The year is 1952. Again. Or, still, depending upon your own perspective. In fact, the trouble is that it’s been 1952 for the last 65 years.
It’s the setting for Quanderhorn 2, the sequel to Rob Grant and Andrew Marshall’s 2018 Radio 4 six-part sci-fi comedy The Quanderhorn Xperimentations. The series follows the exploits of Professor Darius Quanderhorn (James Fleet, from The Vicar Of Dibley), the eccentric but esteemed scientist, who inadvertently put the world into a perpetual time loop, meaning that it’s 1952 over and over again.
Strangely, not many people seem to have noticed, with the notable exception of the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill (John Sessions): he suspects it’s all Quanderhorn’s fault, so he’s placed a mole into Quanderhorn’s team, in the shape of a brave – but hapless – test pilot named Brian Nylon (Ryan Sampson). The only problem is that Brian’s had his memory wiped, which does tend to complicate things.
Making up the rest of Quanderhorn’s rag-tag, motley crew are: Dr. Gemini Janussen (Cassie Layton), a brilliant scientist in her own right, but with a half-clockwork brain that tends to leave her emotional when it winds down; Guuuurk (Kevin Eldon), a captured Martian from a failed invasion, and who learnt English from the only TV transmission to reach Mars, which starred professional cad Terry-Thomas.
Quanderhorn’s ‘son’ Troy (Freddie Fox), who’s a genetically-engineered part-man, part-insect, but total buffoon, with a set of glowing buttocks and a handy knack of growing back limbs; Jenkins (John Sessions again), Quanderhorn’s trusted aide-de-camp, formerly WWII batman and current janitor, who harbours a rather dark side; and Delores the Synthetic Voice (Rachel Atkins), whose intelligence is somewhat less artificial than Troy’s.
The Quanderhorn Xperimentations saw the Professor in a desperate attempt to try and reverse his earlier mistake, by making sure on the next New Year’s Eve, 1953 will arrive at long last. In the process, Quanderhorn has to try and thwart the machinations of his arch-enemy Churchill, who’s totally hell-bent upon defrocking Quanderhorn and revealing him as being a charlatan and a menace to the whole country, if not the entire world.
All of this was undertaken by way of living feral underwear, high-security cellars bearing secrets, elevators to the moon, glowing meteorites which possess people, mutated broccoli monsters, fifth dimensional time storage tanks, and pretty much all points in between. The run ended on a cliffhanger, with Churchill sending a squadron of bagpiping bombers to destroy Quanderhorn‘s compound, in the hope of moving on time at long last, as well as ridding himself of the perpetual thorn in his side once and for all.
The only slight snag in Churchill’s plan is that bombing all of the concentrated time collected in the storage tanks will end up causing a catastrophe which will ultimately destroy reality itself. In order to try and avert the impending end of everything, Quanderhorn makes a desperate gamble which scatters the group all throughout human history, giving him time to devise a clever strategy which will save the day. It’s where Quanderhorn 2 picks up the tale, with the Professor putting his escape plan into operation.
The larks taking place in the past are enormous fun, with the segments in Roman-occupied Britain being especially noteworthy. Historically-set comedy has a long tradition, from Blackadder to Dad’s Army, Maid Marian And Her Merry Men to Plebs, and ‘Allo ‘Allo! to Upstart Crow; it would be easy to lump all the Roman-centric action in with Up Pompeii!, but it would be a rather lazy comparison, as it’s far closer to the wonderful (and, sadly, oft overlooked) Chelmsford 123.
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Once the gang is all reunited, the Martian horde from the failed invasion starts to play a part in proceedings, giving Kevin Eldon a chance to shine even more than he already does in this. Let’s be honest: anything with Kevin Eldon in tends to be lifted by his participation, and his urbane yet utterly treacherous Guuuurk is a genuine highlight, which makes Quanderhorn 2 worth listening to for him alone. Thankfully, there are plenty more reasons to tune in, and the ensemble cast is particularly strong, with all of them working well together.
The humour is brilliantly daft as well as imaginative, with all kinds of bizarre and madcap situations invented, and it shows why the programme works on radio, as it would be too difficult or too expensive (or both) to realise for TV all the set pieces required. It’s often been said the pictures are better on radio, and the listener’s mind can run riot here, visualising a fleet of monkey-driven lorries, a full Martian invasion fleet, and vats filled with liquid time, to name but a few such elements.
Sci-fi comedy isn’t new to Radio 4, with the most famous example being The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy; in recent years, we’ve also had Eddie Robson’s Welcome To Our Village, Please Invade Carefully (which had initially begun on Radio 2), and Graham Duff’s Nebulous starring Mark Gatiss (which, like The Quanderhorn Xperimentations, pastiched Nigel Kneale’s TV dramas about Professor Bernard Quatermass).
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It’s not exactly a crowded field, so there’s certainly plenty of room here for the exploits of Professor Darius Quanderhorn. Rob Grant already has a footing in this genre, thanks to his co-creating Red Dwarf. Andrew Marshall’s credentials with regard to this type of comedy may not be so obvious, as he is largely known for 2point4 Children, but he was Douglas Adams’ direct inspiration for Marvin the Paranoid Android in Hitchhiker’s Guide, which is a decent claim to fame, along with a reasonable qualifier.
Grant and Marshall work perfectly together, with Marshall’s flights of fantasy and fantastical elements complementing Grant’s expertise in extracting the maximum humour out of various sci-fi concepts. Between the series of this show, the pair also wrote a Radio 4 pilot for a parody of The Twilight Zone, called The Nether Regions. It seems as if this could be the beginning of a hopefully lengthy and fruitful writing partnership, and hopefully Quanderhorn and his cohorts will be back on our airwaves soon.
The Quanderhorn Xperimentations and Quanderhorn 2 are currently available to listen to on the BBC website.