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Published December 17, 2015
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There’s a well known story about Spike Milligan during his time on The Goon Show. Apparently Milligan was something of a perfectionist when it came to audio effects. One day, he asked the cafeteria to make him some custard. They obliged, and then watched, horrified, as Milligan proceeded to pour it into his socks. Back in the studio, he repeatedly smacked the socks against a sheet of three ply. Unfortunately, Milligan failed to produce the sound he was after. Turns out a sock full of custard doesn’t sound like a sock full of custard.

You may be interested to know, however, that at a pinch, a cabbage makes a good stand-in for violence against a human.

It’s 1950s Australia. Television is a new fad that’ll never last, and Una Broben (Lauren Bok), Bert Maverick (Bert Goldsmith) and Herb Dunston (Sam Marzden) star in the Radio Variety Hour. If they can stop bickering for long enough, maybe they’ll be able to bring you such classics as Joan Jackson: Female Private Detective, Space Captain Jet Propulsion, and the terrifying Peculiar Avenue, and Herb might grace us with a song.

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Joan Jackson is everything you’d expect of a noir detective; the humour, the clichés, the slight self-awareness of a Raymond Chandler novel. Joan takes on what would seem to be an open-and-shut case of murder with only one complication; her witness is blind. Who dunnit? Why? And is it too early for a drink?

It’s the glorious future of 2007, and Jet Propulsion and his crew find themselves stranded on an alien planet, shot down by laser torpedoes while responding to a distress call. How will Propulsion fare against the native, cat-like race? What is the source of the signal? Who fired the torpedoes?

Up next, a short musical interlude from Australia’s own teen sensation Herbie D… except his backing band and singers refuse to work with him, and he’s 37. Never fear! Una and Bert offer their (un)enthusiastic support.

Finally, it’s time for young mothers and sensitive children to switch off that dial, as we prepare ourselves for the sinister happenings of Peculiar Avenue; a seemingly simple swindle for two brothers takes on an altogether spooky twist.

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Bert is a smooth leading man, Una is young and ambitious, Herb is something of an insecure wreck that no one takes seriously. Adding layers of realism, the “Producer” becomes a fourth character; constantly interrupting the hilarious arguing of the trio to remind them they’re on in 5…4…3…, handing Bert notes during the recording. The segments form a nice b-story that also allows Bok, Goldsmith and Marzden each a time to take centre stage and really show their stuff. But they also stand as a framing device for the real plot; television – for all Bert tries to dismiss it – is here, and what fate awaits the aural craft in a visual age?

There are numerous not too subtle digs at the state of modern television; I particularly enjoyed the preposterous notion of a channel dedicated entirely to music (cue Herb, “I want my music television”). It’s easy to draw comparisons between some of the stories and things we’ve seen on TV; to say that Jet Propulsion reminds you of Kirk (or even Brannigan) is all too easy, but that’s because character such as those are the legacy of radio programs such as lovingly satirised here.

While Joan Jackson definitely made me laugh the most, Peculiar Avenue was a surprise favourite for me. Played utterly straight (although, there is comedy inherent in the ridiculousness of some horror), I felt genuine chills down my spine. The inclination is to compare it with The Twilight Zone, in that the protagonist is ultimately brought low by their own hubris, and a seemingly innocent moral is given a terrifying twist.

There are only two shows left of this encore-esque run before they return with an entirely new show for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, so this is your LAST CHANCE TO SEE this current iteration.

Radio Variety Hour is at the Butterfly Club tonight and tomorrow at 7pm. $32 Full, $28 Conc., discounts for Members and Groups of 6+.

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