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By Martin Keady · November 11, 2019
Like wine, comedy does not always travel well. Consequently, not all of the best British TV comedy, particularly “northern comedy” (as in comedy from the north of England), is as well known outside of Britain as it should be. Many classic shows, from The Likely Lads to The Royle Family, have not become the international hits that they should have been, partly because of the apparently depressing subject matter, as so much “northern comedy” is a depiction of a place that may have given the world industrialization but is now undeniably post-industrial. Thus it is that Peter Kay, arguably the greatest British TV comedy writer of the 21st century so far, is a superstar in Britain but relatively unknown outside it, despite creating at least two bona fide masterpieces, Phoenix Nights and Car Share.
Peter Kay was born in 1973 in Bolton, one of the many Lancashire towns that have now been subsumed into “Greater Manchester”. The irony is that in reality such places are often best regarded as “lesser Manchester” or even “poorer Manchester” (not just economically, but culturally). Given that in the 1970s Manchester itself was not the great modern metropolis that it has subsequently become, that gives some idea of how small and parochial towns such as Bolton were. And yet it is precisely that smallness and parochial nature that has provided Kay with so much of his comic material.
Kay actually studied performance at Salford University, but he was essentially a born performer, one who was doing stand-up comedy professionally even while he was still officially a student. He won, or was at least nominated for, a number of prestigious prizes for stand-up, notably the Perrier Award for his 2000 performance at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Consequently, he was given the chance to write and star in his own TV comedy series before he was even thirty.
In retrospect, there are two particularly telling things about that series, That Peter Kay Thing. The first was the title, which, for a still largely unknown stand-up, was a demonstration of either extreme confidence or possible hubris. Certainly, Kay has always exercised extraordinary artistic control over his career, in a manner reminiscent of another great stand-up who became a great comic writer, director and producer, namely Woody Allen. Indeed, so great has been Kay’s insistence on ultimate control over his creations that it has even caused problems with his co-writers, notably Dave Spikey (the co-writer of Phoenix Nights), who eventually parted company with Kay precisely because he felt that Kay was claiming complete credit for writing that series when it should have been shared more equally.
The second aspect of That Peter Kay Thing that was so illuminating was its subject matter, which was precisely the kind of forensically observational comedy, one that delights in tiny incidents more than any supposedly grand storylines, that Kay has virtually made his own. The six shows were all spoof or “mock” documentaries, in the kind of “mockumentary” style that was pioneered by Rob Reiner in Spinal Tap (1984) and perfected by Ricky Gervais in The Office (2000), before itself becoming a kind of lazy cliché for so many subsequent films and TV series. However, although Kay would soon discard the “mockumentary” format, he remained fascinated by the world he had “mockumented” in the very first episode of That Peter Kay Thing, which was the world of “clubland”. It would eventually become the basis for his first great TV series, Phoenix Nights.
So many of the fundamental elements of Phoenix Nights were present in “In The Club”, the first episode of That Peter Kay Thing, that it almost acts as a kind of trailer or sampler for the two TV series (and one spin-off series) that followed. The “clubland” in question was not that of nightclubs or dance clubs such as Manchester’s world-famous Hacienda, but instead the original clubland of northern working men’s clubs, in which an earlier and much less PC generation of northern comics had plied their trade. By the time that Kay came to write about this world, it was on its uppers, but there was still a defiant persistence among its protagonists that, as Kay put it, “clubland will never die”. That may be true, but Kay showed that it was certainly on life support.
Kay himself played the lead in Phoenix Nights, Brian Potter, the bespectacled and wheelchair-bound owner of the Phoenix nightclub in Bolton. Despite being stuck in a wheelchair after an accident, Potter (who was briefly Britain’s second most famous “Potter” after J.K. Rowling’s Harry) was utterly undeserving of sympathy, as he tried every last tactic or trick to keep his club going, from bingo nights, which allowed women into the previously male-only world of working clubs, to talent nights, in which acts such as “Coffee and Cream” (a pair of stepsisters, one black and one white) would perform Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family”, with the chorus changed to, “I’ve got my half-sister and me!”
However, Brian Potter was only one of a multitude of comic grotesques employed at The Phoenix, from compere Jerry St Clair (played by the aforementioned Dave Spikey, who co-wrote Phoenix Nights with Kay) to bouncers Max and Paddy (with Kay making use of the latest “split-screen” technology to play both Brian Potter and Max, one of the bouncers). All human life, or at least all northern life, was here, as the employees of the Phoenix tried everything they could think of to make the club both profitable and relevant in the 21st century, while facing another, more direct threat from the owner of a rival club, the malevolent Den Perry, who was determined to drive Potter out of business in order to secure Bolton’s nightlife for himself.
There were two series of Phoenix Nights, which were originally broadcast in Britain in 2001 and 2002, and every single episode is a comic masterpiece of writing, acting and directing. However, just as Seinfeld has its “Soup Nazi” episode (the single funniest episode that is also emblematic of the series as a whole), so Phoenix Nights has its “Singles Night”, in which Brian himself finds love, only to discover that the object of his affection, Beverley, is actually an undercover welfare officer who has been sent to find out if he is really disabled. The scene in which Brian (before he realizes what is really going on) attempts to seduce Beverley, culminating in his slow ride upstairs on a stairlift while holding her hand and promising to do “unspeakable” things to her in the bedroom, is one of the greatest and funniest of all modern TV comedy sequences.
