Fast Forward (BBC1/BBC2 1984 to 1987)

From “More Curiosities of British Children’s TV” by Ben Ricketts (available here on Amazon)

The sketch show has, at least during the early part of the 21st century, all but disappeared from British television. And it‟s a modern tragedy that would have Shakespeare scrabbling for his quill. Shows such as Not Only… But Also, Monty Python‟s Flying Circus, Not the Nine O‟Clock News and The Fast Show became much more than mere comedy shows. They were part of the national fabric and conversation. Sadly, this branch of comedy has been deemed too expensive in the modern age where budget is king.
The one last bastion of security for the sketch show is children‟s television where the format still manages to maintain a presence. And, if we rewind a bit, we can see how effective it is with Fast Forward. “Watch me, I‟m a video!” proclaims the theme tune to Fast Forward and, although the format of the series has little relation to videos, there‟s plenty to watch. If the title of the programme suggests anything then it‟s that the content is going to be rapid. And Fast Forward has velocity on its side.
Sketches tumble from the heavens at an alarming rate. And they‟re in the capable hands of skilled performers. Despite a number of changes to the cast across the three series, the pool of performers remains relatively small. Those on board are: Nick Wilton, Floella Benjamin, Andrew Secombe, Joanna Monro, Robert Harley and Sarah Mortimer.
Starting with all the presenters in the studio cracking gags (or avoiding the terror of Tiny, the unseen dog), Fast Forward quickly moves onto the sketches. And they run the full gamut of comedy.
Quickfire sketches are prevalent, so expect to find a woman paying for one and a half bus tickets before the camera reveals the „half‟ is for a disembodied set of legs next to her. Long form sketches are also welcome with ruler of the cosmos Thagar approaching nerdy Henry in the park to join him in his fight against evil. Meanwhile there‟s linguistic magic available which, for example, features a greetings card company who speak entirely in couplets. And, to add a further dimension of comedy, massed crowds of children are called upon to deliver their favourite gags to camera.
Fast Forward first aired on BBC2 in November 1984, but it wasn‟t part of the traditional children‟s schedule. However, seeing, as it aired at 5.35pm, it was close enough for children to follow on from episodes of The Box of Delights over on BBC1. This setup continued for the second series, but by the time of series three it had been integrated into the BBC1 schedule. Nick Wilton was ever-present throughout the entire run and explains how the series got up and running:
“I was in the revue group Writers Inc with the producer, Trevor McCallum. We met when we were both writing for shows like Three of a Kind and Not The Nine O‟Clock News. A group of us decided to get together and do a show made up from stuff we hadn‟t managed to get on TV. We performed the show in rooms above pubs around London and in 1982 took it up to Edinburgh, where we won the Perrier Award. I was in the last series of Playaway (for 4 episodes) which Trevor script edited, and
the producers decided to come up with a new format to replace it. Trevor created Fast Forward and asked me to be in it. Floella Benjamin, the Playaway regular, was kept in the show so there was some continuity”
An adult may wince at the groaners on offer in Fast Forward, but to a child these are the building blocks of comedy. The series could feature complex political satire, but it would fail in the laugh stakes. However, show a woman in a restaurant being offered the chef‟s surprise, before the chef jumps out shouting surprise, and you demonstrate the mechanics of anticipation, misdirection and payoff. Aside from the groaners there are a wealth of comedy styles on offer. Linguistic exercises are mined for all their comedic worth, visual gags are plentiful and the Late Late Laser Linkup section allows stock footage to be reimagined with witty headlines.
And this fine material is elevated further by one important factor: the performers. Their performances are eye-catching and this isn‟t down to the tremendous colour schemes offered by their 1980s wardrobe. All of the cast exhibit a comic savvy which gifts the material a pleasing slickness. Nick Wilton stands out owing to the expressive range at his disposal. Andy Secombe distances himself from his father‟s comedic shadow with a polished performance – just take a look at his ventriloquist reading of the end credits. Floella Benjamin, too, is a marvel of engaging affability, but what else would you expect from one of the queens of children‟s TV?
Wilton is eager to recall that working on the series, and at Television Centre, was a blast:
“It was like a club really and I feel very privileged to have been a
member. We had access to the BBC‟s huge wardrobe department so could
get wonderful costumes for the sketches. The Children‟s department was based in the East Tower and was run like a family. It was always lovely to pop in and see them all. We rehearsed in a big building in Acton, which we called the Acton Hilton, and there were floors and floors of massive rehearsal rooms. All the BBC shows rehearsed there – Drama, Light Entertainment and Children‟s TV so there was a real mix in the canteen at lunchtime. It was amazing who you‟d bump into in the lift”
The disposable and ephemeral nature of sketch shows means that the majority of them tend to rapidly vacate the memory banks. This is certainly no indicator of quality. And Fast Forward is a fine example of just how wonderful a sketch show can be. It‟s all down to the sharp, innovative material available and a raft of performances which are finely attuned to the art of comedy. Sketch shows may be sorely missed in the world of adult television, but at least there are a plethora of treasures like Fast Forward for us to rediscover.