My Fantasy DVD:
The Tony Ferrino Phenomenon
My Fantasy DVD is an occasional feature of Noise to Signal in which our writers spotlight a program or film that has not been released on DVD. They then indulge themselves shamelessly by piling on fantastic—but usually realistic—special features, in an attempt to frustrate themselves further. The DVD described below does not exist. Unfortunately.
When one thinks of Steve Coogan, one thinks of Alan Partridge. And that’s nothing for Coogan to be ashamed of—Partridge is a brilliant and consistently hilarious creation. (Anyone who tries to cite I’m Alan Partridge series two as a counter-example can, with my blessing, step directly into oncoming traffic.) He’s also the most pliant of Coogan’s characters; Partridge does it all. He can man a sports desk, narrate footage, interview celebrities, sing a few medlies, host a radio show, emcee corporate events, present videos, write an autobiography or just spend an afternoon dismantling his hotel room’s trouser press. And all the while, he’s the same Alan Partridge. It’s difficult to imagine a comic setting that couldn’t be adapted to suit Alan’s presence.
Which is why—apart from an obvious but not always copped-to fondness for the character—we encounter Alan Partridge more frequently than any of Steve Coogan’s other characters.
Great news for Partridge fans, but mildly frustrating for those more well-rounded in their Coogan fandom. He’s done a lot more, after all, with many different characters. Some of that stuff (a bit—but not nearly all—of the Paul/Pauline Calf material, Coogan’s Run, and the aptly-named Dr Terrible’s House of Horrible) is readily available on DVD. But a few other experiments seem to have disappeared forever.
Among these, sadly, is The Tony Ferrino Phenomenon, which premiered on the first day of 1997, received a fast VHS release, and was never referred to again under penalty of torture.
The Tony Ferrino Phenomenon is not one of Coogan’s most fondly-remembered endeavors. And, for that reason, a lot of people who have never seen it won’t be disappointed by its lack of availability. After all, if anyone wants to see sub-par Coogan they can pick up Dr. Terrible, or rent The Parole Officer. Do we really need more forgettable material on DVD?
Well, folks, the thing is…it’s only forgettable because the disappearance of the character (and the utter lack of repeats) seems to have rendered it intentionally forgotten.
A big shame, because the show—while flawed—has more than enough in the way of comedy, music and all-around genuine entertainment to warrant a popular reappraisal. In March of 2007, UKTV G2 aired the special as part of its Coogan Weekend. For me its rarity and surprising quality made it the easy highlight of the programming block.
While Ferrino may seem pretty lightweight compared to Coogan’s better-realized characters, he is still interesting enough that you can’t really, in good conscience, write him off as a complete misfire.
The show itself is structured as a musical performance special intended to introduce Tony Ferrino—a sensation in his native Portugal—to the English audience. As such, a few comic necessities are built into the program: funny songs, historical footage and mangled English. And, yeah, some of the “unintentional” sex puns are pretty cheap, but by no means do they constitute the heart of the program. They serve, instead, as easy laughs to fill the time between greater moments. They have their place, structurally speaking, and since it’s a Coogan production, you can be sure that every mis-speaking serves to heighten the awkwardness between Tony and his celebrity guests.
Part of the reason viewers didn’t respond as well to The Tony Ferrino Phenomenon is probably because—in spite of some heightening tension and promises of interesting backstory—it didn’t really go anywhere, plotwise. Which, I feel, is okay; it’s designed to be Tony’s special, after all—he’s not on any kind of quest or seeking anything out. He’s there to sing his songs. And he sings them. And he does it all within the confines of a big, slick, obviously edited program. (Tony will often finish a song before a fade, only for the program to fade back in on Tony, again, applauding his own performance from a different part of the set.)
But the lack of development or climax over the course of the special still seems out of place for a Coogan production. We get a big song to end the show, but not a big character moment or punchline. Even Knowing Me, Knowing You (or, even more appropriately, its Christmas special) managed development and increasing tension in a format that, strictly, did not call for it. And, yeah, Tony didn’t have as much time to shine, but neither did Gareth Cheeseman or Ernest Moss from Coogan’s Run. There are certain expectations that the audience has for a Steve Coogan program. The fact that The Tony Ferrino Phenomenon didn’t fulfill them isn’t a failure on its part, but it goes a long way toward explaining why some viewers might have been disappointed.
