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Old Harry’s Game
Radio 4
Series One 1995 (six episodes)
Series Two 1998 (six episodes)
Series Three 1999 (six episodes)

Andy Hamilton’s excellent knockabout sitcom set in Hell.  Satan, as played by Hamilton himself, was a relatively affable figure, a benign grumbler tired of the business of soul-processing, whose cloven hooves were beginning to give him gyp.  Much of the humour came from references to the situation (and to various well-known individuals to be found among the damned), but there was also a plot of sorts, and even a touch of character development.  James Grout played Professor Richard Whittingham, a virtuous physicist (condemned to eternal torment on account of his unbelief) who steadfastly refused to accept the existence of the afterlife he had entered, and with whom the Devil struck up an unlikely friendship.  Jimmy Mulville played the despicable Thomas, a moral bankrupt who had caused the accident which killed both him and the Professor.  One theme running throughout the series was the Professor’s insistence on trying to find a good side to Thomas’s nature, contrasted with Satan’s firmly avowed belief that all humanity is basically worthless.

Satan’s chief assistant in Series One was a demon named Gary (Steve Hodson), who was ultimately tricked by Thomas into leading a rebellion against his master, with predictable consequences.  The conclusion of the series actually saw Satan pleading with God for the Professor to be allowed into Heaven — if only to get away from his infuriating cheeriness in the face of damnation.  In the second series, Gary had been replaced by the slightly more demonically-named Scumspawn, a fawning and rather pathetic creature voiced by Robert Duncan, who also appeared in Hamilton’s Channel 4 sitcom Drop the Dead Donkey.  Most of the supporting cast, in fact, was composed of familiar faces from with the writer’s previous work: Felicity Montagu (of The Million Pound Radio Show) played all the female roles, while the other incidental parts in the later series were taken by Philip Pope, Nick Revell and Michael Fenton Stevens.  Series Two featured some interesting concepts, including the arrival (based on the idea that any creature which develops sufficient intelligence, can develop a conscience and can therefore be judged) of both a computer and a dolphin in the underworld.

For Series Three, Hamilton wisely reined back the disturbing signs of niceness which had been creeping into Satan’s character, concentrating mainly on his battles with the Professor over the intrinsic worth of humanity in general and Thomas in particular.  In fact, for an allegorical analysis of the human condition and the nature of being, Old Harry’s Game made an unusually strong Light Ent sitcom.  Listeners certainly thought so: the series had by now picked up a bit of a following, in spite of the illogical scheduling of Series Three in the ‘graveyard’ 11pm slot.  Perhaps because of this, the schedulers took the unprecedented step of slotting in a repeat run of this series in an early evening slot, arranged to begin the week after the original late-night broadcasts ended (standard practice is either to repeat each show in the week of original broadcast, or else to wait a few months before repeating).  This kind of approach seems to typify the rather loose approach to programme scheduling since the 1998 Changes, and is, depending on your point of view, either commendably sensitive to audience demand or infuriatingly arbitrary and improvisational.

In the last week of the original run of Series Three, two things happened: the show received the Gold Award for comedy at the Sony Radio Awards, and the BBC presenter Jill Dando, who had been referred to at several points in the storyline (with Satan taking on her form in order to get mortals to take him seriously) was shockingly and bewilderingly murdered at her home.  Given the already unusual circumstances of the approaching repeat, this could have represented a phenomenally unlikely piece of bad luck for the show and its followers.  Standard practice, in such instances, is simply to drop the broadcast concerned in favour of safer, usually unconnected, programming.  On this occasion, however, the relevant sections were re-recorded or overdubbed (presumably at considerable inconvenience) so as not to give offence, and the repeat run proceeded as normal; hence, two versions of certain shows now exist.  Whilst it is always dangerous to guess at motivations within the infernal workings of the BBC, this unexpected measure might well be taken as indicating in some way the esteem in which the programme is now held.

© JB Sumner 1998, 1999.  Updated 15/5/99