What’s going on here? Suddenly we’ve got not one but two comedy send-ups of heroic fantasy, one on Radio 4 (just finished), one on BBC 2 (just begun). I must admit I listened to ElvenQuest in a I’m-not-going-to-like-this-but-I-know-I’m-going-to-have-to-listen-to-it kind of way, but grew to like it, and even miss it, now it’s finished. Will it be the same for Kröd Mändoon and the Flaming Sword of Fire? Actually, I started liking Krod Mandoon a bit quicker, but maybe because I’d been warmed up by ElvenQuest…
Coming so close together, and being about the same sort of thing, you can’t help finding similarities between the two. For instance, in both shows, the Evil Baddy comes across as a slightly naff office boss, with the descent into management-speak being one of their main jokes (another being the sudden flip into killing employees/servants who don’t please them). Is this a measure of our times, because the biggest evil we’re likely to face in our daily lives is an over-officious line manager? Or is it just another branch of the continued David Brentisation of comedy? Actually, it might be something more deep-seatedly British than that, as Alistair McGowan’s Lord Darkness (from ElvenQuest) reminded me a bit of both Ralph Richardson’s Supreme Being and David Warner’s Evil from Time Bandits — polite and reasonable, but wielding enormous power with an indifferent flick of the finger. That’s just how we Brits expect our bigwigs to be, I guess.
Another point of similarity — although one scantily clad in the form of a wild divergence — is the women. Both serials (or, so far, in the case of Krod Mandoon) have only one real female character of any significance. The main joke with ElvenQuest’s Penthiselea the Warrior Princess (Sophie Winkleman) is she’s completely innocent about sex (thinking babies come from the Baby Tree, if I remember right), whereas the main joke with Krod Mandoon’s pagan girlfriend Aneka (India de Beaufort) is she’s a nymphomaniac on a scale (300 men in one night?) that makes it difficult to retain any sympathy for her, or the besotten Mandoon. (Or am I just behind the times?) I’d be tempted to say it’s a pity fantasy (even comedy fantasy) is still struggling to get free of these sort of female stereotypes (I’m reminded of the way Sword & Sorcery’s flimsily-dressed wenches in distress were “updated” in the 70s by the likes of Raven, Swordsmistress of Chaos, who was just another crudely flipped stereotype), but then again, I can’t exactly say any of the male characters escape being stereotypes either.
But hey, this is comedy, and comedy’s all about stereotypes, right? You can’t have jokes without people being the butt of jokes, because comedy is all about our need to laugh at other people, right?
Actually, I don’t think it is. If you look at the best comedies — Fawlty Towers, Spaced, Alan Partridge — the characters you really laugh at are the ones you know, deep down, are just like you, in some little way. You laugh at stereotypes, but you laugh with characters. Or maybe that’s just me.
It’s weird to think heroic fantasy, which I always thought was going to be kept firmly relegated on the marshy borderlands of culture, is now the subject of two mainstream comedies. I can’t believe that jokes about, for instance, bad riddles inscribed above magic doorways or the ümlautification of names — which I’d have thought you have to be familiar with fantasy role-playing games to find funny — are part of mainstream comedy. It means that, in a roundabout, backdoor kind of way, heroic fantasy is part of the mainstream, though unfortunately not in the sort of way that will get anyone to think it can be really good. (And it can. Alan Garner’s Elidor, for instance. Short, devastating, and featuring a unicorn.)