The (Temporary) Highlanders

Rodney Bewes – Whatever Happened to the Likely Lad, The Assembly Rooms, 16 August

To the casual TV viewing public, Rodney Bewes is of course most famous as the one from The Likely Lads who isn’t James Bolam. We Doctor Who fans, however, are the crème de la cognoscenti, and to us he is forever known as the one from Resurrection of the Daleks who isn’t Leslie Grantham.

Over the course of this autobiographical hour Mr Bewes explains, in tones of gentle Northern tedium, how he got on at drama school, how he came to work on The Likely Lads, and how he went on to have all sorts of other great successes that he knows all about but somehow you can’t quite recall. Poor old James Bolam is never even referred to by name the entire time, which no doubt bothers him and his successful television career no end.

Bewes is at pains to show off his many parts, revealing himself to be not only an actor but also a writer of some experience, reminding a largely oblivious audience that he had two series of his own TV series before he opted to end this to enable him to sign up for Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? The exact circumstances of his making this decision and the reasoning behind it, however, seemed to elude Bewes’ memory, so the story rather peters out (no Doctor pun intended).

All the “bigging oneself up” on display here is rather off-putting in a man of Rodney’s years, by which time one would hope to have settled into a little dignity, if only through inertia. It’s also something much more ably done by Bewes’s brash Southern contemporaries; from an aging Northern comic actor we expected a little more in the way of self-depreciating humour and a little less self-aggrandisement. A little more Alan Bennett, if you will, and a little less Alan Partridge.

Robin Ince – Robin Ince’s Reality Tunnel, The Assembly Rooms, 13 August

Admittedly, Robin Ince has never been in Doctor Who, but his hard science radio show The Infinite Monkey Cage is co-presented by Who guest star Professor Brian Cox and has featured other luminaries including Brian Blessed, who gets a mention every time Ince does a show because he enjoys doing the voice. In case that’s not sufficient justification for this show’s inclusion, we watched it with Mark Strickson. No, really.

Anyone who has seen or heard Ince’s stand-up before will know precisely what to expect: an erudite and informed raconteur fighting a seemingly impossible battle to get every single thought out of his head and into your ears before the clock runs out – as he himself observed during the course of this gig, he doesn’t make jokes; he just as much as he can and, by law of averages, some of it comes out funny. I have never yet seen a gig in which Ince gets to the end of his set list before being defeated by the sands of time and today was no exception, the particularly stiff requirements of the Edinburgh schedule working against him. Nevertheless there was a great deal to take in and you certainly leave feeling not only a renewed vigour for the world of science, but also a little better about yourself for having understood it all.

An intelligent layman’s excellent primer in various schools of outlandish scientific thought, according to trained scientist Mark Strickson. Yes he is, he’s a qualified zoologist. Yes, the same Mark Strickson.

Kevin McNally – The Missing Hancocks, The Assembly Rooms, 20 and 21 August

Kevin McNally is a gently-spoken and charming fellow, as he demonstrated in his interview with us before one of these shows (elsewhere in this very issue, no less). It therefore comes as something of a pleasure to be able to report honestly that these two Hancocks shows are of very high quality indeed. Leading a cast of five, McNally reprises the role of Tony Hancock in stage productions of four Hancock scripts, the radio recordings of which are missing. In doing so he showcases not only a first-rate vocal impression of Hancock but also a slick comic timing beautifully matched to Galton and Simpson’s original, and characteristically superb, scripts.

McNally is ably supported by the entire cast but special mention must go to Robin Sebastian, who takes the role of Kenneth Williams. Sebastian demonstrates not merely an unfailingly perfect mimicry of Williams’s complex and bravura vocal delivery, he entirely inhabits the character. One feels that watching Sebastian play Williams is as close to watching Williams live as any of us will now achieve. We have heard rumour from the cast that, in a strange case of art imitating life, director Neil Pearson has asked Sebastian to tone down his performance in order to prevent him stealing the star’s thunder; if this be true then it is an unusual misjudgement from Pearson, as McNally’s quiet charisma and natural authority on stage ensure that, though the eye is drawn to Sebastian’s antics, it always returns to settle on Hancock as the quiet, still centre around which chaos revolves.