Phoenix Nights was such a triumph, commercially and artistically, that Kay was afforded a spin-off from it, just as Phoenix Nights was itself a spin-off from That Peter Kay Thing. That spin-off was Max and Paddy’s Road to Nowhere, in which the titular bouncers flee Bolton (having failed to carry out a “hit” that they have been paid for) and effectively go on a road trip around Britain. Max and Paddy was still funny, but it was often much broader and far less subtle than Phoenix Nights had been. However, there was one glorious exception, which was the storyline in which Max discovers that he is actually the father of his long-lost girlfriend’s son. In sheer desperation to make his son’s acquaintance, Max (aided and abetted by Paddy) ends up hijacking the school bus that his son is on. However, because his ex will not admit that Max is her son’s real father (for fear of destroying her marriage), Max and Paddy are sent to jail. The story of their imprisonment and eventual escape, all set to the soundtrack of Take That’s greatest (indeed only) song, “Back For Good”, was a worthy successor to the comic adventures and invention of Phoenix Nights.
Even while he was writing and filming Phoenix Nights and Max and Paddy’s Road To Nowhere, Kay was still working as a stand-up comic. Indeed, he soon became the most successful stand-up comic in Britain, playing arena shows all over the country. In addition, such were his prodigious comic talents that he became something of an “all-round entertainer”, performing stand-up, recording hit singles (back when there were such a thing) and satirizing the “reality” shows (in reality talent shows) that had come to dominate British and indeed global television. Unfortunately, the best thing about Britain’s Got the Pop Factor… and Possibly a New Celebrity Jesus Christ Soapstar Superstar Strictly on Ice was its title, and there was a genuine fear that Kay had forgotten, or deliberately foregone, the kind of brilliantly subtle observational comedy that he had perfected in Phoenix Nights. Fortunately, he eventually demonstrated that that was not the case.
More than a decade passed between Phoenix Nights and Car Share but it was worth the wait as Car Share proved itself to be not only a match for Phoenix Nights but in fact its superior. That was despite the fact that its premise was, at best, fairly flimsy: a pair of supermarket workers (a manager played by Kay and a virtual shelf-stacker played by Sian Gibson) are forced to share a car to work each day, in an attempt to reduce the need for staff parking spaces at the supermarket. Indeed, the premise was so flimsy that it even seemed as if Kay himself was mocking it, when he showed the pair arriving in a giant car-park with space enough for thousands of cars. Nevertheless, despite that somewhat unpromising beginning, Car Share soon proved itself to be Kay’s finest work so far.
Car Share was essentially a two-hander, in which Kay’s character, John, and Gibson’s character, Kayleigh, are first shown driving to work (in the process overcoming various obstacles such as traffic jams or fellow workers requiring a lift who stink of fish) and then driving back again. With so little actual plot (as is the case in almost all of Kay’s work), the emphasis was on the writing and performing, which actually took place within the narrow confines of a real car. Fortunately, both were sublime. And if the full title of the series was Peter Kay’s Car Share, which seemed to be further evidence of Kay’s artistic control and/or egotism, unlike with Phoenix Nights he was far more comfortable at sharing the limelight with his co-star and co-writer, Sian Gibson, who proved herself every bit his equal as a comic genius.
Finally, what lifted Car Share above even Phoenix Nights was that there were occasional fantasy sequences, in which John, Kayleigh or both escaped from the physical constraints of the car and appeared in extraordinary scenes that were actually reimagined ‘80s music videos. As a result, Phoenix Nights was not just as humorously earthbound as Phoenix Nights but was also capable of the most surprising, even surreal, flights of fancy.
Car Share was a genuine cultural phenomenon in Britain, with Kay and Gibson initially teasing both TV schedulers and viewers alike that there would only be one series, then eventually relenting and making three series, or more precisely two and a quarter, as the final series only consisted of two “special” episodes: the first an “unscripted” demonstration of Kay and Gibson’s gift for improvisational comedy, as they responded to whatever they saw or heard in the car; and the second a beautifully constructed resolution of the love story between John and Kay that had been blossoming since John had first showed up outside her door a few years earlier.
After Phoenix Nights, Car Share and all the sold-out stand-up tours, hit singles and even retrospective celebrations of his work, Peter Kay is now undeniably the most successful stand-up comic that Britain has ever produced and one of its greatest ever creators of TV comedy. In a sense, therefore, having conquered the British Isles, all that remains is for Kay to conquer the world, and in particular America. However, given that his comedy is ultimately all about the tragicomic nature of life in small-town northern England at the start of the 21st century (a time in human history when we are simultaneously more connected than ever before and more disconnected), he might ultimately decide that it would be utterly foolhardy to remove himself from his source of inspiration. If that is the case, then British TV viewers and discerning international TV audiences can ready themselves for the third and final installment of his “TV Trilogy”, which, if it even half as good as the first two installments, should be both unbearably poignant and arse-breakingly funny.
Martin Keady is an award-winning scriptwriter whose work has been produced for film, television, stage and radio. His major credits include: The Final, a short film about the famous ending of the 1979 FA Cup Final, which was shown on Channel Four; Moon the Loon, a play about the legendary Who drummer, Keith Moon, which was premiered at The Edinburgh Festival; and a collection of love poetry, Shards, extracts from which have been broadcast on Radio Four.” http://theshakespeareplays.com/