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Did you know that you can't watch BBC Iplayer or 4od outside of the UK? Well I didn't before I embarked upon a year studying abroad, and if I had known, I probably wouldn't have gone! All melodrama aside, I was quite irked to be denied access to watching British TV at all once I'd flown Blighty's nest, especially since I hadn't been able to take away my entire DVD collection due to a lack of space, and so was having to get my British comedy fix by watching panel shows endlessly as they, at least, make their way onto Youtube not long after they're broadcast. Something I discovered more recently, however, is that while you can't watch BBC Television programmes on Iplayer, you can listen to radio shows without restriction. Wahey, I thought, and a new mania began. Out of the new material now available to me, the show that I was most enthusiastic about listening to was That Mitchell and Webb Sound, as although I'd heard the odd bit here and there I'd yet to properly listen to full episodes. After listening to a lot of this series, the fourth and final one, as they appeared on Iplayer, I have recently bought all four of the series from iTunes and so although I will concentrate on this particular series I will talk about the programme in its entire four series run.
And, indeed, about the comedy duo behind it: David Mitchell and Robert Webb, who are arguably most recognisable from the Channel 4 triumphantly successful sitcom Peep Show, in which the play the two principal characters. Largely off of the back of the sitcom's success as well as the warm reception of this, their radio sketch show, their own TV sketch show That Mitchell and Webb Look was born, which is where I first became familiar with the pair. This show also ran for four series, and despite being criticised as being more miss than hit by some people, I would say that the hits more than made up for the misses and loved the show, although would not go so far as to say that it was without its dud moments. Over the last year so I therefore bought the first three series and have watched them several times over, although have to largely agree with those who say that the fourth series wasn't quite up to the same standard as those previous, as apart from five or six excellent sketches I was unimpressed, overall, with their final offering. Their earlier one series show, That Mitchell and Webb Situation, was one that I found to be excellent and so happily bought that DVD also, and though their first sketch show, Bruiser, had some promising moments (Outdoor Wee being a particular favourite), it wasn't something that I found good enough to own. As well as enjoying Mitchell and Webb in the aforementioned sitcom and sketch shows, I have also enjoyed seeing David Mitchell particularly in panel shows (and, more recently, 10 o'clock Live) and so I had relatively high hopes for their radio show.
Well, since I have already mentioned that I bought all four series of the show on MP3 after having listened to a lot of this series on Iplayer, there will be very few of you surprised to hear that I was not disappointed with That Mitchell and Webb Sound. How could I be, especially when so many of the sketches were ones that I had heard and enjoyed before, due to a fairly massive overlap of material between that M&W Sound and Look. Of course, when making a TV series off the back of a very good yet presumably under-heard radio show, it's inevitable that reusing your old material will seem like a good idea, as indeed it is: why would they not use their best stuff when making the move to television sketch comedy? After all they did write it (well, they along with twelve other writers if you listen to the credits as I have, but that's besides the point, perhaps) and relatively few people will have heard it before, radio not being the popular medium it once was, so there's nothing really stopping them reusing a lot of their old material, especially that which translates so well onto the small screen.
Fortunately, already being familiar with a lot of the sketches did not detract from my enjoyment of That Mitchell and Webb Sound (though it did, perhaps, make me appreciate the 'Look' slightly less in hindsight) and I found myself laughing audibly at a lot of their irreverent and very clever comedy. There's some excellent satire to be found in there, as well as some not so subtle humorous references to film and television. There's the company with their own stargate, a portal to the other side of the universe, which is massively abused by its lazy and disrespectable employees, the man raised by wasps, and of course the recordings of the Old Lady Job Justification Hearings, which were put into place after Joanna Lumley 'became benign dictator of Britain' and everyone was required to explain why their job was worthwhile to a panel of old ladies before they were allowed to continue doing it. In general the sketches are of a very high quality and I found myself grinning broadly if not outright laughing at almost all of them, although I won't deny that some of them do unfortunately fall into the 'miss' category.
