This week, we continue a series of posts devoted to summertime entertainment, including delightful beach-reads, road-trip-friendly podcasts, splashy summer movies, and oh-so-binge-able tv, as Emily asks you to please listen to the BBC radio show Cabin Pressure.
Okay. Summer’s almost over. I can accept that. Seasonality is nice. I’ve even broken out my sweater collection and started looking for hot apple cider at my local coffee shops. (It got weirdly cold last week.) I’ve been buying school supplies, and sketching out my fall semester schedule, and listening to folksy acoustic-y indie music. But we’ve still got a week until Labor Day and a month until summer actually ends. And just because I keep seeing school buses practicing their routes doesn’t mean that I’m willing to concede that summer’s actually over. We still have time for ice tea and sunglasses and floppy hats and floral sundresses, goddammit. It’s still totally acceptable, if you ask me, to indulge the silly abandon of road trips and the impulse to marathon shows with no thought to to-do lists.
So this week, in the spirit of those road trips and pop culture marathons of late summer — and my love of both geeky word games and Anthony Head —
I want to encourage you to check out the BBC Radio sitcom Cabin Pressure.
Yes, that is Smaug the Great and Terrible himself, Benedict Cumberbatch.
On the macro level, Cabin Pressure is a story about small charter airline. No, excuse me, an airdot. (Because, of course, you cannot put one jet in a line.) In each of the show’s twenty-seven episodes, the pilots and crew fly their plane, get involved in hijinks, play some silly word games, and try to keep the business relatively solvent. It’s a relatively formulaic sitcom, as sitcoms go. But that’s kind of the point. There’s something truly delightful about taking something so seemingly mundane and executing it gorgeously.
“I’m fairly often just completely happy. Like for instance, when you get into a bath quickly and it’s just the right temperature, and you go ‘ooooh.’ I mean really no one gets any happier than that.”
“What a depressing thought.”
“No, no, it’s not though, because those sorts of things happen all the time, whereas, you know, you’re hardly ever blissfully happy with the love of your life in the moonlight, and when you are, you’re too busy worrying about it being over soon, whereas the bath moments, there’s loads of those!”
The most obvious aspect of the awesomeness of Cabin Pressure is probably its truly delightful cast of characters. Central to that main cast, we’ve got
- Carolyn, middle-aged divorcee and airplane-owner, who constantly flirts with bankruptcy as the owner of a small charter firm and does so because being “Owner and Executive of MJN Airline” is better than being “a little old lady;”
- Arthur, Carolyn’s 28-and-a-half-year-old son, who is permanently excited by most things, including polar bears, Toblerones, and any and all opportunities to be helpful;
- Douglas, a mellifluously voiced, middle-aged pilot who will do anything to have the last word in an argument and prove his own superiority;
- Martin, the tightly wound captain, who’s wanted to be a pilot since he was five (before that, he wanted to be an airplane), but who’s not particularly adept at flying planes, playing word games, convincing Carolyn to pay him a salary, winning coin tosses, or just about anything else; and
- GERTI, or Golf Echo Romeo Tango India, the ramshackle but beloved plane that keeps them in the air.
(We’ve also got repeat appearances from weird and amazing characters like the sardonic Carl in ATC, the horribly posh rugby fan Mr. Birling, the odious Gordon Shappey, and the suave, sexy, opera-loving pilot Hercules “Herc” Shipwright.)
So much of the humor of Cabin Pressure hinges on the chemistry between the characters and the subtlety of the actors who play them. And the central actors are just the best. Alongside veteran actress Stephanie Cole (Carolyn) and show-writer John Finnemore (the manic but lovable Arthur), we’ve got Original-London-Les-Mis-Javert Roger Allam (Douglas) and pre-massive-celebrity Benedict Cumberbatch (Martin). In addition, acclaimed British librarian-impersonator-cum-vampire-slayer-helper Anthony Head clearly has just too much fun playing the oh-so-charming Herc.
