They don’t make ’em like that anymore: Classic British radio comedies

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Fawlty Towers has been named as the greatest British sitcom of all time, as its creators attribute its success to an era where BBC commissioning “decisions were taken by people who had actually made programmes”.

The sitcom, which starred John Cleese, topped a Radio Times list of the 20 best British sitcoms despite running for only 12 episodes.

It beat other series including Father Ted, Blackadder, I’m Alan Partridge and Only Fools And Horses, winning a special place in viewers’ hearts for its combination of “farce” and “precision”, experts said.

Fawlty Towers, a BBC series, ran for just two series of six episodes each in the 1970s.

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But perhaps not all tv comedies work on radio. Fawlty Towers somehow does and occasionally appears on ROK British Classic Comedy channel…

ROK Classic Radio

Conversely, I can’t watch Count Arthur Strong on tv! I think it’s brilliant on the radio though.

I love the true old time shows like Hancock’s Half Hour, The Men From The Ministry and I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again but there are more recent programmes like 1834, Radio Active and The Skivers that either make or just fail to make my top ten radio comedies.

And what are they?

1. The Burkiss Way
2. The Men From The Ministry
3. I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again
4. Round The Horne
5. 1834
6. Giles Wemmbley Hogg Goes Off
7. Jim The Great
8. Beyond Our Ken
9. Hancock’s Half Hour
10. Delve Special

And back to the Telegraph for their top ten…

The 20 funniest radio comedies of all time

10. Blue Jam (Radio 1, 1997-1999)

The dark, very twisted genius of Brass Eye creator Chris Morris was given full licence in this “ambient comedy”, a disturbing mix of satire, music and sketches. Among the recurring characters were a pair of lovers who made increasingly bizarre demands of each other (“I want you to s— your leg off.”). The format was later developed for Channel 4.

9. Ed Reardon’s Week (Radio 4, 2005-present)

A frustrated writer whose big moment occurred in 1981 when he scripted an episode of Tenko is the centre of this brilliantly structured sitcom. The Berkhamsted-based scribe’s relentless need to keep buggering on, relationship with his preternaturally wise cat Elgar and strange charisma when it comes to the ladies give it a wide appeal – and a very human heart.

8. Flight of the Conchords (Radio 2, 2004)

A precursor to the HBO series that saw New Zealand’s fourth-most-popular folk duo attempting to break America, the radio show has Brett and Jermaine struggling to make it in Britain. If anything it’s even funner than the TV version, with much more of Rhys Derby’s hapless manager Murray (his phone calls with Neil Finn, the very patient lead singer of Crowded House, are a recurring highlight), bone-dry narration from Rob Brydon, and even a cameo from reclusive comedy odd-bod Daniel Kitson as the UK’s “king of novelty” Dan and the Panda.

7. Saturday Night Fry (Radio 4, 1988)

Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, Phyllida Law, Jim Broadbent, Alison Steadman – how’s that for a cast? This wickedly inventive sketch show sent up bland Radio 4 staples such as the Afternoon Play with savage wit, and a self-aware edge; Law played herself, bitterly resentful towards her real-life daughter Thompson. The “very third” episode was a mockumentary about the show’s history, while in another instalment the cast locked Fry outside the studio while they rewrote his scripts. Chris Morris is reportedly a huge fan.

6. Cabin Pressure (Radio 4, 2008-14)

The longevity of John Finnemore’s sublime comedy is, no doubt, partly due to the presence of Benedict Cumberbatch, but this sitcom about a tiny airline company’s eccentric cabin crew was, in truth, a magnificent ensemble. Take your pick from Roger Allam’s smoothie ex-smuggler, Finnemore’s slow-witted polar bear enthusiast, Cumberbatch’s prissy jobsworth and Stephanie Cole’s commanding but beleaguered company head.
Cabin Pressure: (from left) John Finnemore, Roger Allam, Stephanie Cole, Benedict Cumberbatch

5. Round the Horne (Light Programme/Radio 2, 1965-68)

The crack team of Marty Feldman and Barry Took gave us this sublime and ever-so-slightly risqué sketch show which featured the versatile vocal talents of Kenneth Horne, Betty Marsden, Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams. It introduced the gay slang of polari to the nation (Bona!), while a generation of schoolboys tittered along to Rambling Syd Rumpo’s innuendo (“Green grows the grunge on my lady’s posset”).

