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Radio Active

Radio 4
Series One 1981 (six programmes)
Series Two 1982 (six programmes)
Series Three 1983 (six programmes)
Christmas Special 1983
Series Four 1984 (eight programmes)
Series Five 1985 (eight programmes)
Series Six 1986 (eight programmes)
Series Seven 1987 (eight programmes)

This quintessential 1980s series ran for far longer than most of its contemporaries and, though it was obviously unable to reach the kind of mass audience enjoyed by the programmes of earlier years, is remembered by its fans with very much the same kind of nostalgic affection. The show, which eventually transferred to television, supposedly consisted of half-hour samples from the output of "Britain's first national local radio station" -- a huge joke, in other words, at the expense of amateurish, cliché-driven local broadcasting.

Radio Active grew out of the late-seventies Oxford student comedy fraternity: its main spur to success was the Heebee Geebees, a parody band set up around 1980 by Philip Pope, Angus Deayton and Michael Fenton Stevens (then known simply as Michael Stevens). The trio laid mercilessly into the then hugely popular Bee Gees with a single entitled 'Meaningless Songs In Very High Voices', which enjoyed very moderate success in Britain but became a surprise runaway hit in Australia, the spiritual home of the tribute band. Out of this success came two albums, and the group began to train their fire on other artists (Phil Pope, the musician of the outfit, possessed a natural gift for pastiche on which he has since built a substantial career). 'Radio Active' was originally a touring comedy show created to broaden the approach, also appearing in Australia as well as at home; before long, a radio version was in development. 

A transmitted pilot, entitled The Oxford Revue Presents Radio Active, went out in 1980, and was followed by seven radio series (an astonishing total for a modern sketch show) running to 51 programmes.  The radio cast - all of whom shared the same comedy background - were Deayton, Pope, Fenton Stevens, Helen Atkinson Wood and Geoffrey Perkins (Morwenna Banks and Kate Robbins deputised for Atkinson Wood on a couple of occasions). Deayton and Perkins wrote most of the material, with significant additional contributions from, at various times, Jon Cantor, Richard Curtis, Jack (then John) Docherty and Moray Hunter, and the various musical elements provided by Pope.  Four producers worked on the series over the years (Jimmy Mulville, Jamie Rix, Paul Mayhew Archer and David Tyler).

The show had a very different feel from On The Hour, the later series based on a similar concept (with news presentation, rather than local radio, as its main target) with which it is often compared: Radio Active was not wholly dominated by the central concept in the same meticulous way, and was more obviously a 'spoof'. There was scant regard paid to the internal logic of any particular situation (a favourite trick was to close a sketch by destroying the premise on which it had been based). Each programme's sketches and link-pieces ran along a general theme, but really the only rule was to keep the jokes flowing at a decent rate, and the format proved adaptable enough to sustain the show over seven series.

One of the clunkier jokes was the naming of most of the presenters after items of sound equipment. In practice this meant that, apart from Atkinson Wood's Anna Daptor, they were all called Mike: Mike Flex and Mike Channel, who engaged in a good deal of not-particularly-good-natured banter; "kiddies' favourite" Uncle Mike Stand; and -- in case we hadn't got the idea -- Mike Cable, Mike Hubbard and "the oh-so-daring Mike Hunt", none of whose death-defying stunts (jumping off a brick, etc) was anywhere near as daring as his name, always pronounced with scrupulously careful aspiration.

Also present from the beginning was Nigel Pry, the incomprehensible reporter who displayed an eloquence of which Alan Partridge would have been proud, but it was not until Series Four that the station's best-loved character made his first appearance. Martin Brown, brilliantly voiced by Fenton Stevens, was a quivering, ingenuous halfwit, wildly incompetent even by Radio Active standards, and plucked from hospital radio obscurity to present his own show on account of his ignorance of broadcasting minimum wage standards. The working-through of Martin's many and varied inabilities (such as his attempt at gag-writing: "I went to a Norwegian restaurant the other day... but the problem was... I couldn't af-fjord it") punctuated many of the later shows.  On the subject of that nation, I feel that mention should also be made (though I'm not really sure why) of Oivind Vinstra, Radio Active's Norwegian correspondent, who spoke no English and very little Norwegian, and never failed to contribute less than was expected of him.

Then (because Active was not, perish the thought, a BBC station) there were the adverts. A 'Commercial Time' jingle comfortably longer than the commercials themselves heralded the arrival of Mary and June, who would advertise a different product each week in a spot-on parody of the dire '2TK' ("two-tarts-in-a-kitchen") commercials which had littered radio and television for years. There was also 'Honest Ron', a typical eighties entrepreneur whose enforcement methods usually involved out-of-work jockeys with sledgehammers.

But the music was unarguably the show's finest feature. Each show featured one or two prerecorded songs based on the work of a contemporary band or singer, usually announced with a punning name ('The Human Leek', 'Kate Bosh' etc) and coupling parodic lyrics with dazzlingly accurate representations of the relevant artists' output, made all the more impressive by the range of subjects chosen. 'Mobile Home of Love' by 'The House Marvins', for instance, managed to be genuinely poignant in spite of its zit-squeezing and incest references, whereas the England World Cup Squad song 'Next Time', aired in 1982, rendered all subsequent football songs unnecessary and hollow. Like the asinine jingles which punctuated each show, they were very nearly indistinguishable from the real thing.

The members of Radio Active planned a move to television almost from the outset, but had a long wait before a version entitled KYTV finally aired on BBC2 in 1990 - perhaps surprising given that members of their generation of Oxbridge writer-performers had by this point come to dominate British television comedy production. The target this time around was not local broadcasting but Rupert Murdoch's Sky TV satellite network, then (as now) a threadbare and soul-destroying experience; the new show drew heavily on recycled radio material. A transmitted pilot, 'Siege-Side Special', was followed by three six-part series (the last in 1993), which met with declining critical interest. This, however, was eclipsed by the coincident meteoric rise of Angus Deayton as a media star, thanks to his concurrent chairmanship of Have I Got News For You, a slow-burning adaptation of Radio 4's The News Quiz which grew to become BBC2's most popular show. He has since appeared in a multitude of television projects.

Geoffrey Perkins has received a similar degree of success in the production career he pursued throughout his involvement with Active.  Starting in radio (he produced episodes 2 to 12 of The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy) he moved on to television in the eighties, becoming one of the directors (ex-Active producer Jimmy Mulville being another) of the ominpresent Hat Trick Productions. He has since become Head of BBC Light Entertainment.  Phil Pope became involved with various music-related projects in comedy and advertising; his work on Spitting Image resulted in a No 1 hit with the 1986 'Chicken Song' single.  Occasional performer Morwenna Banks, together with early writers Jack Docherty and Moray Hunter, later found fame with Channel 4's Absolutely, while fellow writer Richard Curtis, of course, has become something of a scriptwriting legend thanks to the success of Blackadder and Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Commercial releases: a compilation album (plundered from the early episodes) was put out on BBC Records in 1983.  Ten years later, the BBC released two episodes, 'Mega Phone-In' and 'Martin Chizzlenutt' (minus signature tune for copyright reasons), on its Canned Laughter label (ZBBC 1522, ISBN 0563 402 318). In 1994, these shows were re-released on a double-cassette alongside 'The History Of Radio Active' and 'Charity Radiothon'.

External link: A complete episode guide to the series, including programme titles, at Mike Brown's mb21 media site

© JB Sumner 1998-2000.  Additional material by AR Burford and Mike Scott, with Norwegian advice from David Tyler. Last modified 12/2/00