DVD Review – Whoops Apocalypse : The Complete Apocalypse (Network)
A few months ago, my dad made a colossal error of judgement. A really, really big one. I’d just been out to visit my folks, and he was kindly giving me a lift back into Edinburgh. Suddenly, I realised he was looking at me with an evil glint in his eye. “I’ve been saving this song for you”, he said, as he popped a CD into the dashboard player. “I knew you’d want to hear it”. It was a piece of newish Irish Country music, with lyrics which painstakingly detailed the end of the world due to nuclear apocalypse.
You never saw a CD being ejected so quickly. I scowled. “Not funny. Not funny at all”, I muttered, before lapsing into a grumpy reverie all the way back into town. The rest of the journey was uncomfortable. Extremely uncomfortable. I couldn’t believe he’d done that to me.
Y’see, during the eighties… I suffered from excruciating nuclear terror. I’m not talking mild fears, or paranoia, or panic. I’m talking complete and utter – excuse the phrase – meltdown. Sleepless nights. Screaming panic, gibbering. The whole bit. When I was eleven, I strongly suspect I was a hair’s breadth from being a case for the child psychologists. I’ve spent my life trying to forget how that felt. It was – and remains – the single most crippling feeling I’ve ever experienced.
All of which explains why I never saw Whoops Apocalypse at the time. Oh, I was there. As the titles started on the first episode, back in March 1982, and as Nigel Hess’s mournful violin lament keened across a blasted nuclear wasteland, and as the Mushroom Saleswoman appeared, shaking her tin while staring blankly out of the screen… I dived for the off-button. It was at least a decade before I saw the damn thing.
And that’s a shame, because over the years, stealthily and without any fanfare… it’s become my all-time favourite comedy show. Thanks to Network finally managing to sort out the tortuous rights problems that resulted in proposed releases being announced and then blocked, announced and then blocked, I’ve finally been able to watch a pristine, perfect copy straight from the LWT videotapes.
My original version was an off-air vhs which cut off five minutes from the end. The last five minutes had been edited in from a broadcast on German channel Sat 1, and the effect totally disrupted the carefully constructed atmosphere of the conclusion. Having just watched the series from beginning to end in a day, it’s as fresh, as savage, as vitriolic – and as funny – as it ever was. If you have an interest in British Comedy – hell, if you have an interest in Comedy full-stop, you need to see this. It really is that good.
Andrew Marshall and David Renwick wrote this off the back of their sketch-show masterwork, End of Part One. They’d produced two series of increasingly brilliant, savagely funny comedy – probably the best sketch material this side of what Dave Allen was doing in the seventies, and certainly the natural successor to Python. It features an interesting pointer to the future in that one episode is a cripplingly accurate parody of what television news coverage of WWIII would be like, years before The Day Today did exactly the same.
LWT buried it. Absolutely buried it. Late afternoon on a Sunday, where it instantly became classed as a children’s show – even being trailed as such in the TV Times. If ever you needed a reason to thank loony television schedulers, this is it. Whoops was written as as a direct result of this bout of madness – both cast and crew flatly refused to make a third series of End of Part One and the writers took their ball back to the BBC, where they wrote a pilot script describing the events leading up to the end of the world.
In their version the end of the world doesn’t happen because of increased political pressures, or because of a mass military build up. It happens because of simple incompetence on the part of the world’s leaders. Although the script sprawls a bit, lacking focus here and there, it’s superb. Unfortunately, John Howard Davies hated it, and rejected it out of hand.
With no other outlets in this country at the time, Marshall and Renwick had no choice but to go cap-in-hand back to LWT. Thankfully, their old colleague Humphrey Barclay was waiting for them, and he loved it – for all the reasons that Davies hated it. Michael Grade was dubious, but Barclay’s enthusiasm pushed it into production. We’ve all got cause to be grateful to him.
A plot précis of Whoops Apocalypse is almost impossible, but the basics are this – failed movie actor Johnny Cyclops (Barry Morse) is in nominal charge of the White House, and trouble is brewing. Big trouble. Nuclear trouble. In actual charge of the White House – although he’d furiously deny it – is fundamentalist religious maniac The Deacon (John Barron, channelling John Foster Dulles amongst many others).
