TWO great comedians, two tragic lives. Tony Hancock and Richard Pryor would seem to have had some things in common, although after watching their documentaries you’ll never mix them up.
Storyville: Richard Pryor – Omit The Logic BBC4, Sunday, 10pm
My Hero: Ben Miller On Tony Hancock BBC1, Tuesday, 11.35pm
A Touch Of Cloth II Sky1, Sunday, 9pm
Yes, you could imagine Pryor, like Hancock, disappearing off to the country to create his masterpiece only to spend the days crawling back from the village pub on his hands and knees, sometimes being helped to his feet by little old ladies. Yes, there were comebacks for both when the audiences held their breath for fear of the shows going horribly wrong, and Pryor did perform his act backwards. But Hancock shooting his car, freebasing cocaine and setting himself on fire after watching anti-Vietnam protestors combusting on TV? Couldn’t see that myself.
Storyville: Richard Pryor – Omit The Logic was the work of Marina Zenovich who won an Emmy for her portrait of Roman Polanski and seems to specialise in men who live in a blaze of controversy, sometimes literally. The title came from a remark from David Banks, billed as a collaborator, who was great value throughout. To understand Pryor, Banks said, you had first to omit the logic. He had “15 different personalities – nine you could deal with but the other four could be real motherflippers”. (That’s only 13 but who’s counting?)
Pryor was always out there, battling censorship, racial stereotyping, the absence of black people in films like Logan’s Run (“White folks ain’t planning on there being any niggers in the future”), the absence of his name from star billing – and when this happened on Blazing Saddles he shot his house and the 150-gallon fishtank. Once, Gay Pride thought he’d be a good man to have speak at a rally. But he struck completely the wrong tone and Paul Mooney, another Pryor collaborator who gave good quote, said: “You could hear a rat pissin’ on cotton in Georgia.”
Pryor was out there because he’d never been in. Photos of his grandmother flashed up. A nice old lady, you thought. It transpired she was a brothel madame whose pimps were Pryor’s father and uncle while his mother and aunt were hookers. Pryor became a dad at 15 and went on to have seven wives, or five given that he married two of them twice, although I don’t think he was counting. My Hero: Ben Miller On Tony Hancock was a gentler affair: a sweet tribute to a comedian more dependent on his writers. When he died in 1968, I didn’t appreciate this. My school playground reckoned he was the funniest man who ever lived and used to chant his name, pointing to the relevant body parts: “Toe Knee ...” (You can guess the rest.)
After these stories, however sad, I wanted to stick to comedy. I know it’s a requirement of every viewer of the idiot-lantern, therefore every critic, to watch at least two new crime dramas every week, but I couldn’t face Vera and What Remains. The spoof policer A Touch of Cloth, though, is still finding send-up potential in the flickering grisly grey wallpaper of our lives. (And what would the wallpaper be called on a poncey shadecard? “Maverick”).
John Hannah is still maverick, still brilliant, still boozed-up. In the opening scene he was pouring himself a double from the optic on his car dashboard. The camera pulled back to reveal the car was a taxi. Aha, maybe he’s now an ex-maverick! And maybe the force wants him back in spite of all his maverickness because only he can crack the case! How well we know this genre, how dreary our existences.
Back in the incident-room, back in the old routine, DI Cloth (Hannah) demanded of his team they left no turn unstoned in the hunt for the suspect, and he did this in rhyme: “Who’s his mother, who’s his dad?/Has he read Beevor’s Stalingrad? What’s his height, what’s his weight?/How often does he masturbate?” The team includes Suranne Jones, one of my favourite actresses and, I’m sure, one of Cloth creator Charlie Brooker’s, too. Enduring so much bad telly for a living, as Brooker used to do, he must have fantasised about getting hard-worked actresses to say ridiculous, and rude, things.
Her character Anne Oldman and Cloth have a history, or a History. It’s a big, deep, throbbing history like Beevor’s Stalingrad. For back-up there’s Adrian Bower and Navin Chowdhry who must come as a double-act because they were in Teachers together. Great show, Teachers, and remarkably it wasn’t a crime drama. Chowdhry’s copper seems to know everything about everyone, eg: “Likes: Homes Under The Hammer and Steely Dan.” Don’t we all (the Dan I mean)? Maybe not every gag is a zinger but similar to buses and girls though sadly not Steely Dan albums there’s always another one coming round the corner.
What to watch
Jamie’s Money Making Meals C4, Monday, 8pm
To paraphrase comedienne Jenny Eclair: “Jamie Oliver – can’t live with him, can’t chop him into little pieces and make soup.” But even if you find the motormouth chef’s style irritating you can’t deny the message. Tasty meals from less than £1.80 a portion? Watch and learn.
Bad Education BBC3, Tuesday, 10pm
New series, new academic year. There are more good gags in the opening minutes of Jack Whitehall’s returning comedy than in a whole episode of David Walliams’s Big School. Anything which makes fun of Mumford & Sons is fine by me.
The Newsroom Sky Atlantic, Monday, 9pm
If like me you reckon the BBC newsroom, the way we look down on it during bulletins, is ripped off from this drama, you’ll also think Aaron Sorkin is a genius and will be welcoming back Jeff Daniels and Emily Mortimer.