Tuesday, 25 November 2008

“I'm writing to complain about both this blasphemous programme and the ghastly provincial voiced clown it foist upon us...”

For 4 weeks in March and April 1973 what appears to have been a quite astonishing radio comedy was aired (on Radio 3 of all places) which I've only recently learned about (initially from a letter of complaint in The Listener).

The series- 'Topping Wheeze' seems to have been based around a remarkably dark concept. As far as I can glean, it deals with a murderous comedian Maxwell Armley (played by Jake Thackray!) who having once accidentally laughed a man to death and being touched by the beatific sight of the corpse's smile, for some reason embarks on a killing spree determined to capture the sound of people's souls being released in their dying last gasps on tape. Don't ask me why, it seems to be a sort of macabre audio play on Powell's 'Peeping Tom'.

The accessible documentation surviving in the BBC Written Archive at Caversham (it looks possible there's more that's as yet deemed unreleasable) suggests that he eventually plans and stages a live wireless sketch show full of tightly timed catchphrases and reincorporated gags building in crescendo to a finale with an unbearable(!) 8 jokes a minute which causes mass asphyxiation amongst its studio audience, and presumably listeners at home (it's unclear). However angry listener correspondence in the same programme folder claiming the show defames Tommy Handley and offensively parodies Roman Catholic doctrine suggests the series may have strayed somewhat from this initial outline.
Unsurprisingly, no tapes survive, unless you know better...

Anyhow from contemporary listings we can also glean this-
The show aired at around 9.15pm (though Radio 3 timings are notoriously prone to slippage) on the 24th March to 14 April 1973 also featured Ron Pember and Margaret Westbury and was written by Bob and Barbara Boulton and produced by Paul Bradley (not the one who later went on to play Nigel in EastEnders).

The Radio Times plot precises also give us the following tiny hints.
Part 1- Corpsing. Maxwell Armley is an unhappy comedian, weary of life until he accidentally hits on the perfect joke.
Part 2- Die Laughing. Max hits trouble in a northern Working Man's Club when the rattle-gag fails.
Part 3- Killing Joke. The great broadcast begins to take shape, but Maxwell faces danger in the shape of a investigating policeman with no apparent sense of humour.
Part 4- Reincorporation.
A last gasp return for the departed leaves Maxwell questioning his calling. Is surviving on tape the key?

Anyone remember this one at all? I think there might be an interesting article for comedy archivists in it. I reckon if we manage to piece enough facts and obscure details together this previously unheard of piece might well be reappraised as a lost classic.


Scott @ loveandgarbage said...

I contacted a friend who is a Thackray fan after reading this yesterday. He wasn't aware of the series but suggested that you might get more information through the Jake Thackray forum at the Thackray website http://www.jakethackray.com/ .

Best wishes


IZP said...

Apologies Scott, I think I've made exactly the wrong kind of joke here- the unfunny kind. A mate was talking about some comedy archive recoveries the other day, and it set me thinking about the excitement we archive enthusiasts attach to the lost and the pleasure we get in extrapolating shows from scant clues in surviving paperwork(often better shows in our imagination than the real shows turn out being if rediscovered). I was trying to construct a intriguing fake little show for some mates progressively pulling the rug as the entry went on and bringing up our interest in the recording process as we went, and inviting them if they wanted to contribute their own fake memories of an d factoids about the show. I'm sorry I didn't do that very well. I'm sorry I used Jake's name in the feeble gag because in the online world in looks like deliberate misinformation. I'm a fan of his work and it's just the kind of unlikely show I like to imagine someone might have hired him for.

It was partly inspired by a real piece of old telly I'll be posting about on Friday, though I suspect I'll go unbelieved now like the boy who cried wolf. My apologies again.

Scott @ loveandgarbage said...


No problem at all - one of the perils of posting and commenting on-line. On my own blog I posted a variety of fake gameshows and TV programmes that I subsequently discovered through google analytics that some people were treating as real programmes.
Sa a private joke between friends blew up somewhat. You never know who's reading.

I've been popping in here for some time via RSS and was taken in (but then I'm a 30-something fascinated by radio comedies from the 50s and 60s).

It sounded too credible, being the very sort of thing that Thackray would have shone in!

I'm also a Doctor Who fan, and the point you make forms the basis of a nice little story by Jonathan Morris in one of the Big Finish Short Trips collections (Past tense) where he puts together a previously unheard of Hartnell story "The OUtlaws" about the Doctor and team meeting Robin Hood. It's constructed via entries in the Radio Times, Doctor Who Weekly, the Radio Times 20th anniversary Special, The HUlke-Dicks, Making of Doctor Who programme summaries, Target novelisation &c. Sadly hidden away in one of these BIg Finish short story compilations (and not a strong compilation) it's a comic gem.

My apologies for the misunderstanding.

Best wishes


IZP said...

I like Jonny Morris's stuff a lot. I actually think there are some pretty good stories in Past Tense (even if there's one in there that goes out of its way to contradict all the previous Doctor Who Shakespeare lore I'd had fun mucking with in an earlier Short Trips! Perhaps the peculiar events of Joe Lidster's book closer, reasserts the Shakespeare timeline? Perhaps I need to calm down and accept the Shakespeare timeline has been even further confused since, and perhaps also get less nerdy about the nature of Dr John Dee in the Whoniverse too while I'm at it). Anyhow apologies again and thanks for your understanding.