February 13th 2014
An English school in central London. All of a sudden, English Grammar class comes to an abrupt end, interrupted by the hysterical shrieks of a chicken who just popped out a couple of a dozen eggs – that would be me.
Twitter is bursting with the news: the last episode of Cabin Pressure is officially going to be recorded in a couple of weeks, and the BBC will select audience members with an online lottery. You just need to register to the BBC Radio site, and cross your fingers, your toes, everything you can cross, hoping you’ll be lucky enough to be chosen.
I think to myself: why not?
I mean, I’m in London, I have Benedict Cumberbatch practically next door – my inner chicken pops out dozens and dozens of eggs just thinking about it – so why not? What’s the worst that could happen? I can always jump off the London Eye, no big deal.
I register to the mailing list, and patiently wait for the raffle to begin.
A few days later, the answer: I wasn’t lucky enough.
The only reason I don’t catch the next tube to the London Eye is because, after literally five seconds, the inevitable occurs.
The fandom explodes.
“Zurich”, the last episode of the award-winning series “Cabin Pressure” – Best Radio Comedy 2011, awarded by the Writer’s Guild of Great Britain – first broadcast in 2008, and counting at the time 25 episodes recorded, has registered an astounding number of requests to be part of the audience.
It’s the highest in the history of the BBC Radio.
I love fans. Really, I love them. But there are times when I just want to put my hands on the collective fandom’s neck and squeeze, squeeze, squeeze until their eyes pop out.
Like this time.
Cabin Pressure fans, usually so kind, meek and funny, suddenly turn into a blood-thirsty, ravaging Chimera faster than you can say “disembarkation”.
The controversy gets bigger and uglier, but here’s a brief summary:
“Those m****** fat cows Cumberbitches! They don’t care about the show, they just want to see their precious Benedict! It’s their fault if WE TRUE FANS – mind the capslock – can’t go to the recording! Idiots! Don’t touch Cabin Pressure!”
And that’s the reason why, dear readers, I did not jump off the London Eye.
Because when, with no reason at all, Fans become Fanazis, I must chain myself to my keyboard and instil some new, mind-blowing knowledge in those simple little brains still firmly convinced that “Fandom racism” is the sacred prerogative of those who, by age or sheer luck, got there first, and so they’re naturally better than anyone else. By default.
And the best way to do that, is to be honest.
Yes, I am a Cumberbitch – though I loathe the term. And yes, I found out about Cabin Pressure thanks to Benedict Cumberbatch, whose voice is proof that one day God, understandably grown tired of Heavenly Choirs, put such vocal cords in such a mortal just to troll the angels.
Give me Benedict Cumberbatch in any role, and I’ll love you forever. Give me Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice in any role and I’ll be forever yours. Give me Benedict Cumberbatch in an exclusively audio performance and I’ll sell the souls of my descendants till the seventh generation to you. Add that magnificent human being who’s Roger Allam – the spectacular DILF in “Tamara Drewe” – to the deal, and I’ll give you fourteen generations more.
But then, something happened. Something more.
First, I started laughing.
A lot. Best laughs I’ve ever, ever had. I almost died of laughing, with all my heart and without any shame at all. Walking down the street, with my earphones on, I’d start bark-laughing so wildly that old ladies would cross their heart, and street pedlars started wondering if it had been such a good idea to come to Italy.
It became troubling very quickly. My friends started systematically refusing to give me a lift anywhere – I would always insist we’d listen to the first three seasons of “Cabin Pressure” on CD. Once, my sister had to come to my rescue and collect me from the floor: I’d just collapsed out of bed, howling like a hysterical wolf, after listening for the umpteenth time to “Ottery St. Mary” – I swear, the things that episode does to me. It’s the crowning moment of the history of radio comedy.
John Finnemore is a genius: genuinely funny, a natural born entertainer and incredibly witty – like so very few are these days – he’s capable of a simple, direct kind of humour, which makes his work even more undeniably remarkable. He doesn’t need swearing nor other forms of crudity to rally the audience.
But, really, what makes this show unique – the reason I’ve kept loving it all these years, the reason I’ve stayed – you’ll find in episode six, season four: “Yverdon-les-Bains.”