Over in Russia, Premiere Dubienkin (Richard Griffiths) keeps dying, and being replaced by another Dubienkin who looks exactly like the one before. In Britain, the Labour Party has swept to power and solved all of the country’s ills in ten minutes flat. The cabinet is bored. Once The Chancellor (Richard Davies) has read the minutes of their inaugural meeting off the back of a fag packet there’s nothing for him, the Foreign Secretary (Geoffrey Palmer) and PM Kevin Pork (Peter Jones) to do but sit and stare listlessly at each other. Or indeed, at the “Bob Dylan – Rock Against Vasectomy” poster on the wall behind the PM. Not to worry though – the PM has a secret he’d like to impart.
Meanwhile, the deposed Shah (Bruce Montague) is stuck in the middle of the English Channel on a ferry boat. Booted out of France following the “Ritual de l’humiliation” by a relentlessly showboating Charles Kay (if nothing else, Whoops is an equal opportunities offender, mining comic stereotypes for all their worth – and almost as an afterthought, slipping one of the filthiest jokes ever broadcast on mainstream tv into one of the ferry boat sequences), he’s about to become the pawn in a major political game.
The Americans want him, and the British want him, and the Russians want him. Unfortunately, his only aide and confidante is Abdab (David Kelly), who spends the entire series blindfolded because he mustn’t look upon his master’s holy personage. Abdab’s dialogue is possibly the most relentlessly quotable of the series – all, “Pardon me, Jewel of the Heavens”, “A thousand apologies, Oh Planet of The Apes” and “One hundred and Twenty Four Thanks”.
Meanwhile, the Russians have arrested two American Tourists, and are claiming that they are evil imperialist spies. Captured by the toupee wearing Commissar Solzenitsyn (No relation) – Alexei Sayle making his first foray into acting after exploding across the comedy firmament like a meteor in the preceding few months – they’re merely one victim of a glittering series of cock-ups and failures that will eventually lead to… well, you’ll find out. But there’s a highly deadly Quark bomb involved, which is absolutely not formerly known as the Johnny Cyclops bomb after the President of the Same Name, and which has absolutely, categorically not gone missing.
Acting as a simultaneous Greek Chorus and handy plot-explainer, Jay Garrick (Ed Bishop) is the world’s only 24-hour news anchor. Always there with the news, his urgent telegraphese subtly comments on the deterioration of world events, starting at “I’m Jay Garrick, have a cookie”, heading through “It’s 3:30am, I’m Jay Garrick and You’re an insomniac”, ending up in the moments when Apocalypse seems inevitable at “I’m Jay Garrick, but for how much longer?”
The name Jay Garrick (nom de plume of one of the many Flash’s) is merely one of a plethora of DC Comics references that litter the scripts. Aquaman gets a mention in the first minutes of episode one. The American tourists are named Jonathan and Martha, after the adoptive parents of Superman. And as for The Man of Steel himself… well, I’m not saying, but keep an eye on the British Cabinet. There are a few subtle clues there, and the biggest laugh in the series as well – involving Peter Jones, a whippet and an open window.
It all builds up into an extraordinary (and extremely accurate scene) in episode six in which the DC Comics references fly thick and fast, and which if nothing else should guarantee you’ll never look on Geoffrey Palmer in the same light again.
Here’s Richard Griffiths and Geoffrey Palmer delivering a comedy masterclass from roughly the midpoint in the series. Thanks to Network for the clip.
Remember the early eighties? Remember how exciting it was when all of a sudden the old-guard of comedy received a righteous boot up the arse from the up-and-coming alternative set? Remember the sheer joy of suddenly seeing the likes of Mayall, Edmonson, Richardson et al roaring across our screens? Remember how it was deemed sacrilege to even admit to liking anyone who might have come from sitcom-land? Whoops has no truck with any of that.
Instead, it’s a series which balances precisely between the two major (and seemingly mutually exclusive) comedy styles of the era, and picks the very best bits from both. It’s a glorious melting pot, with intricate farce-plotting colliding with joyous performances that draw from… well, from whoever the hell is deemed the best person for the job, and damn what side of the divide they sit on.
