In SketcHistory, The A.V. Club gets the story behind some of our favorite comedy sketches from the people who made them.
Peter Serafinowicz, The Peter Serafinowicz Show star and co-creator
James Serafinowicz, The Peter Serafinowicz Show co-creator
The sketch: “Dickens’ Fruit Corners” from season one, episode two of The Peter Serafinowicz Show (BBC, 2007)
The story: A faux commercial featuring Peter Serafinowicz as Charles Dickens. In an attempt to make his works more appealing to young readers, the celebrated author presents Dickens’ Fruit Corners: a series of classic Dickens novels with a small container of jam embedded in the top right corners.
Peter Serafinowicz: Although James and I wrote the bulk of the sketch series, “Dickens’ Fruit Corners” belongs to [staff writers] Jason Hazeley and Joel Morris. These guys are comedic artisans—they’re just on another level. They recently got the rights to the old Ladybird series of children’s educational books, and have started releasing comedy versions of them for adults, such as The Ladybird Book Of The Hipster.
James Serafinowicz: I’m a Dickens fan. Great Expectations I’d say is probably one of my favorite books and films. It’s brilliant, and very British as well. But then, I didn’t have to read Dickens in school. I think anything you have to read in school gets automatically tarnished.
PS: The sketch is just a bit of great surreal nonsense. If it’s saying anything, it’s that our world and the social and mental constructs of being a human in the 21st century are all so ridiculous, and we just accept them as normal every second of our lives. Which is my favorite kind of humor.
JS: That sad look Peter flashes at the end is great. It’s almost like he’s not an actor playing Charles Dickens—it’s like he is Charles Dickens. If you start to analyze the sketch too much you’re kind of like, “What is the logic with this?” [Laughs.]
PS: Becky Martin did an amazing job as director. She’s since gone on to do shows like Veep. And Jamie Cairney, who did the Armando Iannucci film In The Loop, was our DOP. So everything just looked totally authentic. If you’re spoofing something, you want to make it look as much like the original as possible. That’s something I learned from The Onion, and Chris Morris’ work like The Day Today and Brass Eye.
JS: Jamie is kind of the Edgar Wright of the DOP world. He just knows his cameras inside out. He really made it look like an authentic commercial. And Becky really wanted a look that coupled the authenticity with the absurdity.
PS: We had an amazing makeup and costume department. They had these reference shots of Charles Dickens. They really put in a lot of effort for such a silly reason, and I loved it. So having that treatment where it just looked and sounded like a real ad, that’s kind of what cemented it into something even funnier. We wanted to do a faithful recreation of what Jason and Joel had in their minds when they wrote this.
JS: The other thing about this sketch is the props. Our art department loved having challenges. Seeing the script for this, you can really imagine what the prop could be: “It’s a big book and it’s got this thing on the corner.” But there’s a right way of doing it and a wrong way of doing it, and they really pulled it off. If that prop hadn’t been done right, it would have been a total waste.
The sketch: “Butterfield Direct” from season one, episode one of The Peter Serafinowicz Show (BBC, 2007)
The story: A commercial parody that introduces the long-running character of Brian Butterfield, a bumbling and incompetent middle-aged man whose poorly executed business ideas regularly fail. In “Butterfield Direct,” Butterfield promotes his services as a personal injury lawyer, despite having zero experience in the field. The commercial features testimonials and injury reenactments from two former clients, both of whom are wholly dissatisfied with the “help” they received.
PS: Brian Butterfield was based on a guy from a real, terrible advert for insurance.
JS: The Personal Injury Helpline. We were fascinated with this ad because we weren’t buying what the guy was saying, and it didn’t make sense. There was something about his voice and delivery that we just loved. And his whole look. We just assumed he was the head of the company, because why would somebody so miscast be doing the ad?
PS: We later found out—through a camera assistant on our show who’d worked with him—that the guy was an actor and presenter. So although Butterfield was initially based on him, he quickly became his own character—someone with big ideas who’s hopeless at life and business in particular, but still believes his big break is just around the corner. I love his optimism and sheer determination.
JS: So “Butterfield Direct” was the first sketch in a long line of Brian Butterfield ads. We made him part of the pilot episode as a one-off, but quickly realized we could get a lot more out of him. It’s been great to see how the character has endured over the years. Even the Twitter account we set up for him has a really decent following.
PS: We shot “Butterfield Direct” at an abandoned office in a really grotty area of London. It had been inhabited by a charity and looked like it had been fled during a nuclear attack warning. There were still cups of coffee on the ransacked desks, with growing rotten microcosms on the surface.
JS: It looked like one day these people had been sacked at two in the afternoon, and they just all left or had been abducted. So the cabinets and office supplies you see in the sketch were all originally there. The building was disintegrating. In fact, by the time we made The Peter Serafinowicz Show Christmas special a year after the first series, it had been condemned, so we weren’t allowed to go back there.
PS: It was such a perfect setting for Brian, and when we finished shooting the sketch we realized we had the luxury of an extra hour in the location. The BBC costume department was around the corner, and James had the idea to ask Wiz [Francis]—our costume designer, who also worked on Look Around You—to run over and get an assortment of hats to use in our “Butterfield Detective Agency” sketch, which I think we wrote that day as well. That one turned out to be our favorite, and between those two sketches Brian came out fully baked.
JS: It pokes a bit of fun at how stupid the world can be. Over here [in the U.K.] we’ve got all these “cash for gold” ads that are just so ridiculous. I think this sketch is sort of a melding of the absurdist and the grounded. Anything to do with aliens or ghosts, we’re usually on board. [Laughs.] Although we love the absurd, it’s important to give people an “in.” Especially with spoof ads and TV shows. It’s fun to add a twist, but if suddenly you’re doing three or four you’re going to lose people.
JS: We’ve known Alex Lowe for quite a while, and he’s just hilarious. He’s great at playing characters who take abuse, as he does in this sketch. And he’s great to have around in between filming because he’s full of incredible showbiz stories—which he’ll always preface with, “Don’t tell anyone…” [Laughs.] And there’s Catherine Shepherd—who, not just in this sketch but with everything she did on the show—brought a very real quality to her performances. There can be a tendency in comedy to be overly expressive, but when you make it very small you get something much different.
PS: It takes about four hours to get into the makeup and costume for Brian. Once I’m in it, it’s surprisingly light and I can walk with quite a dainty step.
JS: It’s not like a full face prosthetic. It kind of starts underneath Peter’s cheekbones and goes down from there into a double chin that’s blended into the rest of his face. As for Butterfield’s entire look, that’s where the art department, makeup, and costume all came together really nicely.
PS: We’ve been trying to do a Butterfield sitcom for years, and our joke was that by the time it happened I wouldn’t need any makeup. A substantial saving! Perhaps the TV companies were playing the long game. However, we’ve been commissioned by the BBC to write two scripts, and we’re performing one in front of an audience next month. I’ll be in full makeup for that. It’ll be nice to get back inside him again.