Book review: Watching Neighbours Twice A Day, by Josh Widdicombe

Josh Widdicombe must be one of the busiest comedians working in Britain today. In the week before I wrote this review, I am aware that he has been on Who Do You Think You Are?, the newly-revived Blankety Blank and, as always, alongside Adam Hills and Alex Brooker on Channel 4’s Friday night hit, The Last Leg. And that’s without me even checking properly: goodness knows how many times he’s cropped up on Dave in that time, perhaps on a repeat of his own panel show, Hypothetical or on an old episode of Taskmaster.

This book isn’t a full-blown autobiography, however. It is the story of Josh’s youth growing up in Dartmoor as told through the TV he watched, specifically during the decade of the 1990s. As someone who watched a lot of TV myself during this period (and who still does), this format is very appealing to me. Many of the shows Josh watched were the ones I watched too. Josh can at least justify his childhood TV addiction on the grounds that he grew up in a remote sparsely populated area of Devon. I, however, grew up in Peterborough: not exactly a hub of culture but a busy enough, populous (new) town. What was my excuse?

Anyway, Josh begins by discussing Gus Honeybun, a regional ITV children’s puppet famous to anyone growing up in the south-west of England at almost any point during the last four decades of the 20th century but wholly unfamiliar to me and the vast silent majority of the world who grew up anywhere else. The only reason I’d ever heard of Gus before at all, is because I moved to Devon when in my twenties in the 2000s (presumably the exact opposite of what Josh himself did) and have had people talk to me about this great, mythical, winking TV birthday bunny since. Any young viewers who, like myself, grew up in the area covered by the Anglia ITV franchise were lumbered with a frenzied waving TV puppet called ‘B.C.’ during this period. ‘B.C.’ stood for ‘Birthday Club’ which was also not entirely accidentally, the name of the short segments of TV, ‘B.C.’ himself appeared on, often with Norwich-based presenter, Helen McDermott. Unlike Gus Honeybun whose identity was entirely unambiguous, I am genuinely unsure what animal ‘B.C.’ was supposed to be. Some sort of wildcat? Perhaps a leopard? Maybe even a giraffe? He doesn’t really look anything like either of these. Occasionally, ‘B.C.’ would be absent because “he’s on his holidays today” (translation: he’s in the washing machine). At any rate, as with the solar eclipse of August 1999, I suspect the south-west got the best of it here. ‘B.C.’ may as well have stood for “Bored Children.”

Anyway, this is only one of many items on TV discussed here. Others include:

Neighbours: Like Josh, I too, was a huge fan of the Australian soap for a fairly short period. However, I am over six years older than him (he was born in 1983, I was born at the end of 1976) and here it really shows. I’d largely lost interest by the time he got into it. Despite us both remembering Todd Landers being run over, there is little cross-over (he doesn’t mention ‘Plain Jane Super Brain’ or Dr. Clive Gibbons at all). His discussion of a horrendously racist 1996 storyline in which the character Julie Martin accuses her new Chinese neighbours of killing and barbecuing her missing dog is grimly fascinating though. As is the ‘Big Break’ chapter which details just some of the horrors of Jim Davidson’s career.

Ghostwatch: Unlike Josh (and many others) I never thought this notorious dramatized ‘live broadcast from a real haunted house’ was actually real. Although as he points out, knowing it isn’t real does nothing to diminish just how terrifying to watch it is even today. Or brilliantly made. Even the bit where Michael Parkinson gets possessed.

The Simpsons and I’m Alan Partridge: These chapters are essentially songs of praise about the brilliance of 1990s TV comedy. I am in full agreement.

GamesMaster: I watched it too. And, happily, Josh’s household was so far behind that his memories of 1990s computer games sit happily with my memories of 1980s ones.

In short, I loved the book and would highly recommend it. I agree wholeheartedly with him about some things: Election ’97 was a joyous and memorable night. The death of Diana was a genuinely tragic and shocking event but by time of her funeral had descended into a distasteful grief-fest which much of the population (myself and Josh himself included) felt wholly isolated from.

I disagree with him about other things. The Spice Girls certainly were not “the greatest pop band of all time.” And on points of factual accuracy: nobody ever died of a drug overdose on Grange Hill (Zammo, the school heroin addict never died while Danny Kendall’s death in the series was not drug-related). And Tony Blair famously never once sent an email while in Downing Street.

