The 15th of February is a date forever etched into the history books of both science-fiction and comedy. It’s the anniversary of one of Britain’s most beloved sitcoms, from a writing lineage that includes Spitting Image and Son of Cliché, and with a cast featuring the likes of Mark Williams, Jack Docherty, Sarah Alexander, Ricky Grover and Morwenna Banks. Yes, Rob Grant’s The Strangerers debuted on Tuesday 15th February 2000, twenty years ago today.
Made by Absolutely Productions for Sky One, it was much-hyped as the channel’s first foray into original comedy commissioning, but it’s fair to say that it didn’t quite make the same impact as Rob’s previous sci-fi sitcom. It was never released on video or DVD, and has never been repeated since its original broadcast. But luckily, it’s all on YouTube (albeit in off-air VHS quality, with the credits cut off and irritatingly in the wrong bastard aspect ratio), so let’s all give it an anniversary airing and see if it’s worth reappraising.
I have a confession to make. I started watching The Strangerers twenty years ago today, but only finished it last weekend. I remember that I wasn’t particularly blown away by the first few episodes, and having being disappointed by Rob’s other solo sitcom Dark Ages just a couple of months earlier, I fell behind and never bothered catching up. Looking back, it must have been a frustrating watch when spread over nine weeks; other than the double-length opener, they’re each only around 22 minutes long with the adverts taken out, and yet the pace is languid at times. But I tell you what, it’s a hell of a lot better if you burn through the lot in a couple of days.
The flaws are still there, but it’s easier to appreciate the positives this way. It’s an old-school serial, telling one long unfolding story with several interweaving strands, rather than a series of distinct episodic plots. It starts to work so much better if you think of it as more akin to a televised version of a Rob Grant novel than a traditional sitcom. Each episode ends with a little cliffhanger (a trick Rob later employed on The Quanderhorn Xperimentations), which is a much more effective appetite-whetter when the resolution is available on demand.
Don’t get me wrong, there are still issues, particularly in terms of the structure. Each episode seems to be limited to one or two main settings, where the characters will typically spend the first half getting out of a scrape set up in the last episode, before then getting themselves into a new scrape ready for next time. There’s also a very odd atmosphere throughout. Everyone’s British, but the aesthetic is undoubtedly American, specifically the 1940s and 50s America depicted in so many B-movies, with its classic cars, truck stops and sleazy motels. It’s designed to be deliberately unsettling, but it’s perhaps a barrier for the audience – this is an alien invasion story, but it doesn’t feel like it’s our world they’re invading, so why do we care?
But what aliens they are. Mark Williams and Jack Docherty are superb as Cadets Flynn and Niven respectively. The schtick is that their understanding of humans is based on early television broadcasts they’ve intercepted, and so their attempts to blend in involve dressing like old-fashioned gangsters, copious use of outdated slang, and an unwavering compulsion to tip their hats to any passing ladies. While their fish-out-of-water status and shared mannerisms make the two characters similar on many levels, Flynn is superior to Niven in both rank and competence, and each actor brings his own strengths to make them distinct – the funny walk is a speciality of Docherty’s in particular, while Williams has great fun getting his chops around the unusual pronunciation of mundane words.
The show’s biggest strength is perhaps its cast, which is absolutely stellar. Aside from the aforementioned Red Dwarf alumni, there’s also recurring roles for Mark Heap, Milton Jones (his recurrence unhampered by being decapitated within the first ten minutes of the series), a pre-stardom David Walliams, Mike Hayley (who was also the baddy in Dark Ages) and the late great Paul Darrow. Plus, there’s guest appearances from John Sparkes (another Absolutely connection), Doon Mackichan, Gareth Thomas (another Blake’s 7er), Tracy Ann Oberman, Martin Trenaman and three quarters of the main Goodness Gracious Me cast (sans Sanjeev). This who’s who of very-early-2000s comedy provides an enjoyably nostalgic vibe now, as well as bringing a huge amount of quality to the screen. Except for Walliams, he’s always been crap.
As you’d expect, a lot of the humour stems from our heroes’ observations on human life and their curious habits, the sort of gentle social satire that runs through all of Rob’s work. Most episodes include at least one big set piece of the cadets trying and failing to master simple human rituals such as eating or sleeping, and because it’s written by Rob Grant, this extends to dealing with unexpected erections and the production of “brown snakes” from the rear orifice. Rob’s hallmark intricate language and mangled metaphors are also present, as are the use of time travel, holograms and the phrase “pus-filled bubo”. Oh, and there’s a sound effect they use a few times that’s extremely similar, if not identical, to Red Dwarf’s engine noise from the start of the Series III title sequence.
And if you want another connection, episode seven is called The Streets Of Laredo. It’s not entirely clear why. I was expecting the episode to take us to an old western town of some description, but the closest we get is an axe-murderer in cowboy boots turning up. The show takes a Rob-solo-novel-esque dark turn at this point, with this new antagonist’s multiple kidnappings and decapitations, in addition to the sinister and mysterious government agency that Rina and Harry (Alexander and Heap) work for, and Paul Darrow’s pervy motelier out to get the aliens. Elsewhere the tone can be extremely silly, such as when Milton Jones’s disembodied head suddenly sprouts tiny legs and starts running about the place. Something for everyone, then, although it does begin to feel a little disjointed towards the end.
Somewhat ambitiously, and with Rob clearly learning nothing from Red Dwarf VI, the series ends on a massive cliffhanger, with multiple would-be assassins descending on our heroes as they’re about the board their flying saucer home, and a fade to black before the action fully unfolds. So much is left unresolved: the nature of Rina and Harry’s organisation; insinuations about something dodgy having happened in their past; a project called “Anderson” that’s mentioned a few times; some sort of crime boss called Ivan who’s seemingly important; hints that Rina and Harry’s boss Irius Mann (Hayley) might be an alien himself; and any sort of resolution to the axe-murderer-with-a-truck-full-of-decapitated-corpses subplot. One can only assume Rob had plans for a second series that never came.
Prior to revisiting the show this month, I’d have said that this was no huge loss. But for anyone like me who’s been judging the show on hazy turn-of-the-millennium memories, I’d very much recommend giving The Strangerers another go, but over a much shorter period. It’s still far from perfect, and there’s a lot of quibbles to look past, but it’s an interesting world to immerse yourself in, and a medium for Rob Grant’s writing that’s not quite like anything he’s done before or since.
Of course, if Sky were making this show today, it would most likely be specifically designed for box-set viewing; they’re far more interested in subscriber numbers than overnight viewing figures, so they frequently release their original programming in full on demand ahead of its linear transmission. With two decades of production experience under their belts, and higher budgets than most other broadcasters, they’d also be much better placed to do Rob’s imagination justice. Perhaps its biggest fault is simply that it was made twenty years too soon.