As a darling of Radio 4, and with several awards to his name too, John Finnemore is right up there as one of the country’s most successful comics. His appeal has always mystified me, though, and his debut tour show did nothing to change that, rarely raising above the limp and extremely ordinary.
Flying Visit is a de facto live version of his smash-hit show Souvenir Programme, digging up old sketches to mix with the new, and retaining the same cast of Margaret Cabourn-Smith, Carrie Quinlan, Simon Kane and Lawry Lewin. Among the reprisals are the “Pooh Bear honey intervention” which is one of the best sketch ideas of the night, and is at least funny on paper. Another greatest hit is Pavlov’s Dog, which plays with the idea of brain conditioning to the point where it becomes a logical mind-bender and a tongue-twister for performers Finnemore and Quinlan – it’s clever, but fails the funny test.
As with Finnemore’s radio shows, though, the tone is infantilising and the comedy woefully basic. In attempting to be family-friendly, Flying Visit ends up being patronising to everyone. There are pantos up and down the country that successfully navigate this problem, finding a way to be wholesome fun yet substantially funny too. A skit on a group of bank robbers wearing royal family masks was flat even before the dead hand of the Harry Potter punchline.
The worst offender is their “goldfishes have a bad memory” sketch. Not only is this perhaps the most unoriginal idea known to comedy, it takes an age to get going, with the cast assembling their goldfish gear in a way that starts off interesting but quickly gets tedious.
An irritating element is that we’re expected to show devotion to characters or lines when they return, when they aren’t strong enough to warrant it. Finnemore’s recurring Patsy Straightwoman is a foil, not a “character” with any kind of depth or story we can attach to. Likewise, his conductor who only wants his instruments to make a “bworrp” noise (which the audience sort of joins in with on request) is nowhere near strong enough to make a reappearance for the show’s climax.
There is clearly a lot of warmth towards Finnemore and his gang, of whom Cabourn-Smith provides the most spark. There are smatters of applause for a few favourite skits, but it’s also not exactly the love-in one might expect. Fans of Finnemore’s Radio 4 series Cabin Pressure are treated to an interview with puppy dog-ish air steward Arthur Shappey, who gives us an update on affairs at the fictitious MJN Air. And a few sketches do have something to offer, such as the pirate skulls who are bereft of their ability to blab any bilabial consonants, and the three guardians of a fantastical path who confuse weary travellers with their nonsense logic.
But really, most of the ideas and script here would be rejected by a teenage sketch group at the Edinburgh Fringe. There’s nothing wrong with old-fashioned silliness – except when there is so little bite or wit. It looks all the worse in comparison with the titans of comedy that Radio 4 has produced over the decades.