Written by: John Finnemore
Cast: Roger Allam (Douglas), Stephanie Cole (Carolyn), Benedict Cumberbatch (Martin), John Finnemore (Arthur)
Home station: BBC Radio 4
Available on Audible and iTunes
I miss radio serials. And I don’t mean that in an “I’m old enough to remember listening to them in the days before television” way, because I’m not. I mean that the radio serial is a lost art (indeed radio programming in general is a lost art/cause, but don’t get me started…).* However, Cabin Pressure is a refreshing departure.
The series centers around a small charter airline called MJN Air, which stands for My Jet Now…so named because MJN’s CEO, Carolyn Knapp-Shappey, got the crumbling 16-seater plane as part of a bitter divorce settlement. Carolyn’s 27 year old son Arthur is the dim but enthusiastic flight attendant. Flying the jet are Captain Martin Crieff and First Officer Douglas Richardson. Martin has a serious inferiority complex because, no matter how much gold braid he wears on his suit and captain’s hat, everyone always assumes that the older Douglas is the captain. Douglas meanwhile is a sneaky devil who was fired from his last job at Air England for “having sticky fingers.”
Put these four in the 3rd-generation-Geo-Metro of airplanes, in an almost bankrupt company–and hilarity ensues. Cabin Pressure is pure situational comedy. In each episode the intrepid four are tasked with flying all over the globe, carrying all manner of passengers and cargo: a belligerent group of American adventurers, a gregarious millionaire with a taste for expensive whiskey, a Scottish cricket team, the King and Princess of Lichtenstein, and something in a box that horses make… To keep themselves entertained during flights, the crew plays all manner of nutty games, including “Simon Says”, “Hide the Lemon”, and “Books that Sound More Interesting With the Final Letter Knocked-off” (e.g.-Of Mice and Me). Martin usually loses.
Like much of the best of British comedy, this series is insanely clever. Finnemore is one of the best comedy writers I’ve ever come across. He utilizes so many different comedic elements–word play, slapstick, irony, sarcasm, absurdity. Solely through the use of dialogue (and the occasional sound effect) Finnemore paints a hysterical picture, moving the story right along. He doesn’t make use of third person narration or of the cheesy and unnatural, “yes, and you already know that this and that is because of this” kind of expository dialogue. As you work your way through the episodes you get bits of character back-story. The characters aren’t just mouthpieces for some clever jokes–they develop into 3-dimensional characters that you love for different reasons and in spite of/because of their faults.
Since season one of Sherlock, I’ve quickly become a fan of Benedict Cumberbatch, so that’s just one more excuse to love this series. He plays the awkward, aeronautically-obsessed nerd to perfection. Really though, all of the acting is superb. Or, as Arthur would say, brilliant! The four main players never miss a beat, rattling off the witty dialogue with perfect comedic timing. The secondary characters are excellently written and acted as well. Highlight: Timothy West as Carolyn’s Aussie ex-husband.
*This applies to U.S. radio. Not particularly familiar with British radio.
The Bottom Line: Even after listening to an episode four or five times, I still laugh out loud. Which is exactly what I want from a comedy.
P.S.- Speaking of Benedict Cumberbatch and Sherlock, in honor of Sir Arthur’s birthday May will be all things Holmes. Stay tuned for The Great Sherlock Holmes Endeavor!