A young pilot is having a job interview to join a major Swiss airline. It’s a disaster: he’s not qualified enough – he failed his C.P.L. seven times, and even now that he’s finally got it he’s not such a great pilot still – and he’s a nervous wreck. He’s stammering, and his lack of self-confidence is staggeringly obvious. Furthermore, he looks so thin, so insecure, a very far cry from what a good airline captain should look like.
By the end of the interview, everything seems lost. When at last, the little pilot stirs back to life, and says:
I’m good enough. Like the sim said, I’m adequate – adequate to the task. But I … I don’t do it easily. It’s not second nature to me. On your scale of one to ten, if one is the bare minimum of competence, I’m … about a four. And I used to be a one – no … (he chuckles ruefully) … I used to be a zero, and then I took my C.P.L. again … and then again … and then I was a one, and then a two, and then a three, and now I’m a four. And I’m not finished yet. And that’s why you should employ me. That’s why you’d be lucky to employ me, because if you’re not naturally good – if you can’t rely on just knowing how to do it like Doug… l-like some people can, then you have to… well, you have to be a perfectionist, actually – and I am one. And that’s why even when you’ve turned me down, I’m gonna keep on applying – because flying is the perfect job, and I won’t settle for a life where I don’t get to do it.
And this, in my opinion, is the fundamental element, the greatest gift this show has to offer to its audience.
Martin Crieff will never give up. He’s a four, and he knows it, but he doesn’t need to be a ten, or even an eleven. He knows what his limits are, and wants to overcome them. It doesn’t matter how long it’ll take, he will never, ever stop. He’ll keep trying, with all his heart, because THIS is what he wants to do, what he was put on this Earth to do – he’s sure of it. No matter how many times he’ll fall, how many times he’ll start crying because a passenger was rude to him, how many CVs he’ll have to send and how long it’ll take.
He WILL become a proper airline pilot. He WILL be a captain. The Captain. One you would be proud to fly with.
“Cabin Pressure” it’s not just a comedy radio show. Oh no, it’s so much more than that. It’s a perfect piece of work, an ode to the ordinary man being extraordinary, to our infinite resources and inner strenght. With enough will and determination, we can do anything. But most of all, we don’t need to be the best to make our dreams come true. We just need to be ourselves, and keep trying, despite our faults, our fears, our insecurities. Maybe even thanks to them, because we bear the weight of them every single day, and in spite of all we’re still here, strong enough not to get crushed.
Martin Crieff, nevrotic “sorry excuse of a pilot”, will never give up.
Douglas Richardson, under his smooth demeanor and charming undertones – claims to have pulled a thousand stewardess in his time – has to deal with the fact that his shining career is slowly coming to an end, he’s three times divorced, and on top of everything else he’s co-pilot to Martin, so much younger and less experienced than him. But he won’t allow bitterness to dampen his spirit: in fact, he’ll keep on flying as the mighty Shy God he is, thank you very much.
Arthur Shappey, twenty-nine and still leaving with his mom Carolyn, steward with more heart than common sense, will keep smiling, cooking up some extravagant delicacy, and helping as much as he can – although no one asked him to. Ever. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Carolyn Knapp-Shappey, the iron lady, the fierce owner and manager of MJN Air and the quite worn-out jet G-ERTI, will never bow to ageing, sexism, and most of all the common passanger, which, as we all well know, is the lowest life form on Earth.
No one can stop this little charter firm, this unique microcosm of joy and perseverance.
That’s the key: don’t ever stop. Laugh. Be happy. Live. Find your destination, and fight to reach it.
John Finnemore taught me this. Or better still, he reminded me how joyful is to live like this. “Cabin Pressure” has made me smile, and given me a reason to keep doing it.
So, if this summer you find yourself with nothing to do, listen to “Cabin Pressure”. And if you happen to be around, come to the convention, on the 23rd and 24th of August.
But most of all, fly high.
On a side note: during the “last espisode crisis”, many went to the actor Tom Goodman-Hill’s Twitter profile – the bowler-hat man who found out where Sean Connery was in “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” – because he had covered for Benedict Cumberbatch during “Newcastle”‘s recording session, when he had called in sick. Every single person expressed deep appreciation and respect for his extraordinary performance.
In the end, the actor is the channel through which the story flows. I’m not saying you don’t need a damned good actor to play some very difficult roles, but when the story is so special, you don’t need a Benedict Cumberbatch to make it so.
by St. Mary (Opera lirica and Britannia Imperat: that’s me!)