4. The Goon Show (Home Service/Light Programme, 1951-1960)

Spike Milligan drove himself through a string of nervous breakdowns churning out Goon Show scripts, but his fevered imagination gave us one of the greatest influences on modern (and post-modern) comedy, at once daringly avant-garde and deeply silly – and impossible to explain. Monty Python looks tame by comparison.

3. Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge (Radio 4, 1992)

No, this wasn’t the mighty Partridge’s debut – that honour will always belong to Radio 4’s spoof news show On the Hour, broadcast the previous year – but it was here that one of comedy’s all-time-great characters first let his desperate, Little England, magnificently insecure psyche roar.

2. Hancock’s Half Hour (Home Service, 1954-1959)

The sublime peregrinations of a tortured genius formed the backbone of radio comedy for Fifties listeners. Hancock broke new ground with its sitcom format, and also perfectly captured the humdrum existence of the post-war suburban man – rainy Sundays, interminable queues at the bus stop and the petty bureaucracy of local councils. There was also more than a dash of surreal humour, which is said to have influenced Harold Pinter.

1. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Radio 4, 1978-80, 2004-05, 2018)

Before the books, film, TV series and novelty towel, Hitchhiker’s was a radio sitcom – and the best one ever made. It starred Simon Jones (soon to reprise the role in a new series) as Arthur Dent, the mild-mannered Englishman who wakes up to find the Earth is about to be destroyed to make way for a hyperspace bypass.

Writer Douglas Adams pushed the medium to its limits, conjuring otherworldly landscapes no Hollywood movie could ever match (with help from the pioneering BBC Radiophonic Workshop). It had a killer theme tune, to boot. Endlessly quotable, often profound, Hitchhiker’s was a sui generis masterpiece. You’d have to be a Vogon not to love it.

Do enjoy below a selection of  no less than thirteen favourites!

Delve Special

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Delve Special was a UK BBC Radio 4 comedy starring Stephen Fry as investigative reporter David Lander. It ran for four series from 1984 to 1987, each series being four 30-minute episodes long. It was written by Tony Sarchet and produced by Paul Mayhew-Archer. The first series was wiped by the BBC but has since been found and consisted of a four-part investigation into the proposed building of London’s third airport in “Shifton”, a small village situated ‘just to the north east of Birmingham‘, and the alleged bribery and corruption that accompanied the choice of location and building contractor.

David Lander’s investigative technique was usually somewhere between the questionable and the illegal – during each episode he also displayed some degree of ineptitude or lack of understanding in the subject matter he was reporting on. As a result, he occasionally found himself being set upon physically by those concerned. The programme heavily spoofed the style of topical radio reporters such as John Waite of Face the Facts and Roger Cook, a Radio 4 presenter who went on to television work such as The Cook Report.

Actors appearing in Delve Special included: Tony Robinson, Felicity Montagu, Stephen Frost, Mark Arden, Jack Klaff, Harry Enfield, Dawn French, Brenda Blethyn, Arthur Smith, Janine Duvitski, Philip Pope and Andrew Sachs.

The theme music to the programme was Crunch by Soft Machine.

Blue Jam

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Blue Jam was an ambient dark comedy and horror radio programme created and directed by Chris Morris. It aired on BBC Radio 1 in the early hours of the morning from 1997 to 1999.

The programme gained cult status due to its unique mix of surreal monologue, ambient soundtrack, synthesised voices, heavily edited broadcasts and recurring sketches. It featured vocal performances of Kevin Eldon, Julia Davis, Mark Heap, David Cann and Amelia Bullmore, with Morris himself delivering disturbing monologues, one of which was revamped and made into the BAFTA-winning short film My Wrongs #8245–8249 & 117. Writers who contributed to the programme included Graham Linehan, Arthur Mathews, Peter Baynham, David Quantick, Jane Bussmann, Robert Katz and the cast.

