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Dead Ringers

Radio 4
2000 (four programmes)

In theory, this show was Week Ending with a difference.  Like its illustrious predecessor, it was based on a mixture of sketches and one-liners; drew material from a multiplicity of commissioned and non-commissioned writers; was performed by a team of four actors, and was subsequently edited together by the producer (in this case, three producers: Bill Dare, Danny Wallace and Mario Stylianides collaborated on the project).  The difference (beyond the fact that Dead Ringers featured audience laughter) lay in the show's 'unifying factor'.  Whereas Week Ending had been expressly conceived as a show dealing with events in the week's news, Dead Ringers, as the name suggests, was themed around the impressionist's art: what justified a sketch's inclusion was not topical relevance but the presence of one or more impersonable personalities.  The performing team, accordingly, consisted entirely of professional impressionists: Alistair McGowan, Kate Robbins (substituted in one programme by fellow old-hand Jan Ravens), John Culshaw and Simon Lipson. 

The result could have been dreadful: although the Mike Yarwood era is some twenty years behind us, there is still a definite stigma attached to the art of 'doing impressions' without obvious satirical intent, which still tends to be associated with the 'variety' tradition in which the degree of likeness matters more than the actual humour value of the material.  That Dead Ringers managed to avoid the trap, becoming a popular hit amongst listeners, is certainly due in part to its difference from what had gone before -- but it is also due, it must be said, to the fact that the show was not that different from Week Ending after all.  A surprising proportion of the material in each show turned out to relate to events in recent news, arguably providing further confirming evidence for the existence of a "Week Ending gap" in the Radio 4 schedules.  In fact (allowing for the fact that the programme only had to sustain itself for a four-week stretch), Dead Ringers was if anything a stronger package than Week Ending had been at any time from about 1991 until its demise, even if the strictures of its format did produce some unfortunate results: the reading out of topical one-liners in a Ronnie Corbett impression was a particularly chronic throwback. 

Dead Ringers' approach did, however, allow it to make good use of writers whose strengths did not lie in a topical or satirical direction (thus avoiding a famous Week Ending flaw): the series featured numerous characterisations which took off along their own peculiar lines, most notably those of Brian Perkins, the sober-voiced newsreader, here portrayed as the blade-flashing "Daddy" of the BBC (and silencing all comers in a "Brian of Britain" competition against Messrs Sewell and Blessed), and the Tom Baker incarnation of Dr Who, for some reason chosen as the vehicle for a series of wind-up phone calls to Directory Enquiries and other hapless providers of public services. 

Unsurprisingly, the Dead Ringers credits included an absurdly long list of writers' names which, in an ironic nod to the glorious logistical problems of Week Ending's heyday, were speeded up in order to compress them to a reasonable length.  The mixture of familiar and new faces included Jon Holmes and Andy Hurst, Simon Blackwell, Nev Fountain and Tom Jamieson, Ivor Baddiel and Ashley Boroda, George Jeffrie and Bert Tyler Moore, DA Barham, Mark Haynes, Ewan Marshall and Trevor Lloyd, Richard Ayoade, Matt Holness, Laurence Howarth, Gerard Foster and Henry Naylor.  A new series is expected in June. 

© JB Sumner 2000.  Created 30/4/00