I should probably reel back my enthusiasm, slightly, lest anyone get the feeling that I think this program is flawless. It definitely is not. Many of the jokes fall flat (Tony’s weeping mother appearing on stage is a good idea, but seemed kind of limp and pointless in the execution, and if you don’t think penis-shaped jewelry boxes are funny then you’re better off napping during the Kim Wilde segment) and most of the potential for Tony’s characterization goes unrealized. There are some tantalizing fragments tossed out during the program, but, at the end of the day, Tony basically comes across as a not-half-bad singer who doesn’t seem to realize what’s funny about his own songs. Does that make for a bad character? Heck no. But neither does it seem nearly as rich as Partridge, or the Calfs, or even Duncan Thickett. The lack of any sort of plot at all (no, Tony’s flirtation with a member of the female set dressing doesn’t count) also means the show ends with a strong feeling of irrelevance.
But…that about does it for the complaints. Coogan may not be at the very top of his game, but he’s high enough. And this is more the gaggy, laugh-a-second audience pleaser that we remember from Knowing Me, Knowing You than the understated meditative social critic of Saxondale. The songs vary in comic value, but they are all extremely well orchestrated and performed. Coogan’s got some pipes—and don’t let a travel tavern rendition of Close to You tell you otherwise. He’s not likely to blow any non-fans away, but his vocal performance is without question surprisingly pleasant.
To say something more about the music here: Steve Brown (you may remember him as Glen Ponder) did a brilliant job scoring these tunes. He knows (as I wish more people knew) that a truly great comic song doesn’t “sound” funny. The humor is always greater, and more rewarding, if you play it straight. And so there are a lot of very pretty passages in Tony’s music…from a melodic standpoint. It’s only when you pick up on his (possibly unintentional) puns and suggestions that the humor is revealed.
In other words, the joke isn’t that Tony is a purveyor of bad music…the joke is more that he’s famous in Portugal because the music is good and they can’t understand what he’s saying. In front of an English audience, however, Tony stands naked. He can’t hide behind how good he sounds…we judge him for his lyrics, which, on the whole, are ludicrous.
Sometimes it seems that Tony is unaware of the comedy. His absurd musical adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs is a perfect example, and I really doubt he’d find anything funny about his show-closing What is Life? But other times, Tony wants to make us laugh. He’s an entertainer, after all. And so he writes something like Fishing For Girls, with such an antiquated style of back-and-forth comedy (I’m sure Fozzie Bear would find it hilarious) and sexual punning that it becomes a great exercise in anti-humor.
At least two songs were cut out of the repeat that I saw (further making me hunger for a DVD release) so I can’t say for sure, but Fishing For Girls is probably the best of the batch. It’s catchy, it’s fun, and it makes the best use of any of Tony’s celebrity guests. In this case it’s Gary Wilmot, who throws himself into the “comedy” routine and punctuates all of his jokes with a delightfully self-conscious mug for the camera. (Also, I’m pretty sure Gary rescues Tony on the chorus here…Tony seems a little flat on the final “In a river called love!” whereas Gary slams it out of the park every time.)
His other guests include Kim Wilde, who does a damn fine job of performing Short-Term Affair with the straight face that it requires, and Mick Hucknall, who doesn’t really do much (and seems to break “character” on camera by laughing at Tony’s puns when nobody else did) other than contribute to a good (if humorless) rendition of Tom Jones’ Help Yourself.
The entire special is an interesting—if not groundbreaking—entry in Steve Coogan’s comic history, and I personally feel that a reappraisal of the show is not only due, but thoroughly deserved. It’s a bit light-weight, but so what? Who would be averse to an evening with Coogan’s best foray into musical comedy? Especially if you could add some additional value to the mix…in the form of special features…
—Commentary (both straight and in character)
Alright, so it might not be easy to get Coogan behind a microphone for commentary, but it does happen. And who knows? He might actually desire to do something like this for a character like Tony. He could come to the character’s defense…or maybe he could spend an hour apologizing. He’s aware that Tony, to put it bluntly, flopped. Coogan’s not an unintelligent guy and I’m sure he’d have interesting things to say about why the character didn’t take off the way some of his others have.
And as long as we’ve rented the commentary booth, why not hear what Tony Ferrino himself has to say? Granted, in-character commentaries are a very mixed bag. They worked phenomenally for This is Spinal Tap and Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, but they worked less well for…erm…I’m Alan Partridge.
Still, with some preparation and a special guest or two (what’s Wilmot up to, anyway?) there’s no reason a few words from Tony—filling us in on why he hasn’t been seen in England for past decade or so—wouldn’t be great.
