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Satire is back on the road

Down the Line was such a brilliantly executed spoof rent-a-rant phone-in that, when it began on BBC Radio 4 in 2006, many dyed-in-the-wool listeners mistook it for the real thing. They phoned in themselves -- oh, the bitter irony -- to complain about the BBC plunging downmarket.

They were fuming that the irredeemably naff talk-show host Gary Bellamy (played with uncanny accuracy by Rhys Thomas, in real life a former DJ on XFM) had been allowed through the hallowed portals of Radio 4 and on to their beloved airwaves.

Bellamy, who constantly harped on about being an "award-winning presenter", was just the right side of implausibly crass, as he spouted such cringe-making lines as: "I was reading today that that we don't hate the French as much as we used to. What's happening to this country?"

Thomas (31) looks back in amusement at how many listeners got the wrong end of the stick about Down the Line, which was created by Paul Whitehouse and Charlie Higson, and featured improvised calls from them and a gallery of first-rate character actors, including Amelia Bullmore, Simon Day, Felix Dexter and Lucy Montgomery.

Challenge

"It was a send-up of that taxi-driver mentality that dominates radio phone-ins -- 'what is it with traffic wardens?'," says Thomas.

In transposing their comedy from one medium to another, the makers of Down the Line were faced with a challenge: how could they make what was quintessentially a radio show into a TV programme?

Higson and Whitehouse met at university more than 30 years ago. They make for an engaging, contrasting double act: Higson's sense of humour is dry and slow-burning, while Whitehouse's is fizzing and incendiary.

Higson, who, in partnership with Whitehouse, has also been responsible for one of the finest sketch-programmes of recent years, The Fast Show, admits that much of Down the Line's comic charm could have been lost in translation.

And then Higson and Whitehouse had a "eureka" moment. "We realised that all these programmes with celebrities driving round the country meeting people and saying 'isn't Britain brilliant?' would be ideal for us to parody," says Higson (51).

"We've had Alan Titchmarsh on natural history, David Dimbleby on architecture, Martin Clunes on islands, Griff Rhys Jones on mountains and rivers, Robbie Coltrane on B-roads, James May and Oz Clark on drink. Andrew Marr's even done Britain From Above. They haven't done Britain From Below yet -- I suppose it might be a bit gloomy!

"The idea is simple: put a personality wearing a pink shirt in a 'personality vehicle', chuck in a couple of helicopter shots of the White Cliffs of Dover, the Giants' Causeway, Stonehenge and the Angel of the North, play some rousing Elgar, and everybody's happy."

In Bellamy's People, Whitehouse dazzles as everyone from Martin Hole, an unreconstructed painter and decorator in an England football shirt who believes women's rights have, "gone too far -- they want to get back in the kitchen, don't they?", to Graham Downes, a morbidly obese man who never leaves his bedroom, but keeps in touch with the world through "the information superhighway".

Furore

Bellamy's People, like Outnumbered or The Thick of It, features performances that are largely improvised.

After the furore that greeted Down the Line, the makers of Bellamy's People are wary about how viewers will receive the TV show.

"People will say it's not as good as the radio show," Thomas reckons. "They say that about everything. But it's not better -- it's just different."

Bellamy's People starts on BBC2 on Thursday at 10pm