This isn’t a film, per se, but a series of highlights from popular BBC sketch show The Fast Show, a big deal back in the mid 1990’s. Comedy often revolves around catch-phrases, and back in the day, a tv show could quickly and insidiously imprint a captive audience; The Fast Show leans heavily into this idea, and phrases like “Scorchio’ and ‘I was very, very drunk…’ are still used today without any thought of where they came from. So it made sense for Paul Whitehouse and his crew to create a sketch entirely about catch-phrases, and the result was these twelve beautifully faked clips detailing the life and times of fictional comic Arthur Atkinson.
Played by Whitehouse, Arthur Atkinson is a pre-war British comedian in the mould of Arthur Askey, a performer who also gets regularly referenced by Mike Meyer’s Austin Powers pastiche. We see Arthur wowing music-hall crowds with a stream of indecipherable references which have them rolling in the aisles, topped off by his classic ‘Where’s me washboard?’ which inevitably brings the house down despite having no obvious humorous content.
Some of the clips are introduced by a cravat-sporting entertainer named Tommy Cockles, played by Simon Day in the manner of Roy Hudd, pays tribute but is unable to avoid throwing shade on the beloved entertainer, who is as mean to his family as he is to his fellow comic Chester Drawers. We see Arthur try and fail to adapt his routine to the movies, then score a hit impersonating Hitler in a tatty programmer, then adapt again to live television before a sex-scandal ruins his prospects and his parts dry up. But his decline is lyrical; a parody of 1970’s sex comedies captures Arthur’s obscure innuendos adrift in a torrent of smut in Confessions of a Door-to-Door Cucumber Salesman, followed by And Then What? a brilliant parody of old BBC 2 Samuel Beckett plays, in which Arthur sits under a bare light-bulb, staring at a dripping tap, mumbling a different kind of verbose ephemera. ‘Begin. Begin again…’
‘I’ve seen you stuffing sandwiches with mutton instead of lamb on a Tuesday!’, ‘Who do you think you are, Billy the Kid from Agony Wick?’; the phrases are meaningless, but recall a different kind of comedy that’s inscrutable now. Watching the rise and fall of Arthur Atkinson is funny, but also has a genuine pathos that few comedy characters can muster; if you’re a stranger to Arthur Atkinson, this 30 minute crash course is a joy to watch for anyone who loves a good laugh.