—Introducing Tony Ferrino: Who and Why? A Quest (plus commentary)
The absence of this feature would be just plain inexcusable. It appeared, after all, on the VHS release of Phenomenon. Sadly, I’ve never seen it. It’s a short program (transmitted a few days after the original broadcast of Phenomenon if I have my facts straight) featuring Tony being interviewed by Ross Woollard…played by the always brilliant Peter Baynham. (Oddly enough, Baynham played a similar role in Alan Partridge’s Anglian Lives, under the name Ray Woollard. IMDB might have wrong information, but if not, it’s an interesting comic choice to name the characters so similarly, and to put them in similar roles, without them actually being the same person.) I’ve heard both that Introducing is far better and far worse than Phenomenon, but I’d like to judge for myself. And if you do manage to snag Coogan for feature commentary, can’t his good buddy Peter join him in the booth to horse around for this feature, too?
This does not exist. Yet. But stringing together some interviews with Coogan (preferably from both 1997 and present day) about Tony and his reception would be fascinating. Approach a few others involved as well. Film them separately, as time and budget permits, and edit them all together into a nice retrospective featurette plotting the rise and fall of a comic creation. Maybe some of Tony’s celebrity guests could chime in as well, to give us their perspectives.
—behind the scenes featurette
How much unbroadcast footage exists? Flubs and outtakes? Footage of Coogan slipping out of character to convey something to the audience or the rest of the cast? Pretty much anything that exists (which, I admit, might be very little or nothing at all) would be valuable for establishing the context of this program about which so little is known. (Not even my handy-dandy internet can find much on Ferrino. Which is why you’re looking at ugly, low-quality promotional images rather than purdy li’l screen grabs.)
—Steve Brown musical featurette
The man appears (briefly and silently) at the end of this special, but his presence is felt throughout the entire project. Steve Brown was the main composer for Tony’s songs, and because he also worked with Coogan on various other projects in the same capacity (live tours, some of the Paul/Pauline Calf stuff, Knowing Me, Knowing You) I’m sure he’d have lots of interesting things to say about his method, the projects, and working with Coogan. Sit Steve Brown in front of a camera (or better yet, a piano) and just let the man talk. Similar features about Howard Goodall and Joby Talbot have been great…and I have no doubt that Steve Brown could provide an easy 15 minutes (at least) of fascinating material.
—in-character chat show appearances
According to Off the Telly: “Coogan went on practically every chat show on television, but - oh no! - in character. Of course, the interview in character is almost always guaranteed to make even the funniest comedy characters seem unfunny and awkward, but as this was the first sight we’d had of Ferrino, it certainly didn’t help matters.” Were the appearances funny? Who knows…I can’t find any of them. But “practically every chat show on television?” Surely somebody somewhere has a few tapes at least. Historically speaking, these would be damn valuable extras.
—Short-Term Affair with Bjork
A Comic Relief performance between Tony and Bjork, complete with some awkward banter beforehand. I have to admit that the Kim Wilde version in the main program is much better, but this one is still good, and worth having on the set. The main problem is that a singer like Bjork—intentionally mumbly with awkward inflections—is not meant to be singing comedy songs that rely on getting gags across to a live audience. But she does a good enough job, and it’s enjoyable. Worth including if only for the sake of comparison.
—Coogan Night bump(s)
UKTVG2 aired some excellent, specially-filmed bookends to their programing on Coogan Night, featuring the man himself introducing (and commenting upon) the shows. One of these features Steve passively defending the character by mentioning to an obviously-disinterested child that Tony Ferrino was well-received on stage…but the critics didn’t bother to take that into account. It’d be nice to have this bump…short though it is. Oh, and feel free to include as many more bumps from the night as you wish. I won’t complain.
—live footage from previous comedy tours
So Tony was better-received on stage, huh? Prove it! The live release The Man Who Thinks He’s It features some live Ferrino, but you don’t need to use footage from that very performance. And, hey, even if you did…that performance is edited! It breaks off abruptly as a song begins. Dig up some complete footage of Ferrino and pile it on. Also, being as the live performances included songs that were not featured in the special (I know of Lap-Dancing Lady and the hilarious audience-member-humiliation of Ordinary Girl) it’d really help to round out Tony’s short career.
—clean versions of the songs
They were prerecorded, as the occasional poor lip-synch betrays. Give us a jukebox in which we can listen to these songs, laughter free…and maybe even rip them for our own non-DVD enjoyment. And while we’re at it, why not the audio from that long out of print album Coogan released as Tony Ferrino? Or the two songs from his Bigamy at Christmas single? Think about how wonderful this DVD set could be if some real effort were invested. In addition to releasing one of Coogan’s underappreciated specials, you’d also be assembling a sort of Tony Ferrino time capsule.
It was a good show. It deserves—and we deserve—a great fantasy DVD.