This is the series which features Peter Jones sharing scenes with Alexei Sayle. Rik Mayall, side by side with John Barron. Singing. Want to see a show in which the one-armed Irish waster from Robin’s nest walks off with entire episodes simply by being unintentionally cruel to Ria’s boyfriend from Butterflies? Or do you perhaps want a show in which some absolutely superb actors, nominally better known for their dramatic roles, demonstrate a flair for the comic that continually astonishes? Step this way. Barry Morse, Charles Kay and Ed Bishop are waiting for you. Tony Jay’s even in it, for god’s sake. For one scene. For one, single scene. And they’re all superb.
This is a series that’s cast to the hilt. There’s not one person here that isn’t treating the material with the deepest respect. I haven’t even mentioned that John Cleese is in it, in what would prove to be his only British sitcom role post-Fawlty Towers. He’s only in three episodes, but he’s a joy every time he turns up with an ever-more ludicrous disguise and nom-de-guerre. I’m not giving any of them away, because every one will make you laugh out loud.
He’s even quite sinister, putting his height to good use as he lurks in the background of several scenes masquerading as a Carney Funeral Director, dressed head to toe in white.
The tone of the series – as you might expect from the title – gets progressively darker. By the time we reach the end of episode six, the laughter’s gone. Completely gone. It’s absolutely in keeping with where the plot’s taken us. Marshall and Renwick credit us with the intelligence to work out what comes next ourselves, and leave the ending completely open. It’s an immensely satisfying conclusion, and a terribly sad one.
The film version can’t help but suffer by comparison, ditching all but a few jokes and character names, and with a plot that’s completely different, it’s not awful exactly – any film that has Peter Cook, Loretta Swit, Michael Richards, Rik Mayall, Herbert Lom, Ian Richardson, Ian MacNiece and Ian Richardson in it can’t possibly be a total waste of time. But the insanely intricate plotting and claustrophobic settings are almost completely obliterated by broad-brush farce, and some not altogether subtle swipes at the Falklands crisis.
That said, it does have Graeme Garden in it, taking an incredibly long time to walk to answer a ringing telephone. Loretta Swit plays it creditably straight, which makes up for Peter Cook going so far over the top he’s back down the other side. Of the two Prime Minister Peters that Whoops offers us, I’ll take the Jones Boy every time, and it’s not often that Peter Cook loses out in a battle of the comedy wits. It’s also got Rik Mayall pitching up again. Not as Biff the Protest singer this time, but as the leader of an SAS commando raid. It’s his single most explosive bout of comedy swearing ever, and it’s almost worth the price of the film alone.
Thankfully, Network have done the decent thing and bundled both series and film together in one luxurious package, so you can compare and contrast. For my money though, it’s the series every time.
Here’s another clip, this time from the film.
As if all this wasn’t enough, Network have also provided extensive PDF material, located on disk one. I love it when companies do this. It makes the whole viewing experience so much richer if you know you’ve got scripts, promotional material and other sundries to dig into afterwards, and so it proves here.
Want to read the script that John Howard Davies rejected? It’s here. The script for the LWT pilot’s also here, which is fortunate given that nobody seems to be able to find the original episode. There’s also a shooting script for episode one, and then… well. Put it this way, if there’s anything you want to know about Whoops Apocalypse once you’ve plowed through Jonathan Sloman’s 150 page appreciation / making of that Network have provided here… actually, there won’t be anything you want to know, because it’s all here. This is the last word, and I don’t have praise enough for it. Actor biographies, reports of script changes, details of every recording day, extensive interview material and press reports… it’s all here. The last word.
What you get if you plunk your money down for this is one of the greatest comedy series ever made, a less-successful but still interesting film version, a book-length making of, scripts and a photo gallery. Oh, and Easter Egg hunters may be interested to know that 1 is not just the number of the first episode on disk one. Try pressing rewind after you’ve pressed play, and see what you find.
Really, go and buy. Please, just go and buy. The tv series is a high-water mark in the careers of everyone involved. You really should own it.
Whoops Apocalypse : The Complete Apocalypse is available now from Network, RRP £19.99