You’ve finished The Wire, Breaking Bad and The Killing but you’re still hungry for more boxsets. Fear not, Standard Issue writers are on the case with some gems you might not yet have seen. Karen Campbell rises like an inflatable penis to sing her praises for Peter Kay’s celebration of working-class northern night spots.
When I was a teen in my small northern hometown, the highlight of my week was being taken to the local working men’s club with my wonderful grandma, a gaggle of foster kids and various relatives to watch the ‘turn’ and learn how to line dance. It means that, for me, Phoenix Nights* oozes nostalgia and always generates wee-yourself hilarity.
*full title: Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights. Of course it is.
Peter Kay, Dave Spikey and Neil Fitzmaurice’s gem of a sitcom documents the goings-on in The Phoenix Club, an on-its-arse night spot on the outskirts of Bolton, owned and run by tight-fisted Brian Potter (Kay) and his army of staff, all determined to make the Phoenix a success.
It brims to the rafters with Manchester and Oldham’s funny people of the day. The writers were adamant they didn’t want any ‘names’ and that they already had their mates in mind when writing (Paddy McGuinness had already had an outing as doorman Paddy in Kay’s earlier That Peter Kay Thing and Justin Moorhouse was a friend of Kay and co on the standup circuit).
What makes Phoenix Nights such an amazingly funny show is its beautifully drawn characters, all of whom are salt-of-the-earth types, but under Kay, Spikey and Fitzmaurice’s careful crafting, deliver the best one-liners and get themselves into the most ridiculous (yet, believable) scrapes.
“Potter has ordered a cheap bouncy castle which, on delivery, turns out to be a 20-foot inflatable cock-and-balls. He has it disguised as Sammy Snake, but it – inevitably – comes unleashed as the day progresses.”
The smaller characters often have as much impact as the main players here, with the likes of Potter’s bitter rival Den Perry (Ted Robins), Phoenix barman Spencer (Daniel Kitson) and the wonderful Marion (Beatrice Kelley) pretty much stealing every scene they’re in.
This is quite obviously Kay’s baby with him playing three characters: Potter, Max the doorman and Keith Lard, the bowl-haired fire safety officer from Bolton with a penchant for dogs. But it’s very much Brian Potter that is the jewel in the crown. A bad-tempered, Arthur Daley type, who drinks from a long vase so he can reach the optics from his wheelchair, Potter is always looking where the next few quid will come from.
One amazing episode sees the club host a family fun day in the car park. Potter has ordered a cheap bouncy castle which, on delivery, turns out to be a 20-foot inflatable cock-and-balls. He has it disguised as Sammy Snake, but it – inevitably – comes unleashed as the day progresses, culminating in a brilliant scene where Potter and children are overshadowed by the rise of the cock. Brilliant.
Thing is, even though he’s a cantankerous old sod, you can’t help but love Potter. When he meets Beverley (“Bev’ly” played by Jo Enright) – a Deirdre Barlow-type figure to whom he famously announces: “Just you wait. Things I’m going to do to you…” as they make their way upstairs, him in his stair lift, her holding his hand and following behind – your heart melts slightly. When Bev’ly doesn’t turn out to be quite who we thought, I have to say, I shed a little tear.
Potter’s dogged belief in his club is truly heartwarming, which is why he attracts such a loyal band of followers, led by the mighty Jerry St Clair (Spikey). Theirs is the best relationship in the series: Jerry and Potter spar off each other and are given some of the best scenes and dialogue due to their love/hate, can’t live with/can’t live without coupling.
Phoenix Nights is gentle and, yeah, at times a bit obvious, but that’s what makes it so endearing. Each character is imbued, by the writers and actor, with subtle jokes, language and quirks. You feel like you know them, which results in it being funnier every time you rewatch it.
Even though it’s 15 years old, it hasn’t aged and its popularity hasn’t waned; the demand for tickets when it was resurrected as a series of live shows for Comic Relief last year was so big they had to add extra dates.
Watching Phoenix Nights is like catching up with a gang of school mates that used to make you piss yourself laughing at everything and nothing. I really hope we one day see how the Phoenix Club is doing now. *nudges Kay, Spikey and Fitzmaurice*
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Karen Campbell is a life coach at www.your-dreamcatcher.com. She likes gin, James McAvoy and pretending she's not from Scunthorpe.