The Men From The Ministry

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The Men from the Ministry is a British radio comedy series broadcast by the BBC between 1962 and 1977, starring Wilfrid Hyde-White, Richard Murdoch and, from 1966, when he replaced Hyde-White, Deryck Guyler. Written and produced by Edward Taylor with contributions from John Graham, and with some early episodes written by Johnnie Mortimer and Brian Cooke, it ran for 13 series, totalling 145 half-hour episodes and two specials. A further 14 episodes were made by the BBC Transcription Service in 1980 but never broadcast in the UK, until 2012 on BBC Radio 4 Extra. Versions were made by Yle in Finland, Sveriges Radio (SR) in Sweden, and Springbok Radio in South Africa, where it was made into a feature-length film.

Giles Wemmbley-Hogg Goes Off

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Two m’s, two g’s. Backpacker, ethnologist, fearless investigator of cultural diversity, and upper-middle-class student ponce from Budleigh Salterton.

The show follows the travel adventures of title character Giles Wemmbley-Hogg (“Two Ms, two Gs”, full name: Giles Peter St John David Habakkuk St John Wemmbley-Hogg), a nice but somewhat dim upper class former public school boy (Charterhouse) played by co-writer Brigstocke. Giles is on a gap year before university, and he records his (mis)adventures with his portable digital recorder, in places such as Bolivia, India, and Egypt. Throughout the series he does somehow graduate, albeit with a 2:2 in Canadian Studies. Later episodes have followed Giles in his search for a job and his engagement to the fearsome Arabella (fondly known as Belly-Bells).

Themes in this comedy are Giles’s naïveté, and small-mindedness, with his frequent (and usually inappropriate) comparisons with life back in his native Budleigh Salterton. In Giles’ first broadcast incarnation, as a recurring character performed by Brigstocke on satirical radio show The Now Show, he is offensively boorish and unlikeable. However, in Giles Wemmbley-Hogg Goes Off he is a sympathetic fool and clearly does not mean any harm. Broadly similar characters are Harry Enfield‘s Tim Nice-But-Dim, and P. G. Wodehouse‘s Bertie Wooster. On 9 April 2006, Brigstocke appeared in BBC Radio 4’s Classic Serial adaptation of The Code of the Woosters as Bertie Wooster with Andrew Sachs as Jeeves.

The Burkiss Way

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The Burkiss Way is a BBC Radio 4 sketch comedy series, originally broadcast between August 1976 and November 1980. It was written by Andrew Marshall and David Renwick, with additional material in early episodes by John Mason[1][2], Colin Bostock-Smith, Douglas Adams, John Lloyd and others. The show starred Denise Coffey (series 1), Jo Kendall (series 2 onward), Chris Emmett, Nigel Rees and Fred Harris. The series had three producers, announced as “Simon Brett of Stepney“, “John Lloyd of Europe“, and “David ‘Hatch of the BBC’ Hatch“.

The show’s humour was based on surrealism and literary and media parodies, sprinkled with puns.

The series had its roots in two half-hour sketch shows entitled Half-Open University which Marshall and Renwick had written with Mason for Radio 3 as a parody of Open University programmes. The first, broadcast on 25 August 1975, spoofed science, the second, on 1 December 1976, history.

In a similar vein, The Burkiss Way was styled around fictional correspondence courses by “Professor Emil Burkiss” entitled The Burkiss Way to Dynamic Living, and each episode or “lesson” had a number and a title based on one of the course’s subjects: “Lesson 1: Peel Bananas the Burkiss Way”, “Lesson 2: Pass Examinations the Burkiss Way”, and so on. Although the numbers and titles were maintained throughout the run, a significant change of style early in the second series saw the radio correspondence course become a hook rather than a narrative device, and it was mentioned only in passing.

From here on the programme continued in a more conventional sketch format, though it was to use increasingly Pythonesque devices including surreal, stream-of-consciousness linking, back-referencing and aggregation. Like the Pythons before them, the writers lampooned and tinkered with the medium on which the show was broadcast, including spoofs of Radio 4’s continuity style. Many later episodes had false endings, sometimes disguised as genuine continuity announcements. The opening and closing credits might be anywhere within the show. One show ran backwards from the closing to the opening credits, while another was allegedly dropped, broken and glued together with a tube of BBC coffee, resulting in a disjointed running order with many sketches beginning and ending in mid-sentence. For one pair of shows, one sentence was split over two programmes, with ‘Eric..’ ending lesson 37 and ‘..Pode of Croydon’ starting lesson 38.

