WHERE did all the sketch shows disappear to?

Go back 10 or 15 years and we had Little Britain, The Catherine Tate Show and Mitchell and Webb.

Before that there was The League of Gentlemen, Harry Enfield and Chums and The Fast Show and we fondly remember the classics like Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Morecambe and Wise and The Two Ronnies.

Trends may have changed on TV but sketch shows have never gone away on the radio where arguably the format works better than ever.

Just ask John Finnemore whose career has revolved around radio and comedy.

He said: “I love doing shows on the radio. I love the immediacy of it. I love being in complete control of what the listener ‘sees’ as it were.

“Sketch shows are expensive to make on TV because you have all these different locations and costumes and sets.

“But in a way on radio you’ve got an ‘unlimited budget’.

“We can do anything and be anywhere. You can have characters talking and then only reveal when you chose to that they’re in fact basking sharks or whatever they be.

“Whereas on TV you’d have to conceal that quite carefully or wouldn’t be able to at all. So in some ways radio is very freeing.”

Winsford Guardian:

John is performing in Warrington on September 12 when he will be bringing the cast of John Finnemore’s Souvenir Programme to the Parr Hall stage.

Fans of his hit BBC Radio 4 sitcom, Cabin Pressure, will be pleased that he will be reprising his role as overexcited air steward Arthur.

The series, which also starred Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephanie Cole and Roger Allam, was about MJN Air, the world’s smallest airline, consisting of just one 16-seater plane.

It was a subject that came naturally to John as his dad was a pilot for British Airways.

He added: “As a family we’d get a free ticket once a year so we went on some wonderful holidays.

“And in those days, it was pre-9/11 so it was much easier to visit the cockpit – or flight deck I should say.

“Dad gets cross when I call it the cockpit. Cockpit means a fighter jet, airlines have flight decks. So yes I got to visit the flight deck and be up there for take-off and landing.”

The difference between his own experiences and Cabin Pressure is that John had to create a small airline so that his characters would always be together.

Winsford Guardian:

He said: “My dad flew 747s for a big airline where you wouldn’t necessarily fly with the same co-pilot for months or even years.

“That wouldn’t work for a sitcom so I needed a way in which my characters would constantly be together and that’s why it became a tiny, one jet charter airline.

“That also opened all sorts of plot avenues because they could fly anyone I wanted anywhere instead of doing the same routes over and over again like most airlines.

“Comedy is all about people who are trapped together and you can’t be more trapped than being in a flying cupboard over the Atlantic for eight hours.”

Over its four series, Cabin Pressure had a big bump in its popularity when Benedict Cumberbatch became a household name following Sherlock.

John added: “It changed the audience demographic a bit. We had an equal gender split mostly of people over 40 and 50.

“Then after Sherlock, suddenly it was mostly female and mostly under 30. But they were great

“We worried a little that they would maybe only be interested in seeing Benedict and they wouldn’t really care about the show.

“But that was not the case at all. They were a great audience and they laughed as hard at Stephanie Cole as they did at Ben.”

Indeed, Radio 4 received more than 22,000 audience ticket requests – breaking the world record for a BBC radio comedy – to watch the recording of the final episode.

John said: “It was extraordinary. It was popular back then but I don’t think any of us were expecting quite that many requests.

“I can’t remember how many the theatre held but it wouldn’t have been much more than 400 or 500 so you’re odds of getting a ticket were very small.

“It was probably the hardest thing I’d ever written and may still be because I had so much to resolve but also still make it funny.

“In the early drafts it became more like a play or a soap opera and you think: ‘No, it still has to be funny’. It was very hard to write and I was exhausted by the end of it but it was quite a day that final recording.”

Meanwhile, John has been working on two projects with Armando Iannucci, known for the likes of Alan Partridge, The Thick of It, Veep and The Death of Stalin.

The first is Avenue 5, a HBO comedy set on a spaceship in the near future and the second is a film called In Too Deep.

John said: “That’s extremely exciting but at the moment I’m not allowed to say anything about it.”

So what is it like to work with Britain’s renowned satirist?

John added: “Armando’s often asked why don’t you bring The Thick of It back to discuss Brexit but the situation is beyond satire at the moment. The politicians are doing it for themselves.

“He’s not intimidating. He’s a lovely man. He’s unusually open to suggestions from anyone and a delight. I would say that anyway but it happens to be true.”

HOW I GOT MY BREAK AS A WRITER AND PERFORMER

JOHN Finnemore has loved sketch shows since he was a child and he seized the opportunity to turn his passion into a career at university.

He said: “I loved them growing up. My favourites were the shows by Victoria Wood and Fry and Laurie when I was a boy.

“That was what inspired me to get into comedy in the first place.”

John enjoyed writing and performing in equal measure – so he did both. 

While studying at Cambridge University, he joined Footlights, the renowned amateur club run by students.

He added: “The simplest way was to write something and then perform it yourself and given I was always interested in doing both there was a show every fortnight. 

“It was basically a late-night show, about an hour long. It was the format of an open mic stand-up but rather than a bit of stand-up you would do a sketch or a character monologue or something like that. 

“You could audition for it on Tuesday and be performing it by Thursday. It was such a great way of learning and getting through all the terrible stuff you have to write when you start.

“Getting to perform it in front of an audience meant you really saw what worked and you saw what other people were doing and what worked about that.”

At the same time John was cutting his teeth working on the scripts for other people’s shows like Mitchell and Webb and Dead Ringers.

Winsford Guardian:

The first bit of work that John sold was for Channel 4’s Smack the Pony.
Another key moment was being introduced to David Mitchell through the producer of Dead Ringers. 

David was keen to work with John as he had been making waves on the Edinburgh Fringe circuit.

The pair have now worked together numerous times and John is currently assisting with writing an episode of Simon Blackwell’s Mitchell and Webb sitcom, Back.

He said: “I’ve particularly enjoyed writing in David’s voice. We did a long series of a thing called Soapbox which was a series of three-minute rants and I started to really enjoy writing for his particular voice. It’s nice to be doing it again and he’s a good friend as well.”