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.

DVD review: This Life: The Complete Collection

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BBC Worldwide

Out now

Cast: Amita Dihri,  Jack Davenport, Jason Hughes, Andrew Lincoln, Daniela Nardini, Ramon Tikaram

It has now been twenty years since we were first introduced to the five twentysomething London lawyers who made up BBC drama, This Life.

Who could forget them?

Anna (Nardini): perhaps the most memorable character, sharp tongued feisty, yet ultimately vulnerable and totally fixated on her end of term one night stand, Miles (Davenport), posh, misogynist, homophobic and snobbish, but one senses, as human as anyone else underneath. Then there’s Egg (Lincoln), perhaps the nicest character in the house although clearly not as cut out for a career in law as his sexy, ambitious girlfriend Milly (Dhiri) seems to be. Last but not least comes gay Welshman, Warren (Hughes), inclined towards  regular visits to a therapist and occasional moments of madness. He is later joined by troubled bisexual, Ferdy (Tikaram).

The show did not really catch fire during its first eleven-part run in 1996, perhaps because many episodes were written by Amy Jenkins, who despite receiving much acclaim for creating the series was never actually one of its strongest writers. But during its longer 20 episode second series in 1997, something magical started to happen. This Life grew to be cult viewing: totally unmissable and was much mourned after its spectacular Series 2 finale.

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Has This Life dated? Yes, of course. It would be odd if it hadn’t. Everyone seems to smoke more than they do today (at least on TV) and the house enjoys a constant backdrop of music by the likes of Radiohead, Suede and the Sneaker Pimps. The internet is spoken of only as a distant futuristic thing as demonstrated when Miles becomes one of the last people on Earth to post a dating ad in an actual magazine.

On the other hand, the “shaky” naturalistic camerawork much commented on at the time is barely noticeable now (though the camerawork remains interesting and occasionally prone to close-ups). A young, then unknown Martin Freeman crops up in one episode, as a party guest who won’t leave. But the show was ahead of it’s time in its attitude to gays and drug use and one suspects it has dated far less than a 1976 drama series would have had that been screened twenty years later in 1996.

Twenty years on (and ten years after the  underwhelming 2006 This Life +10 one off  which is also included in this DVD set). the saddest thing is that while the principal male cast are all still a regular presence on our screens  – particularly Andrew Lincoln who now stars in hit US zombie drama, The Walking Dead – Nardini and Dhiri have never become stars. Still, the smaller female parts such as Natasha Little (who plays the bane of Milly’s office existence, Rachel) and Luisa Bradhaw-White (sassy office temp Kira, but now an EastEnders regular) have all done well.

And the really good news is that This Life is either a) as good as you remember or b) very watchable if you’ve never seen it before.

As Warren would say: “Hysterical.”

This Life