While the majority of the hilarity of the series comes from its genius writing, the acting of the sketches has to be praised as well. Mitchell and Webb themselves unsurprisingly feature in most if not every sketch, and manage to deliver their lines with such impeccable timing and in such an amusing way as to often make a sketch that would only have been mildly funny on paper magnificently hilarious on the radio. There's quite a few silly voices and accents thrown in (Robert Webb as Mr Zavvi in episode 1 in particular makes me grin rather like a mad thing) but a lot of the humour derives from a very dry delivery as well as from silliness and tomfoolery. James Bachman and Olivia Colman (the latter of who plays Sophie in Peep Show, and both of them appeared in That Mitchell and Webb Look) also feature heavily and are both talented comedy actors very worthy of mention, and if the show's title didn't include only two of these actors names and not the others, I doubt you'd really place any of the four above the others in terms of how amusing they are.
It's quite difficult to decide on a rating for this series, as although I do massively love it and laugh heartily at it even on repeat listening, there are a few sketches that fall a bit flat. Fortunately, on this series there is less of an overlap with sketches featuring on the TV series, and I feel that this series including more exclusive material than previous ones makes it more enjoyable, for me anyway. All things considered, mainly how greatly I enjoy listening to this series and how it stands up to being repeated, I will give it a 5 out of 5 rating and recommend it heartily. At £8.17 for the CD on Amazon or £6.95 for the download on iTunes, it is a good value purchase considering how entertaining it is.
Having greatly enjoyed Peep Show as well as this radio series and their TV sketch comedy, I wonder what the future holds for David Mitchell and Robert Webb as a platonic comedy couple. Perhaps they'll branch out into the other three senses, with Mitchell and Webb smelling salts or soup, for example. If I ever find myself in the position to report upon their offering in the fifth sense, however, I think I'll keep my opinions on That Mitchell and Webb Touch to myself.
Given the post-ironic and irreverent referencing style of Mitchell and Webb, it feels a little daunting to write a review on their work. After all, I wouldn't be surprised if I haven't missed some sketch they've written and performed that parodies the online reviewer! Nevertheless, I will take the plunge and compound that cliché with the remark Mitchell and Webb make a triumphant return to radio with their fourth series of "That Mitchell and Webb" sound.
I write this in the era of post-political correctness - post-everything it seems. It is a time where self aware comedy artists like Steve Coogan and Ricky Gervais are now institutions - ones that are ripe for being sent up. This is the era that is perfect for the likes of David Mitchell and Robert Webb, Cambridge educated artists that have grown up marinating in the influences of other Cambridge educated artists like Monte Python and whose careers took off long after the heyday of the Comedy Store style of comedy in the late `80s and early `90s. Their style of humour comes of out a time of rational scepticism and where awkward lack of self awareness has become an accepted comedy device. Politcal and populist satire is present, but it is offered up as part of the variety rather than being at the heart of the show. Added to this is their own brand of absurdity reminiscent of the Python influence, but very much their own.
The absurdity is applied, in typical British style, to sending up everything from a typical office manager having to deal with an inter-dimensional stargate to a man who thinks he is Superman helping out with a flip chart. We even see scepticism cast over the moral of a much loved folk tale as the case of "Peter and the Wolf" is brought to trial. Peter's uncle tries to justify the obvious lack of logic in not hearing the savage violence of a wolf slaughtering his unarmed nephew and flock of sheep despite admitting he could hear the prepubescent boy crying wolf! On the subject of justification an excellent new ongoing sketch introduced into series four is the Old Ladies Job Justification Committee. The validity and purpose of modern jobs like wedding arranger, PR person and cosmetic surgeon are called into question and set against the functionality and honesty of running a "little shop".
Not all of Mitchell and Webb's work has been a great success. Their foray into feature films was not a huge success. However, David Mitchell is now a regular on various comedy programmes both on and off the TV, and "The Peep Show" is a clear favourite among young adults and 30 somethings. Nevertheless, their style, exhibited in fine form on this CD, is still fresh and very funny.
*My Amazon Vine review*