The Entire Universe preview: mad as a box of neutrons… and dottily entertaining

What to expect from the upcoming Christmas musical special from Eric Idle and Brian Cox

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Do you remember the Galaxy Song, Eric Idle’s head-spinning showstopper from the 1983 Monty Python film The Meaning of Life?

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“Just remember that you’re standing on a planet that’s evolving/ And revolving at 900 miles an hour!”

Well The Entire Universe takes that song as its starting point (and its finale) and fashions something that’s equal parts science show, musical and comedy. Think of a Number with tap shoes, if you like. 

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It’s a one-off collaboration between Professor Brian Cox, Eric Idle and John Du Prez (who created Spamalot for the stage) and choreographer Arlene Phillips in the guise of Muriel Tritt.

I got very excited to learn that this was to be a new outing for Rutland Weekend Television, Idle’s post-Python project in the 70s.

But while The Entire Universe at times is just as endearingly ramshackle as Britain’s smallest TV network was, the two are otherwise worlds apart. For one thing, the budget is a lot bigger, and the show erupts frequently and disarmingly into wonderful, Broadway-style pizzazz.

Cox in particular is to be applauded, not only for the amount of scientific fact he’s able to get across with continual distractions, but also for never taking himself too seriously.

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So imagine the mop-topped science guru in a dress, a sea shanty about the Higgs boson and Einstein riding a bike and you go some way to grasping the bonkers aesthetic of this science pantomime recorded in front of a studio audience.

You’ll learn lots about time and gravity, Schrödinger’s cat and density fluctuations. But there are big laughs along the way, many of them from Mighty Booshman Noel Fielding and the ever-game Warwick Davis, whose song and dance number It Makes You Feel So Small is a surreal highlight.

West End and Game of Thrones star Hannah Waddingham provides the sass, and reminded me in her Einsteinian scene sharing of the Nic Roeg film Insignificance.

There’s one very special guest and the weirdest Bee Gees pastiche you may ever see, while Idle and Robin Ince (Cox’s radio colleague on The Infinite Monkey Cage) attempt to keep order from the wings.

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“It’s fitting that 41 years after Rutland Weekend Television produced a Christmas special with George Harrison, it is back with the Beatle of Science, Brian Cox,” says Eric Idle. “No doubt what Rutland did for TV in the 70s it will now do for science – and set it back 40 years.”

Like Busby Berkeley taking a science lecture, The Entire Universe is mad as a box of neutrons… and dottily entertaining. 

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The Entire Universe is on Boxing Day at 9:30pm on BBC2