LEE & HERRING : THE RADIO YEARSMr. Stewart Graham Lee and Mr. Richard Keith Herring are well known to us as the cheeky funsters who made appearances on Sunday Morning telly with their hilarious parodies of the holy bible, and their blasphemous claims to be the new Jesus Christ. But behind all the fun, there is a history. A history stretching back as far as the late 1980s, to the outer reaches of the BBC Home Service. You may not know this to look at them, but these crazy comics began their lives on the radio. Oh yes indeedy.
Lee and Herring first started working together in the last century, during the 1980s, and cut their broadcast writing teeth on Radio 4's Flagship Topical Satirical Cutting Edge Comedy Programme, Week Ending. Week Ending began life in 1970, and continued it's glorious reign for 28 years, until evil Radio 4 Controller, James Boyle, killed it off in April 1998, some 28 years after it began.
In it's hey day, Week Ending was an important stepping stone, a metaphorical diving board, for literally dozens of successful comedy performers, producers and writers, many of whom went on to metaphorically swim in the metaphorical pool we call popular entertainment. Lee and Herring's involvement with the programme gave them a healthy disliking for all things satire. "It seemed like forever," says Mr. Herring, "but it was actually only around a year (maybe a year and a half) I think. By the end it drove me so insane that I used to hide in some plastic boxes in the writer's room to try and escape having to do any work."
Eventually, they went on to parody the show itself when in 1991, they wrote a sketch for On The Hour about a show called 'Thank God It's Satire-Day!', which they portrayed as filled with tiresome and irrelevant Robin Hood pastiches. 'On The Hour' brought together a group of performers whose influence on today's comedy output cannot be understated, and whose paycheques (or indeed egos) today would not all fit into the same room. The team together constitute a generation of comedy writers and performers who have gone on to be involved in some of the most important comedy programmes of the decade: Chris Morris, Steve Coogan, Peter Baynham, David Schneider, Patrick Marber, Rebecca Front, Doon MacKichan, Armando Ianucci, and of course Lee and Herring.
The basic premise of the programme was that it was comedy about news. Not about what happened in the news - a service already provided by too many poor quality topical shows - but about how the news is produced and presented. Richard contends that their contribution to the show was quite significant. "I think that although we wrote about a third of the first series of 'On the Hour' and slightly less of the second (partly because it was largely produced while Stewart was up in Edinburgh), we certainly created much of the tone of the show. It is very difficult to actually say how much anyone contributed to the creation of the concept. It was such a group thing. I think our input was less than Stewart now believes, but more than Armando believes. But it's hard to remember."
The programme ran for two series, one in 1991 and the second in 1992, with a Christmas special in between. After the second series, preparations began for a transfer to BBC2 television under the new title of The Day Today. Around this time, the much-publicised dispute between Lee and Herring and the rest of the cast arose. Richard Herring takes on the story.
"Because of the way we wrote together and ideas were improvised around, it was very hard for Armando to edit us out. He tried very hard - even changing names we'd made up by inserting place names in as surnames."
"Basically when it went to TV we were offered a 13 minute a show commission (which would have been a lot of money for us in those days), but no credit for having co-created the series and the characters. Our manager (Jon Thoday) felt that Armando was rushing to get the project on TV without getting the best deal (both in terms of money and ownership of the project). As we were given no ownership of the project he felt we should withdraw. I was personally gutted by this at the time, as I was poor and thought we were being bumped out of something that could have been the new Monty Python!
One thing I clearly remember though was that I was lying in bed listening to Radio 4 when I heard a reporter of the Today programme being asked about the details of the Maastricht Treaty, which he clearly hadn't read and he was badly busking his way through it. I went in and told Armando about this and me and Stewart wrote up some notes for the cast to improvise around. The sketch - the first appearance of Peter O'Hanrahahanrahan - was chosen for Pick of the Week, but the writing credit was given to Armando and Patrick. When I challenged Arm about this he said "Oh, but you just heard it on the radio".
As this was the genesis of much of the material on the show that seemed a bit of a crap argument and was the beginning of our belittlement in the project. And that found its way on to TV. And we got no credit - though I think it's clear from our other work that it is "such" a Lee and Herring idea. That's just an example."
The BBC Radio Collection has released a double-audio cassette of On The Hour, but this tape is not a true reflection of the original content of the programme. Again, Richard explains. "Because of the way we wrote together and ideas were improvised around, it was very hard for Armando to edit us out. He tried very hard - even changing names we'd made up by inserting place names in as surnames. Like I say, we invented the idea of Peter O'etc and wrote practically all the material for Monsignor Treeb- Lopez (though not the name) [I must say Stewart completely created the tone of that character - especially the kind of "nibble nuts" stuff. I wrote some broader stuff for it, then in series 2 Patrick badly copied our style to write some more] We also wrote nearly all the material for Rosie May and Alan Partridge, so established a tone that other people then wrote for. So yes, it was impossible to eradicate us completely and the whole thing was over something pathetic like £50 and Arm was up for about 3 nights re-editing. If I had been him I'd just have given us £50 myself."
