23 SEPTEMBER 1995, Page 53


Too many aliens

Ian Hislop

Sunday evening is already compulsory viewing because of the consistently excel- lent The Death of Yugoslavia (BBC2, 9.10 p.m.). But for those who want to follow their tragedy with a bit of comedy there is the option of turning over afterwards for The Frank Skinner Show (BBC1, 10.10 p.m.). It may just be the contrast but after the superbly serious news analysis of the former, it is quite heartening to end the week with the superbly silly news analysis of the latter.

It is not often that one actually laughs out loud when watching television but Frank Skinner keeps having this effect on me. In the first programme of the series he was talking about the supposed discovery of film showing an alien life form. Skinner decided not to join in the debate about the film's authenticity but to imagine instead what would have happened if the alien had gone into showbusiness. The programme then cut to black and white footage of a music hall act called `Flannagan and Alien'. On came a small round man looking like Bud Flannagan followed by the alien. He wore a hat, rested his arm on Flannagan's shoulder and swayed gently with him as they sang 'Underneath the Arches'.

I've no idea quite why this was so funny but I still laugh thinking about it. Skinner must have liked the joke a lot, too, because he spent the rest of the programme doing variations of it. He kept asking 'what would have happened if the alien had gone into showbusiness?' and following up the ques- tion with another pun. By the time we got to 'Woody Alien' I thought he might drop it but instead he turned to his guest Buzz Aldrin (yes, the Buzz Aldrin) and asked him whether he thought they had overdone the alien gag. Aldrin had coped pretty well with questions about being only the second man on the moon but this one threw him completely. The answer was, of course that Skinner had overdone it and that is exactly why it was so funny.

It does help that he is naturally charming and even when the show is patchy he gets away with it. The format of monologue, sketches and brief interviews is an odd one but Skinner's engaging mateyness somehow makes it work. As with Clive Anderson or Jonathan Ross the point of the guests is to come on and allow the host to make jokes at their expense. Skinner is less abrasive as an interviewer but still, if the guests display any signs of being boring then they are ruthlessly edited out. The Sheriff of Not- tingham was brought on only to allow Skin- ner to talk about the theme tune to the old television series, then he disappeared. Elvis Costello's father, the star of an early lemonade commercial, barely managed a couple of sentences before he was cut and Skinner went into an Elvis Costello parody. Bonnie Langford did slightly better but served largely to give Skinner the chance to compare notes about doing the Royal Vari- ety Performance. He reckoned that she had `gone down a storm' whereas he had 'died on his arse'. Again the modesty was appeal- ing but the point of the story was to describe his meeting with Prince Charles in the line-up after the show. Charles had apparently asked him where he normally played. 'The North?'.

Skinner may be a bit perfunctory with most of his guests but he is good at inter- viewing ghastly American women. Ivana Trump last week and Jay Barrymore this week both got the same treatment, which consisted of a very friendly, flirty conversa- tion which somehow managed to make them look like complete idiots. I had never heard of Jay Barrymore but it did not mat- ter at all. She is the mother of a film star called Drew Barrymore, has written a book about 'lovemaking' and at 47 has just taken her clothes off for Playboy. She clearly takes herself pretty seriously so Skinner got out a copy of the Playboy in question and made a joke about the pages sticking together. It should have been merely tasteless but the contrast between the nerdish English comic and the ageing American vamp was so strong that it just became funny. She was wearing ankle bracelets as a sign of her sexual sophistica- tion. Skinner said that they were great because they would 'save on string when we got home'. The audience laughed immedi- ately and then Barrymore exclaimed, 'Hey, this guy wants to tie me up!' There was an embarrassed pause and then Skinner told her that you don't have to explain jokes to an English audience. Later she said that humour was very important in sex, though obviously she did not mean that 'you do ten minutes stand up in the middle'. Skinner waited a beat, looked gloomy and replied that he would love to do ten minutes stand up but he could not manage it these days. It may not be the height of wit but self-dep- recating English smut is a wonderful weapon sometimes in the face of American sexual earnestness.