Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Funny Fortnight - All the world's a stage and all the players are Norbert Smith...

What does make something believable or more to the point, how can something be made to be believable? Since Bad News arrived on the small screen in 1983 and later Eddie Monsoon, both from The Comic Strip, the presidence of the mocumentry in the modern era was born. Either by aping or spoofing something to make it look real. Where as Bad News and Eddie Monsoon may have been more knock about with the later even mocking up clips, the first real mocumentry to go into such detail on British television was Harry Enfield's Norbert Smith - A Life. 

Part of Channel 4's Funny Fortnight, this reshowing of Enfield's first mockumentry with later on coming the sublime Smashy and Nicey - The End of an Era for the BBC and finally, the not so on form Norman Ormal - Political Turtle. In itself, this was different from everything else as the fiction could be better then reality itself. 
First of all, to make the programme real the presence of Melvin Bragg helps with the supposed reality as anyone not tuning in from the start would thing this was a repeat of The South Bank Show. The style is meant to be like that to blur the lines, used once again in The Cricklewood Greats nearly twenty five years later. 

From the opening lines, the whole programme is put at an angle with Smith proclaming that his home used to be a country house but he had it converted to a vicarage two years ago. But in which also Bragg's commentary pulls the viewer onto the joke, being able to talk about the important facts of the story with the comedy added into it but said at the same rhythm as he would a normal South Bank Show film commentary would be at. Meaning the the viewers have to listen to what he is saying and that the verbal jokes can help the flow of Norbert Smith's life along at a measured pace.

The simplicity comes when the simplest jokes are got out of the way i.e. his mother being a woman and his father being a man. Simple, maybe almost corny, but this settles a pattern for the mockumentry. Where as the interview sections are scattered with jokes about what the British film industry was like allowing people to link something said comically to an actual event, the strength of the programme comes from the recreation of the films and adverts that Smith had been in throughout his long and varied career. 

Now it's easy just to be able to do a spoof of something and say that it is an accurate portrayal what something was like. But what makes something stand out is the minute detailing of a spoof, such as the way its filmed, the clothes being worn or even the surroundings its being filmed in. Enfield's spoof of Will Hay films, allows the verbal dexterity to be shown. What maybe seen as easy takes planning to remember the right line put in at the right time. Capturing the monologues between the characters as they go, the sense that the audience are almost akin to a three-way tennis match with the characters hitting the balls to each other and replying back in kind.

But the supporting cast with the likes of Josie Lawerence and Felicity Montegau, means that Enfield can make the scenes bigger then it but without it getting too large at all. When something like a lavish dance number is needed, its done with the style demanded of Busby Berkley and when gritty northern realism is portrayed, something is played which is like those films. The supporting characters maybe be on the small screen, but they are played to look like if they could be on a bigger medium, exaggerated maybe but just big enough not to seem over the top.

As the years go on, the movies seem to turn out more terrible but the jokes also get more barbed but even more funny reaching his film 'Dogs of War' typical of those war films made in the 1960's and 1970's. With movies moving towards the more action angle, setting up to seemingly to go towards the films concentrating the Nuclear threat in the early edge such as Who Dares Wins, Defence of the Realm etc. But taking a sidetrack with the spoof of a 'Carry On..' film with Barbara Windsor, Jack Douglas and Kenneth Connor. This tops off the whole mockumentry, by almost reflecting the British film industry from its early days right up until Norbert Smith was made. Its a reflection of what happened but painted in finer detail, there maybe bigger swathes of colour during the programme but its the hidden jokes which keep you wanting to return to watch again and again. 

Enfield went on to do more of this in Smashy and Nicey - End of an Era and Norman Ormal - Political Turtle, but in the past ten years only The Cricklewood Greats has come even close to matching Harry Enfield's work. These mockumentries should be loved for the joyous way they can portray a whole period of time but still make it seem real enough, even though none of it happened. That in itself maybe the mark of a good set of comedians, writers such as Geoffrey Perkins who also wrote for Norbert Smith. Meaning something filmed twenty five years ago can seem as fresh as something just made yesterday.

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