Gary Raymond reviews the latest offering from BBC Wales’s new comedy output, Welcome Strangers is a female-led comedy sketch show for radio.
Anybody writing about new comedy should be wary that the first few steps for any fresh venture can be shaky, and it’s important to allow a show time to find its feet, discover its own self. The crooked journey of Blackadder’s genius casts a long and useful shadow. So, one should not be too harsh on a new sketch show like Radio Wales’s Welcome Strangers, filled as it is with nerves and problems that are likely partially to do with teething, and partially to do with a mild schizophrenia. There is, after all, much to like in this all female production, even if there is a suspicion it has some way to go to find its feet and feel comfortable in its own skin.
Welcome Strangers is very clearly the creation of people with real talent – for writing and for performing. The question that overarches this rugged live-recorded half hour is whether the talent has been allowed to flourish or whether it is being stymied by external forces. Somewhere, one suspects, is someone asking if it can be more like this, or a bit more like that, and whether it’s really Welsh enough. Welsh enough, I hear you say? Well, it needs to justify the space it takes up on the BBC’s area dedicated to our great nation. Is it not enough that this comedy is made by Welsh people? Apparently not. The framing for the sketches informs us the listeners are on a tongue-in-cheek adventure to learn about the people of Wales, all brought together through vignettes of social comedy and slightly surreal myth. It kicks off with a decent sketch about a fisherman hauling in a mermaid. The comedy lies in the idiosyncrasy of the fisherman’s poetic awe and the mermaid’s workmanlike modern take on life as a sea creature. It’s not flashy, but it establishes immediately that the crew behind the show know how to write a sketch, how to build the jokes and give a pay-off. It also lets us know they understand radio, using the unseen as fertile soil for punch lines. The next sketch, much funnier, pits a kid trying to fool a shop owner into selling them booze and fags. There are good lines here, and, importantly, evidence that the writers know how to push the boat out a bit, be ridiculous, subvert our expectations. It’s a shame, then, that so many of the sketches have been done before. There are good gags, but it does no-one any good to be reminded of the Titans. A solid sketch about a group of old women trying to out-miserabilist each other only serves to bring to mind Monty Python’s “Four Yorkshiremen” sketch. There is also an estate agent sketch, and a sketch about the awfulness of hipsters, and a sketch about an unscrupulous theme park owner. It’s not that they aren’t funny. They are. It’s more that after a while you realise you’ve heard it all before.
One problem is the live recording. It gives the whole thing the feel of an Edinburgh Fringe revue, which is no bad thing in itself, but it leaves you wanting something more substantial. It feels done on the cheap, like family and friends have been bused in to laugh hard and loud at all the right moments. It feels like the comedians deserve better. Oh, for some creative soundscape, a la Blue Jam, or some surreal canvas to tie together all the characters, as with the Mighty Boosh. In fact, it’s a shame that the need to frame this as something loosely attached to “Welshness” gives Welcome Strangers more of a Little Britain feel to it, at least in that iconic, if overrated, show’s radio origins. Here, Ruth Madoc, bless ‘er, is given the unenviable task of linking the sketches with some cute rhyming couplets straight out of the tiresome Nationwide advert school of annoying interjections. In Little Britain, Tom Baker was absurd, brash, a little bit dangerous. Delightful as she is, Madoc is none of those things. At best she’s a bit twee, and I’m not sure that’s the type of Welshness Welcome Strangers is trying to nail.
But these things are grumbles, grumbled in the hope that the show’s writers and creators, Sian Harries, Beth Grenville, Mali-Ann Rees, Kath Hughes, and Sarah Breese (who also produces) will become bolder and flex their comedy muscles in this format to greater effect in future. Each of them separately already has a solid pedigree, but together now they should be given the opportunity to do something great. Welcome Strangers is far from great. But let’s stick with it and see what kind of crooked journey its creators can take us on. There is enough in this first episode to offer much hope.
Welcome Strangers is available now on the BBC Sounds app.