The Matt Lucas Awards is a brand new, never-before-seen comedy series that you may already know and love. For although it comes to BBC1 for the first time tonight, it’s been a hit on radio under the name And the Winner Is for two years. It’s the latest show to hope that radio success will translate to the small screen.
Most of the time, most radio shows don’t work – some famously die on screen, some are secretly killed before you see them, the majority just fade away. But when it works, it works brilliantly.
The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Forget just moving to television: this BBC Radio 4 landmark from 1978 left radio and went to best-selling novels, television, stage shows, a towel and – a mere 27 years later – a major motion picture.
It took too long: jokes that even worked on the special edition towel were just too old, too familiar and sometimes just somehow too much of their original time to ever seem fresh again. But the real tragedy is right there in the trailer where it says “From the celebrated novel”. BBC Radio 4’s original and still finest version is all but forgotten.
The Day Today
Piercingly funny and so painstakingly accurate that it drew blood, that was… On the Hour. Before it was BBC2’s The Day Today, it was a controversial and adored BBC Radio 4 series. It sounded effortless and unforced but every second was calculated and produced to balance the line between absurdity and appearing to be serious news. Even the title was a gag: On the Hour aired at 6:30pm.
It brought us Christopher Morris as a brutal Jeremy Paxman-like figure. He was charming and genuinely vicious but he was surrounded by people who were absurd yet uncomfortably believable. Then there was the wincingly spot-on DJ Wayne Carr. And most famously of all, the greatest broadcaster ever to come out of Norwich: Alan Partridge.
There’s an argument that Alan Partridge is the most successful radio creation of them all. While On the Hour lasted two series and The Day Today just one, Alan went on to his own chat show. Knowing Me, Knowing You… with Alan Partridge was exquisite agony to listen to and then very shortly afterwards became deliciously squirming to watch as it transferred to television.
That was followed by Comic Relief Alan Partridge specials, two series of I’m Alan Partridge as his career faltered. Shortly after the complete scripts to all of those were published with the strap line “from radio to television… and back again”, Alan found a new outlet: the online-only Mid Morning Matters.
Mid Morning Matters with Alan Partridge began online and has been picked up as a series being made for Sky.
The Mighty Boosh
Howard Moon (Julian Barratt) and Vince Noir (Noel Fielding) really began on stage, but in 2001 they got their own six-part Radio 4 comedy series. In theory the story of two zookeepers, the series was too surreal to really pin down and surely too surreal to translate to television. But in 2004, it made the move and didn’t just survive, it became a hit.
Soon the pair were back riding that success on stage touring as the Boosh.
Down the Line and other failures
Strictly speaking, this was a failure on television. But usually a failure on TV is immediately obvious: you know as you watch that it isn’t working and in this case it worked very well. Down the Line is a spoof phone-in show hosted by Gary Bellamy (Rhys Thomas) and featuring the voices of co-creators Paul Whitehouse and Charlie Higson as callers. When it moved to television, it was played as if Gary Bellamy was getting his first break in TV and getting to do a documentary touring the country. Unfortunately, Bellamy’s People (of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) just didn’t get an audience.
But that failure did get us one unique thing: when it failed and Bellamy returned with a subsequent series of Down the Line on BBC Radio 4, he got to talk about how much he preferred radio, how he’d “chosen” to return. It worked fine if you hadn’t seen the TV show, but it was especially rich if you had.
You never even got to see Clare in the Community on TV. On radio, it’s the long-running story of a massively self-centred social worker, Clare Barker (Sally Phillips), which is based on the even longer-running comic in The Guardian.
If you know the show, Sally Phillips – who got her first big break on I’m Alan Partridge – is so right for the character that it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing her. But Julia Sawalha has.
She played Clare in a TV pilot made in 2002 and for once TV’s loss was radio’s gain: that pilot has never been shown and instead we got the radio version beginning two years later.
So radio can benefit from even the odd failed TV show but it is usually the other way round. Countless shows have made their mark on radio and then gone on to television and nobody can ever tell what will work. It does seem that comedy does best by far, though, so The Matt Lucas Awards are at least in with a good shot.
The Matt Lucas Awards is on Tuesdays at 10:35pm BBC1 (11:05pm BBC1 Wales, 11:35pm BBC1 Scotland)