If we're honest, when we sat down less than two weeks ago with an advance copy of BBC Three's newest sketch show, 'The Message', we weren't expecting a great deal. In fact, if we're completely honest, we were expecting to be horrified. Not merely because 95% of all things are horrifyingly bad (add at least 4% for comedy), but also because we know what BBC Three are capable of. We've seen 'Titty Bang Bang'. 'The Message' however, is the brainchild of Johnny Daukes, and Johnny Daukes - hold the front page - is funny.
The first time we met him in the flesh, Daukes was sitting in a cupboard playing guitar. The cupboard was in the offices of Serious Pictures, a production company for whom he directs commercials. In theory. In reality, he hasn't done a great deal of work for Serious Pictures, but they do let him hang around in their studio, use their facilities and make TV programmes under the banner of his own company Furious. Which is nice of them. But we're getting ahead of ourselves a little. Let's go back some.
One of eight little Daukeses, Johnny was raised in Oxford, where he left school intent on a career in journalism. He had a place to study English at Manchester, but had to defer for a year when at the last minute he managed to crash his mum's car. Apparently getting a train was out of the question. 'My Dad used to say, "You can borrow your mum's car whenever", but we had this rule: "if you bend it, you mend it" and I bent it. And he held me to it. Harsh, but fair.' So instead of the bright lights of Northern-town academia, Daukes got a job at a local newspaper, 'just selling ads and starting to write things'. By which time, a classic late adolescent combination of 'playing in a band and pissing it up' began to drive his mum up the wall and Johnny was dispatched to London, to the care of an elder brother.
In London, through a friend of a friend of a girlfriend who was training to work cameras at the BBC, Daukes found himself working as a runner for a video company that specialised in corporate videos. 'I didn't know what it was,' he said, 'didn't know anything about television at all, and I walked into this massive
edit suite and looked at it and I thought, "Bloody hell, I'll have some of that." I took to it really quickly, just stayed there all night every night for a year working and within ten months I was editing.' There then followed two years of cutting corporate videos, with the only respite being a sixty-hour edit session on the Hockey World Cup. Just when Daukes was about to be warped all to hell, he got the opportunity to cut Psychic TV's first video, and was finally able to escape for good the dreary world of suits. And pucks. One pop video led to another and before he knew what had hit him, Daukes found himself cutting for MTV. 'Before MTV went on air - that's how old I am - I started cutting all their title sequences.' Then came directing work for the same channel, which led in turn to directing ads, then suddenly, some might say recklessly, he jacked it all in to be a rock star. 'I got to about 27, I'd just started directing commercials and I threw the whole lot down the toilet and formed a band.' That band was Fin.
If you go looking for Fin now, you come across their legacy on sites such as 'Forgotten Band Planet', where Fin fans lament the fact that Fin never quite made it when they so clearly deserved to. They did however, have a sackload of fun and drugs as they pissed about the planet (but mostly England) playing at pop stars. They found themselves in New York at the time of Lady Diana's death, the manager of The Cardigans asleep in their hotel room. He later told Daukes that 'his overriding memory is of waking up on our sofa at seven in the morning with the most fucking *appalling* cocaine hangover, and I'm walking around in my pants, banging a pan with a spoon, going "Ding Dong, the wicked old queen is dead..." Aaah, halcyon days. As if that weren't enough, when Fin returned to England they headed straight from Heathrow to Kensington Gardens to check out all the flowers and teddies and gaudy mourning. Perhaps in more sombre mood by now, they pinned one of their CDs to the railings with the words 'Oh, bugger' written across the front. A fine Fin sentiment which most probably ended up in Paul Burrell's knapsack, along with everything else.
However, unless you become properly successful, which probably entails getting higher in the charts than number 46, you can't go messing around in bands all your life. So before long, Daukes found himself back in the editing suite, this time cutting 'Rapido' for BBC2, which you may recall introduced the ridiculously French Antoines de Caunes to English audiences. You may recall. Daukes couldn't. 'I can't even remember what was in it now, but I used to edit the bugger. I don't think it was Antoines.' Tsk. What he does recall however, is that as a result of 'gooning around' with funny voices and accents in the edit suite, he was offered the opportunity to try out for a new programme they were planning. That programme was 'Eurotrash'. And so it came to pass that for the next few years, Johnny Daukes was paid good money for giving Ilkley Moor accents to sado-masochistic merkin-makers from the Black Forest. And suchlike.
