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The Unsentimental Genius of 'Phoenix Nights'

We look back at Peter Kay’s 2001 sitcom, a good-hearted pisstake of working men's club culture.

by Lauren O'Neill and Joel Golby
23 July 2019, 12:19pm

Phoenix Nights. Photo by Channel 4

Everybody I know knows about garlic bread. Not the food, the joke. It's easy: first you incredulously say the word "garlic", and next "bread", as if it's a question. Garlic bread!? The point is to take something completely quotidian and act like it's the most new-fangled concept you've ever heard of.

It sounds simple, but it made Peter Kay famous. Kay, the Bolton-born comic who managed to make advertising bread funny, first told the joke during his now-iconic Live at the Top of the Tower stand-up routine in 2000. When he began work on a sitcom for Channel 4 the following year – a project called Phoenix Nightsthe joke came with him.

Broadcast between 2001 and 2002, Phoenix Nights centres on the fictional Phoenix Club, a working men's club in Bolton. It features an ensemble cast, including Kay as the wheeler-dealer club owner Brian Potter, Dave Spikey as his right-hand man and emcee Jerry "The Saint" St. Clair, plus guest appearances from game show hosts Jim Bowen and Roy Walker – favourites among the real life social club crowd.

The show's depiction of social club culture is both loving and unsentimental. It's a world I grew up in – as a kid in Birmingham, I'd be carted along to Small Heath Working Men's Club (which is sadly now closed) or Scanlon's (a still-thriving Irish club at the end of my nan's road) for family parties, bingo and dominoes tournaments. I'd drink endless glasses of syrupy pop, eat cheese and onion crisps and run around the dance floor as a DJ played "Macarena" and the adults sat and smoked.

Despite the fact that, by 2012 (a decade after Phoenix Nights aired), the number of working men’s clubs in the UK had halved since the 1980s, social clubs still hold a significant place in the leisure time of thousands of British people. Phoenix Nights is pretty much the only TV show to touch on the idiosyncrasies of these venues and their clientele – though it must be said that, while the first series is the perfection of the form, the second strays into lazy jokes based on race, which, for my money, don't define the social club experience at all. At its peak, the show was a relatable and hilarious watch – just without any of the schmaltz that might slow the jokes down.

I joined former VICE staffer and fellow former social club kid, Joel Golby, to talk about Phoenix Nights, its humour and its impact on British comedy. A version of our conversation is below, and you can also listen to the whole thing here.

WHY PHOENIX NIGHTS RESONATES

Joel Golby: You grew up in Shitfuck, Nowhere as well, right?

Lauren O'Neill: I'm from Birmingham. It's weird, because I grew up in a city, but Birmingham city centre is tiny, and the big part of Birmingham is the suburban areas that surround the city centre. I grew up in a place called Tyseley, which has an Irish working men's club called Scanlon's, where my family would often hold celebrations. Before that, we lived not far from an area called Small Heath, where there was Small Heath Workers' Club, where my whole youth was spent, basically – family parties and stuff like that.

JG: I grew up in Chesterfield, a small town near but not in Sheffield, and those are the places dotted around where you spend a childhood eating cheese sandwiches off paper trestle table coverings. The question I was going to ask you is: was everyone in your town obsessed with Phoenix Nights when it was going?

LO: My parents, definitely. It was a big deal because, for a lot of people, I think it was the first time they’d seen that side of their lives represented on TV.

JG: But like properly lampooned, not just like kitchen sink misery.

LO: Yeah, and that's one of the great things about it. It was very knowing comedy, but loving, because it was people who'd come from doing the comedy circuit in these places.

JG: It's still fundamentally a complete piss-take though. There really aren’t any of those saccharine, tender moments. There’s no Tim kissing Dawn. It’s a pop-up erection coming off a bouncy castle. There’s no tenderness about it at all.

THE SETTING

JG: I was watching the first episode today, and the establishing, opening shot just feels northern. He's going up a hill of terraced houses on a mobility scooter, and there's someone putting graffiti on a wall that says, like, "ROGER HALLIWELL SHAGGED MY WIFE." I feel like I know Roger Halliwell and the wife.

LO: That shot is a complete masterclass in setting a scene. Chorley FM's on the radio, Brian’s rolling up the hill and you find out everything you need to know about the show and what’s going on in mere seconds. The radio announcer says that, at the Phoenix Club's opening, you can get bingo and supper for £15. And the bingo doesn’t even happen! In the second episode, Ray Von makes a bingo machine out of a Henry hoover.

JG: One thing that Phoenix Nights did so well was that all the extras who were supposed to be the regulars at the club were so perfectly weathered. In the scene where the bingo machine starts spitting balls everywhere – it’s actually quite a dumb slapstick gag – and Jerry’s trying to pick the balls up, and he goes "49", and they all shout, "We’ve had that!!!" and look genuinely pissed off. It’s like they’ve been told they can have an actual game of bingo, and it's free bingo, so they’re kicking off because someone said 49 twice. And in the second episode of the show, The Captain [the Phoenix Club’s doorman] dies, and they have the wake. Which is just the most perfect working men’s club wake. The daylight lighting of it, the spread that’s been put on, the by-the-book black suits. And then, just a woman at the head of the table going, "Well, I tell you what. I’m having his fridge freezer. That’s not even 12 months old." I feel like I’ve heard that conversation one billion times in my life.

