Harry & Paul - Where Did It Go Wrong?

Last Sunday saw the broadcast of the sixth episode of Series Three of BBC2 sketch show Harry & Paul. Or the fourth if you count Ruddy Hell It€™s Harry & Paul as its first series. And to be honest, I wouldn€™t be surprised if the next episode - the final in the series - turns out to be the last overall. Created by sketch show virtuosos Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse, Harry & Paul saw their return to sketch comedy with them mixing their intrinsic talent for class and character-based comedy with the absurdity of the modern world. The initial few series were never going to reach the level of their previous hit Harry Enfield€™s Television Programme but it was still entertaining enough with reliably funny sketches such as a middle class family with a pet Geordie, and the Benefits, an aggressive antisocial family living on state handouts. It wasn€™t astounding, but it was funny enough for Ruddy Hell and the first two series of Harry & Paul. So what the hell happened to this series? One of the problems is that there are too many parody sketches. That€™s something that could be overlooked if it wasn€™t for the fact their parodies are simply not broad enough. The latest series featured a sketch in which the Alec Guiness and Gary Oldman versions of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy character George Smiley argue between themselves about which one of them should remain at MI6. It seems like a solid enough idea for a sketch but the problem is that if you haven€™t seen the films featuring Guinness and Oldman, you want be able to appreciate it. Personally, I€™ve seen neither of them and didn€™t have a clue what was going on. The same goes for their parodies of Curb Your Enthusiasm and Mike Leigh€™s filmmaking style. If you€™ve not seen them, then the sketch will completely fall flat for you and you won€™t be able to understand and appreciate the humour. Their sketch of Sherlock mixed with 1970s sitcom On The Buses falls into this one as well. I understood it because I€™ve watched both Sherlock and On The Buses but if somebody hasn€™t seen one or both of them, then the whole thing falls down. In short: the parodies fail because they€™re based on assumed audience knowledge of things they may not know anything about. Additionally, quite a few of the new non-parody sketches are just dire. Take the gossipy 1950s typists for example: it€™s pretty much just Kevin Eldon and Paul Whitehouse in drag, talking the way you€™d expect middle aged women in the 1950s to. And that€™s the entire sketch. There are no clearly defined characters, set-ups or payoffs, and there€™s no real wit to the dialogue, and it just doesn€™t work on any sort of level. Another new sketch that fails in my opinion is the sketch of an upper class man (Enfield) and an unintelligible horse owner (Whitehouse). I€™ve watched all the sketches featuring them and the best I can glean from them is that Whitehouse€™s character uses the fact that Enfield€™s character can€™t understand him to subtly insult him, which Enfield is completely oblivious to. It€™s long, tedious, and simply not funny. They also drift into what some might term €œLittle Britain territory€ with a sketch set in a pub in which a Scotsman named Dougal constantly asserts how much better Scotland is than England. The problem with that sketch and why it might be compared to Little Britain is that it€™s exactly the same every single time. Dougal(played by Enfield) eulogises Scotland which irritates the barman and then leaves, revealing a another Scotsman (played by Whitehouse) sitting behind him who says €œDon€™t worry about him, pal. We€™re not all like that. I take a sideways look at life.€ Every. Single. Time. You could take the first of those sketches and make up four of five new ones within ten minutes just by changing about 30% of the dialogue. Which is more or less exactly what they did. As always with a new series of a sketch show, we see some old characters return including Parking Patweyo (a Postman Pat parody about an officious immigrant traffic warden), the Old Tories who speculate on whether public figures are gay, and the Dragons€™ Den sketches. And they all feel that they€™ve been stretched a bit too far. There€™s very little variety in the Old Tories sketches, the parody of new Dragon Hilary Devey seems too divorced from the actual person and feels like too much of caricature. The characters of the other Dragons are well observed and feel quite close to the real people, but Hilary Devey is portrayed as a zombie with a retractable tongue, and it doesn€™t really fit in with the rest of the sketch. As for Parking Pataweyo, in the final sketch featuring him he suddenly has the ability to tunnel through the ground while spinning like Crash Bandicoot. It was a limited joke to start with but now it just feels like they€™re clutching at straws. Having said that, there are a few good sketches here and there including an excellent reimagining of The Hangover as a 1930s British comedy (which works because it€™s more of a satire on changing social mores than of the film itself) and a series of sketches called €œWhen Life Was Simpler€ that poke fun at the class system of the early 20th century. So where did it all go wrong? For start, Enfield and Whitehouse seem to be writing sketches based on what they find funny rather than what will score big laughs from different types of viewers. Also, the use of so many sketches that are pretty much exactly the same each time we see them (The 1950s typists and Dougal the Scotsman) just feels like filler and a lack of effort. A lot of other sketch shows do this to save on time and money but at least they make each sketch marginally more different whether it€™s through the setup or payoff. Take the street-talking RAF pilots in The Armstrong And Miller Show for example. It was the same overall joke each time but the dialogue and situations were what made it so different each time. This is something that Enfield and Whitehouse have clearly failed to grasp. Furthermore, each episode lists over half a dozen people providing additional material. Too many cooks spoil the broth. Although sketch shows generally tend to have large teams of writers, Harry & Paul€™s number of contributors was always very low, which helped to establish a more consistent tone and style of writing. Finally, they€™ve just gone on too long which means that they€™re running out of fresh ideas and milking the old ones too much. But that€™s what happens when any sketch show runs for so long to be honest. What€™s the future for Harry & Paul? With any luck, the seventh episode which airs tomorrow night will either be the last we see of it, or they€™ll come back with renewed vigour and a new roster of sketches and characters that are both clever and witty, and have wide appeal. Unfortunately, personally I think the latter€™s about as likely as Geordie Shore winning a Bafta.
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JG Moore is a writer and filmmaker from the south of England. He also works as an editor and VFX artist, and has a BA in Media Production from the University Of Winchester.