With Radio Active's 40th Anniversary Show ready to hit the Edinburgh Fringe from Wednesday 7th until Sunday 25th August , a reminder of Barnaby Eaton-Jones review of a recent Radio Active show and EXCLUSIVE interviews with the cast...
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A giant screen on stage has an image of a clock-face telling the exact time, and music from the 1980s is putting a grin on everyone’s faces and making those who know the songs sing along. As the last few members of the audience for this sold out performance take their seats, chuntering in excitement, the house lights slowly fade as the colossal clock hits 7:45pm.
It’s at this point that we’re taken on a journey back in time as the clock hands whizz backwards and the numerical years flash up on the screen over a barrage of audio snippets from the local news programmes (all voiced by the cast), referencing the years as they pass.
This clever aural beginning features some brilliant gags that serve as a warm-up act for the audience; the stand-outs being – for me – the running jokes of two increasingly unlikely celebrities having a denied affair and the truthful reporting of cheeky Disc Jockey personality Chris Evans being fired from whatever radio station has employed him every few years.
When we hit 1984, the over-the-top but scarily accurate radio station jingle kicks in as the news ends. We’re listening to RADIO ACTIVE.
As we’ve gone back in time to 1984, it’s probably a good idea to give a little background to the show I’ve come to see. Broadcast through the majority of the 1980s, Radio Active was a parody of local radio stations that was born out of an Oxford University revue show taken to the Edinburgh Festival by Angus Deayton, Geoffrey Perkins, Helen Atkinson Wood, Michael Fenton Stevens and Philip Pope – with parts of it written by Richard Curtis. After that successful 8-year run on BBC Radio, it made the equally successful leap to BBC Television, to parody the rise of satellite channels, where it was called KYTV.
When digital radio came into force, Radio Active returned for a one-off special in 2005. But, the untimely and sudden death of cast member and co-writer Geoffrey Perkins in 2008 (who is rightly hailed as a comedy guru at both the BBC and Channel 4, producing many classic comedy shows shows) meant that any revival was deemed a little difficult until Angus Deayton said he saw The Missing Hancocks – a radio show tooled for the stage – at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2015 and decided Radio Active might work in the same format.
And he was right. It does.
The first Act builds slowly up to a live performance of the Radio Active Drama Repertory Company, who never seem quite ready to go until, finally, they begin to perform Charles Dickens’ David Chizzlenut. They then prove how properly unready they are with fluffed cues, hilarious misreading of lines, amusingly inappropriate or early/late sound effects, and brilliantly realised amateur vocal readings – with a cast at odds with each other and prone to angry whispered arguing. This so evokes the bizarrely egotistical and oddly caustic nature of the am-dram scene that I may have laughed a little too knowingly at those moments.
The highlight of the first Act should really have been this The Radio Show That Goes Wrong version of a made-up Dickens ‘classic’ but, for me, this came just before that when Status Quid were announced with their new tune ‘Boring Song’. This wickedly naughty parody of the simplistic nature of three-chord rock band Status Quo’s records was both spot-on and hilariously funny, with the three members of Status Quid moving and reacting like their real counterparts. The extended ending, where you keep thinking the tune has ended but it suddenly pops back in for another refrain (causing the manhandling of the lead singer in the end to be pulled back into his seat to finally finish), caused louder and louder gales of laughter.
As this is a script-in-hand performance, recreating a recording, it was a surreal moment at the end of Act One for Philip Pope and Michael Fenton Stevens to walk off, leaving Angus Deayton and Helen Atkinson Wood to talk to the crowd; wanting to share some personal moments of this tour (and acting like they were a loving couple).
Of course, the rug was soon pulled out from underneath the audience’s feet when this sincerity was stripped away as each actor forgot their lines and had to keep asking for a prompt (as part of the written sketch, it becomes clear, not for real), which then brilliantly turns into what seemed like a real argument about learning the script (with Helen breaking down into tears). During this uncomfortable exchange, Helen suddenly stops crying to ask for yet another prompt, and you see the gag continue - even when they are both finally trying to say sorry to each other and the audience. The joke gets bigger and bigger, exposing the falsehood of the sometime fake sincerity of actors drawing an audience in with personal soul-baring, and is an unexpected and clever way to end what had been a genuinely hilarious Act One.
