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As any Spaced fan will probably know, Asylum is significant for being the project which brought together the makers of that show. Aired on the Paramount Comedy channel in 1996, it was directed by Edgar Wright, co-written by him and David "I'm a lady!" Walliams, and starred Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson, as well as Julian Barratt, now famous for The Mighty Boosh.
Set in a mental institution, we are introduced to its owner, Dr Lovett (played by Norman Lovett) who is somehow both sinister and friendly. When one of the staff orders a pizza, the delivery boy (played by a baby-faced Simon Pegg) turns up, only to find that they're not letting him out again! When he protests to the Doctor, he is drugged and placed in a cell.
The other patients in the asylum include a pompous artist who calls himself Victor (played by Barratt), but whose actual name is Julian, and what appears to be his strange little sidekick, who doesn't speak but plays the guitar.
Jessica Stevenson plays Jessica (you're beginning to see that the characters are just named after their actors), a woman who at first appears to be the sanest of them all, but is actually paranoid and convinced that she is being pursued by the government. Stevenson also plays one of the staff, a sex-mad Irish nurse very reminiscent of the Catherine Tate sketch.
Finally, stand-up comedian Adam Bloom plays a wannabe stand-up comedian called Adam. He constantly annoys his inmates by telling stupid jokes, followed by canned laughter that he's recorded on his tape player. If you're not insane already, this guy would tip you over the edge.
Only one series of Asylum was made, comprising six episodes, and in truth, it's probably because it didn't really have the legs to continue being funny. It's essentially just a series of stand-up performances held together by the flimsy overall story of Pegg's pizza delivery boy wanting to be let out, with a single throwaway storyline in each episode.
There is some funny stuff here, particularly Stevenson's performance, which is essentially her Spaced routine but a little more crazy, and the nature of the show ensures that there's a non-stop stream of gags, most of them funny. If you're looking for a show that blends comedy with storyline, this isn't for you - imagine the recent BBC sitcom "Not Going Out", but with less story and fewer quick-fire gags, and you've got Asylum. Just sit back and watch Julian Barratt with a stuck-on paper beard.
In all honesty, this show is only going to be of interest to fans of Spaced and The Mighty Boosh, and most of the entertainment value comes from seeing them when they were younger (although Barratt looks just the same). It's clear that Pegg and Stevenson had a good on-screen partnership even back then, and Julian Barratt plays a character very similar to Howard Moon, and almost as funny. In fact, his artist character was originally the inspiration for Spaced's Brian, although Mark Heap decided to make him more likeable. Bit of trivia for you there, courtesy of the Spaced DVD!
There's a lot of geeky internet fanboy talk about trying to get a release of this on DVD, especially considering the success of Wright, Pegg and Barratt since this was made. At the moment I don't think it's going to be available any time soon, so the only way to watch it is on Youtube, and even then, I couldn't find any more than clips when I looked. Better than nothing though, I suppose!
In short, this isn't a great sitcom, and probably won't appeal to the general public, but if you're a fan of those involved it's definitely got a lot of curiosity value, and there are still plenty of good jokes to make it worthwhile!
So search for it, and let me know if you find it and what you think!
Asylum was a short-lived an almost entirely forgotten comedy series produced by the UK Paramount channel in 1996. Based around the premise of a corrupt mental institution along the lines of One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest (which is acknowledged by references in several episodes as an obvious influence), the main plot was essentially a flimsy device to bring together a cast of young, up-and-coming comedians and allow them to perform shortened versions of their stand-up shows to varying degrees of success. Its only real claim to fame is introducing the partnership of comedians Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson with writer/director Edgar Wright, who would later create the surreal sitcom Spaced and the hit films Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz (without Stevensons contribution).
While the premise is undoubtedly flimsy, I find the ramshackle and uneven nature of the show quite charming, enhanced by the very low budget, and its interesting to see all of these performers being thrust into the same situation and treating it very differently. The show is introduced and technically fronted by Norman Lovett (Holly from Red Dwarf), though his contributions are largely in a supporting role as the incompetent and fairly bored Doctor presumably written by the series writers David Walliams and Edgar Wright. The majority of the material appears to have been written by the individual comedians themselves, leading to some isolated stand-up routines from Adam Bloom an inmate who apparently believes he is a stand-up comedian, and plays a recording of audience laughter from his Dictaphone every time he cracks a joke and some more impressive cooperative material from Pegg and Stevenson.
Simon Peggs character is the real star of the series, an unlucky pizza delivery boy who ends up in the asylum by mistake and acts as the viewers point of reference amidst the formerly sane people around him, whose incarceration and treatments have slowly driven them out of their minds. Pegg is his usual reliable self, occasionally chatting to the camera with what are presumably his old stand-up routines but mostly acting the part of the angry and confused, but ultimately quite weak young man with many of the nuances viewers will be familiar with from Spaced and his more recent films. His interaction with Jessica Stevensons character becomes greater in later episodes, but her insanity (she believes that aliens in league with Carol Vorderman are communicating secret messages to her through the Countdown conundrums) prevents them from bonding in a Tim and Daisy way, and his interaction with the other comedians is fairly limited. Stevenson also plays the evil Nurse McFadden, a very different character whose unrequited lust for Dr. Lovett and careless attitude towards the inmates comes to a head in the final episode, as the series begins to take on some form of actual plot.
