Angus Deayton on radio nostalgia and old friends

ANGUS Deayton has lost his voice when we all meet for lunch. To be more specific, he has left it at Glastonbury, where he has just spent the weekend being Harry Enfield's 'festival bitch', as he has for the last five years. He loves the festival, especially this year's Barry Gibb appearance with Coldplay.

Angus Deayton will perform this year at the Edinburgh Festival

“It was perfectly timed for marketing purposes,” he murmurs huskily, referring to the 1980 Big Chart Success that three-fifths of the Radio Active crew had with Meaningless Songs in Very High Voices. I ask if Gibb was a fan of their … homage. “Apparently he used to slam the phone down on music journalists if they attempted to interview him about it,” says Deayton. “And they set their musicologists on it to see if they could sue us.” They couldn’t.

We are missing two members of the original crew: Michael Fenton Stevens, who is engaged elsewhere, and the late Geoffrey

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Perkins, co-creator and co-writer of the original scripts with Deayton.

Radio Active was a radio comedy programme, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 during the 1980s.

Perkins, who tragically died in 2008, aged 55, was Mike Flex to Deayton’s Mike Channel, and a much-loved beacon of comedy light through some dark days in TV.

It is weird doing the show without him, they agree. “Weird is the word,” says Helen Atkinson Wood. “Definitely weird for me because I have been listening through so many recordings,” says Deayton, who is the one putting the scripts together for the revival.

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“It is like listening to some of it for the first time,” he whispers. “And just listening to hours of Geoffrey… it feels like he is still there.” There is a small, soft pause. Deayton clears what is left of his throat. “Geoff is irreplaceable,” he says. But, I hesitate to point out… they are doing the show so...

( L-R) Angus Deayton, Philip Pope, Helen Atkinson Wood, Michael Fenton Stevens

“Luckily his character and my character are virtually interchangeable … so finely honed were they… so the presenter parts we can manage and we just can’t use use Geoffrey’s specific characters.” Thus Oivind Vinstra, the show’s Norwegian correspondent, will not be joining the group in Edinburgh.

“We are dedicating the show to Geoffrey,” says Atkinson Wood. “But not the fee,” says Philip Pope, quickly.

Deayton nods. “We will be dedicating the fee to our landlord.” he says. “If we break even we’ll be lucky.”

But it is not about the money. “The main reason for doing anything at this stage in our lives is because we fancy doing it,” says Atkinson Wood. “We are doing it for the fun of it.”

The series grew out of a 1979 Edinburgh Festival Fringe show presented by The Oxford Revue

“My first question,” says Pope, “was is there comfortable accommodation? I don’t want to be sleeping on someone’s floor.”

“The first year I went up I was doing a review with Rowan Atkinson and Richard Curtis and the accommodation was camp beds in a masonic lodge,” says Atkinson Wood. “You had to go to the Edinburgh Public Baths to have a bath.”

Have they kept in touch since their 1979 Fringe success and ensuing radio and TV series? It transpires that Atkinson Wood lives next door to Deayton who is godfather to Philip Pope’s son and they all holiday and spend Christmas together each year.

“Our lives are inextricably linked,” says Atkinson Wood.

Radio Active was a radio comedy programme, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 during the 1980s.

So when Deayton saw one of last year’s big Edinburgh Fringe hits, The Lost Hancocks, produced by his friend Neil Pearson, it did not take much persuading to get the show back on the road.

“It was packed out,” he says of the Hancock show. “They hadn’t changed the script at all – it was still a 1960s Hancock script – and I thought .‘There’s a format there’. You simply stage radio shows – in this case Radio Active – and people enjoy them as if they were at a recording in the BBC Studios in 1984. I just took a leaf out of Neil’s book.”

Coincidentally, The Lost Hancocks was playing in the Assembly Rooms Music Hall, where they did Radio Active. “We were the biggest-selling show on the Fringe,” says Deayton. “We were up for the Perrier Award.” I am impressed. But how could they have failed to win ? “Well,” says Deayton, “one of the judges was the mother of my child with whom I was together for 19 years and she voted against us. I think she voted for Los Trios Rimbarkas.”

It seems that the Fringe – indeed the comedy world in general – is looking backwards to its future, nowadays. Birds of A Feather has returned even thought it might have been kinder to let it fall off the perch, Reggie Perrin is being mis… sorry, recast, Are You Being Served? is returning with a “street” Mr Lucas and a young Young Mr Grace while on stage – and especially on Edinburgh stages – revivals are as regular as rain at the Tattoo. Richard Wilson is bringing Victor Meldrew back, live and grumpy, to this year’s Fringe. A stage version of Whose Line Is It Anyway? packed ’em in last year. Philip Pope was part of that cast too. “I’m thinking of making a career in revivals,” he nods “We could do Hitchhiker’s... Spitting Image… we could do ’em all.”

“Revivals are very popular,” says Atkinson Wood. “Retro is popular… vintage is popular.”

( L-R) Angus Deayton, Philip Pope, Helen Atkinson Wood, Michael Fenton Stevens

I ask if they think that it might be because there is a dearth of quality funny… because so much of what we get these days is disposable, forgettable flailing around in a comedy universe laid waste by focus groups, executive interference, and political correctness. Or repeats. There is a silence. Deayton re-clears his throat. “We couldn’t possibly comment,” he mutters. Atkinson Wood leans across the table. “Are you going to write that in the piece?” she asks “I mean, write all of what you just said? I think you should.”

“I think,” says Pope, “as far as stand- up is concerned, with the arrival of PC, suddenly comics couldn’t say anything about anyone else, and they had to start talking about themselves.” There is a short pause while we all pause to consider quite how insightful a thought this is. “ And after a while,” he continues ,“ I personally start to find it rather dull.”

“It is a mixture of thinking, ‘That’s not bad, you know’ and ‘Why did we think that that was in any way amusing?’ Very educational.”

The original show predated a lot of the spoof radio shows and characters that had greater success later on – Smashy and Nicey, for example. Does Harry Enfield ever take time out of his busy schedule to thank Deayton? “Strangely, every time I try to mention it he changes the subject. I used to do a character on Capitol Radio called Jim Nike… a terrible sports presenter. I was off one week and a young com-

edian called Steve Coogan came and took over...”

The upside is that they are all here together again for the Fringe, performing in Pleasance One. “We have a great allegiance to (Pleasance founder) Christopher Richardson because when we were first starting out as Radio Active and we were trying it out we used to go to Uppingham and he used to build our sets and we would try it out there and then go off round the country in an old Volkswagen van,” says Atkinson Wood. “He is really the godfather of Fringe theatre.”

They are all looking forward to their three weeks in Edinburgh. Atkinson Wood is planning walks up Arthur’s Seat, Deayton is looking to catch up on all the new comedy he has missed. “I haven’t even seen Bridget Christie yet,” he says. And Pope is hanging fire on choosing from the over 3,000 shows on this year’s Fringe. “Apparently there’s a main Festival on as well ...”

Radio Active is at the Pleasance Courtyard, until 28 August. Today, 4:20pm

The series grew out of a 1979 Edinburgh Festival Fringe show presented by The Oxford Revue