Worst to Best
Kelly Monteith

Kelly Monteith was something of a cult favourite back in the 80s, the first BBC sitcom to feature an American comedian as the star. Mixing observational humour with surreal situations, it was a quite charming programme that grew a sizeable audience through word-of-mouth.


by
THE ANORAK
JANUARY
2021


The series ran on BBC2 from 1979-1984, and also enjoyed a repeat run on BBC1 from 1980-1985. Although very popular at the time, lack of repeats and the age of the show have seen it slip from the public consciousness in the UK. Please join me as we relive some memories and rank all six series of the programme from worst to best...

36 Episode 6.6

In many senses, the concept of "worst to best" here is just a gimmick to hang an article on, as while comedy is subjective anyway, there's a reasonably consistent level to this show. While the episodes do generally get better the further up the rankings we go, many of them could comfortably be moved ten places up or down from their current position.
     For those who do remember Kelly's show, perhaps the most shocking thing in hindsight is how rude it got. In his very first episode, he claims that you'll never see "sex and violence" on his show, but as the years went on and societal mores and comedic values changed, it got more sex-obsessed and swearier. This isn't a bad thing by itself, but it went out at 9pm, right at the start of the watershed, and was something that many of us watched with families. On a personal note, while I do have many happy memories of watching my grandad laughing at the show, I do retroactively cringe at all the sex jokes that went completely over my head as a small boy - which does, at least, explain why my grandad would suddenly start a conversation mid-way through some of the sketches.
     There's a routine in this instalment where Kelly is wearing skin tight vinyl trousers, and his facial expressions and the accompanying sound effects are supposed to give the impression that he's getting an offscreen erection. Unfortunately, the camera pulls back to a mid shot to reveal Kelly's entire body, which, if not removing the joke altogether, does kill it dead. A series well worth checking out is Kelly Monteith's BBC Memories from The Anglophile Channel on YouTube. In each episode Kelly looks at around 1-3 clips from the shows, and gives his views on the the behind-the-scenes details and the sketches. Each episode lasts around 6-15 minutes, some being a brief overview, some delving more into the conceptual and production side of the show. The specific BBC Memories episode which deals with the "squeaky vinyl pants" is particularly enlightening, as Kelly reveals his frustation that the shot was pulled back, and not edited out before transmission.

35 Episode 4.5

So, where can you see Kelly's show? Well, it's difficult. All of the screenshots in this article have been taken from old off-air copies, but in an age where streaming and repeats are widely available, it hasn't been picked up by any online platform at date of writing. If you'd be interested in seeing it being rescreened, you could always politely ask the Twitter accounts of the BBC and Britbox if they'd show them. Britbox have, to give them full credit, been responsive on the platform, and have added quite a bit of cult TV to their roster, so this is not impossible.
      If you still need a Kelly fix, albeit not the show that bears his name, then here in the UK if you've got an Amazon Prime account you can see him do stand-up for free in 1990's Comedy Club Network, and on the same platform you can also get a look at his second movie, 2015's Too Hip For the Room. He also has a new show out called The Real Geezers of Beverly Hills-Adjacent which, unfortunately, was only available in the UK for a limited time, and can now only be seen Stateside.
      As for this particular episode, it's a nice enough instalment, with lots of car-related humour, and some familiar faces to cult TV fans, such as Frederick Jaeger, Cleo Rocos (pictured), Marina Sirtis, and, uncredited, it seems, the voice of Derek Griffiths as Kelly's talking car.

34 Episode 6.1

Kelly had a long run at the BBC, with all the series of his show (except for series five, at least according to BBC Genome) repeated on BBC1 the following year in a late-night timeslot. There was even a two-part broadcast of a stand-up set, Kelly Monteith in One on BBC2 in 1985. But nothing lasts forever, and after seven years of being shown on the BBC he went back to work in the States.
      Consequently those with fading memories on this side of the pond (the show ended 36 years ago, after all) tend to lump him in with the likes of Paul Squire and Brodie Fry when it comes to "do you remember...?" conversations. This does a great disservice to Kelly, whose series was very successful for BBC2. With the passage of time it's hard to track down all the ratings, but of this last run of six episodes, then the viewing stats for five of the weeks are available via the British Newspaper Archive. Of those five weeks, then only one of them didn't make the BBC2 top ten, and the ratings grew, too... from 2.65 million for this episode, all the way up to 4.1 million for the final show. All of which makes you wonder why they didn't do another series the next year.
     The last series can get a little muddied by a drastic change of format: suddenly all of Kelly's life and monologues are him within a sitcom, and the "real" Kelly talks it through with his producer and co-writer. While this "sitcom-within-a-sitcom" format (ironically enough, something already done by Paul Squire on ITV) was fairly novel, and produced some nice "meta" moments, there is the feeling that it's a bit "if it ain't broke..."
      Yet the show was still a hit for the channel, and there was no reason why it couldn't be reversed. Maybe Kelly's laid-back, slightly "cheeky-yet-safe" humour that was fresh in 1979 was beginning to look quaint by the mid-80s, where even cosy ITV sitcoms were introducing more extreme levels of content. After all, Kelly writing an episode where the BBC are concerned about the use of the word "tits" does seem somewhat archaic when the same channel were screening The Young Ones.
     But then Kelly wasn't really about "shock" humour, and, despite him writing parts for supporting characters that would disparage him as a "pedestrian" comedian, viewers tuned in for reliable, charming situations, not "edge". This was, after all, a man who got his UK break off the back of appearances on Des O'Connor Tonight, and there's nothing wrong with that. If anything, series six is a bit too edgy, where the constant sex talk corrodes the previous sense of a show that your gran could watch. But, regardless, it was still a show that was a success and didn't need to end when it did. When Kelly's stand up show aired the following year, over three million tuned in.
     Finally, as with the screenshot above, there are three episodes where Kelly innocently indicates the number two with his fingers, the back of his hand turned towards the audience. Although Kelly and his English co-writer, Neil Shand, tailored a lot of his material to the UK market, this was one thing that was overlooked... meaningless in Kelly's native country, but, amusingly, the rough equivalent of the middle finger in the UK.


