This week sees the release of The Best of the Comic Strip Presents, a five-disc DVD box set of hand-picked gems including Bad News, The Strike, GLC and Five Go to Rehab. We caught up with founder, writer, director and star Peter Richardson to discuss the groundbreaking series:
Why did you decide to release this “greatest hits” collection?
What we wanted to do was try to remove the less remarkable ones — that includes ten of mine by the way — which we felt weren’t quite up to scratch and weren’t as memorable as some of the others, along with including the new ones. We wanted to nail the Comic Strip as being of a certain quality and some episodes had perhaps let it down a bit.
The Strike and GLC feature on the box set. They were landmark political comedies, but it’s rare you get something that overtly political on TV now…
We did The Hunt for Tony Blair a few years ago, with Stephen Mangan as Blair on the run. So we try to keep up with things. I love doing satire. We’re trying to think of another one to do now, actually, so hopefully we’ll do one again soon.
Well I was worried this release might mark a hiatus for the Comic Strip. But that’s clearly not the case.
We’ve always been on and off. The thing is we had such a long run, and then people go “we’ve had enough of you”. And then someone says “we’d love to have you back again”. So we wait to be invited, I guess, and then we come back with something.
I was watching Julian Temple’s 1981 Comic Strip feature recently. That early stuff has a real punk feel to it. Were you conscious of filling a comedy void in the same way as punk filled a musical void?
Yes, we were into all that sort of thing at the time: being loud and outrageous and drinking lager and being sick. And we were surrounded by the punk bands — the Pistols and the Clash — and that spilled over into our comedy. I guess we destroyed a few careers though, the older comics, some of whom were great, like Les Dawson.
Who were Bad News based on? I know they came before Spinal Tap, but I’m seeing a bit of Judas Priest in there, some Saxon..?
I think our characters are quite original; my character looked like this guy I knew in Devon who was a painter and decorator who played the harmonica, called Pete, so I just became him — Spider was that character. We’ve got Bad News one and two on the best-of, and we’ve also got the Bohemian Rhapsody video, which we did as a promo and hasn’t been seen by many people.
Was Bad News Adrian Edmondson’s idea? Because I always think of him as being the rocker in the group.
Actually, we all had a band going at the time we were doing the Comic Strip’s live show in Soho — Rik (Mayall), Adrian (Edmondson), me and Nigel (Planer) — and when we weren’t doing comedy we played in all sorts of places. We called ourselves Nice Weather (laughs). That was the precursor to Bad News, and of course when we secured this deal with Channel 4 to do some Comic Strip films I said let’s do one about a band. And Adrian was given the job of writing Bad News, which he did very well.
Have you ever thought about giving any of your characters their own series? I’m thinking of people like Jason Bentley from Detectives on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown.
Well you know who did Jason Bentley — that was Austin Powers. I think Mike Myers may have seen our show or maybe he just latched onto that Department S thing too and decided to help himself to the teeth and the velvet. But we got there just before him on that, although he made a much bigger hit with it.
If you were granted access to any actors alive or dead, who would you recruit to the Comic Strip?
I’m a huge fan of Alan Rickman, so one day I’m determined to get him to be in one of our films.
Alexei Sayle terrified me as a child. Who was the most unruly person you worked with?
Too many to mention really, but Keith (Allen) has always been a big bad boy. In a fun way. He’s just a firestorm, Keith, and I’ve got a big ego too, so it exploded a couple of times.
He co-directed on a few of them with you, didn’t he? How many did you do together?
We did Detectives on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown; The Crying Game, about a gay footballer who can’t come out, which I think is still very relevant today; and The Bullshitters, which Stephen Frears was also involved in.
Do you allow much improvisation on set, or do you like to be very much in control?
I love improvisation, and I suppose you have to hope the improvisation is better than the scripting, or enhances the scripting. And sometimes it does. I often say “Let’s do the script and let’s improvise as well”.
And who do you think’s got the most spontaneous wit of the people you’ve worked with?
I did four series of Stella Street with John Sessions and Phil Cornwell, and they could launch into something completely unscripted. In fact, at the end of The Crying Game Keith had gone off to get a coffee and I left the camera rolling on Phil as Jimmy Hill. He was talking about drinking mushroom tea and about what a great centre forward Aldous Huxley was. It was just bizarre and we used that at the end. That was Phil just riffing, which he did a lot in Stella Street as well.
I could listen to him being Mick Jagger all day…
I loved his Jimmy Hill. I was the cameraman on those, I used to film it as well as direct, and his Jimmy Hill would make me shake the camera — the stuff he’d come out with was so outrageous.
What’s next for the Comic Strip?
We’re planning a new Comic Strip film called It Ends Badly, with Stephen Mangan and Harry Enfield. It’s about two rotten scoundrels, which is Harry and Steve as these unscrupulous men; two rotten producers trying to make a chick flick and they’ve spent all the money on their mistresses and school fees, cars and drugs. We’re shooting next March, so it’ll probably be out six months after that. This time next year, hopefully.
The Best of the Comic Strip Presents was released on Monday 7 October.
Re-runs of classic Comic Strip comedies can currently be seen post-midnight Monday to Thursday on Gold.