You may not know the name, but the face will be instantly familiar. Over the past decade, Alice Lowe has been quietly making a name for herself, working with the cream of British comedy talent and crafting her own unique and utterly hilarious take on the world.
Now, Lowe has teamed up with director Jacqueline Wright – director of her tv pilot Lifespam – to launch JackalFilms. With a new film every month, the pair are working with some familiar faces to any fans of The Mighty Boosh and the numerous shows around it we here at The Velvet Onion love so much.
The pair have launched a website for JackalFilms – on which you can read all about the films, see them for yourselves and even buy songs featured in them. You can visit this marvellous yellow wonder by clicking on the word Mozambique.
There’s also a YouTube channel right over yonder.
In preparation for the next film on 25th February, we thought it’d be as perfect time as any to take another one of our irregular looks at the wider world of Booshdom beyond the current news, and shine a spotlight on the work of one of its brightest stars: Alice Lowe.
A Cambridge graduate, alongside the likes of Mitchell & Webb and Mighty Boosh director Paul King, Alice Lowe first came to attention as an intricate part in the early Garth Marenghi live shows, alongside Matthew Holness and Richard Ayoade. The first, Garth Marenghi’s Fright Knight, was nominated for the prestigious Perrier Award in 2000 – its sequel, Netherhead, won the following year, and it wasn’t long before television executives had their eye on the trio.
Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, which was broadcast in January 2004, expanded on the template of the live shows spectacularly, with Holness’ egotistical title character unearthing episodes of his lost masterpiece – never shown when first made in the early 1980s, which Marenghi claims was down to the British Government deeming his mindset too dangerous and even too radical for audiences to cope with.
Garth proudly states that he’s written more books than he’s read, and the “surviving footage” from his series is interspersed with candid interview material featuring the author, his publisher and wooden co-star Dean Leaner (Ayoade) and the chauvinistic actor Todd Rivers (Matt Berry). Alice Lowe’s character, Madeline Wool plays Dr Liz Asher in the series, but within the outer narrative Wool is missing, presumed dead. That the characters and their back story lived on in spinoff series Man To Man With Dean Leaner (in which Lowe only briefly appeared), and on all subsequent dvd extra material for both series means the only glimpses we saw of her were as this ditzy, stereotypical female – intentionally written as a two-dimensional object upon which Marenghi can throw all his deep rooted sexist attitudes. As he states in the show of his own daughters: “Although I don’t hate them, I don’t really feel they’re on my side.”
Darkplace, for all its magnificence [which we'll look at another time in depth], was criminally ignored by Channel 4. Despite, or perhaps because of its deliberately lo-fi appearance, the show was costly to make, and when the channel buried the series with minimal promotion late on Thursday evenings, the ratings were not big enough to warrant another run – and it took over two years to gain a dvd release. By that point, the show had garnered a cult following and the subsequent spin-off series to boot, and both Ayoade and Matt Berry had become big names on the comedy circuit thanks to their work in The Mighty Boosh and later The IT Crowd.
Sadly, Matthew Holness did not receive the same kind of recognition, nor at first, did Alice. However, following her role in the Kris Marshall led sitcom My Life In Film for BBC3, Lowe was soon cropping up as a supporting artist for mainstream comedians. First up was a role in Rob Brydon’s Annually Retentive, and this was followed by appearances in Little Britain, Ruddy Hell… It’s Harry & Paul, The IT Crowd and Star Stories. In the Autumn of 2008 she and regular collaborator Steve Oram traversed the country with Steve Coogan, on his much publicised “comeback” tour, the pair appearing in Coogan’s sketches and providing their own oddball moments whilst the headliner transformed into his various personas.
In more off-kilter moments, she also appeared in series 2 of The Mighty Boosh as Monkey, the town freak who would cover herself in peanut butter to prevent the Betamax Bandit from attacking her; and in Matt Berry & Rich Fulcher‘s magnificently dark Snuffbox as the Thin White Duke himself, David Bowie – a startlingly good impression of the Ziggy-era glam rock star who gets put in his place by Rich’s stupidity. Cinema audiences were also treated to an almost unrecognisable Alice as Tina the supermarket worker and part-time table dancer in Edgar Wright’s wonderous cop-spoof Hot Fuzz - a chavtastic reinvention so convincing, it took until my third visit to the cinema to see the film before I realised it was her!
None of these, however, really gave audiences a glimpse of her own unique brand of humour. They may have demonstrated what a highly versatile character actress she could be, but in all these cases, Lowe was dancing to someone else’s beat – and her own was usually somewhat stranger. Television audiences got to see a glimpse of this in the little-seen E4 sketch show Beehive (now available on dvd, and for viewing on SeeSaw and 4oD).
