Looking Back At CHELMSFORD 123 - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

Home Top Ad

Post Top Ad

Looking Back At CHELMSFORD 123

Tony gives the Romans a hail and farewell.
The Eighties was a decade studded with British historical comedy. Blackadder had begun on the BBC in 1983, and ended with Blackadder Goes Forth in 1989. But the show had dipped into British history from the 15th century onward, covering roughly 500 years across four series.

Nipping in just before Blackadder and the gang went over the top in 1917, a new company staked its first claim on history with a comic twist, taking us back to the Roman occupation of Britain in the year 123 AD.

The company was called Hat Trick, and it’s gone on to become a major force in British comedy, with everything from Have I Got News For You?, Clive Anderson Talks Back, and Whose Line Is It Anyway? through to Game On, Father Ted, Drop The Dead Donkey, and Derry Girls in its stable of comedy legends. All of that future employment, and all of those laughs, depended on the company’s first commission for Channel 4. And that was Chelmsford 123.

Feel free to add in your own joke about a successful invasion of the TV schedules. It’s your own time you’re using.

Showing the initially spit-and-sawdust nature of the company, two of its founders, Jimmy Mulville and Rory McGrath, backed themselves and took leads in the commission, as Roman governor Aulus Paulinus and British chieftain Badvoc respectively, and the show also included a host of other comic actors that were either familiar to audiences at the time, or were just beginning to register in games of “Oh, it’s him – what have I seen him in?”

Philip Pope had been a friend of Mulville and McGrath’s since they appeared together on Who Dares Wins, an early TV ‘alternative comedy’ show that ran between 1983-1988, which had also starred Blackadder’s Baldrick, Tony Robinson. Pope joined Chelmsford 123 as Grasientus, Paulinus’ brother-in-law, aide-de-camp and growling grumbler-in-chief.

Howard Lew Lewis was already familiar to audiences from more traditional comedies like Open All Hours and Brush Strokes, and was another alumnus of the original Black Adder. With an expertise in delivering dimwits and peasants, he was perfectly cast as Blag, more or less the Baldric to Badvoc’s Blackadder.

Neil Pearson joined the gang as British misanthrope Mungo – his first major TV work, and a connection with Hat Trick that would later lead him to his role as Dave Charnley in Drop The Dead Donkey, which catapulted him into further, more dramatic TV roles.

Erika Hoffman, another familiar face from Brush Strokes, played Badvoc’s put-upon Series 1 girlfriend-cum-skivvy, Gargamadua, so there were plenty of familiar faces knocking about Hat Trick’s foray into the ‘armpit’ that was Roman-occupied Britain.

Other faces popped up now and again that also helped nail the Hat Trick history into place. Geoffrey McGivern, the original radio Ford Prefect and sooooo very much more besides, was Wolfsbane. Geoffrey Whitehead, whose voice was familiar from a thousand things, was Viatorus. Andy Hamilton, later co-writer of everything from Drop The Dead Donkey to Outnumbered to Old Harry’s Game, was Taranis in a couple of episodes, and original Not The Nine O’Clock News team-member Chris Langham even popped in here and there, lending his hang-dog looks to the role of chief of security.

As such, there was a great game of “Where do I know him from?” to be played with Chelmsford 123.

If you were expecting a linear Blackadder-style hierarchy of powers though, you were out of luck in Chelmsford 123, because it was very much broader than that. While it focused on just a handful of characters, Chelmsford 123 was much more a comedy of culture clash than it was of cunning plans and epic failure.

Mulville and McGrath in particular embodied what would later become classes in British society. Mulville’s Paulinus was somewhat dim in the fundamentals of his understanding of the conquered world, assuming the barbarian Britons should WANT all the good things that Roman occupation could bring them. But he also had a native cunning of his own that could occasionally see him play games of strategy on levels the Britons simply didn’t understand.

Meanwhile McGrath’s Badvoc was much more down to earth and fundamentally working class British, allowing a certain amount of humiliation if the money kept flowing, and always confident that while the Romans had technically invaded, it was the Britons who were really in control – at least of their own lives.

