Posted: 09/01/2008




by Katie Morris

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Alfresco, a British sketch-comedy series from the 1980s, launched the careers of Hugh Laurie (better known as House, M.D.), Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson, Robbie Coltrane and Ben Elton, among others. This two-volume DVD boxed set from Acorn Media includes both the first and second seasons, as well as the three-episode pilot series that led to the series.

Like most sketch comedy, Alfresco is hit-or-miss. Written largely by the actors themselves, some sketches still get laughs, while a lot get blank looks. An additional issue for this U.S. release is the gap between British and American cultures. Yes, we do speak the same language, but we aren’t really speaking the same language. Some sketches hinge on knowing a particular phrase of British slang, and while most Americans know “bollocks,” for example, how many have heard of a “wally”?

Episodes from the first season are loosely connected (if at all), and many sketches give the viewer the feeling on being on a hallucinatory drug, with throwaway lines in the sketches such as “Remember when we had sticky fingers, from eating too much chocolate orange cake, and rummaging inside the bodies of dead animals?” Recurring characters include Mr. Butcher and Mr. Baker, who do a stranger version of “Who’s on first.” The second season is better organized than the first, providing less LSD-sensory entertainment. Episodes are linked by scenes in the Pretend Pub, where Lord Stezza mingles with commoners, and where the actors frequently refer to the audience, as they satirize their own show.

A lot of people talk about “British humor,” which typically seems to mean dry, incomprehensible drivel that is obscurely funny to the British. While this series is quintessentially British, with sketches making fun of the healthcare system, Margaret Thatcher, class culture and Britain’s relationship to other countries (in particular Russia), many things in Alfresco are universal, if you can get past their British vehicle of delivery. This series is certainly not for everyone. It’s not even for most people. But anglophiles or any fan of members of this bright cast may want to give it a try.

Katie Morris is a writer and a film critic in Chicago.

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