Someone who really takes the situation to heart and works with it is Julian Barratt (of The Mighty Boosh), whose character Victor Munro is an extremely eccentric and bizarre individual. Tapping into the same vein of weirdness that Barratt is now well-known for, the characters obsession with artistic statements, his belief that he has another face underneath his hair and a pack of dogs living in his eyes, and his repeated failed attempts to cast life into a miniature clay golem (it worked for Tony Hart!) can become a little irritating, but his commanding presence and pointy-beard-and-huge-eyebrows image makes him one of the more memorable parts of the show, in which he features regularly, often alongside the mute juggler Paul (Paul Morocco). Compared to these noted contributors, the rest of the cast is somewhat disappointing in its lack of effort. The premise that Bloom believes he is a stand-up is a really weak device that allows him to shoehorn in a couple of old five minute routines, while John Moloney wastes a few minutes in the first two episodes with incredibly dull and irrelevant routines talking about his grandparents and then drugs. Comedy duo Parsons and Naylor appear in the later episodes but dont get up to much past an obvious deconstruction of rock-paper-scissors, but more forgivable are the brief moments offered to Bill Bailey and David Walliams, whose material isnt that good but is at least short and inoffensive Walliams discusses the Star Wars trilogy, while Bailey deals with sub-atomic biscuits.
The series has never been officially released, and its not a show that holds up well when watched in close succession. Each episode begins with the same opening monologue from Lovett (similar to the introductions he provided on the first two series of Red Dwarf) and a tedious previously on... segment repeating scenes mostly from the first show, of Simon arriving with a pizza and being given the low-down on the nefarious antics going on in this place. The plot develops slowly over the six episodes between the unconnected comedy routines, but really isnt up to much, and tends to drag episodes down when they focus too much on the situation itself. An example is episode four, in which Dr. Lovett accidentally gets his sweets and tablets mixed up and the security guard Nobby Shanks (Mick OConnor) has to occupy the inmates with a game of charades. There really are only so many jokes that can be extracted from this idea, making it get very old very fast. More amusing is Nurse McFaddens solution to deciding which of three inmates receives the only remaining pill, by dropping it onto a Hungry Hungry Hippos board and letting them bash away for it.
The final ingredient of Asylum that I havent yet touched on is the use of a house band, namely David Devant and His Spirit Wife. These sections, which always come towards the end of the show and also provide the opening and closing title music, are completely unrelated to the main plot and characters by being recorded in isolation, though in what appear to be the same sets. Each episodes song, taken from the bands first album, loosely relates to an aspect of that weeks plot though this is clearly down to chance more than careful planning and although its a little odd and distracting, it helps to give the show an exotic and unhinged atmosphere, similar to the musical sections of The Young Ones. The songs arent particularly funny or interesting, though theyre okay, particularly one about Cluedo that I remember more than the rest (le-le-le-le-le-le-le-le-lead piping), but Im glad they were included in this enjoyable mess.
Far from being a comedy classic, Asylum was more of a testing ground for young talent, and a chance for some comedians to get a brief stint on the telly (even if it was only the Paramount channel). It proved incredibly beneficial for Pegg, Stevenson and Wright, paving the way for Spaced a few years later where Wrights directorial style could be fully explored (there are a couple of scenes, particularly the alien visitation at the end of episode five, that remind me of that great series). Norman Lovetts biggest TV role was already behind him, and hes used here mainly as a familiar face to draw viewers in, but no one else seems to have benefitted from the series in the same way. Julian Barratt is great in this, even if he jabbers on about nipples too much, but his big break wouldnt come for a long time, while Adam Bloom was doomed to remain on the Paramount channel forever after in tedious circulation on its stand-up shows.
As this was never given an official release, and thus achieves cool underground cult status, it can commonly be found on sites such as YouTube where people will proclaim it to be much better than it actually is. My advice would be to seek out the better performers in their own shows, where they have more creative control, though for a mixed bag of very different talents this show works surprisingly well.
Asylum was a British comedy series shown on Paramount Comedy Channel in 1996. Set in a mental asylum, it lasted for only one series of six episodes. Surreal black comedy about an assortment of odd characters trapped in an asylum, in a quiet English countryside. It is run by staff whose sanity is decidedly suspect, as proved by their admission of the local pizza-delivery boy for trumped-up reasons. As the patients try bizarre escapes, we are left wondering whether the whole thing is a massive experiment, or just a cruel hoax.