LO: Another fantastic joke in that scene is when The Captain’s friend does a speech about him and he says, "We'll have a bit of respect for The Captain" – and then puts his beer down on the coffin.

THE CAST

JG: From a horrible comedy nerd perspective, I’m blown away by how tight and structured Phoenix Nights is. It's essentially a really perfectly controlled ensemble comedy. It's actually quite hard to have a character who serves a purpose – Little Kenny is just, like, the dipshit; Kenny Senior is the liar; you’ve got Holy Mary, who’s, like, the sweet one, and you’ve got the stricter barmaid. In a lot of TV, if you give this type of character a good line and a fan likes them or something, they get made into a main character, but Phoenix Nights did quite well to keep that roving cast of players quite tight.

LO: My favourite of those secondary players is definitely Kenny the Liar. In the first episode of the second season he goes to give Brian a character witness after the club has gone up in flames, and Brian's alcohol license is in question, and he says that his name is Kenny Dalglish. It's those little details that make it really perfect. Another thing I love from the first episode is that Roy Walker – former TV host of Catchphrase – of all people is brought in to re-open the club. That is the most perfect choice for what I know people who go to those places want to see.

JG: They’d fucking come out for Walker.

LO: My mum and my nan go to bingo in Tyseley a lot, and they recently had a personal appearance by the Beast from The Chase. It really reminded me of that. Personally, I would also go to see the Beast.

JG: I'd fucking flip out if I saw the Beast.

LO: Jim Bowen, former host of Bullseye, also appears in season two. It’s similar to Roy Walker – it’s these guest stars who also feel really embedded in this world too.

JG: Like when they had Sally Lindsay from Coronation Street just briefly playing Ray Von's girlfriend, and it strikes a perfect line between completely taking the piss out of a working class world and being a very fond part of it.

THE GENIUS OF BRIAN POTTER

JG: There's an amazing moment in the newly refurbished Phoenix Club: Brian's behind the bar and he can't reach the whiskey glasses, so he just empties out a vase and uses that, and he’s just drinking that for the rest of the episode. And after the fire at the end of the first season, it’s fire-blackened but he’s still using it.

LO: Another great one from the first episode is Brian saying he's got to go home because he’s got the immersion on. I relate so deeply to that; me and my mum used to have terrible arguments about the immersion, because I’d always leave it on by accident and the water would be scalding.

JG: It’s the little touches – when he gets angry and goes, "Get me Zantac."

LO: Or, "Why have you got my builders up there singing 'Acapulco'?"

JG: Have you ever seen That Peter Kay Thing? There’s an amazing episode of that called "The Ice Cream Man Cometh", where Peter Kay plays this Elvis-haired, camo-trousered, sideburns-and-aviators furious ice cream man who's so annoyed that someone’s getting in on his turf in the dying ice cream industry. He’s selling porn videos out of the cooler and trying to make ends meet. And there's an amazing bit where he learns that his rival ice cream man has got the patch at the Bolton Show that year, and he’s outside a chip shop and he learns on the phone, and he goes, "YOU STUPID SET OF BASTARDS." And he pelts his phone into the bin. It’s one of the best meltdowns – but as Brian Potter, he’s so good at holding a base level of being outraged about something. You can directly see the thread from that episode of TV to him as a character.

THE LEGACY OF PHOENIX NIGHTS

LO: Peter Kay is one of the most famous and, I would personally argue, best comics that the UK has ever produced. But I think the show is also really influential, where other shows are referencing it, whether consciously or not. I’m thinking for one of a bit in Gavin and Stacey, where they sing in the car. That reminds me so much of the Max and Paddy parts in Phoenix Nights.

JG: I know we’re bigging the show up here, but I do think it goes off the boil in season two. But that scene in the first episode of season two, with Max and Paddy, where they’re singing, "Is This the Way to Amarillo?" in the van, you have two splinters of comic history. The first is that it was like Channel 4 just immediately commissioned Max and Paddy’s Road to Nowhere as a sequel. And the second, it splintered off to Peter Kay doing the charity single where he just mimed "Amarillo", and made a video, walking. I loathed that at the time. It was number one for ages, and there's no humour in the video at all – it’s maybe funny when Ronnie Corbett falls over. Also, Jimmy Saville pops up in it! And it's there that you realise it really crosses a generation. The car thing also happens at the beginning of the Alpha Papa Alan Partridge film, and now it’s basically what Carpool Karaoke is.

LO: Essentially, yeah, but it’s completely perfect that those two characters would be doing that, right? Before you get "Amarillo", there’s also another scene that I think is funnier where they’re doing "I Could Be So Good for You" by Dennis Waterman, which is a really well observed choice. Of course these two people are singing this song and know every word. Another important point about the show’s legacy is the liar character, which as we’ve said is done through Kenny Senior here. I know we've mentioned that it’s done so well here, but I don’t know if we’d have Jay in The Inbetweeners if it weren’t for this.

JG: That’s a good point. They are a common comedy trope, and I’m not actually in love with Big Kenny in Phoenix Nights, but Jay in The Inbetweeners – which is the exemplar of the form – definitely has a spiritual connection.

LO: On TV, working class life is often best addressed through comedy. It doesn’t feel in any way grim or patronising – it’s just real life.

CLICK HERE TO READ VICE'S 50 BEST TV SHOWS OF THE CENTURY SO FAR.

@hiyalauren / @joelgolby