyond their control. The sketch show, by contrast, tends to limp with spiritless enthusiasm from scene to scene. Even the better ones embarrass, slightly, with their insistent advances. It’s like a sincere, charmless, unrelenting come-on. They’re trying so hard you almost feel bad for them.

I admit this is a personal hang-up, so John Finnemore shouldn’t feel too offended when I say that I can’t recommend seasons one to eight of his sketch show. (It’s not you, John, it’s me.) Season nine, by contrast, offers the listener something more unexpected and stimulating. If I can’t quite recommend it either, I’m still glad I listened. Each episode focuses on conversations in the life of a single figure, beginning in the present day and moving backwards in time towards their youth. This structural trick gives the arc of each installation a subdued poignancy, a regression from eccentricity and disgruntlement towards naivety and expectation. Unable to rely on the canned laughter of a captive studio audience during Covid, the programme has been liberated from the blinkered, boxing rhythms of conventional sketch comedy. The central revelation from season nine is that John Finnemore’s Souvenir Programme is at its best when it’s not trying to be funny.

The prevailing tone of the show is bouncy, humdrum, quirky, a grab-bag of tutting mums and moaning teens sat around at family dinners where eccentric uncles are tolerated with affectionate exasperation. This deliberate kookiness and strained relatability is no good at all. Listening to these moments feels like being at a dinner party in St Albans with the world’s most tooth-grindingly normal people, listening to them make jokes about how crazy they are. The third episode of this season is a case in point, featuring a song halfway through that I found so aggravating I felt the urge to apologise to the person I was listening with.

Episode four, on the other hand, which focuses on the life of a science teacher, nonsense poet and sometime spy, gets the sweetness and silliness right. It begins at a funeral in 1990 and ends at a dinner party in 1898. If it were told forward, it would be a tragedy. As in other episodes, there’s a lot of loss, though we only realise that in reverse. This is rather clever: we only become aware of a death when we first encounter a character in an earlier period.

What tripped me up, though, was the realisation — and it came later than it should have, partly because I’m stupid and have always struggled to differentiate character voices on the radio — that all these episodes concern the same extended family, across five generations. Once you clock this, what should have been an experiment in narrative reversal becomes something broader and richer. We encounter a man who has suffered a stroke; once struggling for words, here he is again a few episodes later, at his 60th birthday party, giving a surreal speech: ‘But, here’s my ultimatum, gentle bird,’ he says. ‘Have an inner small pool, hither and hither and hither.’ And then the toast: ‘To glassware’.

Once the (admittedly slow-witted) listener has made this connection, the show’s chief interest lies in trying to connect the many narrative threads that are woven together over the course of the six episodes. This is no small task: for one thing, it’s hard to keep in mind the beginning of an episode once you arrive at the end, though it is the beginning that the end unlocks. For another, this is densely plotted stuff. I have found a timeline online plotting out all 120 years of the family history and it made my head swim. Still, it’s cheering to see this ambition being given space and time on the radio. If Finnemore tried a little less hard to be funny, this show might turn into something really special.