It’s hard to believe now, but some of the biggest names in British comedy, now bearded, greying and balding, were once fresh faced, jubilant hopefuls in the distant mists of the early 2000s. It’s even more difficult to believe that they once all worked on the same show.
Bruiser was a quirky comedy sketch show on BBC2, consisting of a concise six episodes and starring the likes of David Mitchell, Robert Webb, Martin Freeman, Olivia Coleman, Matthew Holness, and Charlotte Hudson. Writers for the show also included the now legendary Richard Ayoade and Ricky Gervais.
‘The truth is, despite there being laughs aplenty, Bruiser was far from a revolutionary show. Its significance lay not in its content but in its impact’
As Mitchell later surmised in a Q&A with The Guardian in 2010, Bruiser proved that a show could be “both on BBC2 and barely noticed”. A quick glance at some of the sketches penned by this supremely talented group however, will explain why it ducked below the cultural radar.
One particular sketch saw network executives frantically pitching ideas to Alan Titchmarsh’s agent, an orange, neon-white toothed American (played, hilariously, by Mitchell). Other hit and miss sketches included a string of sketches where David Mitchell played an inept Q, presenting a beleaguered James Bond (Freeman) with useless inventions (a sketch redeemed by the novelty of Martin Freeman with black hair). Unfortunately, many sketches had superb potential but, like a lazy postal worker, never delivered. At best, many felt like a half-baked Mitchell and Webb skit that was left on the cutting room floor.
While by no means perfect, the show was also crammed with highlights. Notable sketches included one in which Matthew Holness played a frothing pedant of a dinner party host, shouting ‘Get out of my house!’ at guests foolish enough to misspeak. The offences included the classic ‘Frankenstein wasn’t the monster’, and saying that Dr Spock was played by Leonard Nimoy (“He played Mr Spock. Dr Spock was a child psychiatrist. Get out of my house!”). Another cast Freeman and Olivia Coleman as a man and wife in a mockumentary style interview series, during which Freeman converts to Islam, believes someone is out to kill him and becomes a nudist (but draws the line at removing his pants), much to Coleman’s bewilderment and protest.
The truth is, despite there being laughs aplenty, Bruiser was far from a revolutionary show. Its significance lay not in its content but in its impact. One such instance of this is the sketch in which Holness donned the role of a spectacularly foul mouthed office IT consultant. With the then unknown Ricky Gervais being a writer for several sketches, this skit alongside many others, bore a strong resemblance to The Office (2001). Gervais even enlisted fellow Bruiser stars Martin Freeman and Matthew Holness into The Office, with Freeman taking the crowning role of Tim and Holness making a cameo as Simon, Tim’s ‘favourite’ bullshit spewing IT worker.
Alongside this, the show also forged successful comedic partnerships. I am, of course referring to the beloved power-couple of David Mitchell and Robert Webb. Producing some of the best sketch comedy of the 2000s in The Mitchell and Webb Situation (2001) and That Mitchell and Webb Look (2006), Mitchell and Webb also partnered with Bruiser breakout Olivia Coleman, for their distinguished opus, Peep Show (2003). More recently, Mitchell and Webb have reconnected with Matthew Holness in Back (2017).
‘Bruiser is a fascinating peek into the awkward growing pains of the current comedic aristocracy, proving once more that everyone had to start somewhere’
It seems unjust, however, that Holness, one of the standout performers of the show, didn’t attain the same level of success after Bruiser that his co-stars basked in. After writing and starring in the 2004 cult classic, but tragically overlooked, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace alongside Bruiser alumni Richard Ayoade, Holness has faded into relative obscurity. The same fate awaited the talented Charlotte Hudson, whose last acting credit was in 2008.
Mitchell, reflecting on this little one series show, recalled how “we were part of this little gang of sketch comedians … and we rather thought we might shoot to stardom as a result […] Obviously we didn’t”, he added, with characteristic self-deprecation. If nothing else, Bruiser is a fascinating peek into the awkward growing pains of the current comedic aristocracy, proving once more that everyone had to start somewhere. And as starting points go, Bruiser was pretty damn good.
Image credit: Matt Hobbs (Ricky Gervais @ Tribeca Performing Arts #1) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons