This piece first ran in March, and has been republished following the death of John Sessions, aged 67
Of all the celebrities who lived on Stella Street – the fictional suburb from the BBC Two comedy – David Bowie may have been his own biggest fan.
“Bowie loved it, he actually quoted lines from Stella Street,” says Phil Cornwell, who played Bowie in the show. “I had it on good authority. It was the line, ‘Do you think my skin looks a bit buttery?’ Bowie had such a sense of humour about himself, he really did.”
In fact, if you’ve done a David Bowie impression anytime in the last 20-odd years – that up-and-down, south London lilt, punctuated with a singsong “Ahhh-www!” – it almost certainly came from Phil Cornwell’s version in Stella Street.
“I drew the template up of the Bowie impression,” laughs Cornwell. “In a way, I originated it. But I got it from my mate in the pub. I ended up doing it in my act and then Stella Street.”
David Bowie (to be clear, Let’s Dance-era Bowie – all pastel suits and floppy hair) was one of several big-name stars who lived on Stella Street, an unlikely low-glam residence in Surbiton, Surrey.
Bowie’s A-list neighbours included Michael Caine – host and narrator of the series – the Rolling Stones, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Roger Moore, and, erm, Jimmy Hill. All the celebs were impersonated and played by Phil Cornwell and John Sessions.
(This was back in the pre-coronavirus glory days, when neighbours could mingle, and step outside the house for more than essential shopping, one exercise per day, or to applaud the NHS on the doorstep.)
Directed by Comic Strip pioneer Peter Richardson, Stella Street ran for four series between 1997 and 2001. The episodes were just 10 minutes, and tucked away on the late night schedules of BBC Two. It felt like a cult show even at the time of broadcast. (“Cult means no one watches it,” laughs Cornwell.) In the age of streaming it’s still a rare find – absent from Netflix, Britbox and Amazon Prime. Instead, Stella Street resides in the grainy, taped-off-TV recesses of YouTube.
Filmed as a fly-on-wall documentary, Stella Street would reimagine its celebs as living a relatably mundane existence. Michael Caine (Cornwell) is a busybody, sensitive to criticisms about his décor and lamb-roasting skills; Mick Jagger (Cornwell) and Keith Richards (Sessions) run the corner shop (“’Ere, Keith,” Jagger squawks, peacocking around the aisles. “Have you seen the date on these marshmallows?”); Al Pacino (Sessions) struggles with flat-pack furniture; Bowie can’t work his dishwasher; and Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson both love EastEnders (“I used to wanna be Pete Beale,” says Nicholson. “I used to go around going, ‘How you doin’, Kath? How many bananas you sold today?’”).
Stella Street was rough-and-ready even by the standards of the late 1990s. It was filmed on Hi8 video cameras, and using hilariously obvious body doubles to compensate for having just two cast members. Watched through the HD lens of 2020, it’s ultra low-budget – all part of the charm.
“It was guerilla shooting, really,” says Cornwell. “We were always getting changed into costumes and moving in and out of people’s houses… with their permission, of course. It was hard work because we were always ‘on’.
“But Peter Richardson had a vision in his head.” Both Cornwell and Sessions had previously worked with Richardson on various Comic Strip Presents films. Cornwell recalls that it was Richardson’s idea to get him and John Sessions together for what became Stella Street. “If it was up to me and John, we might have talked about it, but we probably wouldn’t have done anything. Peter thought that maybe we’d come up with something, so he got us in a room.
“The initial idea we had was, ‘Why don’t we have Mick and Keith running a shop? That’s a funny sketch!’ We didn’t know where we’d put it at first, but it just grew from there. Next we thought we could have a suburban street, a bit like Coronation Street, but with famous people.”
The celebrities were cast based on which impersonations Cornwell and Sessions had in their arsenal of voices. But Cornwell insists it was more about paying respect than poking fun. “We did the people that we liked and people we liked doing. It was an homage rather than being satirical. Well, except maybe Jimmy Hill… I did take the piss there a bit, god rest his soul.”
While the show leans into popular caricatures of its celebrities – Jack Nicholson is decked out in Hawaiian shirts, “birding it up” (Michael Caine’s words) with glamour girls; Joe Pesci is a psychotic mobster who combines “burying a stiff” with gardening; Keith Richards is a mumbling wreck, hand clamped around a bottle of Jack Daniels – some of the sharpest ideas come from giving the celebs unlikely idiosyncrasies.
Jimmy Hill, for instance, has an enthusiasm for smoking marijuana and other consciousness-altering substances. (“Which he didn’t do,” says Cornwell. “Well, I don’t think he did.”) John Hurt is reimagined as a foul-mouthed drunken hobo (“Oh, Johnny f------ Walker!” is his favourite expletive). And David Bowie is unable to control the tics and outbursts of his own exaggerated shtick (“I might have to make a few c-c-c-c-changes!” he cries out when working in Mick and Keith’s shop).
“We tried to act within them,” says Cornwell. “Rather than just doing straightforward impressions. That was the intention behind it. There was a bit of that soap-opera feel. It was ridiculous, Stella Street. In a lovely, wonderful way.”
Part of the fun lies in the cameos from non-regular celebrities, who wander in from the Hollywood A-list and British D-list alike. There’s Alan Rickman, The Beatles, Des Lynham, Tony Blackburn, Dustin Hoffman and even Jimmy Savile. (The last is a brilliantly observed impersonation from Cornwell, now on the list of “jokes you wouldn’t dare make in 2020”).
Stella Street was also home to a number of everyday people who lived alongside the celebrities. Among them was Mrs Huggett (played by Sessions), resident old lady and house-cleaner to the stars. (“Not the devil’s dandruff!” shouts Jack Nicholson when she vacuums up his cocaine.) Mrs Huggett has a penchant for younger men and mangetout – “Because you like a bit of crunchy, don’t ya girl!” Michael Caine barks at her over for tea – and she eventually sells their secrets to The News of the World.
“Mrs Huggett… what a truly awful character,” says Cornwell. “Brilliant, but so awful. John played her beautifully.”
Other non-famous locals included the arsonist gardener Len (Cornwell), an odious well-to-do couple called the Slurrys, and Dean (Sessions), a sycophantic handyman who gets more than his share of (well-deserved) head-butts from the near-rabid Joe Pesci. “For me and John, the generic characters were important,” says Cornwell. “They were just as valid as the famous people – that was the point.”
Watching Stella Street now, it seems brilliantly haphazard and off-the-cuff. A particularly funny scene in which Bowie and Roger Moore exchange Christmas gifts feels like Cornwell and Sessions just riffing on how that ludicrous scenario might play out. “A book token for 10 pounds,” says Moore, in a bass-heavy Bondian drawl. “Well, that’s very welcoming. I was hoping for one of those.”
Cornwell recalls that the script-writing process was based on improvisation. “The script would suddenly appear,” Cornwell says. “We’d start with an empty page and end up with a series! Peter used to handwrite it as me and John improvised. Peter would give it to his secretary to type up and suddenly there it was!
“I remember we went to this deserted hotel in Sicily, out of season so we could write season two. It was Peter’s idea, to trap me and John. It was a bizarre place to go.”
The series’ most gloriously daft moment sees Michael Caine host a Zulu-themed party – to celebrate the 33rd anniversary of the film’s production wrap. Caine dresses up in full Boer War regalia; Roger Moore – in a gag that now seems perfect for an out-of-touch 1970s Bond – gets the wrong end of the stick and blacks up.
Meanwhile, Jimmy Hill goes wild by snorting icing sugar; Al Pacino, Dirk Bogarde and Joe Pesci fall out over an intense game of Monopoly (“It’s only a game, Joe,” says Michael Caine. “F--- you,” Pesci snaps); and Mrs Huggett loses the plot with the Rolling Stones and a shedload of booze.
In 2020, the mockumentary has become a go-to comedy format, but back in 1997, it belonged almost exclusively to Spinal Tap. Cornwell says that Stella Street didn’t set out to break boundaries, but he was aware that there nothing else like it on TV.
“I knew it was different and quite original.” says Cornwell. “Peter Richardson’s a bit of a genius. He did The Comic Strip – he got all those disparate people and somehow kept them together for all those great films. I think that’s why the BBC wanted it. Also, it was quite cheap! It was just a couple of cameras. And it wasn’t like other impressions shows, like Dead Ringers, which I went on to do. Stella Street was always a bit edgier than that.”
Along with Bowie, Stella Street fans included the real Rolling Stones – “Mick and Keith watched, of course,” says Cornwell. “That was cool” – and the real Michael Caine.
“Caine was complimentary about it,” says Cornwell. “He said, ‘They’ve got me in my Alfie period really well.’ That’s nice coming from him, because everyone does Michael Caine. It’s page one in the impressionist’s manual – along with Tommy Cooper and Frank Spencer. It was always gratifying, hearing from the people that we did.”
The show did have its regular fans too. Cornwell recalls good reviews and support from the critic Victor Lewis-Smith. But it wasn’t always straightforward to watch. “The problem was, it was quite difficult to find. It was never on at the same time! You had to be into it to find it.
“It was a cult thing – I think we were aware of it. But people still talk about it, so it made some kind of mark. I’ll take that. We used to get a couple of million watching – sometimes three million. Imagine that now! Those would be huge figures.”
A film followed in 2004, which added Ronni Ancona to the line-up. The (slightly) glossier production values undermined the series’s basic gag: high-budget celebs in a low-budget world.
“It’s a challenge, when a comedy series tries to make a feature film,” Cornwell says. “Very often it doesn’t work. We got away with it – it was alright, I think. Ronni Ancona was great, and it was just extraordinary actually doing a movie. But it was shot on a different street – it didn’t look like the TV series.”
Stella Street’s cult reputation is partly thanks to its release on DVD, though its fourth and final series never made it there. Nowadays, YouTube seems a strangely appropriate place for the stars of Stella Street to reside – the modern setting for that kind of low-budget, near-homemade style of comedy.
“What amazes me is that I think it stands up,” says Cornwell. He’s right. It’s still hilarious, smart and – in the best way possible – very strange. As he puts it: “It’s a very odd little world.”