As time went on the show became increasingly surreal, and in several sketches the writers seemed to see how many strange ideas they could cram into a sketch. For example, one later episode contains a sketch about an amoeba employed by the Department of Civil Service Staff Recruitment and Fisheries as a token Desmond Dekker and the Aces but who keeps reproducing asexually by mitosis while singing a Lee Dorsey song.

I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again

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I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again (often abbreviated as ISIRTA) is a BBC radio comedy programme that originated from the Cambridge University Footlights revue Cambridge Circus. It had a devoted youth following, with live recordings being more akin to a rock concert than a comedy show, a tradition that continued to I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue.

The pilot programme and Series 1 were broadcast on the BBC Home Service. Series 2–9 were broadcast on the BBC Light Programme (renamed BBC Radio 2 in September 1967).

It was first broadcast on 3 April 1964, the pilot programme having been broadcast on 30 December 1963 under the title “Cambridge Circus”. The ninth, final series was transmitted in November and December 1973, with fewer episodes (eight instead of the earlier thirteen per series). An hour-long 25th anniversary show was broadcast in 1989. It is comically introduced as “full frontal radio”. I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, a spinoff panel game show, was first produced in 1972.

The title of the show comes from a sentence commonly used by BBC newsreaders following an on-air flub: “I’m sorry, I’ll read that again.” Having the phrase used to recover from a mistake as the title of the show set the tone for the series as an irreverent and loosely produced comedy show.

The Skivers

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Billed as coming “from the same stable as And Now In Colour”, the only real connection between the two shows was the presence of Tim de Jongh, who carried elements of his unique brand of humour (probably best described as ‘silly’) into this sketch series, co-written with newcomer Nick Golson.  If The Skivers lacked the polish of similar Radio 4 shows, it was also more than usually creative: a typical routine would begin, “Now, most driving instructors are humans, aren’t they, but I had one once who was a dog…”

The sketches, which also featured Pete Bradshaw and Melanie Giedroyc (replaced by Sally Phillips in Series Three), were interspersed with snatches of music, link-pieces from Tim and Nick, and authoritative but baffling voice-over announcements (“For identification purposes: I am not a toucan”) from, amongst others, Patrick Allen.  But the most important component of each week’s show was the special guest feature.

Lining up to appear as Tim and Nick’s “hero for one day” — and taking part in their surreal, disconnected crosstalk — was a succession of celebrities of, shall we say, a certain status (suffice it to say that Lewis Collins, Rodney Bewes, Britt Ekland and Peter Stringfellow have all appeared).

The Skivers has gained itself a permanent footnote in radio comedy history: the final programme of Series Two was the last Radio 4 show ever to be recorded at the Paris Studio, the BBC’s main venue for audience recordings for several decades.  To mark the occasion, the show featured a special guest who was more special than usual: Spike Milligan, arguably the greatest and most influential figure in British radio comedy.

Round The Horne

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Round the Horne is a BBC Radio comedy programme starring Kenneth Horne, first transmitted in four series of weekly episodes from 1965 until 1968. The show was created by Barry Took and Marty Feldman, who wrote the first three series. The fourth was written by Took, Johnnie Mortimer, Brian Cooke and Donald Webster.

Horne’s supporting cast comprised Kenneth Williams, Hugh Paddick, Betty Marsden and, in the first three series, Bill Pertwee. The announcer was Douglas Smith, who also took part in the sketches. All except the last series featured music by Edwin Braden, played by the band “the Hornblowers”, with a song in the middle of each show performed by the close-harmony singing group the Fraser Hayes Four; in the fourth series, the music was by Max Harris with a smaller group of players than the earlier series.

The show was the successor to Beyond Our Ken, which had run from 1958 to 1964 with largely the same cast. By the time the new series began, television had become the dominant broadcasting medium in Britain, and Round the Horne, which built up a regular audience of 15 million, was the last radio show to reach so many listeners. Horne was surrounded by larger-than-life characters including the camp pair Julian and Sandy, the disreputable eccentric J. Peasmold Gruntfuttock, and the singer of dubious folk songs, Rambling Syd Rumpo, who all became nationally familiar. The show encountered periodic scrutiny from the BBC management for its double entendres, but consistently received the backing of the director-general of the BBC, Sir Hugh Greene. Horne died suddenly in 1969; the BBC decided that Round the Horne could not continue without its star and they cancelled plans for a fifth series that year.

