The Comic Strip Presents first hit the air in November of 1982 on the UK's Channel Four. Made up of regular members are Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmondson, Dawn French, Nigel Planer, Peter Richardson and Jennifer Saunders but throughout the series there are semi-regular contributions from the likes of Alexei Sayle, Keith Allen, Robbie Coltrane, Harry Enfield and a few others and was put together out of the efforts of many of the contributors' earlier stand up work. When they took over a venue called The Comic Strip and were successful enough to then head out on tour, Channel Four brought them on board to make a series of episodes for them. This wasn't sketch comedy like Monty Python's Flying Circus nor was it a regular sitcom series like The Young Ones or Absolutely Fabulous (obviously related to this series in that they share cast members), rather each episode was a self contained story in and of itself. Basically, the group churned out a series of bizarre little 'mini movies' for the channel.
So with no real set format in mind for the series, what's it all about? Well, obviously that varies from one episode to the next but more or less it's a parody show, taking shots at different aspects of pop culture from music to movies to books. Done with a uniquely British slant, it tends to sometimes go for bizarre slice of life stories, strange soap opera style overcooked melodrama and frequently verges on the absurd - but more often than not, despite some rather obvious misfires here and there, the series is very funny. Dated in some ways, to be sure, and very much a product of its time but funny never the less.
The series kicked off with the Five Go Mad In Dorest episode, which was a rather extreme (for the time) parody of a famous kids book series (and then later a TV and film series) called The Famous Five that sold millions of copies from the forties onward. This series was a bit of a sacred cow and the parody of it caused a bit of a stir when it first aired. From there the group would explore Kerouac style beat culture before really solidifying themselves with the infamous Bad News Tour episode which took the piss out of the then rampant New Wave Of British Heavy Metal movement running through the country. Pre-dating This Is Spinal Tap by quite a bit, this fan favorite episode played up the more ridiculous aspects of the heavy metal scene in England at the time and allowed the cast to create some truly hilarious characters. They'd go back for a second round with the More Bad News episode, a worthy follow up but not quite as funny as the first one.
Other stand out episodes include The Bullshitters which was a fairly brilliant parody of the long running TV series The Professionals with Bonehead and Foyle replacing the original's Bodie and Doyle with appropriately bizarre results. In place of fancy cars and high tech gadgets our heroes have a bus pass and have to take lessons from Robbie Coltrane's superior on how to best enter a car in proper action hero mode. Elvis Costello pops up in this one too. The Strike was aired after the miner's strike in England, topical at the time but maybe a little obtuse by modern standards even if it was quite critically acclaimed in its day. Dirty Movie is one of the strangest episodes as it tells its tale of a theater owner who wants to watch an adult film in his own theater. He does so by screening it early in the morning when nobody will want to see a movie, under the pretense that he's actually showing 'The Sound Of Muzak.' The cops get wind of what's happening and send in some of the most inept vice officers you've ever seen to shut it down. A Fistful Of Travellers' Cheques is another stand out and certainly one of the most interesting episodes - Mayall and Edmondson play two tough gunslingers in the Leone tradition looking to relax at 'Hotel Bastardo' only to get involved with some roving Australian women on vacation who happen to pick up a hitchhiking serial killer.
Alexei Sayle would get his shot in the spotlight with the Didn't You Kill My Brother episode (which had a music video and popular single spun off of it) which parodies the infamous Kray Twins with Sayle playing both roles. He does a great job with it, playing the two opposites incredibly well. The feature length episode The Supergrass let's Peter Richardson shine in his story about a man who lies about being a drug smuggler only to be asked by the police to work as an informant. Peter Cook pops up in the classic episode Mr. Jolly Lives Next Door in which Mayall and Edmondson run an escort agency next door to a hitman named Mr. Jolly (Cook) who enjoys cutting his victims up with gigantic cleavers while blasting Tom Jones songs. Detectives On The Edge Of A Nervous Breakdown is another stand out episode that brings back Bonehead and Foyle for another round and which mixes them up with other detective/cop show parodies to spoof shows like The Sweeney. A knowledge of British cop dramas will certainly help you get more out of this but regardless, it's pretty absurd and very funny stuff.
The content of the set is laid out as follows over eight discs, with the ninth disc in the set relegated to housing the extra features (more on that in the Extras section of this review!):
Disc One: Five Go Mad In Dorset / War / The Beat Generation / Bad News Tour / Summer School / Five Go Mad On Mescalin
Disc Two: Dirty Movie / Susie / A Fistful Of Travellers' Cheques / Gino: Full Story And Pics / Eddie Monsoon - A Life?
