The first series of Never Mind the Buzzcocks ended with a clip show, designed, according to the specially-filmed introduction, to help viewers who had missed the earlier shows of the series to catch up. I neglected to mention it when covering them, but the first six episode of the series were shown in 1996, before the show took a month off just before Christmas, coming back with the final three episodes, and the suggestion seems to be that the second run was the more successful of the two.
I had intended from the beginning to look back on each series when I got to the end of them, and the clip show for this series seemed as good a frame for one as any, but upon watching it again that turns out to not really be true. For a start, the clips come from only four episodes – the first three, plus episode five – so there isn’t a great deal of coverage of the show as a whole, and of course I’ve covered every clip used already anyway. I suppose it’s interesting to look at the shows they picked – apart from episode three, I was fairly dismissive of the episodes chosen – but that’s about it. They use both of the clips that involve people getting up on the desk and dancing, driving home the idea that that was one of the show’s trademarks at the time, and they use Bob Mortimer’s half of the Songs In One Sentence round, probably the funniest round the show’s done yet.
But to really get an idea of the show at this point we have to look at it as a whole. I’ve griped a lot about the show being too stiff at this point, or having too much of a focus on the questions at the expense of the comedy. All of the regulars have jokes at hand, but none of them seem interested in back-and-forth or repartee. The closest they come to interacting on a regular basis is Phill Jupitus’ boisterous and uproarious laughter at many of Mark Lamarr’s scripted lines. Most of the comedic guests follow a similar pattern, and the musical guests are generally too quiet or just not funny enough to turn it around. This isn’t to say that the show is bad at this point, necessarily, although a few episodes of this series are fairly duff; it just hasn’t found its feet yet and doesn’t have many of the qualities that would become its main selling points a few series down the line, namely the chemistry between its regulars and the playfulness and irreverence it showed not just to the world of music but also to the comedy quiz format itself.
The humour itself is fairly hit and miss. For a show that often seems to be selling itself on its edginess – we have a drum ‘n’ bass theme tune! Our guests dance on the desks! – the humour can be quite tepid at times, with a few jokes that seem more suited to a cosy Radio 4 show, about how workmen overcharge and tractors are slow and other such banal, hackneyed topics, and when the show does aim for edge it usually does so by dropping in phrases like ‘boob tube’ and ‘blow job’ that might have been shocking at the time, but in the cold light of 2013, when Frankie Boyle’s Blow Job Boob Tube Kick A Tramp To Death-a-Thon is the most watched show on CBeebies, these jokes seem especially light in actual humour content. Still, there’s a lot of good in there, most often when the show is more content to just be silly – I identified an especially good Sparks/On The Buses joke in episode seven that works because it avoids the obvious jokes about Ron Mael resembling Hitler in favour of something frothier and lighter, and Bob Mortimer’s appearance is of course very funny and very silly.
None of the regulars are really themselves yet. While a lot of people remember Mark Lamarr’s over-the-top aggression and disdain, he actually brought a lot of warmth to the show, often being knowledgable, playful and, as we’ll see, very clearly having a good time. None of that’s really visible here, where he’s still stuck playing his role of the stroppy near-mute from Shooting Stars, but actually having to talk. If anything he often looks frightened and nervous, determined to keep the show moving at a breakneck pace and not allowing for any room to breathe, and while he’ll relax a little more by the time the second series starts it’s still a little bit longer before he really becomes himself. Phill Jupitus isn’t particularly great here, going back to the same well a few times on certain jokes and not really showing any great invention – he’ll improve once he develops more of a bond with Mark – and interestingly, considering he’s often seen as the weak link on these early editions, at least if YouTube comments are anything to go by (Note: YouTube comments are nothing to go by in any circumstance), Sean Hughes is probably the funniest of the three at this point; at least he seems to be putting the comedy first, and he seems more invested here than he will a little later on, which is what I personally think hurts his reputation most.
As for the guests, there’s a fairly settled policy – three musicians, generally two of them contemporary artists, one of them a slightly older star on the comeback trail or on just because, and one comedian or broadcaster – and it works well enough, with twenty-two of the thirty-six guests reappearing at some point, fourteen of them during the next two series. Both Bob Mortimer and Lauren Laverne manage to dominate their episodes in a way that points toward the future of the show, and Richard Fairbrass, Jeff Green, Jonathan Ross, Tony Wright and Neil Hannon all put in good, solid performances.
The best way to describe this series is middle-of-the-road. Scanning down a list of Never Mind the Buzzcocks episodes you’ll usually be able to find one or two memorable episodes per series, because of a guest’s performance, or a specific moment or running joke that you’ve filed away in your memory. There really isn’t any of that here. No-one throws a strop. No-one is devastatingly funny. No-one does anything, really. It’s a perfectly agreeable and inoffensive way to spend your time, but that’s about it.
If any episodes can claim to stand out in this series, it’s episodes three and nine, with a great showing from Bob Mortimer and a revelatory appearance by Lauren Laverene respectively. I’d also give a nod to episode six, which feels like a solid, enjoyable episode without necessarily hitting any great heights.
The first couple of episodes pretty much epitomise every complaint I’ve had about this series, and episodes seven and eight both suffer from a weak roster of guests.
In a Nutshell
It’s a first draft – rough around the edges and nothing special, but it’s necessary for the finished product to work.