While American stand-up comedy in the '70s and '80s was in "rock star" mode, dominated by outsized personalities, the British comedy clubs were following the leads of punk and new wave, emphasizing class-conscious character studies, sly put-ons, and surrealist goofery. One of masterminds of the "alternative comedy" scene was Ben Elton, who came out of Manchester alongside Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmonson to co-create the seminal series The Young Ones. Simultaneous to The Young Ones, Elton hooked up with a quartet of Cambridge Footlights alums—Paul Shearer, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, and Emma Thompson—to develop the dry, subtle sketch comedy program Alfresco, which aired on ITV in 1983 and '84. Alfresco was nowhere near as riotous as The Young Ones, nor as mind-bendingly brilliant as alt-comedy forerunner Monty Python's Flying Circus. The show was, first and foremost, a performance showcase, giving a cast of talented young comic actors (including Robbie Coltrane and Siobhan Redmond) a chance to wear a lot of different skins.
The double-disc Alfresco DVD set contains all 13 episodes that Elton and company produced, plus the three-episode pilot series There's Nothing To Worry About. Much of the humor in these 16 episodes is more conceptual than funny, and relies heavily on certain types—the indifferent shopgirl, the pub-crawling prat, the clueless aristocrat, the fatuous TV presenter, etc.—that have been staples of British comedy so long that they've become clichés. But by Alfresco's 1984 run, the cast developed an easy chemistry that made them fun to watch even when the jokes were thin. Fry and Laurie especially had crackerjack timing together, and would continue to show it on three subsequent British TV series. But the real revelation of Alfresco is Thompson, who's had such a long career as a high-toned actress and screenwriter that it's easy to forget she started as a comedian. Thompson transitions easily between playing dowagers, pop stars, party girls, secretaries, journalists, and whatever else is needed, and she plays them all with a sincerity that transcends the snarky nose-thumbing that often defined the alternative comedy movement. If the purpose of alt-comedy was to get beyond farce and double-entendres and reveal the real UK, then Thompson did more for the cause than anyone.
Key features: Nothing, outside of a four-page booklet offering a modest history.