Remembering 'Monkey Dust', the UK's Greatest Animated Satire
Nothing else has ever lampooned all that's wrong with modern Britain in quite the same way.
The final episode of Monkey Dust aired a decade ago this year. If you already know exactly what Monkey Dust was and what it did, excuse this explainer: it was (in my opinion) the best animated satirical sketch show ever produced in the UK, and sadly only lasted for three seasons between 2003 and 2005.
It left no topic unturned, no matter how weird and uncomfortable it made you feel. From Big Societal Themes, like murder, paedophilia and terrorism, to more singular, intimate issues – a young girl giving her dad all of her birthday presents to help him feed his gambling addiction, for instance – it managed to both completely lampoon its target and find a human angle that allowed the viewer in. It was everything Newzoids isn't.
The show came to an end following the death of producer and co-creator Harry Thompson, a man partly responsible for launching the career of Sacha Baron Cohen as a writer on The 11 O'Clock Show and the subsequent Ali G spin-off. The idea for Monkey Dust had been with Thompson throughout the 1990s; it would be a show told in his voice, giving him the chance to break free from the constraints he'd encountered while writing for shows in a primetime slot. It would also be animated, eliminating the limitations you tend to encounter while filming with real human beings.
Thompson started collaborating with Shaun Pye, a writer he'd hired for The 11 O'Clock Show and Jonathan Ross' go-to gag man. The two locked themselves away to write sketches for a show that would include a failed chatroom pervert, the adventures of Voiceover Man (coincidentally the future voice of the X Factor) and a compulsive liar named Clive who hid his depraved antics from his wife by trying to pass off the plots of movies and folk stories as the truth. Pye says the two were very alike. "I was a kindred spirit," he told me. "I don't think I influenced him, I just think we egged each other on."
With an outline of the show written, the pair went to meet with Stuart Murphy, the newly appointed head of BBC Three, and then-commissioning executive (and now Head of Comedy at Sky TV) Lucy Lumsden. Murphy had just received a remit for the channel, which would cater to more of a youth market than BBCs One and Two. One of the conditions was that it include animated content – something that Thompson was all too happy to exploit.
The ethos behind BBC Three, according to Murphy, was "new people doing big things or big people doing new things" – that "if you got it right, the sweet spot was that the big people were being creatively rejuvenated by being near cool people, and you gave cool people a fighting chance by doing their stuff at scale". It was this spirit that allowed shows such as Little Britain and The Mighty Boosh to fully realise their comedic worlds and not have to compromise on their vision. It also allowed for more established stars, such as Steve Coogan or Harry Thompson, to develop something new on the channel.
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A sketch that Thompson was particularly fond of was "Divorced Dad", which he jokingly said was based on his own experience as a father. The sketch consisted of a dad seeing his son, realising how out of touch he was with him and then committing suicide, only for the son to show his love once his dad had left. The humour is in the nuances, the grisly punchline staying with you once you've finished laughing.
Watch the show and you'll notice that many of the sketches – while taking place in completely separate locations and with different characters – are interconnected. Stuart Murphy suspects the reasoning behind that device (rather than, say, fading to black) was so Thompson and Pye could get away with exactly what they wanted. "It was very difficult to extract a sketch, which I think was an intentional thing," he said. "They were all interconnected, so we were like, 'What the hell do we do if there's a problem with one sketch?'"
Lumsden added: "I don't think we cut anything 'cause we bloody well couldn't!"
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If the scenes had been cut, everything would fall out of sync. And given the cost of animating the show – around £350,000 per episode – the sketch also couldn't really be reanimated, so everything had to be left in.
BBC Three were generous with what was allowed, but when something was denied Thompson was prepared to fight for its inclusion. Lucy Lumsden remembers these debates. "There were a few things that went over the line, but god, were we free with that line," she laughed. "It's like you weren't telling him no, you were telling this whole wall of brilliant creators. It would be blown out of all proportion. He would fight eloquently."
A sketch from ' Monkey Dust'
During the show's three-year run Thompson found the time to write acclaimed biographies of Peter Cook and Tintin creator Hergé. This constant vivacity made his lung cancer diagnosis during the beginning of the third series all the more hard to comprehend; he seemed so full of enthusiasm, and had never smoked a day in his life, yet had been struck down with this illness.
Still, he soldiered on, keeping his cancer quiet and writing the script to his final project – Respectable, about a man who consults a prostitute for marital advice – from a hospital bed with Shaun Pye. "He took it as a personal affront that he got cancer," said Pye, before adding that Thompson was never one to fish for sympathy from others.
Thompson died on the 7th of November, 2005 at the age of 45. In the obituaries written about him he was remembered best for his producer role on Have I Got News for You. Monkey Dust, the show that arguably had the most of him in it, was reduced to a footnote.
Presently, the show has been languishing in obscurity for a decade, never repeated, not available on iPlayer or Netflix and – bar season 1 – never released on DVD. There are plenty of suggestions as to why the show's cult appeal hasn't been capitalised on (they did a lot of offensive stuff), but the one that the forums are most set upon is the inclusion of three rubbish Brummie terrorists in season two, a full year before the 7/7 bombings.
Before the end of series three the creators had planned a spin-off based on the exploits of the terrorists. Pre-dating Chris Morris' Four Lions by five years, the show would be set in Glasgow, with writing from Shah Khan and animation from Laurie Proud. However, understandably, the London bombings derailed any chance of following a loveable British terror cell and their bumbling attempts at waging jihad.
"So we're meeting up to discuss whether we can do more jokes about rubbish terrorists," recalled Shaun Pye. "A while after, I remember texting Harry on 7/7 and saying, 'Should we just cancel this? It's never gonna happen now.' It was the death knell to it."
Looking back at the show now, it's both of its time and timeless. Sketches about doing anything to become famous may seem slightly dated, but material like the Paedofinder General and that about unsubstantiated witch hunts remains sadly modern. Mic Graves, the show's creative director, summed it up best by saying: "The stuff that annoys you needs to be attacked."
The show had raw writing talent and an innovative visual style, and provided a platform to a group of people who wanted to do something truly different. At the heart of this was Harry Thompson, unleashing his and Shaun Pye's very dark, very human take on Britain. I, for one, hope all that isn't forever lost to the archives.
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