Do you know the other day someone came up to me and they said that they thought Morris dancing was the most tiresome, tedious, weary, flat, stale, arid, unprofitable, and totally lethally irksome exercise in the whole world. I just couldn’t understand what he meant.

— Roger (Stephen Fry), Alfresco

I’m hampered at every turn by my total incompetence and lack of compassion.

— General Bollocky (Stephen Fry), Alfresco

Featuring a host of familiar faces up to their ears in silliness, this two-disc box set offers all 13 episodes of the early 1980s British comedy sketch show Alfresco, divided over two series (of seven and six episodes, respectively). Described in the accompanying notes as “comedy outside the box”, the title actually makes reference to the show’s preference for location filming. The comedy that you will find inside this box is, depending on your inclination to draw glass-half-full conclusions, either a fascinating window into the development of six highly respected performers, or a rather disappointing and dated collection of comedy skits, which too seldom provoke a chortle.

Mark Duguid, in the British Film Institute’s “screenonline” resource, charitably appraises Alfresco as “a relatively minor, but not undistinguished, piece of the alternative comedy jigsaw”. Designed as Granada’s response to the BBC’s seminal Not the Nine O’Clock News (1979-82), and written primarily by Ben Elton — with Rik Mayall originally slated to star — Alfresco‘s first incarnation was as There’s Nothing to Worry About! (1982), whose original line-up, after Mayall withdrew, comprised of Elton, the Cambridge Footlights quartet Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, and Paul Shearer, and Siobhan Redmond (whom producer Sandy Ross spotted performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival). The pilot mini-series aired only in the North West of England but its popularity led to a full-series — retitled Alfresco — with Robbie Coltrane replacing Shearer.

In the first series a drowsy saxophonist plays over animated credits which depict the dingy back alleys of a decrepit neighbourhood, setting an edgy, cynical tone. In stark contrast to the expectations that this creates, Alfresco is most successful when it affectionately satirizes British peculiarities: the unlikely traditions, reverence for the past, and linguistic eccentricities. During one of several sketches involving recurring enthusiasts Bernard and Alan (played by Fry and Laurie) Bernard announces, “Oh, by badger-ee-ding-dong Alan, animal tracks!” An enjoyable extended skit in episode six parodies the arcane tradition of Morris dancing (a kind of folk jig with sticks), with a judge describing the benign but decidedly symbolic practice as “extremely rude” and decreeing that “the innocent must be protected from Morris dances”. The episode culminates in the reinvention of the Morris dancing quartet as a more lascivious Pans People style collective.

Another inventive sketch jumps back in time, through generations of a family, at the moment when characters refer to their own childhood pastimes. It ends when a character remarks, apropos the inexplicable excitement her children derive from reading the Bible, “Of course we never had this problem in my day, because nobody could read, we’d just come home from work and sink straight into a catatonic trance.”

Some sketches feel derivative. An example — straight out of Monty Python’s Flying Circus — features Fry as a businessman who inadvertently punctures a passer-by through the chest as he arrogantly swings his brolly, before apologizing with no discernable alarm as if he had merely bumped into the unfortunate woman. Notwithstanding its obvious provenance, it’s very amusingly executed by Fry and Thompson. In addition, it’s a terrible shame that much of the humour has aged so detrimentally; poking fun at American blame culture, for instance, is now as stale as a pair of week-old socks. It could be argued that this is a curse of influential comedy but whether the Alfresco team did material like this first or best is up for debate. There are however specific, less contentious examples of its influence: a skit set at a men’s tailor with lines like, “what side does your plonker hang?” could well have provided inspiration for the “Suits you” salesmen of The Fast Show. When an assistant is revealed to possess the unfortunate surname “Spanking”, the ensuing comedic misunderstandings anticipate a more famous running gag from another Fry, Elton, and Laurie collaboration: In Blackadder Goes Forth (1989), Fry’s General Melchett is perpetually accompanied by a weaselly subordinate Captain Darling.

After the variable quality of the first series, the second proves a further disappointment. Whilst the gang recognize that trimming the length of sketches gives the show a snappier, more youthful feel, the jokes on the whole seem weaker and series two is fatally hampered by the misguided decision to bookend and punctuate each show with sketches set in the “Pretend Pub”. The Pretend Pub is a tiresomely self-referential, laugh-free zone where characters with names like Bobzza and Shizza constantly make reference to themselves as actors. The new comic book opening sequence which features the characters from the baffling boozer just appears crass, rather than emphasizing the collective’s ironic, anarchic approach to broad humour (presumably the intention).

Regarding the participants, several already appear proficient in their craft during this early venture, rising above the frequently weak material, with others yet to mature as comic performers. In the latter group’s defense, it must be taken into account that these were fledgling comic actors, yet to hit their stride. Those who enjoyed Coltrane’s superlative, triple BAFTA-winning performance as Eddie “Fitz” Fitzgerald in the TV drama Cracker should approach Alfresco at their peril. Although, as Fitz, Coltrane’s authoritative role was laced with superbly delivered dark wit, there is a surprising lack of confidence to much of his delivery in this early outing; he seems to be a man clearly enjoying the high jinks but is still to uncover his own genius for grouchy charm. Similarly, as a performer, Elton (who was to excel as an aggressive, acerbic, and highly politicized stand-up) doesn’t quite cut the proverbial mustard.

Redmond, here an uncharacteristically slight presence — as with Elton and Coltrane — would find greater success in commanding and blackly comic guises. On television, amongst her notable achievements have been Between the Lines and The Smoking Room, though she is also an acclaimed stage actress. However, the marvellous Thompson displays a jolly-hockey-sticks energy, which might raise a titter. And, in addition, Fry and Laurie seem to have come to the project having each found their niche (as characters which fit the pompous superior and posh twit bracket, respectively). Tellingly, these three had worked together previously as part of the Cambridge Footlights Revue and, as friends and previous collaborators, were perhaps more at ease working alongside each other.

Not quite an embarrassment to all concerned but rather frayed around the edges and of inconsistent quality, only fans of the individuals concerned or ’80s comedy completists need let their curiosity get the better of them.

Extras consist of a four-page booklet which contextualizes the troupe’s endeavours, briefly describing the fraught political climate of early 1980s Britain, and the impact this had on the alternative comedy of the time. Biographies of each of the now phenomenally successful performers and, most significantly, all three episodes of Alfresco‘s pilot mini-series — the aforementioned There’s Nothing to Worry About! — complete the set. These pilot episodes demonstrate an early preference for the surreal (the strain of comedy to which time is kindest) and, despite its discernibly poorer production values, its episodes display greater comedic consistency than the subsequent series’ could manage, with some of its stronger gags repeated in Alfresco the following year.

RATING 5 / 10