For the first time, the excellent BBC Radio 4 has branched out from its aural prison to make its own television programme, offering a visual record of the "Radio 4 comedy flash mob" on the Royal Mile held on the 18th August during the Edinburgh Festival.
The event was apparently organised to celebrate 40 years of Radio 4 at the Edinburgh Fringe. Like proper flash mobs, the event was unannounced to the general public. Unlike a real flash mob, though, it involved a full-sized stage and it also probably had the permission of the authorities. I also think doing it during the Edinburgh Festival is a bit of a cheat; it would have been much more of a flashmob if they'd all turned up in Basildon high street on a rainy Thursday in January.
Anyway, a 30 minute long highlights programme is currently showing on the BBC Red Button, hosted by the breathless comic Mark Watson, along with segments by Susan Calman, Stephen K Amos, Miles Jupp, and Richard Herring amongst others. If you've seen Watson's slightly shambolic comedy show We Need Answers on BBC4, you'll perhaps enjoy this Red Button special. However, like that programme, I can't help thinking it is one of those things that sounds better than it is, as in reality, the execution is rather poor.
Radio 4 prides itself on producing quality programmes, but even as a first attempt, the whole production looks pretty amateur. Of course, I could understand this if it had a budget of five pence, but what with that stage and the fact it apparently used a Red Cam (a digital video camera used to make cinematic films), it is something of a surprise that it looks so bad. However, as most of the footage was shot on seven DSLR cameras, I suppose the quality was never going to be up to 'proper' television standard.
Indeed, as a result of using what are essentially home video cameras, it gives the footage the look of a cheap promo for a student television show (again, rather like Watson's gameshow, which unbelievably uses Microsoft Powerpoint as its display package). After it's finished on the Red Button, it's apparently going to be posted on YouTube, and it'll definitely fit in there.
Most of the footage is of various standup acts, although in a weird compromise between the length of the acts and the number of performers, these are diluted and cut down to such a degree that most of the jokes fall a bit flat - one comedian is made to look a bit like a bloke who just wandered onto the stage by accident. Perhaps he did.
It doesn't help that the sound of the audience was not picked up by the microphones, meaning that the programme gives the impression that the comics were "dying on their arse", as they say in the trade. Apparently.
The highlight of the programme is probably the visual Just a Minute. I'm quite a fan of Just a Minute, and this was really the reason I watched it. This isn't actually the first time Ian Messiter's Just a Minute format has been played on television. In the early nineties, the satanic Carlton television of all people made a television version, which turned the programme into something of a cheapo daytime gameshow format.
In this 2010 attempt, they stuck to the format of the radio show more rigidly, although it was evident that the participants, particularly Paul Merton seemed rather miffed by the whole thing. It appeared that this was primarily because the microphone headsets weren't up to much, and that nobody could really hear what was going on, a disadvantage with a format like Just a Minute. Headsets are rubbish.
Occasionally, I work for a public address company, and whenever somebody asks for a headset microphone, it's always a moment to cringe. Unless you're indoors and have one of those thin ones taped to your face like Britney Spears, they don't work. They either fall off or lose reception, and almost always sound muffled, thanks to the windshield being so close to the user's mouth that one sometimes has to scrape bits of food out of it afterwards.
Anyway, these events conspired to make even the Just a Minute segments a little disappointing. Of course, most of the appeal of the show (like nearly everything on the station, in fact) is that one can't see the competitors speaking, leaving one to make pictures of one's own. (Having said that, there are the slightly more abstract Just a Minute Reloaded animations). Ultimately, though, I guess it's just one of those formats that is best left to the aural imagination.
To conclude, then, it was good to see Radio 4 making a little visual record of something they've been doing, but I think ambition may have got the better of them on this occassion. What's more, I can't say the Radio 4 that was shown on this promo was really very redolent of the station it was acting as a promo for, coming across more BBC Three than BBC Four.
Radio is, of course, primarily an aural medium, and strangely, the imagined concept of a "Radio 4 flashmob" is funnier than it is in reality. Better luck next time?