The Comic Strip Presents is back for a brand new and exclusive 75-minute one-off special on Gold, and on Monday evening I attended a special preview screening at BAFTA.
When Channel 4 launched on the 2nd of November, 1982 one of its launch programmes was The Comic Strip Presents, a series of outrageous and hilarious films from the Comic Strip team which included Adrian Edmondson, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Peter Richardson, Nigel Planer and Rik Mayall.
Eight years later, the series moved to BBC Two, for a six-part series in 1990, three specials in 1992, and a final six-part series in 1993, before moving back to its original home, Channel 4. They made Four Men In A Car in 1998, Four Men In A Plane in 2000 and Sex Actually in 2005 and The Hunt for Tony Blair in 2011.
From 2009 onwards, UKTV’s Gold channel had been repeating the series, so when news broke that the series would be returning, it was no surprise that Gold would be its new home.
For some time now, the channel have been relying less on endless Only Fools and Horses repeats, and more on their own original content of which The Comic Strip Presents is part of. Their first special, was Five Go To Rehab in 2012 which saw the original cast reunite; Adrian Edmondson, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Peter Richardson, Nigel Planer, Rik Mayall, Robbie Coltrane and Stephen Mangan, and was a follow-up to the very first episode Five Go Mad In Dorset.
And this week the series is back for a brand new special, The Comic Strip Presents... Red Top with an exciting new cast that includes Maxine Peake, Russell Tovey, Harry Enfield, Eleanor Matsuura, Johnny Vegas as well as series originals Stephen Mangan, Nigel Planer and Peter Richardson.
At the start of the screening, Steve North, General Manager for Gold, introduced the episode by dedicating it to the late Rik Mayall who of course was part of the original Comic Strip Presents line-up and sadly died in 2014, two years after making his unknowing final appearance in Five Go To Rehab.
Rik's son Sid, who’s a drummer, actually appears in the episode, and at the end of the episode text on-screen reads "Dedicated to the memory of Rik Mayall” - a lovely way to pay tribute to one of comedy’s most missed talents and of course Comic Strip Presents original.
Red Top tells the story of Rebekah Brooks, an innocent and beguiling Northern girl who accidentally becomes Chief Executive of News International and gets caught up in a 1970s Watergate-style scandal.
Maxine Peake plays the title role alongside Nigel Planer as Rupert Murdoch and Russell Tovey as Andy Coulson. Johnny Vegas, Alexei Sayle, Harry Enfield, James Buckley and John Sessions also star in the film alongside Eleanor Matsuura who plays Wendi Deng, Murdoch’s ex-wife. And if that wasn’t enough, Stephen Mangan reprises his role as Tony Blair, and creator Peter Richardson also makes an appearance.
Along with most people, I first became aware of Maxine Peake when she played Twinkle in dinnerladies. There’s no denying that Maxine is a great comedy actress, but recently we have been used do seeing her in more series roles, in series such as The Hollow Crown, Silent Witness and The Village.
This is something she touched on at the BAFTA screening, explaining how she’s “been desperate for ages to do some more comedy, and I remember getting the email asking me to read the script with a view of meeting Peter Richardson and I’ve not been that excited in a long time”.
Having now seen the episode, I can confirm that Rebekah Brooks is one part Maxine Peake was born to play! Complete with a fantastic red wig, Rebekah rollerblades around The Sun's office like only she can, so it’s apt that at the start of the show, she’s described as the “Wonder girl of Warrington”.
Famously, Rebekah was married to EastEnders actor Ross Kemp, who in Comic Strip Presents is played brilliantly by Harry Enfield. With the recent news of Ross Kemp returning briefly to the soap, the time has never been better to portray him on screen.
He’s endlessly calling her a “slag” and when shit hits the fan with the whole phone hacking scandal, Rebekah decides to take refuge on the set of EastEnders disguising herself as an extra!
Of course, Rupert Murdoch is portrayed in Red Top and is played by Comic Strip Presents original, Nigel Planer, but for me the real scene stealer in it, is his wife Wendi, played by Eleanor Matsuura (Cuffs), who is dressed as Kill Bill throughout and delivers some killer one-liners!
This is technically the second time Eleanor has played Wendi, having played a similar character that was very clearly based on Wendi, in Channel 4’s phone hacking satire, Hacks in 2012.
Speaking at the screening about playing Wendi Deng, Eleanor Matsuura said that she “worries a little bit” about what Wendi will think, she went on to say that "having researched her for so long, I have become a little bit obsessed with her, and would really like to meet her and have a conversation”.
I need to be careful that this blog doesn’t just become a platform for me to show my love for Johnny Vegas, but just wait until you see him as Johnny, a reporter at The Sun. The role is so well defined, and believable -he’s an alcoholic, drug-taking journalist who at one point asks his boss if he could borrow £1000 for cocaine and hookers!
Without giving too much away, his character is pivotal to the overall story, after facing constant pressure from Andy Coulson for a cover story.
Speaking of Andy Coulson, the newspaper editor is played brilliantly by Russell Tovey, and the physical likeness is uncanny!
Much like Maxine playing Rebekah, Andy Coulson is a character Tovey was born to play, and whilst America appear to have adopted him of late, it’s great that he still found time to play this role, and has seemingly given it his all.
It’s always a joy to watch Russell on screen as he brings a certain charm to every character he plays, with charm not being a word I thought I’d ever associate with Andy Coulson!
As for the politicians, they’re well represented in Red Top with Stephen Mangan returning to play Tony Blair, with one slight difference - a moustache! Speaking at the BAFTA screening, Stephen revealed that the reason Tony now has a moustache is because Stephen himself had to grow one for another role and in order to make the filming work for this, it had to stay.
David Cameron and Samantha Cameron also feature heavily throughout, played by Dominic Tighe and Sadie Tonks. They are both given an excellent, if unflattering portrayal in The Comic Strip Presents, with Cameron forever begging Brooks to help him win the election, as he’s desperate to become Prime Minister, and will “do anything"!
At the start of the show, Red Top is described as a “Seventies style saga” which is exactly what it is. It's a real treat from start to finish, and choosing a relatively current story/theme, and setting it in the seventies was such a clever move, as it allowed them to get away with a lot more than if they had gone down the straight satirical route, setting it in the present day.
Will the likes of Coulson, Murdoch and Brooks be offended if they watch Red Top? Probably, but everything about The Comic Strip Presents screams parody and fantasy, and it always has, so it’s not to be taken seriously.
What Red Top does really well is that it doesn’t try to make a political statement. Neither Blair nor Cameron come out of this particularly well, and whilst you expect Murdoch to be the villain, I actually found myself sympathising with him, and it was actually his wife (now ex-wife) Wendi Deng, who is the real baddie of the piece.
The last thing I want to say is that if you’re in two minds about whether to watch or not, please do. It’s 75-minutes of pure entertainment and pure escape, and if nothing else, watching Maxine Peake, Russell Tovey, Eleanor Matsuura, Johnny Vegas, Alexei Sayle, Harry Enfield, James Buckley, John Sessions, Stephen Mangan and Peter Richardson share the screen is a real joy.