Over the following decades Round the Horne has been re-broadcast continually, and all 67 shows have been published on CD. In 2019, in a poll run by Radio Times, Round the Horne was voted the BBC’s third-best radio show of any genre, and the best radio comedy series of all.

Beyond Our Ken

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Beyond Our Ken (1958–1964) is a radio comedy programme, the predecessor to Round the Horne (1965–1968). Both programmes starred Kenneth Horne, Kenneth Williams, Hugh Paddick, Betty Marsden and Bill Pertwee, with announcer Douglas Smith. Musical accompaniment was provided by the BBC Revue Orchestra. The title is a pun on Kenneth Horne’s name that hinges on the familiar expression “beyond our ken” (ken being a now mainly Northern English and Scots word meaning “knowledge or perception”).

Eric Merriman had previously written material for Kenneth Horne on Henry Hall‘s Guest Night and Variety Playhouse and written some stand-up comedy material for Barry Took. In June 1957 the BBC Radio Variety department asked Merriman to come up with an idea for a radio series starring Horne. Merriman devised a format for the show with the working title Don’t Look Now. The original memo on the subject still exists in the BBC archives.

The proposal was for a solo comedy series based on a formula of a fictional week in the life of Kenneth Horne. Other memos from the BBC archive show how the proposed format evolved and the discussion of alternative titles, including Around the Horne. (When the programme returned, it was, in fact, called Round The Horne.)

Count Arthur Strong’s Radio Show!

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Count Arthur Strong’s Radio Show! is a sitcom broadcast on BBC Radio 4, written by Steve Delaney. It features Count Arthur Strong, a former variety star who has malapropisms, memory loss and other similar problems, played by Delaney. Each episode follows the Count in his daily business and causing confusion in almost every situation. First broadcast on 23 December 2005, Count Arthur Strong’s Radio Show! has had eight series and four specials. In 2009 the show won the Gold Sony Radio Academy Award for comedy, the highest honour for a British radio comedy.

Count Arthur Strong is a former variety star living in the North of England. The Count, now in his old age, has delusions of grandeur. He has selective memory loss, never hearing what he doesn’t want to and malapropism-itis, which result in his confusing anyone he happens to be talking to and even confusing himself. However, he more often than not blames the people he is talking to for causing the confusion in the first place.

A typical conversation for the Count will involve his confusing both himself and others, while becoming drastically sidetracked from the matter in hand. He is usually oblivious to the chaos he causes, often blaming his interlocutors for any confusion. On the rare occasions he realises he is at fault, he often attempts to divert the blame by lying. Inevitably becoming confused by his own lies, his last resort is usually to claim he was recording a stunt for a hidden camera show. The Count does very rarely encounter frustrating situations which are not his fault such as doing a cooking show and only being brought products that were prepared in packets however he tends to simply complain in these circumstances before making matters worse than they were to start with. He has a misguided belief in his ability to hold his drink, and has often performed on stage or live TV/radio when drunk (or occasionally, concussed, with similar effects). He will often go to great lengths to get as drunk as he can as cheaply as he can.

Bleak Expectations

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Bleak Expectations is a BBC Radio 4 comedy series that premièred in August 2007. It is a pastiche of the works of Charles Dickens – such as Bleak House and Great Expectations, from which it derives its name – as well as adventure/ science fiction and costume dramas set in the same period, and parodies several of their plot devices (such as cruel guardians, idyllic childhoods interrupted, lifelong friendships, earnest young people), whilst simultaneously tending toward a highly surreal humour along the lines of The Goon Show. The series has also demonstrated a fondness for allusions to and parodies of the films of Alec Guinness, particularly the Edwardian satire Kind Hearts and Coronets.

