During Channel 4’s Funny Fortnight, we thought it’d be a good idea to look back at some of the TVO related shows in their archives.
Here, our editor in chief turns his attention to oft-neglected sketch show Beehive, to see if it’s worthy of a reappraisal.
In December, 2008, a brand new sketch show aired on E4. If you blinked, you’d have missed it – as it’s five episodes were crammed into three nights and promptly forgotten about. Since then, there’s always been a stigma surrounding Beehive – not least amongst its stars. During a recent appearance on Richard Herring’s podcast, Australian stand-up Sarah Kendall was incredibly dismissive about the show, or at the very least, it’s treatment by the channel. The dvd release of the series was rushed out not long after broadcast, and promptly forgotten about – it’s currently out of print, and is unlikely to get another run anytime soon.
Watching Beehive in retrospect, in some ways it’s difficult to see why it was buried away and forgotten about. This is, after all, a funny show. Yet at the same time, the shunting and dismissal is totally understandable given the way programming commissioners have moved towards broader, more mainstream entertainment, particularly at the time the show aired.
It is fair to say, however, that Beehive is far from perfect. Certainly, this is a show that isn’t quite sure what it wants to be. Written mostly by its four stars, Alice Lowe, Barunka O’Shaughnessy, Clare Thomson and Kendall – it was described by Sarah as “shit that makes the four of us laugh”. As such, it’s a fusion of surrealistic moments, such as the alien going to the swimming baths, traditional sketches like the Aztecs taking all day to write a name, and some downright purile knob and fart jokes that prove once and for all women like crude humour just as much as men.
The most successful regular sequences are those set in the Beehive flat. Playing exaggerated versions of themselves, these sequences act like a French & Saunders white room for the 21st century – allowing the girls to be incredibly silly in the strangest possible ways, always grounded by the familiar surroundings. Thus, Sarah can recreate that scene from Aliens or become convinced she is Spiderman, Barunka can pretend to be a Speshul Robot for Claire’s birthday, and they can all get offended by the phrase: “Barunka is a bellend.”
By the same token, the one-upmanship sketches between Sarah and Barunka are always a hoot, even if, by the end of the run, you’re just guessing how exactly one will trump the other. After all, no-one expects sketch shows to do something new every week – the trick is in making the same thing funny in a new way, and these moments work so well.
Where it falls down, perhaps, is where it feels too much like other, more well respected programs. The air stewardess sketches start with one gag that – though accidentally – apes mid-90s cult hit The High Life, as they politely welcome passengers then throw an insult at them under their breath. Indeed, until Lowe confirmed she’d never seen that show before writing and performing the sketch, even we put this down to more than pure coincidence. There are also a few moments when these skits reach for shock value, rather than simple comedy. No matter how great the performers, flippant jokes about strokes, outside of a darker context, are never going to come across funny.
Similarly, on the whole, the BeeTVee video skits fail on the whole because, bar Alice’s glorious impression of David Bowie getting another outing, this time in Labyrinth garb, the joke mostly appears to be that they’re pretending to be a famous person but saying something overly silly. This same idea extends to repeated sequences were the four leads dress up in identical outfits, pretending to be Madonna, Russell Brand, Amy Winehouse or George Michael, and do something out of the ordinary – be it morris dancing or diffusing a bomb. Trouble is, it feels like this was an idea which sounded great in the planning stages, but then wasn’t given much of a punch line to go with it.
That’s not to say some of the more imaginative ideas don’t work. The sequences featuring Kendall as Queen Elizabeth I, for example, are preposterously funny. Post Blackadder, and Miranda Richardson’s superb Queenie, it will always be incredibly difficult to make the Virgin Queen funny in a fresh light, but the team manage it by making her a grumpy, frumpy wannabe, mocked by members of her court and desperate to get laid.
Similarly, the sketch with Alice as a put-upon Northerner and her Musketeer boyfriend, or those featuring her as Marilyn Monroe training as a waitress, or as Galadriel getting in trouble for graffiti are slices of surrealistic madness which Lowe has made her stock in trade for years now. Possibly her finest moment in the show is as the lonely toddler, Rupert – fiercely intelligent, deeply philosophical and more than a little creepy, especially as the make-up and wig makes Alice look alarmingly like a miniature Sally Webster from Coronation Street.
In the end, Beehive’s failure to become a hit with viewers is not for lack of trying – but more because there simply wasn’t enough of it, and it was over in a flash. The entire series runs for less than two hours, and to make matters worse, it was all aired within a week or so with little publicity. As any comedy connoisseur will tell you, most sitcoms don’t hit the ground running. Given another run to bed itself in, and a little attention, and Beehive could have been a big hit.
It’s gag rate is certainly a step up from the majority of sketch shows out there – it’s vibe that of a (mostly) all female Mitchell & Webb Look but more anarchic and off-kilter. The four leads work brilliantly together – their natural chemistry apparent across even the duff sketches – and the able supporting cast, including James Bachman, Tom Meeten and Jack Whitehall – could have been a great foundation to call upon for a bit more variety in further episodes. When it works, it’s downright hilarious, and a second series could have ironed out the kinks and made the show into a classic. Time has not been kind to Beehive, but perhaps, just perhaps, it’s time for a fresh reckoning.
Sadly Beehive is currently unavailable from The Velvet Onion Amazon Store. The title has currently been deleted, and we believe remaining stock may have been caught up in the warehouse fire caused by last year’s riots in London. Click here to search for used&new copies via Amazon traders, or catch the entire show on 4oD.