Mike McShane – Paul Merton’s Impro Chums, The Pleasance Grand, 14 August

On an international level Mike McShane is known for Doctor Who and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (in which he played a pleasantly inebriated Friar Tuck). But for years McShane was a presence in British homes as a key member of the revolving cast of players in long-running improvisation show Whose Line Is It Anyway?

It is in this capacity that he returns to Edinburgh this year as part of Paul Merton’s loyal troupe of Comedy Store veterans. He was here in the same capacity last year, at which time he looked to be in poor health; this year it is good to see that he is looking more resilient and is able to go for longer without resting. When working at full capacity McShane has a natural ebullience that provides welcome contrast to the other cast members’ somewhat withdrawn and ironic styles, and Merton modestly gets out of McShane’s way to enable him to improvise a love song on his own, a feat that Whose Line watchers will remember as being something of a specialty.

McShane also has an evident breadth of knowledge and the requisite speed of mind to turn in lines that the other troupers might never produce; asked to describe his quest for new shoes in Shakespearan style, he responds instantly, “’Twas bootless, for I am bootless”, a line which this correspondent would like it known he for one appreciated even if none of the other proles in that damn tent did.

Nicholas Parsons – Nicholas Parsons’ Happy Hour, The Pleasance Courtyard, 18 August

Ultra-veteran Parsons is now in his ninety-second year but has the physical vigour of a man some twenty years his junior, as evinced by his annual haul up to Scotland to showcase some of the overlooked talent playing the Fringe this year. Apart from the use of a cane to scale the foot-high platform stage, very little in the way of physical decay is on display here, and there has been no slowing of Parsons’ wit either, as he trades well-judged barbs with the crowd before settling down to allow today’s three acts to strut their stuff.

The acts change each day, making the show ideal for people who have time on their hands and have not booked their show diaries out already, and a good balance is usually displayed between music, comedy and straight drama to help ensure at least one of the acts will be up your street. Parsons presides over the proceedings in the consummate manner one would expect of such a seasoned pro, and obviously relishes the chance to tackle material just a smidgen more risqué than his usual 6.00pm Radio 4 slot will permit. At one point he even said “bugger”.

Keeping an eye on the Happy Hour is also a good way to get a glimpse of the occasional big stars whose shows sell out the instance they were announced – this year, John Hannah, needlessly plugging a critically-lambasted but still uncompromisingly booked-up play entitled The Titanic Orchestra.

Alexei Sayle – Talking Comedy, The Assembly Rooms, 20 August

Alexie Sayle is a god. Not just any old god, but the god, father and godfather of alternative comedy. But don’t take our word for it – ask Alexei. Comedy archivist Olly Double did just that and Alexei was happy to spend an hour explaining how he invented stand-up comedy from scratch by shouting at people in a room. When you remember him from his Comedy Store days you expect an arrogant, moody bastard in real life and to be honest that’s pretty much what you get…although I get the feeling he’s mellowed out a tad over the years.

This show in Edinburgh was a panel much like a convention set up. In the early days Alexei did all of the posters for those early nights at the Store, and he shared a few stories of the catastrophic enthusiasm in the early days of what was at first called “alternative cabaret”.
When was asked why he had such an angry persona on stage his, answer was simply that he didn’t like people enjoying themselves too much at his gigs…he didn’t like the idea of people admiring him! I get the feeling that this may have been due to his fairly extreme Communist upbringing; when asked if he had any heroes as a child he replied that when a mass-murderer is worshipped in your house growing up the whole “heroes” bit starts to pall.

Alexie has admitted to mellowing a lot and one of the reasons for coming back to stand-up, he said, is that he had things he wishes he hadn’t done. To my relief he namechecked Carry on Columbus here rather than Doctor Who, but sadly he failed to mention Who at all. Whether this is a good sign or not I don’t know, but to me Alexei is a legend, an eternal Young One and a true Scouser.