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The Mary Whitehouse Experience

Radio 1
Series One 1989 (twelve programmes)
Series Two ('Summer season') 1989 (nine programmes)
Series Three 1990 (twelve programmes)
Special: 5 July 1990
Series Four 1990 (nine programmes)
[Selected Series One episodes repeated, July/August 1989; third and fourth series given same-week repeats; compilation broadcast on Radio 4 (1991?) under the title Mary Whitehouse's Best Experiences So Far]

The show which put Radio 1 firmly on the comedy map grew out of Hey Rrradio!!!, the station's first official comedy series, which had appeared a couple of years earlier.  The series was devised by Bill Dare, who had also produced its predecessor.  The constant personnel in a changing line-up were a pair of double-acts: ex-Rrradio!!! writers Rob Newman and David Baddiel, and Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis, who were also breaking into television around this time via their appearances in Jasper Carrott's BBC1 show Carrott Confidential.  All four were in fact graduates of Cambridge University, but were part of a distinct generation of comedians who were, at the time, in strong reaction against the revue tradition: their comedy was direct, sometimes polemical and largely based on the conventions of stand-up.  The title caused immediate problems: Mrs Whitehouse herself threatened legal action, and Dare made preparations to change the title to 'The William Rees Mogg Experience' (Baddiel even recorded an alternative end-credits sequence, but in the end, the original title remained). 

The line-up for the first series also included the young Mark Thomas and Jo Brand as regulars, with music from the duo Skint Video.  The show, which was originally transmitted at midnight and received very little publicity, rapidly picked up listeners as its reputation spread.  It had a winning formula -- observational comedy with a topical slant, plus the occasional song, caption competition or guest stand-up slot -- and a strong club atmosphere with enthusiastic audiences.  Each section ('Experience') was a whimsical montage of sketch and stand-up ideas, often performed in a deliberately crude, rough-and-ready style. The in-joke for the audience seemed be the realisation that the team clearly didn't give a toss about the week's news: thus, the shouty, over-stressed punchlines, delivered with sneering contempt, were a joy to behold.  The show's production was also interesting: the different segments were separated by post-production 'stings' (all, incidentally, taken from Hithouse's seminal acid house classic 'Jack To The Sound Of The Underground'), which gave the impression of a stylus randomly landing at various points on an LP.  This presentational style, as much as anything, came to be a major influence on other shows. 

This first series followed a very strict format.  Baddiel would start with an opening gag, before introducing a topical round-up from Punt and Dennis; Mark Thomas would always discuss a 'topic of the week' with the audience (usually introduced by Newman in the guise of some impression); Jo Brand would take problem page letters from real magazines and present her own waspish replies; Skint Video would take a well-known rock song and sing alternate lyrics pertaining to topical events; there would be 'The Punchline Experience' (where the audience would supply witty answers to a joke put to them before the recording), and the show would conclude with a fantastic sitcom parody entitled 'All Cosy At Home In The Family House'.  In Series Two, the structure became more variable, as did the personnel: Nick Hancock and Donna MacPhail took over from Thomas and Brand, with music from either Tim Firth or The Tracy Brothers, and by Series Three the cast seemed to be made up of whoever was available that week (Rebecca Front, Doon MacKichan and Jack Dee were among those appearing). In the final series, the cast was whittled down to the main four, with Mark Hurst providing the stand-up 'filler'. 

Throughout, the final item in each show was generally an ensemble piece with a distinct 'end of term' atmosphere (showing the influence of I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again, and providing an excuse for the team to launch into impersonations, sledgehammer-satire and extraordinary silliness), which made great use of audience participation and improvisation: after 'All Cosy At Home...', the team spoofed blockbuster mini-serials, murder weekends, Dungeons and Dragons games and Christmas pantomimes, and even arranged a trip to the Gulf to entertain the troops.  Bill Dare produced the first two series (with the exception of the first four shows in Series Two, which were the work of Harry Thompson), and the first two programmes of Series Three.  Production duties then passed to the then-unknown Armando Iannucci for the remaining twenty shows. 

Unsurprisingly, the show was swiftly pulled forward out of its graveyard slot (to 10.30pm for Series Three, and then to 7pm for its final run), and the inevitable preparations for a transfer to television began.  A transmitted pilot appeared on BBC2 in 1990, and the first of two TV series, also called The Mary Whitehouse Experience and billed as "a Not the Nine O'Clock News for the nineties" (presumably by people who had seen neither show), went out the following year, winning its stars a large cult following among the youth of Britain. The TV series was a comparative disappointment, the sketches looking stilted and over-rehearsed (too much attention seemed to be paid to the jokes themselves rather than the ensemble simplicity of 'doing a comedy show'); sadly, it is the television incarnation upon which most people base their eulogy or condemnation of the programme. 

It was probably the reaction to the television Experience which caused one writer to pen the immortal line "Comedy is the new rock 'n' roll" -- which the quartet promptly put into practice by splitting, friction between the Baddiel/Newman and Punt/Dennis axes having built up to an intolerable degree.  This had serious results for all their subsequent comic efforts, since their contrasting styles (Baddiel and Newman the dark, angst-ridden miserabilists, Punt and Dennis the chirpy, trivia-loving songsters) had complemented and reinforced each other.  Both pairs' subsequent television projects (Newman and Baddiel in Pieces and The Imaginatively Titled Punt and Dennis Show) were met with lukewarm critical attention.  Newman and Baddiel responded by organising a live tour, in which they sold out at venues across the country, climaxing with a huge gig at Wembley Stadium -- shortly after which it was announced that their relationship, too, had broken up, and they would no longer be working together. 

The rest is well-known: David Baddiel teamed up with Frank Skinner to create Fantasy Football League, and was (perhaps unfairly) credited with the invention of 'lad culture' (a trait notably absent in his early material: "I hate beer -- that's because it tastes of sick"); Punt and Dennis, still together, pursued a various projects demonstrating a clear preference for more traditional styles than the one that made them famous, and are nowadays to be found on Radios 2 and 4; and Rob Newman, after publishing a novel, disappeared from view for a few years, although he has in recent years made a return to the stand-up circuit, to favourable reviews.

While all this was going on, second-generation Whitehouse producer Armando Iannucci was quietly spearheading a new comedy generation via On The Hour and its various satellite projects.  Incidentally, two occasional Whitehouse performers, Doon Mackichan (who also appeared in the 1990 television pilot) and Rebecca Front, were also key members of this next generation.

Commercial releases: none.  Baddiel and Newman's agents, Avalon, refused to allow any of the Mary Whitehouse Experience radio shows to be released on the BBC Radio Collection (lest this jeopardised sales of their own videos); the block is still in force today

External links: This Mary Whitehouse Experience fan page has various bits from the radio series.

© JB Sumner/Mike Scott 1998-2000, with thanks to Bill Dare.  Last modified 11/3/00