You’d think the star of the show would be Angus Deayton, who co-wrote the fantastic scripted material with Geoffrey Perkins, but what has always been evident is what a team player he is and – although sometimes the figurehead – maybe doesn’t always get the moments of character that the others get playing a wider variety of roles. His rugged, laconic charm and rolling-eyed sarcasm plays well as the Maypole for the others to Morris Dance around. He’s the straight man who’s also wickedly funny.
Helen Atkinson Wood, the Helen Mirren look-a-like of comedy, was on fine form as the only female presence – but what a presence. Decked out in a slinky black dress and seemingly not able to age since 1984, her velvet-voice delivers high sarcasm with aplomb and mines the depths of overly-sincere delivery that daytime presenters have with a permanent smile/grimace on her face. She nails every joke and explores several accents, absolutely killing the audience in the Mary and June commercials that intersperse the fake programming. It’s a shame she isn’t employed in the musical numbers but there’s no inequality here as she has a role as large and as important as her male counterparts.
Michael Fenton Stevens, getting huge cheers and much love and ‘awwws!’ as his bumbling, high-pitched, innocently incompetent character Martin Brown, was the most twinkle-eyed of the four performers – engaging with the audience several times in unscripted adlibs and comedy moments that brought out his bearded grin. He bounced around characters with ease, essaying pompous upper class blowhards, middle-aged women and regional yokels with consummate ease – bringing the house down with his ‘warm and reassuring’ voiceover man who publicises his smooth vocal services and then slays the advert with a very naughty punchline to end.
And then there’s musical supremo and all-round human dynamo Philip Pope, creating all the funny radio jingles and spot-on parody songs for the night, with an easy charm and a seemingly limitless array of voices. His lead vocals in the Bee Gees parody (more on that later) was sublime, mining big guffaws with his sudden high-pitched screams. Like Michael, there’s a real sense of a cheeky chap persona who’s clearly enjoying the material as much as the audience.
The highlight of those short extracts is the hilarious Martin Brown Pop Quiz, where poor hapless Martin Brown (Michael Fenton Stevens) asks blindingly obvious questions and is always genuinely surprised when his two contestants easily get the answers and the deadlock is never broken. This leads into a ridiculously silly Top Ten Chart Rundown, where Martin Brown gets behind with his announcements and the announcer jingle shouting numerical places gets him even more flustered as it’s clearly pre-programmed and he can’t get back on track. I’ve never seen an audience laugh so hard and - at the same time - feel so sorry for a character on stage!
It’s genuinely lovely to be in an audience that are so receptive to everything that’s happening and seem to be there to want to laugh rather than wanting to be made to laugh (which can happen at comedy shows). I hope that was as evident to the performers on stage as it was to me.
More musical mayhem follows, via Bob Dylan singing popular classics in his own inimitable style (or was it Philip Pope behind the guitar?) and a live translation of an opera that probably would have offended those that consider opera way too precious an art form to mock!
Then we’re into the final discussion between invited guests and Mike Channel, which plays on Angus Deayton’s deadpan, rapid-fire delivery to bring the show to a confusingly chucklesome crescendo to end. But, before Radio Active is switched off for the evening, there’s just time for the pièce de résistance. This comes in the form of the Hee Bee Gee Bees.
As Helen Atkinson Wood wraps up the show beautifully, leaving Philip Pope, Angus Deayton and Micheal Fenton Stevens to make a quick exit for a costume change, it’s fantastic to see them walk back on in their bomber jackets and gravity-defying white scarfs to take up the microphones as the Cribb Brothers; Gary, Norris and Dobbin. Collectively, of course, known as the Hee Bee Gee Bees (who had their own hit albums and singles, parodying popular artists with searing satirical accuracy).
‘Meaningless Songs in Very High Voices’ is sung, to great delight by the audience (especially Philip’s random high screams), and it’s a perfect ending to what was a perfect comedy show. Being a fan from yesteryear, it’s clear to me that the live version brings an extra dimension to the audio version. I thought I’d miss Geoffrey Perkins cheerful and solid demeanour as the co-anchor with Angus but it’s testament to the strong cast that his presence is missed as a person but – fortunately – not as a performer. I’m sure he’d be delighted with how his chums have re-styled the show for the stage and given it a new lease of life.