It is written by Mark Evans, who plays minor characters in most episodes, and produced by Gareth Edwards. Its opening and closing theme is the main theme from the Mazurka from Three Characteristic Pieces by Edward Elgar, from a 2004 recording by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

The plot revolves around Philip “Pip” Bin, inventor of the bin and his various fantastic adventures as he attempts to thwart the machinations of his evil ex-guardian, Mr. Gently Benevolent. It is narrated by Pip as an old man to the journalist (and his eventual son-in-law) Sourquill, who brings various useless inventions to assist in recording the events.

The Castle

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The Castle is a BBC Radio 4 comedy set in the Middle Ages and referencing modern life: in the words of its own introduction, “a comedy set in the filth, grime, stench and brutality of the Middle Ages, with some nice music”. The exact timeframe of the series is not fixed; one episode specifies it to be in the early 12th century, yet another references Joan Of Arc. It is written by Kim Fuller and, from series 2, Paul Alexander with additional dialogue by Nick Doody, Matt Kirshen and Paul Dornan. It was first broadcast on 7 September 2007, at 11.30am, and a second series began on Friday 2 January 2009 in the same time slot. Series 3 debuted on Wednesday 14 July 2010. Series 4 began its broadcast in 2012.

The Arthur Haynes Show

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Arthur Haynes (14 May 1914 – 19 November 1966) was an English comedian and star of The Arthur Haynes Show, a comedy sketch series produced by ATV from 1956 until his death from a heart attack in 1966. Haynes also appeared on radio and in films.

His ATV series, The Arthur Haynes Show (1956–66), networked on ITV, made Haynes the most popular comedian in Britain.[5] There were 95 thirty-minute shows, 62 thirty-five-minute shows and one fifty-minute show, spread over fifteen series. Haynes’s most popular character was a working class tramp – created by Johnny Speight, now better known for the Alf Garnett character. Speight said he got the idea of the tramp from a real tramp who climbed into his Rolls Royce when it was stopped at a traffic light. In 1963 and 1964 Haynes worked with Dermot Kelly who played another tramp (called Irish), who was not very bright.[6] Sometimes Patricia Hayes would join them as a woman tramp. In early episodes, the shows were played out on a stage, and basic scenery and props were used where, for instance, the audience could see outside and inside a house, as there was no wall on their side. Later episodes had improved sets. The stars sometimes forgot (or did not bother to learn) their lines, and would ad lib them. If someone fluffed a line, that would be used to get more laughs. Haynes and others sometimes failed to keep a straight face and occasionally burst into laughter.

 

Finally, from my list, 1834 is really difficult to track down. I have tweeted the author Jim Poyser and if I do get hold of any episodes I will update this post with one.

1834

BBC Radio 4 sitcom. 6 episodes (1 series) in 2003. Stars Michael Begley, Joe Caffrey, Kenneth Alan Taylor, Mark Chatterton, James Nickerson, Toby Hadoke and Julia Rounthwaite.

After a few drinks, English teacher Jason Slater wakes up in the 19th century.

For the 21st Century Cheadle Hulme resident, finding himself suddenly in 1834 Macclesfield is, to say the least, a surprise.

Unable to glean any information on the situation from his faithful valet, Ned, Jim discovers that he is now Tarquin, third son of Lord Belport.

He has also acquired a suspicious brother, a spurned ex-girlfriend and an over-excited Luddite cum cauliflower farmer.

EPISODES

What Century Are You Living In?
Episode 1 of 6

After a few drinks, English teacher Jason Slater wakes up in the 19th century. Stars Michael Begley. From June 2003.

The Time Machine
Episode 2 of 6

As Jason attempts to return to 2003, he gets involved with various culinary devices. Stars Michael Begley. From June 2003.

Strong Continental Lager
Episode 3 of 6

21st-century Jason decides 19th-century Macclesfield needs a decent pub with decent beer. Stars Michael Begley. From June 2003.

Dentists and Lovers
Episode 4 of 6

Ned needs root canal work, but 21st-century Jason needs lessons in 19th-century courting. Stars Michael Begley. From July 2003.

London
Episode 5 of 6

Trapped in Macclesfield in 1834, a bored Jason heads to London, but is waylaid by a mint-loving highwayman. Stars Michael Begley. From July 2003.

Victorian Principles
Episode 6 of 6

When Queen Victoria comes to visit, Jason unwittingly changes the course of history. Stars Michael Begley. From July 2003.

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