Disc Three: Slags / The Bullshitters / The Supergrass / Consuela
Disc Four: Private Enterprise / The Strike / More Bad News / Mr. Jolly Lives Next Door
Disc Five: The Yob / Didn't You Kill My Brother? / Funseekers
Disc Six: South Atlantic Raiders / South Atlantic Raiders: Argie Bargie! / GLC The Carnage Continues / Oxford / Spaghetti Hoops
Disc Seven: Les Dogs / Red Nose Of Courage / The Crying Game / Wild Turkey / Detectives On The Edge Of A Nervous Breakdown / Space Virgins From Planet Sex
Disc Eight: Queen Of The Wild Frontier / Gregory: Diary Of A Nutcase / Demonella / Jealousy / Four Men In A Car / Four Men In A Plane
While most of those involved in this series are famous for other work (Mayall, Planner, Sayle and Edmondson for The Young Ones, French and Saunders for French & Saunders and then later Sunders for Absolutely Fabulous, Robbie Coltrane for all manner of films like Harry Potter) it's interesting to see their collaborative efforts here. Some of their later, more refined work might hold up better than this stuff but there are a lot of gems scattered throughout this set that make it more than worthwhile viewing for anyone with a passing interest in British comedy from the eighties onward.
Aside from seeing some of England's best comics in their younger days, what's great about the series is just how erratic and unpredictable it is. Again, not every episode is as laugh out loud hilarious as the next but you really don't know what you're getting into with this series until each individual episode starts. It's unlike the formulaic stuff that dominates television these days and really lets those involved stretch some creative muscle, misfires or no. The series easily jumps from beatnik pot smoking writers to crime show parody to heavy metal bands and back again and the talent involved approach each of the very different subjects with the same amount of daring enthusiasm.
It should be noted that there was a special in 2005 entitled Sex Actually and then another special in 2011 entitled The Hunt For Tony Blair. Neither one of these is included in this set, making this not quite the complete collection that the packaging touts it as.
The video here is presented fullframe, except for two episodes shown in non-anamorphic widescreen. The video quality leaves a lot to be desired, it's frequently soft and sometimes a bit murky, the earlier episodes showing some obvious color fading as well. Things do improve with the newer material, which is understandable, and as a lot of this stuff was probably shot on tape decades ago we can be a bit forgiving here where otherwise we might not be, but overall the quality is watchable, just far from revelatory.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo tracks are about on par with the video, really. Early episodes sound a little more muffled than the more recent ones but all in all the dialogue stays pretty clean and pretty clear. There isn't any hiss, but clarity isn't always impressive - just sufficient. There isn't much in the way of channel separation at all nor are there any alternate language options or subtitles provided on this set.
All of the extras in the set are on the ninth and final disc. Here you'll find The Comic Strip: A Retrospective, which is, as the title implies, a retrospective documentary that clocks in at about an hour in length. Originally made for the 2005 UK/R2 DVD releases, it features most of the original cast members, sans Coltrane and Saunders, all of whom speak rather affectionately about the time that they spent on the series, noting personal favorites and sharing a few interesting stories and tidbits about their work. Also included on the ninth disc is First Laugh On Four, Part 1 and First Laugh On Four, Part 2, two related documentaries that actually manage to get everyone, including Coltrane and Saunders, on camera to talk about the show. These two featurettes were made for British TV in 1998 so they're not quite as up to date as the longer documentary is and they cover some of the same ground, but they're both worth checking out. Last but not least is the 1981 Julien Temple film, The Comic Strip, which was made in 1981 and which really more or less launched all of this lunacy. It gives us a look behind the scenes of the club in which these guys started putting all of their material together and is as interesting as it is funny, giving us a rare glimpse at the inner workings of the group and providing some nice foreshadowing of things to come. Between the three supplements we get about three hours of material here and while some episode specific commentary tracks certainly would have been more than welcome, this material combines to paint a pretty thorough portrait of the history and influence of the series. Each the discs in the set contains static menus and episode selection - you can watch one at a time or use the 'play all' feature to watch an entire disc's worth of content uninterrupted.
If The Comic Strip Presents: The Complete Collection, well, even the lesser episodes are at least creative and original. The funny by far outweighs the unfunny here and while the set isn't quite the completely collection it claims to be, it's close. Fans of the bizarre side of British comedy really ought to enjoy this one. So much of it holds up very well and that makes it easy to look past the fact that it doesn't look or sound all that great and still recommend it.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.