You can tune in to Radio Active again at the upcoming Edinburgh Festival, where they’ll be taking over the airwaves of the Gilded Balloon venue with a completely new show from August 7th to August 24th. I urge you to see them, for fear they’ll shut the station down after this – their second – tour. It’s the 40th anniversary of them performing it on stage in Edinburgh with the Oxford Revue, so they have reason to celebrate and you can laugh with them at the passing of time.
After reviewing their reactivated theatre show, Barnaby Eaton-Jones asked some questions to the cast of Radio Active: Helen Atkinson Wood, Angus Deayton, Michael Fenton Stevens and Philip Pope...
1. HELEN ATKINSON WOOD
Barnaby Eaton-Jones (BEJ): Helen, hello! I was talking to Jo Kendall a while back, who was the only female performer in 'I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again' (another classic BBC Radio comedy series), and she was saying how she had to often fight to be heard or get her material recognised, etc. That was in the 1960s. By the 1980s, was it easier to stand on a level footing in the industry?
Helen Atkinson Wood (HAW): As the only female in the cast of “Radio Active” I’ve never had to “fight to be heard”. Ours is a very liberal company where the writers - Angus Deayton and the late Geoffrey Perkins - consider the strengths of the cast.
The very first live TV show I took part in and fronted with Chris Tarrant, alongside Alexei Sayle and Lenny Henry, “OTT” (Over The Top), was a different story; where I was voicing my feminist principles loud and clear. This was the show that featured naked women wrestling in mud, if you remember?
The Industry has evolved into a much more level playing field, if only to reflect the way women in the Western world are now listened to.
BEJ: How did you get involved in the original Oxford Revue that you took to Edinburgh? Had you always had the desire to perform or was it something you felt was a bit of fun until you realised you could make a career out of it?
HAW: In my first term at Oxford, where I was studying Fine Art, I was funnily enough taking part in a feminist play “The Female Persons Play” by Marcia Kahan (which also went to Edinburgh with the Oxford Theatre Group). Richard Curtis saw me in the play and asked if I’d like to do a Revue (again as the only woman) alongside musical maestro Howard Goodall and Rowan Atkinson.
I chose Oxford in the hope of making my career as an actress. Now I pinch myself, to have made a profession out of having such fun.
BEJ: Inevitably, people also know you as Mrs. Miggins (the owner of the Pie Shop) in 'Blackadder II'. As Richard Curtis wrote for the original Radio Active show, did he suggest you for the role or was it something you auditioned for? Did she come off the page as a fully-formed character or did you work at developing the role? I was always impressed at how you stole every scene you were in because it was such a beautifully grotesque comedy character.
HAW: I have Richard Curtis to thank again for creating the character which I am probably best known for, Mrs Miggins. Along with Ben Elton (who I met in a cupboard in Edinburgh during a game of Sardines!). They both knew about my non-nonsense Northern roots and love of cakes and pies; so Mrs Miggins was created very much with me in mind.
BEJ: Helen, thank you very much for your time.
2. ANGUS DEAYTON
Barnaby Eaton-Jones (BEJ): Angus, hello! Having recently adapted a classic BBC Radio show for stage myself, how difficult did you find it to get a structure that worked for ‘Radio Active’ and keep as many gags as possible? Were there any great sketches that you wanted to use but just couldn't squeeze in?
Angus Deayton (AD): Given Geoffrey and I wrote some 53 scripts for ‘Radio Active’ and 18 for KYTV (same jokes, different order), it was more a question of what to leave out. For our first revival stage tour 3 years ago, I opted for one specific show, the live dramatisation of a Dickensian novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, and one generic “mop up” show, Did You Catch It?, of the sort we’d write at the end of each radio series to crowbar in anything we hadn’t used yet. For this next stage show, it’s the amalgamation of two specific shows: our Bye Election Special and our parody of an old Radio 4 show Down Your Way, entitled Round Your Parts. Plus selected jingles, links and adverts from the other 67 programmes!
