Director Edgar Wright turns 40 today. Instead of reviewing his well-known works like Spaced or The Cornetto Trilogy, or even his American films like Scott Pilgrim, let’s take a look at one of his earlier, more obscure TV shows.
What is it? Asylum (1996) is a 6-episode TV show starring Norman Lovett, Simon Pegg, Julian Barratt, and Jessica Stevenson (Hynes). It’s written by Edgar Wright and David Walliams (with adlibs by the cast). Wright, at age 22, directed.
Where can I see it? It’s not available on DVD, but it’s currently on YouTube.
“No man is an island (except when he’s having a bath), but what if a man was an island? What if you could isolate some men and ladies from the world?” This is the premise of, and first words spoken in, Paramount Comedy Channel’s 1996 surreal black comedy Asylum. It was more a vehicle for comedy and music acts than a traditional sitcom, allowing upcoming performers to test their chops on an experimental sketch show wrapped in a loose narrative. “It was stand-ups doing their acts in a mental asylum,” said director Edgar Wright. “Now it would be quite politically incorrect to do that. To be honest, it was politically incorrect back then, as well” (Chortle, 2008).
Say what you want about the quality of Asylum (like “It’s entertaining, but it’s not that funny” or “Some of the sketches last much too long”), but no one can deny the historical importance of Asylum in the evolution of British comedy television and its key players. For one, this was Edgar Wright’s television directorial debut, and the first time that he worked with Simon Pegg, with whom he would go on to make the Cornetto films–Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End. It was also the first time either of them worked with Jessica Stevenson (now Hynes). Pegg had worked with her in the sketch show Six Pairs of Pants and specifically requested her for a role in Asylum (she actually wound up playing two roles), and after the 6-episode series ended, Pegg and Stevenson were offered their own show by Paramount, and they decided to write one themselves. This became Spaced and was directed by Edgar Wright. Secondly, this was the first ever role for Julian Barratt, who would go on to team up with Noel Fielding and star in the legendary comedy troupe The Mighty Boosh. Lastly, Wright co-wrote the scripts (the parts that weren’t adlibbed or stolen from the cast’s own material) with David Walliams, who had not yet met up with Matt Lucas to star in Little Britain or Come Fly with Me. In fact, this was the first show he’d ever written and almost the first TV gig he ever acted in (he has a cameo).
You don’t realize that this isn’t a traditional narrative until partway through the first episode, when suddenly, one of the asylum patients, comedian Adam Bloom, is given the floor to do a 4-1/2 minute standup comedy routine in his cell. This does not move the plot forward. It just gives Bloom a chance to show off his comedy skills, as much of the material is taken from his act. More than a sketch show, Asylum reminds me of the old films which were really just an excuse to show one spectacle show–singing, dancing, etc.–after another with a loose plot wrapped lazily around them. So, in some ways, it’s a refreshing look back at our media’s ancestry.
The plot is simple: Dr. Lovett (played by Norman Lovett, fresh from Red Dwarf) says that this is his asylum and that he’s taken in volunteers of sane people to do a psychological experiment on, but after we see the security captain Nobby (played by Mick O’Connor but oddly listed as Nobby Shanks in the opening credits) in a garage full of pizza mopeds, we realize that they were all loured here and are held against their will. The most recent addition to the asylum is Simon Pegg (played by Simon Pegg, obviously) who has come to deliver Nobby his beef magic pizza and gets roped into Dr. Lovett’s experiment. Eventually, he can’t remember whether he really is a pizza delivery boy or if it was a delusion he has and he really is crazy. He decides he likes it here and falls in love with one of the patients, Martha. In the end, we’re not sure whether Dr. Lovett is really the wicked overlord of this experiment or if he’s just another patient, being forced to pretend to be the doctor by the real doctor (ala Saw). Is Nobby really the evil mastermind? Or perhaps the nurse?
Julian Barratt plays a painter-decorator named Julian who has, since his abduction, developed a second personality named Victor. As Victor is surrounded by nothing but Renaissance art, he becomes an artist with a personality a cross between the Boosh‘s Howard Moon and Spaced‘s Brian Topp (Brian was originally written for Barratt). We’re not sure whether his look–two hooves short of Satan with his triangle beard and tumble-weed-thick eyebrows–was Julian’s style or developed after Victor took over his body.
Jessica Stevenson plays both the Scottish, sex addicted, schoolmaster-esque nurse who laughs at her own fart jokes, and Martha, a politics grad forced to watch day-time television until she believes that aliens are trying to contact her by leaving secret messages in the conundrums on Countdown. If you know Stevenson, you’ll recognize her in both roles, but she plays them so differently and with such a different look, there’s no confusion whatsoever. In fact, the only thing that makes your head hurt is to believe that the same actress is playing both those parts!
Paul Morocco, a member of the musical comedy trio Ole, plays Paul, the flamenco singer who is forced into silence and allowed only to express himself through guitar, props, and spitting ping-pong balls (all parts of his regular act). Dr. Lovett seems disappointed that an experiment with such potential only resulted in Paul becoming a juggler. When Paul tries to escape the asylum, a duel in the yard with a security guard, played by fellow Ole star Howard Haigh, turns into Dances with Guitars.
Cameos of other comedian patients include David Walliams, Bill Bailey, Andy Parsons and Henry Naylor, John Moloney, and Paul Tonkinson, all given a few minutes to riff in isolation from any of the main characters. To add to the spectacle appeal, the show’s house band David Devant and His Spirit Wife is given a music video toward the end of every episode. The songs come from their album Work, Love, Miscellaneous, which hadn’t been released yet. Their song “Ginger” provides the theme music during the opening credits.