33 Episode 4.4

So, for those who may not know, or may not remember, what was "Kelly Monteith"?
A self-titled show named after its star, it was the first-ever UK sitcom to feature an American comedian. While the format changed substantially in the final year, for the first five series it was a sitcom about the day-to-day life of a stand-up comic, also called "Kelly Monteith". This depiction of Kelly's "real life" was often based around comic monologues to camera, with observational humour.
      Mixed in were cutaways and sketches, some of which were sitcom fare as he went on outings with his wife, some were only related thematically. Although in essence it was a kind of stand-up/sketch show hybrid, the sketches were threaded throughout the narrative, so that, while you can see a number of them via BBC Memories, this will only give you a taste of the show as they're all extracted from their original context.
      In terms of television programmes that it resembles, then the Showtime series It's Garry Shandling's Show, which began two years after Kelly Monteith ended, is notably similar. Again, with its air dates of 1986-1990, It's Garry Shandling's Show may also seem something of a long-lost memory, though the BBC showed 34 episodes, and Garry, of course, had the through line of moving on to the more high-profile Larry Sanders Show.
      This is not to suggest that Garry based his series on Kelly's (though it's not out of the realms of possibility, as it did get screened in the US...) or that "Kelly Monteith", the series, was exceptionally ground-breaking. While it was different to a lot of shows on the air at the time, Kelly himself admits that elements like him breaking the fourth wall had been done in shows like My World ... and Welcome to It, and of course, other comedians, most notably Dave Allen, had done observational comedy on British TV before.
      Yet while very few television shows can claim to be completely unique, it was something of a breath of fresh air back in 1979, where "feedline-punchline" was still very much the order of the day, and the show was "different" not only because of Kelly's style, but because of his cultural identity. Having an American performing his own BBC sitcom often seemed as surprising to Kelly as it did to the audience, and his likeable, easy-going style saw reward in increasing viewers.

32 Episode 5.5

Only the first two series of the programme shared the same title sequence; after this, each year would see a brand new set of titles and logo to showcase the fresh batch of episodes. Naturally, all of them are "of their time", and some stand up better than others, but none are more dated than the animated still photographs and pastel shades of the fifth series. Kelly himself was only too aware of this, saying in an episode of BBC Memories that the series five title sequence "pretty much isolates itself to the '80s, just by the way it was done. But hey, y'know, it was pretty hip in those days."
     For series five Kelly gets a romantic interest in the guise of Sarah Wright, played by Lisa Vanderpump, who has gone on to be a famous reality star and hotel owner in America since the series was made. One disappointment with series five is that their relationship never really gets time to be established, so that when they mutually decide to part during this episode, it doesn't really feel like we've had chance to get to know her. While it does more "fizzle out" than come to a tragic end, the Greek God Aphrodite gets to take the credit for the failure of the relationship in Episode 6.2.

31 Episode 2.6

Co-starring with Kelly in the first two series of the show was Gabrielle Drake playing his onscreen wife, "Suzanne". Gabrielle was, of course, the beautiful Gay Ellis in UFO, and still manages to look quite lovely in the sitcom, despite being hampered by an 80s hairdo that was all the rage at the time. Her brother was, of course, the very talented and tragic folk singer Nick Drake.
     Gabrielle is more of an actress playing a comedic part, rather than a comic actress, but she throws herself into the role and has good chemistry with Kelly, who shares the funny lines. This was her final episode as Suzanne before she moved on to stage work, but she did return for a small cameo in the fifth series... of which more later.

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