Though, like most sketch shows today it sometimes strayed a little too close to its influences (lifting jokes from the likes of French & Saunders and The High Life), on the whole Beehive was a treat – Alice and her co-stars aping the likes of Russell Brand, ABBA, Sex & The City and yet again, David Bowie (this time in his Labyrinth get-up!) brilliantly. The show gave an ample opportunity for Lowe’s dark, carefree humour to shine: one sketch in particular featured co-star Sarah Kendall recreating her favourite moment from Aliens, in which the android Bishop danced a knife around his fingers. When the stunt naturally goes horribly wrong, and Kendall is left screaming in agony at the bloodied stumps that were once her fingers, Alice deadpands confused: “Sorry, is this still part of the film? Cos I don’t remember that bit.”
Unfortunately for Beehive, it was buried away, like comedy gems often are, in a poor timeslot with no promotion. Despite unimaginative sketch shows being a regular feature on our screens, the majority feature ensemble casts that can get away with a lack of originality. The show’s all female cast, however, worked against it – critics unfavorably comparing it to the equally hit and miss Smack The Pony and Channel 4 never gave it a chance – something which seems to be increasingly the case for those who operate just outside the mainstream, and the same fate which befell her next major project, Lifespam.
Like Adam Buxton’s meeBox before it, Lifespam was a pilot episode buried in a graveyard slot on a Sunday night on BBC3, the only promotion being from Alice’s Facebook friends whoring the knowledge of its existence to anyone who would listen. Considering this was the channel which gave the world Horne & Corden and a whole host of dreary teen-centric sitcoms, that the pilot was deemed unsuccessful and not given a series is a tragic waste of televisual possibility – especially considering it was so incredibly enjoyable.
Teaming up with director Jacqueline Wright, Alice recruited her old pals Simon Farnaby, Tom Meeten and Steve Oram to play various parts in this pitch perfect spoof of the kind of over the top docudramas that the channel was increasingly relying on to fill its schedules. And so, we discovered the story of the woman who became trapped by her own hair, the tale of the boy loner who kicked pigeons to death in his local park, the religious cult in which men are expected to have 1,000 wives, and, best of all, a single mother who discovers her child may be French, and so travels to France to abandon him to his own country. It’s dark, it’s in slightly bad taste, and it’s as far from the mainstream as you can get, but it’s also ridiculously funny. Never before has the phrase “Eat the brie” been so amusing.
Perhaps this is because this is Lowe’s gift – she can take the most bizarre and occasionally even disturbing or horrific scenarios, transplant them seamlessly into believable, natural settings, and find the humour within them. That’s not to say her comedy works like mobile phone jokes when a celebrity dies – its much, much cleverer than that. There are layers to her work, and themes which seem to be struck through most of her own writing like Blackpool Rock. In an interview with The Times to promote Lifespam, Alice claimed to resist pigeonholing herself, stating: “I’d rather live a lot of different lives.”
Certainly, this appears to be the case. As Kitty Litta, the star of short films Sticks & Balls and Kitty Porn, she gets to cavort around as an electro-pop goddess, fantasising about having sex on golf courses or pretending to be a cat on a suburban street. In Earth Birth, she gives Kate Bush a run for her money, with a progtastic 80s pop number and interpretive dance routine to match… while Junglophilia sees Alice as 80s post-punk popstress Val Hallah – a pitch perfect parody of Toyah Willcox in her early 80s glory days, right down to the title song (composed by Alice Lowe) which manages to sound like at least half a dozen Toyah tracks at once.
But for all the popstar posing, most of Alice’s characters are tragic creatures – sometimes longing to be free of their torment (as in the brilliant Out Of Water short), sometimes unable to see how its all crumbling down around them (Val Hallah), at other times just being too unusual to be part of society as we know it. With the latter, it sometimes comes at the cost of others, be it the over the top camp nonsense of Queen B, or the sinister undertones of nerdy caravaning psychopaths The Sightseers. Alice writes, and often plays outsiders and oddballs – which does make one wonder sometimes if that’s how she views herself.
Of course, the main reason behind it all is that Alice is writing material she thinks is funny, to make other people laugh. There’s always the danger of looking too deeply into comedy, and losing sight of the reason it exists in the first place. With Alice Lowe, it’s safe to say you never quite know what you’re going to get next, and part of the excitement of keeping a close eye on what she’s upto means that variety becomes what you expect not just of her and those she works with, but of what you find worth your time in the first place. With JackalFilms, Alice and her friends have a chance to take their off-kilter look at the world directly to the people who get it, without any need for dumb tv executives to question their motives and then decide it’s not worth their time in the first place.
And its working. The Sightseers was rejected by tv executives for being too dark, but it managed to impress Edgar Wright – so much so that the director of Hot Fuzz is now on board to executive produce a movie version. It’s early days, and the movie might never happen, but the possibilities are there… and thanks to the wonder of the internet, people can sidetrack the tv busybodies who think they know what people want, and tell the artists directly just how great their work is. JackalFilms gives Alice Lowe and her cohorts a chance to do exactly that, and we here at The Velvet Onion will always be there to lend a supporting hand, and make sure YOU, dear readers, know whats going on as soon as we do.
Whatever the future holds for Ms Lowe… we’re tagging along for the ride, and we hope you will too.
Visit JackalFilms @ www.jackalfilms.co.uk