There are levels on which you can also read the central dynamic of the two characters as a late-Eighties play-out of the attitudes of Britain and Europe at the time. While never allowing for a moment the notion that Europe was ever an invading power in Britain, the dynamic of Europe going “Look, here are all the great things we can offer you – we have culture, and art, and edible cheese that doesn’t taste of misery and rain,” and Britain more or less responding with a shrug and a “Yeah, very nice, mate, leave the money, alright, we like the money, now bugger off” was played out both in Margaret Thatcher’s Eurosceptic government in the Eighties and in the comic opposites of Paulinus and Badvoc.

Badvoc’s undermining of the aesthetic, intellectual, and artistic wonder that was Rome by a constant focus on money and self-control was pleasing and easy to understand for the British audience of its day.

That might have a little to do with the older antecedents of Chelmsford 123’s comedy. Far from the Blackadder idea of there being one truly intelligent man stuck in a period of history where there are idiots both above, below and to the side of him, Chelmsford 123 takes its real essence from a much older prototype.

If anything, when you watch it (and if you happen to be either properly old or a dedicated sitcom geek), it feels reminiscent of the comedies written by Galton and Simpson, rather than those written by Elton and Curtis. In particular, it has the flavour of Hancock’s Half Hour, in which Tony Hancock played a buffoonish dilletante, an aesthete, a lover of all things continental, and a dreamer who could still on occasions get down in the dirt and fight dirty, and Sid James played his no-nonsense common-as-much cockney frenemy, happy to tag along, but always looking for the chance to get something over on his mark.

That’s the energy that Chelmsford 123 brings to the screen, although it would be fair to say it’s never quite as slick as the Galton and Simpson scripts. While McGrath seems to slip instinctively into the wheeler-dealer role of working-class British leader, Jimmy Mulville never looks entirely comfortable in his role – except, oddly enough, in the first few minutes of the first episode, where he’s shown in Rome, at the court of Hadrian Caesar, played by the always-excellent and always-unnerving Bill Wallis.

Despite this scene being played in Latin (or at least as close to Latin as could be rendered), it’s where Mulville’s character looks most comfortable – which itself makes a certain sense, in that he’s posted to Britain as a punishment. But if you’re looking for a Roman to be thoroughly miserable when sentenced to life in Britain, Philip Pope has you well and truly covered in Chelmsford 123. Mulville’s Paulinus, in striving to make the best of things – in the hope of recall to Rome and potentially promotion – almost feels like one Roman too many, diluting the direction of the comedy, and therefore its punch, by giving the piece, if anything, a little too much nuance.

For all that, Chemsford 123 is an ambitious sitcom in its structure, and a fairly straightforward one in its punches – Badvoc and his Britons constantly trying to get one over on the Romans is a dynamic that sitcom audiences can understand, and Paulinus and Grasientus giving the optimistic and pessimistic views of tourists in a godawful holiday destination is likewise straightforward. That’s ultimately the issue when watching Chelmsford 123 over 30 years after it was broadcast. It seems to be three potential sitcoms trying to co-exist in one body.

While that’s good for the gag-count, it can occasionally take your brain a moment to switch gears with the cast between the Roman comedy, the British comedy and the culture-clash comedy of Romans versus Brits (or toffs versus plebs, in the evolution of British class culture).

As the show goes on though, it gets more and more slick at manoeuvring between the three, and from roughly episode 3 of Series 1, it starts to really motor, giving you a historical comedy that’s more nuanced than any but the last episode of Blackadder, while still delivering plenty of traditional British sitcom staples.

Is Chelmsford 123 worth your time now it’s arrived on Britbox?

Yes, for its mixture of styles and some performances by comedians and comic actors who have since become better known for other things (Neil Pearson in particular is a revelation in this early role). But it’s also worth a watch as the first offering from Hat Trick, showing how the fledgeling company did sitcom right back at the start of its life.

Check out Chelmsford 123 and clue yourself in to the other, much more brief, flowering of Eighties historical sitcom.

Watch Chelmsford 123 today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Post Top Ad