There’s only one little insert slipped into Alfresco, the new two-disc DVD set from Acorn Media. It doesn’t list episodes or airdates for this little-known 80s British sketch-comedy show — it just a short essay that starts out to give us the context for the show. And it begins by telling us what a mess England was in the late 70s and early 80s, how the collapsing state and the rise of Thatcher gave birth to punk rock, and so on. And I thought, for a paragraph or two, that it was going to be a joke: I kept expecting, as I kept reading, that I would “learn” about the roving bands of angry young sketch comedians who were roaming the streets of London and Manchester and Liverpool at the time, delivering bitter takedowns to stockbrokers and chartered accountants. Cuz that would be the kind of sly undercutting you’d expect from these folks… both that they’d find insulting stockbrokers funny and even cathartic, and that they would think it was clever to subvert your DVD insert.
But no, it’s no joke, in fact: the little essay is genuine, and really does hope only to help us understand the world that Alfresco sprang from. And the historical context probably is the best way in which to appreciate this hit-or-miss collection of sight gags, wordplay, and middle-class angst, for it stars, in their first work, an array of people who are now practically revered: House’s Hugh Laurie, Oscar winner Emma Thompson, Harry Potter’s Robbie Coltrane, Ben Elton (who’d go on to cowrite The Young Ones and Blackadder), and all-around renaissance man Stephen Fry. These 13 episodes aired on Britain’s ITV in 1983 and 1984 (they’ve never appeared on American television), and the spectre of Monty Python and their Flying Circus hangs over the endeavor like, well, the Mr. Death who’s come about the reaping. It’s not that Alfresco isn’t funny, more that it’s not a revelation the way that Flying Circus was. And Alfresco is often more clever and less laugh-out-loud, demanding close attention to appreciate the sophisticated and often literary humor the gang here is dispensing… and it doesn’t work simultaneously on a less demanding level like the Pythons often did.
Divided into two series, the second works somewhat better than the first, as if the performers — who, like the Pythons, wrote all their material as well — had loosened up and relaxed and were ready to truly experiment. And it’s here that the show perhaps hits its one note of real genius: the “Pretend Pub,” an ongoing meta-sketch in which the actors are overtly seen as actors on an obvious set, and discuss their own performances, the shortcomings of the script, and the fakeness of the “pub.” It’s wildly inventive, but even this will bore more viewers than it enthralls. It’s as if Plato were one of the writers, and if that idea tickles you, you’ll love this. If you don’t know who Plato is, give it a miss.
The DVD: Look, this hails from a quarter of a century ago, and it looks it. Not much has been done to clean up the image or sound; though it’s all perfectly acceptable, we’re so spoiled these days with hi-def that it looks a bit shoddy. A few commentary tracks would have made the package even more useful from a historical standpoint — oh, to hear Fry and Laurie riff on this would have been delicious, no doubt — but the only extras are the three-part pilot, from 1982, called There’s Nothing to Worry About!, which includes early versions of some sketches that show up in Alfresco.