BEJ: You've said in interviews that Mike Channel is really the persona you've adopted for later presenting roles as yourself, which is brilliantly post-modern! Did you find yourself pigeon-holed as being the dependable 'anchor' for shows (even with Radio Active) and was it a relief when you could do something like 'One Foot In The Grave' where the onus of focus isn't all on you?
AD: It’s difficult say whether Mike Channel was basically an invented character with elements of me, or basically me with elements of an invented character. Certainly when hosting shows as myself, it helped to fall back on an attitude or voice that I knew had worked in sketch-land. And yes, it was a relief working on One Foot as it was the first show where if something was working, it wasn’t my or Geoffrey’s job to fix it. Certainly as a result I remember regarding it at the time as play rather than work.
BEJ: You have become known for such a quick wit and specifically pointed delivery that I think - with work like the Hee Bee Gee Bees - your wider talent is often overlooked. Would you have loved to have carried on with the musical parodies and is there any role you've wanted to do that you'd think would surprise the public's perception of you?
AD: That’s kind, but I’m not sure my music talent warranted any greater exposure ! In the Hee Bee Gee Bees I was only ever really responsible for BV’s and left the proper singing to Philip and Mike. Looking back, I think I’ve done a pretty wide variety of comedy acting – sketch shows, sitcoms, comedy dramas, the odd film – and even the most serious show, Waterloo Road, I remember rewriting scenes to funny them up, so I’m not sure I’ve ever really had that desire to be a serious thesp.
BEJ: Angus, thank you so much.
3. MICHAEL FENTON STEVENS
Barnaby Eaton-Jones (BEJ): Mike, hello! Sometimes, when creating characters, actors hit upon something that strikes a chord with the audience - in your case, that has to be Martin Brown. Was he based on anyone you knew or just grew out of the script?
Michael Fenton Stevens (MFS): Martin came from someone that Geoffrey Perkins heard on late night radio in Birmingham who was so nervous that he was unable to cut off a caller talking about his veg patch, even when they were ten minutes late for the on the hour news. Geoffrey wanted to play the part but the producer suggested I play him and he was only intended to be a character for one episode. The show went so well that Geoffrey and Angus decided to keep him on as a very cheap employee of the station. The character developed over time and morphed a bit more in to me, but was always very popular.
BEJ: It's clear you have a whale of a time with Angus and Philip, singing as the Hee Bee Gee Bees. Have you had a particular 'rock star' moment that you suddenly felt a little less comedy performer and a little more singing sensation?!
MFS: In Australia we had quite a number! We were always turning up at huge gigs and being treated like Rock stars but we always knew it was a joke. We sang at a huge stadium in Melbourne for Live Aid and, because we were an overseas band, they put us almost at the top of the bill, ahead of bands like INXS, Crowded House and Men at Work. It was ridiculous.
The time I remember the absurdity really coming home to me was when we turned up at a concert in a limo and a huge crowd of screaming teenagers ran towards the car. When we got out they just looked disappointed and turned away.
We were once given a full fashion parade at a night club in Brisbane but I’m sure they thought we actually were the Bee Gees!
My best moment though was when we all got to sing “Feed the World” with Bob Geldof and Midge Ure at the first Comic Relief live show. I entered behind Kate Bush and as we were waiting to go on for the chorus she turned to me and said “Isn’t it exciting?”. I thought that was lovely; that she was still excited by such things after everything she had done.
BEJ: The thing that always comes across with your good self, is the sheer enjoyment you have when performing. Was that always the case or did you start of as a bit of a nervous Martin Brown?
MFS: Underneath I am usually nervous but I cover it with exuberance. I always enjoy it when I’m actually on and I’m relaxed once I get in front of an audience. I enjoy the unpredictability of stage work most, actually. But I think a review I got for a play I did in my very young days sums it up. “What Michael Fenton Stevens lacks in ability he makes up for with effort and energy” it said. And I think that is probably very accurate.
BEJ: Thank you so much for that, Mike.
