Friday, 18 October 2013
Astronauts, reviewed by Jacob Edwards
Britain’s first ever manned space mission sees an unlikely crew – two men, one woman, one dog – cooped up together for six months trying to break the world endurance record. Cut off from Planet Earth, guided only by an American mission controller (who has to be taught the correct way to read them the football scores), the astronauts must face up to both excruciating boredom and the extreme perils of isolation.
Although the “sit” in “sitcom” need not encompass more than a few rooms – in this case four sections of a space capsule; more than any of the Blackadders – it does at first seem unlikely that Astronauts could successfully derive its “com” element primarily from actual problems documented by the astronauts of NASA’s Skylab programme. Granted, writers Graeme Garden and Bill Oddie had collaborated on The Goodies throughout the seventies, and some of their finest Goodies scripts (“The End”; “Earthanasia”) had come about when late-in-the-season budgets necessitated limiting an episode to the confinement of a single set; but even when tied down The Goodies remained fanciful at heart. Astronauts, on the other hand, was trying to find the funny side of a rather cramped and gritty reality; and not even in a dark, Dr Strangelove kind of way, but rather as a Monday or Tuesday night sitcom. Was that ever going to work?
The answer when Red Dwarf hit our screens on 15 February 1988 was a resounding “yes”. But as for Astronauts, the honest answer is “no”.
Astronauts suffers from an absence of incidental music (a crushing blow for Bill Oddie fans), and a lacklustre studio audience, which laughs only sporadically at fairly slow-moving scripts. Its most obvious shortcoming, however, is that Garden and Oddie, despite writing, did not star in the show. After eight highly successful series for the BBC, The Goodies had just been cut (to free up money for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), and had gone over to ITV. Indeed, its one and only ITV series went out from 27 December 1981 to 13 February 1982, just after series one of Astronauts wrapped up. There was no chance that Garden, Oddie or fellow Goodie Tim Brooke-Taylor could appear (Bimbo the dog was the only honorary Goodie to make the cast list); yet, because the Goodies wrote for themselves and put much of their own personalities into their onscreen personas, the character of Ackroyd (Barrie Rutter) comes across as quintessentially Oddie, while Mattocks (Christopher Godwin) and Foster (Carmen du Sautoy) manifest sometimes as Garden, sometimes as Brooke-Taylor… and so it is difficult to watch Astronauts series one without thinking of the Goodies – being played by other people! Series two is a marked improvement: in part because Garden and Oddie were no longer writing Astronauts and The Goodies concurrently; in part because they’d had a chance to observe the dynamic that Rutter, Godwin and du Sautoy brought to their erstwhile Goodies-ish characters; but even at its best, Astronauts still comes across rather in the manner of something that Garden and Oddie would quite like to have moved on to, but hadn’t managed to because they weren’t quite finished being the Goodies.
Curiously enough, it was in 1983, as series two of Astronauts passed largely unheralded from TV screens across England, that Red Dwarf creators Rob Grant and Doug Naylor formed their writing partnership. Graeme Garden once quipped that he and Oddie should have hung on for five years and done Red Dwarf instead of Astronauts; and while it would be spurious to claim that Grant and Naylor in any way salvaged one SF comedy from the drifting wreck of the other, nevertheless it must be remembered that The Goodies was still a high-profile programme at the beginning of the 80s, and that Astronauts – pitched in essence as a Goodies spinoff – consequently was released with quite some fanfare. As budding comedy writers, Grant and Naylor would have been remiss not to check it out and perhaps make a mental note or two.
The first series of Red Dwarf is everything that Astronauts set out to be: a space comedy based on character conflict, confinement and a desert island sense of listlessness; and while only Rob Grant and Doug Naylor could tell us what lessons they learnt, if any, from Astronauts, there are certain aspects of Red Dwarf that do appear to hint at transference. Having the Cat as a humanoid feline, for instance, seems like an idea that might well have been sparked from watching poor old Bimbo’s rather facile inclusion in Astronauts; and similarly, Red Dwarf’s defining brainchild of having its protagonists confined not by a sense of being closed in and constantly watched (as per Astronauts) but rather through being all alone on an enormous empty spaceship effectively without restrictions. Retrospectively, the character of Dave Lister (Craig Charles) is easily discernible in his “scruffy northerner” precursors David Ackroyd and Bill Oddie (qua himself), while Arnold Rimmer (Chris Barrie) is undoubtedly Malcolm Mattocks taken to an absurdist extreme. The Red Dwarf duo even look quite like their Astronauts counterparts! None of which is to suggest that Red Dwarf is unoriginal, or that it didn’t blast to comedic galaxies that Astronauts could only covet myopically through a large telescope; merely that without one programme, we might not have had the other. (And as a point of interest to Dwarfers, let it be revealed that Ackroyd’s great, shameful secret is that he, like Rimmer, enjoys a spot of Morris-dancing.)
Astronauts is not altogether without highpoints, many of which come courtesy of Bruce Boa – formerly the American guest from Fawlty Towers, subsequently General Rieekan in The Empire Strikes Back, and throughout Astronauts appearing as the overwrought and effusive, charismatic Mission Controller Lloyd Beadle. It takes a while for this, the only true non-Goodies character to develop, but as series one – and particularly series two – hits its stride, Boa/Beadle quickly emerges as the show’s unheralded star. (Perhaps this in some measure explains the Americans’ interest in making their own series of Astronauts, with M*A*S*H’s McLean Stevenson as Beadle. This venture, like the ill-conceived American Red Dwarf, went no further than one poorly-received pilot episode.) The Astronauts DVD release makes sure to credit not only Garden and Oddie but also nominal script editors Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (who teamed up for Porridge) and producer Douglas Argent (Fawlty Towers) – a subterfuge of sorts, having already promoted itself as an “hilarious comedy” (the sort of exaggeration you’d think only Goebbels would have the mettle for, and a rather inane suggestion given such audience reactions as Seema Bakewell going into labour and Alex Mitchell literally laughing himself to death while watching episodes of The Goodies). Add to this the selection of cover photos – which misleadingly depict Carmen du Sautoy as having spent much of the series stripped down to her underwear – and the impression one receives is that Astronauts has been put out as a no-frills, cheap laughs, disposable impulse buy… and while this may, in part, reflect the truth of the original broadcasts, nevertheless it does something of a disservice both to the intentions of the programme and to the role that Astronauts fulfilled within the early development of TV science fiction comedy.
1. Graeme Garden, “The Goodies Still Rule OK Tour Diary”, April 26, 2007 [http://www.the-goodies.co.uk/goodiestourblog.htm]; Robert Ross, The Goodies Rule OK (ABC Books, 2006), p. 115.