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Radio review: It’s a Fair Cop, The Missing Hancocks, Rob Newman on Air, Alexei Sayle’s Imaginary Sandwich Bar, and The Now Show

04 November 2022

BBC

Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis, presenters of The Now Show (Radio 4, Fridays)

Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis, presenters of The Now Show (Radio 4, Fridays)

FOR as long as anyone can remember, there have been three tiers of comedy on Radio 4. The late-night strand is experimental and edgy; at 6.30 p.m., we get the panel shows and the mainstream; and mid-morning we are in the territory of light entertainment — nothing that might bring on a seizure.

I can’t help thinking that Radio 4 comedy is on the decline. Is it just an age thing? We are told by psychologists that an effective way of testing prejudices of this kind is to take a snapshot of one’s own state of mind at a particular moment. So, I dropped in each weekday last week to take some critical selfies alongside each of the evening comedies.

Monday: It’s a Fair Cop is a show about a policeman’s lot, presented by the stand-up comedian and veteran police sergeant Alfie Moore. Given that he has just one topic of conversation, Moore has done well to get to series seven. But policing is the comedic gift that keeps on giving, and his interactions with the audience and his stilted, report-style delivery provide a structure into which jokes can be dropped at a leisurely pace.

Tuesday: there was never anything leisurely about Tony Hancock, and, even after all these years, it is the pace of his comedy which remains one of its most engaging features. In The Missing Hancocks (series repeat from 2019), scripts previously lost have been lovingly recreated by contemporary actors; and, quite apart from the nostalgia, there is the reassuring sense that, if you didn’t get the last gag, then there are many more coming. Age has not wearied them, other than the few topical references to long-forgotten politicians; and the deliberately theatrical performance style is still employed in many radio sitcoms.

To enjoy Rob Newman on Air (Wednesday) and Alexei Sayle’s Imaginary Sandwich Bar (Thursday), one has to buy into the personalities in advance: Newman erudite and a little tricksy, Sayle blunt and politically assertive. Neither of these shows is likely to win over those who have already made up their minds; yet both have the benefit of being scripted by a confident performer who knows that you cannot please everybody. Sayle is just about managing to stay on the daring side of the divide between antagonist and loveable old Leftie, his harangue against evil multi-nationals tempered by a silly gag about Emmerdale.

In short, a great four days of comedy. And so to Friday, and The Now Show: the first in a new series. Since April, the world has turned upside down more than once; so the team of comedians deployed here had more than enough to chew on. Yet nobody thought to allocate each of them specific topics, and we were treated to several limp attempts at describing the length of Liz Truss’s premiership. The mispronunciation of Rishi Sunak’s name by Joe Biden was funny neither the first nor the eighth time, and I imagine the canned-laughter machine doing overtime. The Now Show is evidently past it. Now, there’s a gag in there somewhere. . .

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