Cabin Pressure is obsessed with the silliness — and earnestness — of normal human existence and with the comedy that naturally grows from sticking people in a tiny metal tube miles above the earth for extended periods of time.
The comedic brilliance of the show comes out when these characters repeatedly bounce up against each other and step all over each other (usually figuratively) in the confines of their tiny aircraft. Cabin Pressure is very comfortable sitting in the punch-drunk weirdness that develops when you’ve got a few people who know each other very well who spend a lot of time in small spaces together trying to keep from being bored. Sometimes this leads to people getting way too invested in playing detective, sometimes to Guys-and-Dolls-esque bets about consumption of cheesecake vs. strudel, and sometimes to elaborate schemes involving a stuffed sheep, a truckload of geese, a family heirloom, and a metal detector. (Don’t ask.)
“I don’t care how hypothetical it is, I’m not flying with a live otter in the flight deck!”
Often, this ends up leading to the sort of word games that mark every good road trip — or slow afternoon. Each episode has at least one of these game, and honestly, they’re one of my favorite parts of the show. Because you know you want to play “People Who Aren’t Evil But Have Evil Sounding Names” and “Books that Sound More Interesting With the Last Letter Taken Off” and “See How Many Hitchcock Film Titles You Can Fit into Everyday Speech.” Seriously. I promise that you can spend many a long meeting daydreaming about The Man with the Golden Gu, The DaVinci Cod, The Tale of Peter Rabbi and their ilk. (Thanks to friend of the blog Allison for that last suggestion!)
Before Cumberbatch was the subject of internet speculation as to whether or not he looked like an otter, he was just a normal actor doing radio programs alongside Rupert Giles and Inspector Javert at the BBC.
And the show is so cleverly aware of the affordances of radio as a comedy medium. In our current era of media consumption, when visual media is king, it’s fantastic to have a show that is so intensely aware of the comedic potential of an aural medium. When everything’s left up to the audience’s imagination, and a character’s dress or appearance can be completely glossed over until it becomes a punchline, everything’s a bit stranger and sillier and more surreal than it might be in a conventional tv sitcom.
“So, Arthur, in your quest to find the one image which perfectly sums up MJN Air and everything it stands for, you’ve elected for a shot of twelve Scottish cricketers in the Sahara Desert wearing swimsuits and carrying a fire engine.”
But honestly, I love this show because of its earnest embrace of geek culture. This isn’t exactly the sort of geek culture that we tend to talk about at TTLP. No one on the show talks about Harry Potter, or Doctor Who, or The Lord of the Rings, or any of the other properties that we tend to define ourselves by in our particular corner of geekdom. (Although Arthur is a fan of a bizarre King Arthur/Vampire mash-up.) But Cabin Pressure is, fundamentally, a story about people who are nerdy and excited and enthusiastic about weird things — whether those things be airplane types, limericks, or polar bears. It’s a show that recognizes the humor of Martin’s obsessive love of airplanes, but that also respects his obsessive nerdery. It’s a show that understands that some people just have really strong feelings about airplanes — where others might have strong feelings about knitting or podcasts or coloring books. It’s charming, and upbeat, and silly, and affirming.
And that earnest affirmation carries through the show as a whole, because this is a world in which the nerdy pilot gets the girl, the ambitious woman keeps the job (and the guy), the bad guys get their comeuppance, and the eternally optimistic worldview is consistently proven correct. It’s a clever, joyful piece of radio storytelling that’s perfect for marathoning on a road trip, or — if you’re back to your autumnal routine — listening to a little bit at a time.
So whether you’re looking for something new to listen to on your commute to work or you’re stockpiling media for your long Labor Day Weekend, I highly recommend that you check out BBC Radio’s Cabin Pressure. The show concluded last year, so all twenty-seven episodes are available on iTunes and Amazon and are absolutely worth it. Episodes are each named after a location, and go in ABC-order. To get a taste of the show, perhaps start with “Qikiqtarjuaq” or “Douz.” Or just start at the beginning with “Abu Dhabi.”
“So on behalf of all the crew, may I just say… Geronimo!”