Tonight's Bank Holiday treat from BBC2 was a somewhat spoof-ish retrospective of Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse's comic partnership as it reached its 25th year (iffy calculations aside) entitled An Evening with Harry and Paul.
Now I have always like Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse - being a schoolkid 25 years ago means I was the ideal target age to be reciting their catchphrases in the playground, and I did - but I do have my reservations. Naturally with any sketch comedy duo, their material is scattergun at best; some gags and characters hit the bullseye, others go very wide.
So it was rather curious to see them meet these reservations and objections head on in tonight's special, which saw them take questions from 'celebrities' in the audience (in reality Harry and Paul playing notable figures including Ricky Gervais, Stephen Fry and, in one hilarious moment, Jimmy Carr taking the piss out of his ridiculously fake attention seeking laugh, as well as some odder inclusions like Brian Walden and Margaret Thatcher) as the format ultimately deconstructed to conclude with allegations of sexism, racism, homophobia and unfair portrayals of mental illness and dementia in their material.
Enfield and Whitehouse haven't actually made a full series together since 2012 (though they did produce the critically acclaimed Harry and Paul's Story of the Two's for the channel last year to celebrate its anniversary) and I must admit I was beginning to find the seeming contempt they had towards women characters very wearing back then. When this special opened tonight with both of them ridiculing Catherine Shepherd playing Harry's considerably much younger wife for her supposedly unattractive looks my heart did sink. But as the show subsequently became a trial it seems like they accept the criticisms they attract...yet bizarrely, they took this nowhere. In the end, the special closed with more bad taste; Harry brushes off the criticism and is shown to heal Stephen Hawking (in reality, Whitehouse) who rises up from his chair to walk, though his voice remains the same electronic voice box aid.
What were they telling us here? Yes we have overstepped the mark with some material that leaves a bad taste in the mouth and we'll continue to do so - was that it?
At it's best, An Evening With Harry & Paul reminded of us some great moments from the '90s, and allowed us a chance to see Kathy Burke on TV once more. But thankfully this wasn't just about 'the good old days' and there was some great contemporary material in the canny and astute mickey takes the pair had for their celebrity audience; the aforementioned Carr moment, a Mark Rylance from Wolf Hall which had somehow merged with Robert Lindsay's Wolfie Smith of 70s sitcom Citizen Smith, and a Dave Nice who had, by his own admission, been recently acquitted of all bar one Yewtree allegations. But it also reminded me that Paul Whitehouse remains the powerhouse of this comic partnership and that Harry Enfield is very lucky to have him. That's not to say that Enfield isn't a talented performer, but I do think it is Whitehouse who somehow grounds him and adds a likeability factor that Enfield doesn't necessarily have solo but that he clearly does, as The Fast Show - that successful, critically and commercially acclaimed looming elephant in the room of any Harry and Paul discussion - proved. It is however becoming increasingly clear that they need one another; Whitehouse cast Enfield adrift into the comedy oasis as The Fast Show began its impressive rise but swiftly returned to him when Chris Langham was found guilty of downloading level 5 child pornography, nixing any future series of their sitcom Help. Now that Nurse, his latest BBC2 sitcom has been unfairly axed after just one series by the corporation, it seems likely he'll be back with Harry for something more long term shortly.
Also - has Harry had a terrible hair transplant?