‘Structurally Sound’ is a recurring feature where each week a different structurally unusual, rule-breaking anomaly of an episode from a comedy series is examined.
“And I’ve just been told that Sir Prince Charles has just driven past the Skeleton Society, so it shouldn’t be long now!”
Do yourself a favor and let this piece be an excuse for you to take a day and watch Look Around You if you haven’t before (and even if you have).
Look Around You is television that’s almost too incredible for its own good. The oddball British program heralded by Peter Serafinowicz and Robert Popper (The Inbetweeners, Friday Night Dinner) had a simple aim of parodying the educational programs that filled British television airwaves in the ‘70s and ‘80s, such as For Schools and Colleges or Experiment. The series would dissect with laser sharp accuracy a number of seemingly random topics, like “calcium”, “sulphur”, and “music” while scientifically getting to the bottom of them. The series is an exercise in the sarcastic and deadpan, almost like no other, as the show expertly mixes education with nonsense in an effortless cocktail.
The structure of Look Around You’s first season is eight ten-minute episodes, each with a very precise eye. The show loosened up some for its second season, expanding to a half-hour format, and a setup more reminiscent of conversational pop-science ‘80s programming (Tomorrow’s World, for example) instead of the clinical approach taken in season one. While it might be safe to say that the first season is almost universally preferred to the series’ second (even by Seranifowicz and Popper themselves), that doesn’t stop the show’s second year from attempting some very ambitious things. The most daring of which occurs in the season’s finale, which is set up to resemble a live results show to determine the Inventor of the Year.
Now, let it be clear that that is not a live episode of television, but rather just meticulously constructed to resemble one. This in fact might actually be the more impressive feat, and one that embraces this unusual artifice head-on. Appropriately, “Live Final” addresses a number of tropes that live spectacles of television feed off of. Stunts like making a meal out of waiting for results, checking in with audience crowds, highlighting previous guests from the season (and the ability for someone like Synthesizer Patel to “completely take over the show”), and a big celebrity judge, which in this case is in the form of Prince Charles, himself.
This Prince Charles gamble is really impeccably pulled off. The beginning of the episode has Charles stalled and appearing like he’ll never actually make it to the judging. Then, when he finally does, trick photography and the like keep his back to the cameras and his face obscured. This however has merely been the episode playing with the audience. Prince Charles finally does grace the program with his presence and when it happens it truly looks like he’s there in studio with all of them. The show pulls off this illusion by carefully splicing archival footage of HRH with Look Around You. Then, Seranifowicz dubbed over the material in order to have it sync together properly. The series works so hard to create this seemingly effortless results show.
Look Around You resorts to a lot of little touches in order to emphasize the episode’s unusual structure. Many of those details equate to things going “wrong” during this “live taping,” another inevitable staple of live broadcasts of television. Look Around You has a field day entertaining these flubs as they go pretty much as far as they can at setting everything on fire. We see the superimposition of text titles and headings get messed up and reversed, only to then be rewritten before our eyes. This makes for some very funny jokes that only become strengthened by the “live” structure that the episode has put upon itself.
Elsewhere lines get innocently flubbed and for the first time ever the series has an audience to react to all this awkwardness and wrenches in the system. Subtle laughter at these foibles only accentuate the humor of what’s going on and are again aided by the episode’s unique format. One of the inventor finalists, Leonard Hatred, features a ridiculous limp (which Mark Heap improvised). However, it’s another glowing detail that’s only possible because of some kink arriving in the system. Had everything gone as “planned,” Hatred would remain behind his podium and you’d never discover this crazy character affectation.
“Hot Jon” is one of the better examples of the humor achieved in this episode due to its live structure. “Hot Jon” is a sign that we see held in the audience for much of the episode (by Nick Frost, no less), with no explanation. Then, when it’s finally addressed and the unpacking of this joke begins, technical difficulties plague the broadcast. Suddenly the sound drops out of the episode and by the time it returns we’ve missed the joke’s explanation entirely. In the process this ends up becoming a much funnier joke than whatever Hot Jon could have been (especially with the gestures that we see, yet don’t get to understand) in the first place.
Meanwhile the bulk of the episode deals with touching base with all of the inventors that the show had featured that season: Dr. Phillip Lavender and his anti-cobbling cream, Leonard Hatred and his mute-spray, Psilence, Teddy Clarke with his vegetable orchestra system (hot off the heels of composing the theme for the latest Barry Dunlop James Bond film), Pat Taylor and Sam Macnamara and their sex change machine, Paul Alan (and Championess) with their horse race predicting computer, and Simon Teigh and his memory helmet. After all this time the crowning of the best ridiculous invention can occur – not to mention this acting as the whole point of the season.
We catch up with all these absurd inventors and their even more absurd inventions, with each of them seeming to have some difficulties with the live format. However, the first real sign of the wheels flying off of the episode doesn’t happen until Leonard Hatred’s interview begins. Not only is his weirdness amped up as a result of the episode’s restraints, he also begins to outright question Seranifowicz’s Peter Packard. As more pressure applies to him, Hatred starts to stall the episode as things begin to “go off script” because of his behavior. In other scenes, Hatred awkwardly shouts from off camera, as the production – not knowing what to do – plods blankly ahead. Elsewhere he wanders into random segments haphazardly, with this all acting as ripe indulgences for this Crispin Glover-esque character.
Of course this is all only the prelude – but also some wonderful foreshadowing – to the main set piece of this episode. Here, an enraged Hatred just can’t take anymore and uses his Psilence spray to disfigure His Royal Highness. It’s a temper tantrum that instantly makes the Look Around You team regretful of attempting a “live” outing. The episode turns to several technical difficulty screens during the abandonment of the episode. In fact, Hatred’s final disruptive act is so drastic that the BBC2 resorts to airing a short film, “Birds of Britain,” while the “live team” tries to sort out their issues. All of this is brilliant, bewildering stuff that is only made stronger by the state of the Look Around You production when we return to it. It’s the final cherry on this delicious cake and yet another affirmation of how strong an idea this was for the already ambitious show to turn to for its final entry.
Look Around You was never one to step down from a challenge or let the limitations of reality hold it back in its storytelling. “Live Final” remains not only a shining example of what this show made possible, but also proof of what endlessly indulging in a theme and pushing it as far as it can go can do. There are moments where you truly have to take a step back and remember that this show wasn’t made decades ago.