There was too much football talk in the book for me, but for this he cannot be faulted. He was and is a football fan. It would be unreasonable not to expect him to discuss it. In truth, I could have written a far longer review than this one.

There are chapters on many 1990s TV shows here, amongst them, Gladiators, Badger Girl, Knightmare, You Bet!, TFI Friday, 999, The X-Files and Eldorado. There are no chapters on Twin Peaks, Our Friends in the North, Prime Suspect, Inspector Morse, Cracker or Queer as Folk. But so what? There are no chapters on Baywatch, Hollyoaks, The Darling Buds of May, Friends, Byker Grove, South Park or Sweet Valley High either. You cannot write about everything.

Who does he think he is? Josh Widdicombe is a fine comic writer and as Adam Hills would put it, “the pride of Dartmoor.”

Published by: Blink.

Book review: And Away… Bob Mortimer: The Autobiography

In 2015, Bob Mortimer very nearly died.

At the age of 56, Bob had complained of increased breathlessness as he approached a new tour with his old comedy partner, Jim Moir, better known as Vic Reeves. The prognosis was bad: Bob had a serious heart condition and the tour was cancelled as he underwent triple bypass surgery. Happily, the operation was a success and Bob escaped the horrifying prospect that in common with fellow comedians, Eric Morecombe or Rik Mayall before him or Sean Hughes, Jeremy Hardy or Sean Lock in the years since, he might die while still in his fifties.

Now, like one of the fish he and Paul Whitehouse routinely returns to the water after catching them on their popular BBC series, Gone Fishing, Bob feels he has been given a second chance at life. The years since have seen further acclaimed appearances outwitting David Mitchell on panel show, Would I Lie To You?, a series victory on Taskmaster, launching his Athletico Mince podcast with Andy Dawson, appearing in the aforementioned Gone Fishing and now writing this enjoyable autobiography.

It isn’t all laughs. In addition to his more recent health issues, his father was killed in a car accident when he was just seven and Bob accidentally burnt down the family home after experimenting with a firework indoors soon afterwards. He also fought and successfully overcame both depression and acute shyness while still a young man. But this definitely isn’t a gloomy memoir either: quite the opposite. Bob is a modest man and clearly much more intelligent than he sometimes pretends. He has a good turn of phrase (he describes his old friend, Paul Whitehouse as resembling “a walnut on a stick”) and successfully qualified as a solicitor, practicing for some years in the 1980s. He never even refers to the fact that he won the fiercely competitive series Taskmaster, an omission it is impossible to imagine say, Richard Herring or Ed Gamble ever making.

He lives up to his reputation as a loveable eccentric, for example, extolling the benefits of always having some ‘pocket meats’ on his person (an unhygienic-sounding habit which along with years of heavy smoking and sugary tea, presumably contributed to his heart issues). He remembers his years growing up in 1970s Middlesbrough with real affection. On two occasions in the book, he stages his own little game of Would I Lie To You? inviting the reader to identify which of his anecdotes from both his Middlesbrough days and his later legal career are true and which are false. Frustratingly, he never reveals the answers. I would hazard a guess that nearly all of them really happened. But who can ever really be sure with him?

His career in comedy came about initially entirely by chance as he stumbled into a venue playing host to an early live performance of Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out in 1988, after seeking solace after discovering he was being cheated on by a girlfriend earlier that very same day. Bob became a regular member of the audience before gradually getting drawn into the show itself. By the time, the catchphrase-heavy show (“what’s on the end of the stick, Vic?”, “Vic! I’ve fallen,” “You wouldn’t let it lie…”) made its sensational transition to Channel 4 in 1990, Bob was Vic’s co-star. This would remain the case for most of the next thirty years, with Bob only frequently embarking on solo projects or working with someone else in recent years. Although occasionally hampered by his inability to act – notably on the early 21st century revival of Randall and Hopkirk and on the later enjoyable sitcom, House of Fools – Bob has rarely been off our screens for long, winning a cult following with shows such as Catterick and mass audiences in his and Vic’s biggest popular success, the frequently hilarious comedy panel show, Shooting Stars.

Now in his sixties, he is a now a much-loved, warm-hearted figure with an eccentric, unique and often spectacularly original mind. He is a national treasure.

Published by Gallery UK. Available: now.