The next escapade the Lee and Herring boys got involved in was the little known Radio 4 late night student series 'The End of the Roadshow', a series consisting of four programmes broadcast across the divide of 1991 and 1992. Each episode was recorded at a different university, and was set up as a pastiche of the Radio 1 Roadshow. The contents were billed as consisting of "a shoddy competition, off-the-cuff repartee with the audience, a look at the problems of being young, and facts about the town we're in". The programme was a rather mundane, run of the mill Radio 4 affair, fronted by Tony Hawkes, Neil Mullarkey, Nick Hancock and Rebecca Front. It is only worthy of note as this was the first series written entirely by the now highly successful partnership of Richard 'Rich' Herring and Stewart 'Stew' Lee.
Speaking of Lee and Herring, they continued with their Radio 4 success in 1992 by suddenly appearing on Radio 4, saying words that they had written in 'Lionel Nimrod's Inexplicable World'. The eponymous hero of the programme, Lionel Nimrod (played by Tom Baker), was a washed-up sixties sci-fi who apparently played "Mackay the Morloi" in the cult series "Star Ark". Where do they get these wacky names? "I think we rather craply just slightly changed Leonard Nimoy's name to get Lionel Nimrod."
The series was billed as "new age comedy" and each week investigated a different mysterious theme: 'The Human Mind', 'Monsters, Ghosts and UFOs', 'Death and the Afterlife' etc. Each programme featured a mixture of one-liners, character dialogue and sketches disguised as reports. "It was originally called 'Lionel Nimrod's Spooky World'" says Rich, "and me and Stew were called different names ['Barry Crustings' and 'Francis Souza', according to KRFS sources] and there was a character called Amanda Decadent in it. It was like a Word spoof or something terrible like that. I think the BBC were making us do stuff like that to begin with and then we rebelled against it- they kept changing their mind anyway. The series was only made because Sarah Smith threatened to resign if it wasn't."
Every episode ended with some kind of solid conclusion: for example, in 'Love', the episode finishes with the discovery that love is the smell of spaghetti. Herring and Lee played most parts, with other boy parts played by Armando Iannucci, and all girl parts played by Rebecca Front. One regular character, appearing to provide the last piece of the puzzle every week was Peter Fenn [played by Armando], with his 'Hammond Organ Believe It Or Not File'. Are there any plans to resurrect Peter? "No." The first series was broadcast in 1992, with the second appearing the year later, and was partially repeated on the funkier radio channel, Radio 1, as a precursor to Lee and Herring's next broadcast phenomenon, Lee and Herring's Fist of Fun.
Lee and Herring's Fist of Fun appeared on Radio 1 in 1993, establishing Lee and Herring's trademark character-based humour. The series was recorded at different university venues each week, with a mixture of sketches, topical gags, and character humour. First appearances on this programme included Peter Dibdin the Driving Instructor, The Two Very Different Teachers, and the world premier of the glorious 'Gnat's Chuff' joke.
Another strong feature of 'Lee and Herring's Fist of Fun' was
the emergence of the 26 year old bed-sit dwelling Welsh Virgin Peter Baynham,
who appeared regularly as a tragic lifestyle advisor. The character of Peter
Baynham was written and performed by comedian Peter Baynham, who didn't stop
to consider the implications of using his own name for such a sad, lonely character.
Regular appearances were made by Rebecca Front, Ronnie Ancona and Jo Unwin,
who played the girl parts, and Alistair McGowan, Kevin Eldon and John Thompson,
who all went on to appear in various guises on the 'Fist of Fun' television
show, whose basic style was based on this programme.
The very last dip the Lee and Herring Funsters had into the Planet of Radio Mirth was the Lee and Herring Show, their Radio 1 show that ran for three series - one in 1994, and two in 1995. The tone and content of the programme can be briefly summed up by one of their jingles: "Lee and Herring: Jokes, Swearing, and eight or nine slightly irritating records", but I've never been one for brevity.
Rich: "I'd like to do more drama stuff on the radio and wouldn't mind doing a DJed show, but it probably won't happen!"
The Lee and Herring Show was a result of Radio 1's move away from half hour comedy shows, towards shows that mixed comedy and music. The programme was produced by Light Entertainment, and therefore, as Stewart endlessly pointed out, they had to bring in their own records. This gave Stew - an obsessive music fan who measures his record collection by length - the opportunity to show off some of the more surreal parts of his record collection, with notable examples including Leonard Nimoy's 'Bilbo Baggins' and The Flying Picket's version of Nirvana's 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'.
The first series brought the first trickle of letters from what was to become the very loyal and dedicated fan base Lee and Herring have today. Every week, Rich and Stew made a plea for people to "send stuff in", usually linked to the theme of that week's phone-in.
Source - The Comedy Lounge