4. PHILIP POPE
Barnaby Eaton-Jones (BEJ): Philip, helloooo! When the Hee Bee Gee Bees struck big in the 1980s, and the album consisted of so many perfect parodies of big bands of the time, did you ever get any feedback or comments from some of those you were sending up?
Philip Pope (PP): With the release of the first single we understood from our publisher that the Bee Gees or possibly their management (Robert Stigwood - a big cheese at the time!) had employed a musicologist to look into whether there was any copyright infringement of their songs. I suppose that was a sort of artist feedback. Thankfully the expert found nothing actionable!
We appeared on a few popular television shows at the time, such as ‘Tiswas’, and came across one or two of the bands we were sending up. The Police seemed to take it in good heart, and later we performed in a show called ‘Rebellious Jukebox’, written by Angus (Deayton) & Geoffrey (Perkins) and directed by Kevin Godley and Lol Creme from 10cc who shared the same management, so we met Sting. He was very complimentary and said he always knew we would make it.
We heard that Paul McCartney had responded to our 'tribute' by saying “I am just an ordinary guy with a farm for each foot” or words to that effect. We later learnt that it was made up by our management. It's not always the artists you see - the management have a lot to answer for!
When we played the Pink Galah club in Perth, Australia, our road manager introduced me to Joe Walsh. I had been a big fan of his even before he joined The Eagles. We did an Eagles 'parody' in our show so I was a bit nervous as to what his reaction would be. "I dig your shit", he said. I didn't quite know how to answer - I think I replied, "Oh I dig yours too!"
BEJ: The jingles for ‘Radio Active’ are inspired. Did you have to listen to far too many local radio stations to get the style and flavour of them, as well as knowing how to skewer them whilst sounding realistic? Was there any song idea you couldn't use for Radio Active that you really wanted to?
PP: The jingles for ‘Radio Active’ and ‘KYTV’ were generally a team effort with Angus and/or Geoffrey initiating the ideas and lyrics and I would arrange them, with Mike and I doing most of the singing, but we all took part. We were listening to a lot of local radio, Capital Radio was fairly new so it was in our consciousness - like the bands and songs it all went in... I can't think of anything specific that we couldn't do. If it was funny, and the band was known, it went in. We had really wanted to do a Pink Floyd song and got some way into writing one but it never quite happened. It wasn't anything litigious, it was probably that their music was quite epic and slow, so it would have taken too long to get to a joke. Or maybe we just held them in too much respect!
BEJ: I think many people would be genuinely amazed at how many tunes of yours they know (theme tunes, novelty records, etc). Your output is amazingly prolific and I wonder whether it was something that came naturally when you were younger or you had to work out finding the hooks into the songs you write? The ability to write a catchy song is a rare one and I'm always impressed with your ability to seemingly pluck them out of thin air!
PP: Thank you! Writing tunes has always come naturally to me even from a young age. I guess you could call it a gift - or a curse! When it came to writing 'parody' songs I preferred not to take an existing tune and change the words (although the Barron Knights were probably one of my earliest memories of 'comedy' records - along with Peter Sellers and co.!) but to come up with a song that the artist could have written. So it meant trying to get a flavour of the most popular songs in their repertoire and blending those elements. Sometimes this would just come freely, other times it required more work, although I never sat down and analysed other people's songs. I just hope I'll be able to write a good tune. I met Chris Moyles (former BBC Radio 1 DJ and now Radio X anchor) not so long ago, and he said that my theme for Ben Elton’s ‘The Man From Auntie’ was his favourite signature tune ever - still, after all this time, so I was quite chuffed!
BEJ: Ahhh, mine is ‘Whose Line Is It, Anyway?’ – from the Channel 4 improvisation show. Philip, thank you so much for your time!
Remember you can tune in to Radio Active again at the upcoming Edinburgh Festival, where they’ll be taking over the airwaves of the Gilded Balloon venue with a COMPLETELY NEW 40th ANNIVERSARY SHOW from August 7th to August 25th.
Review & interviews © Barnaby Eaton-Jones
Images - from top, © So Comedy, BBC, So Comedy, Decca Records, BBC, 100 Hearts Charity, 100 Hearts Charity, BBC, So Comedy.