After about eight seasons of 'Eurotrash', he finally decided to get himself a voiceover agent. Although at this stage Fin were still performing, Daukes began 'doing more and more voiceovers because it was just a good way of earning money quickly and easily'. Then finally, in 1999, just in time for the millennial celebrations, Fin split. The following year Daukes entered a sketch show writing competition with a friend, and from there, one thing continued to lead to another until - via two series of 'Radio 9' on Radio Four and additional writing duties on 'Monkey Dust' - 'The Message' is finally ready for the media.
In many ways, it seems like Daukes has been building up to 'The Message' all of his professional life. His work as an editor, director, writer, musician, voiceover artist - even his work as a stunt bike rider (he did wheelies for both Blue and Westlife videos) - all of these skills have been called upon for 'The Message'.
In a nutshell, 'The Message' is a TV channel all of its own; basically an excuse to highlight and tear to pieces all that is crass, witless and indeed soulless about modern television. What sets it aside from other spoof-type sketch shows - apart from the fact that it's actually funny - is the fact that it's stunningly authentic. The ads look just like ads. The trailers look just like trailers. Cokey Bear looks just like George the Hofmeister bear. It's television for sure, and more or less exactly as we know it - just ever so slightly dumber, and yes, much funnier. It also brings it home to you how much shit you put up with on TV. In much the same way as it's impossible to take news programming seriously after watching an episode of 'The Day Today', so 'The Message' leaves you thinking that the vast majority of all TV - certainly the ads, links, trailers and idents - must surely - surely to Christ - be taking the piss.
'When people have made spoof ads in the past,' says Daukes, 'I don't think they really understand the language of commercials. You get most comedians doing it and within five seconds you dismiss it 'cause you go, "No, that's not a commercial. Commercials don't do that." What I wanted to do was attack the conceits that advertisers use more than anything. They'll virtually go...' Cue Johnny Daukes the voiceover artist, switching effortlessly to mellifluous, seductive conman: '"Go on. Have a glass of water." That sort of smug self-satisfaction... I'm sure that some people in advertising will fail to see the funny side. But then a lot of people in telly are going to get a slightly uncomfortable sensation from "The Message".'
One of the most accurate and perhaps cruellest sketches in 'The Message' is 'Laughentration Camp', a parody of 'Trigger Happy TV'. Not Daukes' favourite programme. 'I loathe it,' he says. 'I never found it funny. Sorry, but dressing up as a dog and going up the park is just not good enough.' He's baffled. '"Candid Camera" was fucking funny, but what made it brilliant was the reactions were real. "Trigger Happy" is not for real - most of it feels set up, like it's got a safety net under it. In ours the monkey gets the shit kicked out of him, imagine if that had happened to Dom Joly... We used a monkey because last year it seemed like anyone who wanted to be funny would just attach the word 'monkey' to a concept and Hey Presto!... instant comedy. The working title for the sketch was actually "Monkey Something" which should probably really have stayed.'
There is also a distinctly dark side to 'The Message', featuring as it does amusing skits centred on suicide, rape, Alzheimer's, terrorism, drug abuse, child molestation and skag-and-porn-fuelled mountaineering - yet somehow it manages to avoid the tastelessness and the gratuitousness of other shows. This is probably because, unlike other shows, in 'The Message' the medium is the message. And the medium is TV. And 'The Message' is here to give it a much-needed kick up the arse.
If for some reason, 'The Message' doesn't take off - maybe it'll prove slightly too subtle for the great British public; not brain-shittingly repetitive enough; maybe it won't contain quite enough scenes of coprophagic old ladies with prosthetic labia yo-yoing between piss-stained knees - Daukes is not the sort of man to lie down and die. As you might expect, he is brimming with other projects. A series for Radio Four called 'The Scanner' - 'the very best and other bits of European radio' - is already in the pipeline. Plus he has around 160 songs recorded that have yet to be released. 'I'd love to release a ten-album box-set as a debut artist,' he says, 'and call it "The Vanity Project".' Plus, perhaps slightly more realistically, 'What I'd really like to do, I'd like to make a comedy feature film that was actually piss-funny. I don't understand how British comedy feature films are in the pisspoor state they're in. I'd like to make a feature that made people absolutely wet themselves. Quite literally.' Well, if anyone's going to do it, our money is on Johnny Daukes.
First stop however, 'The Message'.
It shits all over 'Little Britain'.
'The Message' will be broadcast Saturday 20th May on BBC Three.