A Beginner’s Guide to Radio Comedy Plays

Over the past couple of years I’ve become an avid listener of BBC Radio 4 and BBC Radio 4 Extra. I’ve accumulated a tiny library of my favourite comedy plays, but it hasn’t been easy.  I might come across a “if you liked this, you might also like…” note on amazon or audible. But to be honest I’ve been led up a few, very unfunny, dark alleyways. So I thought I’d put together this short list of comedy plays which are bound to make anyone laugh, in the hopes that the person reading this takes that first step into listening to radio comedy plays (I specify plays, as comedy in its entirety is too large a category. Comedy panel shows will appear in another post). Below you’ll find my four recommendations.

Bleak Expectations

(Written by: Mark Evans. Performed by: Tom Allen, James Bachman & Anthony Head (and a lot of other very funny people))

‘Bleak Expectations’ is an excellent comedy, written by Mark Evans, it is a parody of Dickens’ world and all the clichés we attribute to it. The story follows Pip, and often his best friend Harry, as they battle with Pip’s enemy Mr. Gently Benevolent. Their stories are rich with surreal comedy situations, which can be exploited fully on radio in a way television wouldn’t allow. I cannot overstate how brilliant Mark Evans’ writing is, and how excellent the full cast of performers are. Despite the smart jokes gleaned from parodying Dickens work Evans also manages to derive an abundance of gags from subverting clichéd radio sound effects. There are four series’ of this show in all. Evans went on to create a book of the same title and a tv show: ‘The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff’. I think the tv show loses a lot of what made the radio play funny so please don’t avoid the radio show if you didn’t like the tv program.

Cabin Pressure

(Written by: John Finnemore. Performed by: Roger Allam, Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephanie Cole & John Finnemore)

‘Cabin Pressure’ has a great sense of being a good old-school sitcom, but Finnemore’s knack for off the wall storylines and surreal gags make this something really different. The comedy follows the life of a small chartered airline, with only one plane. Carolyn is the frequently bad-mannered owner, who attempts to run her failing business with one pilot, the unfortunately needy and underqualified Martin, a co-pilot: Douglas, the more mature and experienced pilot (whose sticky fingers mean he can’t get a job in a ‘proper’ airline), and her son, tha affable but consistently naive Arthur (played by Finnemore himself). Each episode sees them travelling to a new country and them dealing with the problems that inevitably befall them. Finnemore is an excellent comedy writer, and an even better performer. Cumberbatch is also brilliant, flexing comedic flair which he never gets the chance to show onscreen. There are four series’ in all, with one Christmas special.

Old Harry’s Game

(Written by: Andy Hamilton. Performed by: Andy Hamilton, James Grout, Jimmy Mulville, Robert Duncan & Annette Crosbie)

Andy Hamilton plays the devil in this hell-based sitcom. The series begins with the megalomaniac Thomas running the mild-mannered Professor off the road, with them both ending up in hell, where a bored and irritable devil takes great joy in torturing Thomas and philosophising with the Professor. This series gets many of its laughs in the kind of writing that Hamilton specialised in while writing ‘Drop The Dead Donkey’, there are consistent jokes about politicians and public figures. Because this series began in 1995 some of the jokes are a bit dated, but even a person with only the dimmest recollection of Jeffery Archer can get a few laughs out of it. Although the first series lays a lot of the groundwork, I would say that the comedy doesn’t really get started until series two when the characters are established and Robert Duncan is introduced to the cast as the softly spoken but grotesque demon: Scumspawn. James Grout left his role as the Professor after five series’ and, I’m sad to say, died earlier this year. Annette Crosbie stepped in as Edith, Thomas’ ex mother-in-law, and is an excellent foil for Thomas in that she is as acerbic as she is smart. There are seven series in all, with two Christmas specials and an Olympic special. And I would recommend starting from the beginning if you really want to understand the story.

The Brothers Faversham

(Written by: Humphrey Ker, David Lee & Thom Tuck. Performed by: Humphrey Ker, David Lee, Thom Tuck, Miles Jupp & Ingrid Oliver)

I’ve only recently come across ‘The Brothers Faversham’ and the proof of its excellence is in that while writing this guide I’ve forgotten about all the disappointments I’ve downloaded in the past couple of months. The show is written by Ker, Lee and Tuck, also known as ‘The Penny Dreadfuls’, a comedy sketch troupe who (up until recently) performed their own brand of Victorian themed comedy onstage. The plays follow the sons of Britain’s sexiest and most pregnant spy, Alexandra Faversham, who inconveniently gives birth to a son at the beginning of each episode. Each episode then follows the life of a new Faversham son, which is played out in excellent over dramatic Victorian parody. And although the writing in itself is excellent, it is the performances of Ker, Reed and Tuck  which really makes this comedy stand out. Each episode sees Tuck as the eponymous protagonist, while Reed and Ker perform the plethora of characters he meets. I am endlessly impressed by Ker’s pool of accents, while Miles Jupp is excellent as the narrator. There are only two series: ‘The Brothers Faversham’ and ‘More Brothers Faversham’. The Penny Dreadfuls went on to produce three specials, which focus on specific historical stories. And although they are very interesting and funny, they are much more serious and dramatic than the Faversham stories.

I’ve only chosen these four plays for you to begin with as I feel a lot of plays I have listened to can sometimes fall short, and I know that this isn’t because of the quality of their writing or performances, but because they just aren’t for me and therefore I can’t really recommend them. Likewise there are other plays I really like but I’m not going to list them all because, well, that be a pretty stupid ‘beginner’s guide’… more of an ‘advanced guide’. All these plays are very recent, but if you are a lover of old school comedy you can find plenty of plays online, such as ‘The Good Life’ or ‘Dad’s Army’. My best advice would be to just let BBC Radio 4 Extra run on through the day and see what you come across. The channel plays old reliable comedies every day at noon:

Monday: Round The Horne

Tuesday: The Goon Show

Wednesday: Hancock’s Half Hour

Thursday: Dad’s Army

Friday: The Navy Lark

The recommended four series’ are occasionally repeated on BBC Radio 4 & BBC Radio 4 Extra, but not very often. All of them can be found in stores such as audible, itunes and amazon (you’ll occasionally find that a play is missing from one outlet but can found on another). ‘The Brothers Faversham’, ‘More Brothers Faversham’ and ‘The Penny Dreadfuls Present: Guy Fawkes’ , however, can only be heard here on youtube.

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